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Should You Go Wide or Join KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited?

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, New Author Series |

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When I uploaded my first book, The Emperor’s Edge, in December of 2010, it was a foregone conclusion that I would put it out there everywhere I could, in the hope that new readers would stumble across it and give it a try. Then, a couple of years later, Amazon introduced KDP Select, a program for self-publishers that requires exclusivity.

Right off the bat, Amazon introduced a couple of promotional tactics that are still available to those who are enrolled. Eventually, Kindle Unlimited and the ability to be paid for borrows also came along.

Here’s what the perks of KDP Select look like as I write this in October of 2015 (let me know if I’ve missed any!):

  • The ability to run a Countdown Deal once per quarter, a feature that, among other things, let’s you run sales on books (i.e. dropping them to 99 cents) while still receiving the 70% split that’s usually only available with ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99.
  • The ability to run a Free Book Promotion up to five days per quarter (The only other way to have a book listed as free in the Kindle store is to make it free elsewhere and hope Amazon price matches. This is unreliable and may involve being free longer than you wish.).
  • Enrollment in Kindle Unlimited, the Amazon lending library, where you’ll be paid for pages read and where ebook borrows can improve your visibility and sales ranking in the Kindle store (I did a big write up about this last year: KDP Select & Kindle Unlimited: Why Ebooks Not Enrolled Are at a Disadvantage).
  • Earning 70% on appropriately priced books sold in some of Amazon’s newer territories such as Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico (for some reason, perhaps to make KDP Select more appealing, Amazon decided not to offer everyone that 70%, as is the norm in other countries).

So, what do you lose? Obviously, if you’re exclusive with Amazon, you can’t receive ebook income from the other stores. Let me emphasize that we’re only talking about ebook income, as you can still have audiobooks in iTunes and paperbacks in Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. But, as you probably already know, ebook income is huge for self-published authors. Even though I’m working on getting more audiobooks out there, and I’ve done paperbacks for most of my novels, ebooks easily account for 95% of my income.

Are you wide or in Select?

Before I go further, I should disclose that I am not in KDP Select with any of the books under my name, but that my pen name is currently “all in” with KDP Select. I started the pen name books there, to take advantage of the sales ranking/visibility boost from Kindle Unlimited, and I returned them to KDP Select this August, after not gaining much headway in the other stores and after Amazon switched to Kindle Unlimited 2.0, a system that rewards novelists by paying based on total pages read.

For my LB books, I’ve been around longer, and my books do sell on the other platforms, especially on Barnes & Noble (Kobo has been coming on strong these last few months too). I also make some sales on iTunes and Smashwords, and through Smashwords, I make a nominal amount at Overdrive, Oyster, and Scribd. The Emperor’s Edge (Book 1 in a series that has grown to 9 books) and Flash Gold (the first in a steampunk series of novellas) have been permanently free out there for years, something that I’m sure has helped with finding readers in other places.

Still, even with all that, Amazon always seems to make up about 85-90% of my ebook income. In my case, if things are going well elsewhere, they’re going even better at Amazon.

There have been times that I’ve considered trying KDP Select with a couple of my series, to see how much it would affect sales and if I would make more overall with the borrows added in. But after almost five years of publishing widely, I’ve gained some loyal readers from those other platforms. It’s uncomfortable enough when I have to explain that my pen name books are only available on Amazon!

I also, from a moral and business standpoint, don’t like the idea of being exclusive with Amazon and relying wholly on one vendor for my income. I’m quite tickled to have reached the point, in the last year or two, where my non-Amazon income has grown to enough that I could still make a living at this if Amazon disappeared. (Of course, I hope it won’t!)

But I understand why some authors choose exclusivity and KDP Select. With 3-4 books out wide in all of the stores, my pen name made a little shy of $1,000 on platforms other than Amazon between January 2015 and July 2015 (that’s total, not per month). I had the first book in the series free, and I even managed to snag a Bookbub ad during that time. That helped a bit with sales on those other platforms, but not as much as I would have expected (I should note that my pen name writes science fiction romance, and Bookbub doesn’t have such a category–they put the book in paranormal romance, which I don’t believe was a good fit). The pen name gained some readers at Barnes & Noble, but barely sold any books at iBooks or Kobo.

