Amazon throws its weight around. They have books to sell that are exclusive. They also sell other ebooks like everybody else does: book distribution can happen simultaneously with other retailers and reading services. Kindle books can be sold only at Amazon when authors use Kindle's KDP Select. It's an exclusive sales channel.
Amazon calls it Kindle Unlimited for the readers; the authors know it as KDP Select.
The Kindle books which are not set up for the Select program do not need to be exclusive. It’s a choice that the author-publisher gets to make. And change back and forth, if they want. When an author chooses to use KDP Select, Amazon makes the author commit to a 90-day exclusive term. (Authors are warning each other that the exclusive term rolls over automatically — unless you turn it off.)
Self-publishers make up a big share of these Amazon-exclusive booksellers. I’m not sure why, but if after awhile you haven’t sold many copies by the book, you probably believe your book can do better if you sell by the page.
It often does not.
What KDP Select costs the author
There’s a downside to KDP Select: You’re only paid per page read. Readers only pay $10 a month to Amazon and can read as many Select books as they want.
It’s a sales model that encourages browsing, instead of reading a lot of pages inside one book. When you stand at a buffet, you usually don’t load up your whole plate with roast beef only.
Amazon puts an Unlimited book into a higher rotation when readers are searching for books. An author still has to stand in line, though, behind the books that are advertised on Amazon. If you type "viral pandemic novel" in the Amazon search box, you don’t see my Viral Times. Well, you don’t see it after eight pages of search results.
If an author wants to use Kindle Select, it’s easier as a first move. You launch the book at Amazon. You don’t have to list it anywhere else, because it’s brand-new and exclusive.
If you go Select as your second strategy, it can be hard to pull a book out of distribution at all the other sales outlets. It’s especially hard if you have hired an aggregator to get your book into all those online stores. Aggregators are popular. For a lot of self-published authors, if they’re being sold anywhere else, managing all those other outlets manually can be time-consuming. Leaving the management up to the aggregator can mean it'll take weeks to get your book off the non-Amazon sites.
Here’s an article on the struggle to get a book off of non-Amazon outets.
You sometimes have to fight to get your book out of a non-Amazon store — which is required if the book will become Amazon-exclusive. Smashwords used to distribute author books to a store in India, Flipkart. Authors learned that Flipkart never pulls books off of its lists. Amazon refused to let those authors get into Select, because their books were locked onto Flipkart.
The only way to fix the Smashwords problem? Smashwords had to quit Flipkart completely.
You can never tell how an online retailer will behave until they have to do something out of the ordinary. That's the problem with using an aggregator like PublishDrive or Draft2Digital or Smashwords. They are your managers of the relationships with dozens of platforms.
What being Amazon exclusive gets an author
I have an author friend who did well with her romance in Select. She had a publisher and invested in ads. She wrote in a popular genre, one where reading many books cover to cover is a habit.
Kindle's books can move in and out of Select status, but as I say above, it can be complicated to move them. I have client who’s in the Select program, so his book can be read in Kindle Unlimited. He’s not doing any better being exclusive to Amazon than selling direct. He hasn’t pulled his books out of Unlimited/Select, though.
I never took Viral Times into Select, and I have stayed away from Select for my memoir Stealing Home, too. It’s just that I want control — which shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me, a fellow who's an editor and gatekeeper at heart. My views on listing a book as a Select title might change, but I'll need better evidence that Select/Unlimited makes a difference.
Sales strategies come and go, after all. Books can return for sale on an online app like Rathe. Maybe that's after an author has tried the exclusive KDP Select — and learned there’s still no substitute for advertising a book on Amazon.
Whenever you refuse Amazon's exclusivity in KDP Select, you’re "going wide.” The same thing occurs in audiobooks, where you can publish through (Amazon’s) Audible exclusively. An author makes more per sale at Audible that way. You can’t buy the ebook or the audiobook anywhere else, though.
Just like selling ebooks, Audible commands a much larger share than other audiobook sellers. Amazon’s lead is not as big in the books market, though. Not everybody is reading from Amazon. Amazon certainly doesn’t know a thing about apps compensating authors by the episode consumed in the micro-reading of books.
Libraries and the future
Like everybody, I’m looking over my shoulder at library borrowing. It’s completely free for a reader, and great books are available there. Bestsellers. Also self-published books like Viral Times, or the audiobook for Stealing Home. (There’s a trick to getting those books through most libraries. You must have a free Hoopla account that ties to your library account. You get four borrows per month.)
Hoopla used to be Midwest Tape, a service that made books on tape available to libraries. A library has to purchase a copy of my memoir to offer it in their collection. It’s either got a one-copy-at-a-time license, or it uses a pay-by-the-reader license. Those second licenses are a lot more expensive for a library, so they usually buy a limited number of the single-reader books.
My ebook for Stealing Home is in these libraries. A library catalog called WorldCat has it listed at libraries in Dallas, North Dakota, and Alaska. Because Kobo distributes my memoir, it goes to OverDrive. And so my memoir can be checked out. You can also get it from your library by using Hoopla, another app that ties to your library account.
Viral Times has got a very special place at Rathe, an app that lets you read books 650 words at a time. The platform is the only other place besides Amazon where you can buy my book. I’m not in the Kindle Select program. At Amazon, I sell by the book, and I can sell elsewhere, too. The paperback hasn’t sold in a very long time. Maybe that will change — I just got my first Amazon order for a paperback sale in more than five years.
There's a catch, of course, when you sell a paperback like I chose to do with Viral Times.
Viral Times isn't print on demand. I have a couple of boxes here at the house that I got printed in 2012. There was no print on demand in 2012. I wrap a book and send it through FedEx Ground to get it to an Amazon warehouse. Amazon pays me $4 for this book. You can guess how much it costs to send it through FedEx, or even USPS. It’s more than $4. You need a tracking number, or Amazon can claim they’ve lost it.
Distribution — which amounts to outlets for sales, and sometimes the selling, too — is the trickiest part of the publishing adventure. Listing a book on a website is only wholesaling; there’s little effort to drive sales to the site, unless your email practices are strong.
Discovery by a reader while they're already at Amazon is different today. Amazon has tilted the tables toward vendors and authors who advertise. Amazon used to let authors believe in organic discovery. Then Amazon started to sell ads, then made up Unlimited, and now there’s no substitute for buying ads for a book that's in Unlimited at Amazon. Even that doesn’t work so well. Ad purchases can amount to big fees for clicks onto a book’s listing, but few sales.
The options to make ebook sales have their limits. It's better if you know them coming in. A good article on the website Just Publishing Advice lays out the pros and cons of Select versus regular sales of Kindle books.