Indie Authors: Irish Potato Farmers, The Lucky Few or Cannon Fodder?

I checked my email Thursday and found a different kind of shot — this one by Amazon across the bow for the Big Six. It was an invitation to enroll my book in KDP Select: a chance for indies to get into the Kindle Lending Library and get a few other perks. Also, the torch to the tinder of the Internet as everybody starting debating the program. The key sticking point? Amazon requires exclusive ebook distribution for indies in the program.

Smashwords CEO Mark Coker compared it to Irish tenant farmers, with indie authors in the role of the potato pickers. Some indies have rushed to jump on board to take advantage of the perks. Just as many have flat-out refused. And others, myself included, are holding off on a decision (and not just out of loyalty to my potato-farming ancestors).

As I suggested last week, this is Amazon’s attempt at an end run around the Big Six refusal to participate in the Lending Library. Amazon needs volume if it’s going to convince people to sign up for Prime. The customers who value Prime for the shipping deal have already signed up. The video content requires a Kindle Fire, which is a small subset of Amazon’s customer base right now. For the segment of their customers who read mostly e-books, Prime has not been a good deal. The shipping is a moot point for them, at least for books. So Amazon develops a plan to kill three birds with one stone: Promise exclusive Amazon-only content for all e-book customers, build its Lending Library without Big Six content and pull content away from its competition to weaken them as publishing platforms. We indies are not the end game here, we’re the means to Amazon’s end — and role has many hazards associated with it.

 What do we know?

  • Select ebooks can only be sold through Amazon. (Paperback editions can be sold anywhere.)
  • The initial sign-up period is 90 days. If you don’t un-enroll a book, it renews for another 90 days.
  • Select books can be made free for up to five days during each 90-day period, and those days can be separated or together in any whole-day combination
  • Prime subscribers can borrow one book per month.
  • Authors are paid from a pool that is divided by the number of transactions to get a per-transaction fee, which is then paid out based on the number of books borrowed.
  • Amazon is counting a lend as a sale for sales ranking purposes.
  • Adding author’s commentary, a foreword or a discussion guide to an existing book is not considered enough of a difference to allow one version to be in Select and the other distributed elsewhere.
  • Authors who have checked with Amazon say they have been told that putting one book in a series into Select does not affect the ability to distribute other books in the series elsewhere.
  • The first month’s pool is $500K, and Amazon has said it will commit at least $6 million to KDP Select payouts in 2012.

Who does this benefit (besides Amazon) in the short-term?

  • Authors with most of their existing sales through Amazon.
  • Authors with enough of a backlist to consider experimenting with one or two books in the program without going all in.
  • Authors who are already selling a lot on Amazon and can anticipate getting a large share of the transactions

I fit the first category — most of my sales are through Amazon. I also write a genre that still has many who prefer print books, and those aren’t restricted if I were to participate in Select. I’m choosing to wait and see because that’s my only option right now — the Blog Tour de Troops coupons I donated to the troops for their free copies of Thrown Out are good through November 2012 and those are on Smashwords. And All That Is Necessary won’t be out until late March at the earliest. So I can hold off and see how things shake out before deciding. Thoughts from readers are, obviously, welcome in comments because that will influence my decision.

Now, some other writers and publishing experts have raised a few good points about the long-term issues with the way KDP Select is organized.

  • It sets the standard payment for subscription books at a pool share, not a set transaction fee. Amazon is the first one really in the door on this and will likely set the precedent. Authors should probably prefer a set fee, based off the book’s list price, because a pool can more easily be manipulated.
  • The exclusivity requirement makes it easier for Amazon to squeeze out competition. Just because they’re giving indies decent terms on things now, doesn’t mean that couldn’t change if they become the only viable player in the field. (See manipulating the pool, above)
  • It restricts the pool of potential readers for participating authors.

One potential benefit that isn’t listed in the terms — one I flagged last week after Robert Bidinotto’s Hunter got great Amazon play in a sale and skyrocketed up the charts — is that in order for the indie books in the Lending Library to entice Prime subscribers, they have to want to read them. That puts pressure on Amazon to find the gems in the Lending Library and promote them throughout the site so they become must-reads. But since the truly great books are always going to be a small segment of the whole, the number of indie authors likely to benefit from that is correspondingly small. (Side note: Watch for an interview with Robert here on Tuesday morning about his stunning success.)

Authors have a lot to weigh when deciding if they should enroll or not. The outcome of those thousands of individual decisions could permanently shape how ebook lending and distribution evolves, affecting all authors — indie, small press and Big Six.

2 Comments on “Indie Authors: Irish Potato Farmers, The Lucky Few or Cannon Fodder?”

  1. In my view, Amazon have been generous to indie authors by allowing self publishers just as much chance to reach the top spots as established & traditional – though it’s always going to be tougher not being a ‘known’ name. I’m trusting them to continue playing fair. If it does come about that having killed off the competition by demanding exclusivity, Amazon do move the goal posts, that’s a horse of a different colour. If that does happen, its entirely possible that indie authors will still have a strong enough presence to protest and make their protest count by force of numbers.
    Times like this you could do with a crystal ball, but thanks for a great post.


    1. Thanks, Julia. I think the underlying dynamic here is that Amazon is using the indies to put pressure on the Big Six. To date, that’s working in the favor of indie authors. Whether that continues depends on a lot of things we (and Amazon) have no control over. It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

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