Now, might things change if I had kept the pen name books in all of the stores for years and continued to have a permafree and continued to run promotions? Sure, it’s very likely that the income would have grown with time, but I do feel a little hampered with running ads for SFR, since it’s not a specific category for advertisements anywhere. Not all (or many) romance readers will pick up SF, and not all (or many) sci-fi readers will pick up romance. The niche does sell on Amazon, but it and romance > fantasy are definitely the smallest of the romance subcategories.

Since it’s tough to gain traction in that little category, I’ve found it easier to make headway by being in Kindle Unlimited, where those borrows help boost the book high enough in the rankings (at least when they’re new releases) that they can appear in the Top 20 of the SFR category for several weeks. I found it tough to stick in that Top 20 on sales alone (for a small subcategory, there’s still a lot of churn, and it takes around a 1000 overall ranking to hit that first page).

When KU changed to KU2.0 this summer, I decided to put all of the pen name books back into KDP Select. I’d probably recommend almost anyone doing a pen name start out this way, not only because it takes more effort to gain traction on the other stores but also because, if you’re publishing frequently, it’s more work to upload everywhere and keep the back matter updated. (I just did a serial with the pen name and was so pleased that I wasn’t putting up all six weekly installments everywhere.) As they say, time is money, and you want to make sure you’re not spending a lot of time on activities that don’t reward you with much of a payoff.

So, what was the result?

As I write this, we don’t know the September pages-read-payment-rate for Kindle Unlimited yet, but if it’s close to the .0051 rate of August, the pen name will have made over $10,000 just in borrows. A lot of that is thanks to a serial I published in August/September, but the books that struggled to make $1,000 all year in the other stores still accounted for about $3,000 in September. Sales took a slight dip from July, when the books weren’t in KU, but that only accounted for a $200 loss against that $10,000 gain.

In a situation like that, it’s hard not to sing the praises of Amazon and Kindle Unlimited, so I get it when people tell me they’ve tried both ways, and they’re sticking with KDP Select for now. Exclusivity sucks, but if you’re able to make orders of magnitude more within the program than you do outside of it, then it has to be considered. Against all logic, you could even be reaching more readers being exclusive with Amazon than you are being on all of the platforms.

Of course, this is not the case for everybody. That’s important to point out. I don’t want this to be like the “should I trad publish or self publish?” argument that goes around, as if it’s so easy to get those trad deals and it’s a simple either/or consideration.

If you can’t parlay those KU borrows into a Top 100 placement in your subcategories, then it’s becomes more of a toss-up as to whether being in KDP Select will help. The promotional perks (Countdown Deals and Free Promotions) aren’t without value, but KU earnings and the ranking boosts you currently get from those borrows are the reasons I’m there with the pen name (note: a borrow is always going to be easier to get than a sale, because it’s absolutely free to someone who’s paid their monthly subscription fee).

Now that I’ve shared my experiences, as someone who’s wide and who is also in KDP Select, I’m going to try and break things down a bit for those of you who might be trying to decide.

When does it make more sense to go wide?

Obviously, if you’re doing well on the other vendors, then you don’t want to give that up. It’s rare, but every now and then, I run into someone who’s selling like hotcakes at Apple (so far these have always been romance people — I’d love to hear from anyone who is killing it there in other genres!).

If you’re reading this post, I’ll assume it’s not so black and white for you.

In my opinion, if you’ve come to rely on your self-publishing income, and especially if this is your only source of income, being exclusive with Amazon should make you twitchy. You should be doing your darndest to diversify your income sources.

When KU 1.0 was introduced, it rewarded those who published short fiction and serials, because every single borrow was paid out at the same rate. Page length didn’t matter. All that mattered was if the reader made it past 10% (something that comes quickly in a short ebook). Some people started catering their work to KU, writing lots of short fiction and serialized fiction. When KU2.0 rolled around, and we started getting paid based on pages reads, people who’d been making thousands of dollars a month on short fiction were suddenly making hundreds, if that.

Obviously, one of the lessons is not change your writing style or quit your day job prematurely based on success in one program at one outlet, but I think the lesson is also not to rely only on one vendor, not when your income pays the rent and feeds the cats. What if Amazon decided to drop the split from 70% to 35% on all ebooks one day? Would you still be okay? Or would you be wishing you had income from other sources? (And if you think that can’t happen, Amazon started paying out only 35% in the old days.)

If you’re in KDP Select now because you’re rocking it, you might take a look at your books. Are they all rocking it or are some titles performing less well? It might be worth it to have some stuff in KDP Select and other books out there where you might gradually pick up fans on other platforms.

Also, like I said in the beginning, that exclusivity doesn’t apply to paperbacks and audiobooks. If you haven’t jumped into those arenas yet, this might be the time. Paperbacks do especially well in the months leading up to Christmas!

When does it make more sense to try KDP Select and exclusivity?

If self-publishing is hobby income right now, and it’s not a big deal if you lose it, it probably means you’re not selling that much yet. I think that’s the perfect time to experiment with KDP Select.

If you’re not selling much anywhere, you may find it easier to get those KU borrows when you’re out there promoting. As I said above, it’s easier to snag a borrow than a sale — it’s almost akin to having a free ebook up on Amazon, but you’re still making money from it. There’s no risk to the borrower to give it a try.

In the last year, since KU came into place, I’ve seen more no-name/no-backlist/no-mailing-list authors make it to the tops of the charts in the subcategories that I follow than ever before. Almost without fail, they’re in KU and they have an awesome cover that fits in with genre expectations. They don’t always have great reviews! Sometimes the blurbs are “just okay” too.

I believe this is a result of people being willing to borrow something they wouldn’t buy and those borrows counting for as much as a sale (it’s very possible borrows won’t always count for as much as a sale, as Amazon is always tinkering, but it still seems to be the case now). And once a book sticks in the sales rankings for a while, it gets rewarded by Amazon’s algorithms, and it gets plugged in Amazon’s newsletters. That stickiness is what we all crave!

(A side note: one of the reasons it’s almost always harder to gain traction on the other stores is that they seem to do more merchandising and hand selecting of items that will be promoted, as opposed to letting the “bots” make the decisions. I’ve had strong advertising runs result in stickiness at Barnes & Noble, but I’ve noticed it much less at Kobo and iBooks.)

Again, I don’t want to make it sound like everyone is going to have this kind of luck, but it does seem to be easier to manufacture some luck with the help of KU borrows.

Pen names

As I already explained with my own stuff, it’s easier to only have to worry about Amazon with the pen name. I’m still busy publishing as much as ever under my regular name, so it’s nice not to have upload new pen name ebooks at all of the vendors and change prices and blurbs across the board for sales.

If your pen name starts rocking it, you can always go wide later. But if you’re doing the pen name anonymously and don’t have your regular list to rely upon for sales, then that my be another reason to try KDP Select with it. (Here’s my pen name write-up from when I first launched it last year — I started out anonymously and, with the help of KDP Select, made some pretty good money out of the gate.)

For translations in countries where you don’t have a way to market

I know nothing about this personally, but Joanna Penn mentioned this last year when she was debating the pros and cons of KDP Select.

When you’re in a niche/category that’s hard to crack with advertising alone

As I explained up above, it’s hard to find ads that work for my pen name, since “she” writes cross-genre fiction. Many of the sponsorship sites now divide readers based on genre preferences, but broadly. They don’t target those small overlaps on the Venn diagrams. If ads aren’t working for you (or you don’t have enough reviews to get them), KU and the promotional perks from KDP Select could also be helpful.

All right, there’s my take on this all. I would love to hear from you. Are you in KDP Select? Are you wide? Have you tried both ways? What was your experience?

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Comments (41)

Love this. Thank you for all the detailed thoughts.

My sales are in that frustrating region where it doesn’t hurt me to stay in KU with my books. I have one that’s wide, and I’ve literally had single digit sales on it in all other stores combined since I went wide with it. I’m considering pulling it to gain some borrows through Select.

I’m also considering starting with a new pen name next year (branching into naughty stuff, ahem), which will definetely start out in KU.

This blog post makes it easy to decide. Thanks!
– Hannah

You’re welcome, Hannah! Good luck with the naughty stuff. Be smarter than I was and pick something with a bigger readership. 😀 (Unless you’re just a geek to the core and can’t imagine naughtiness without dragons or spaceships.)

I think you’re doing great in that niche!

I enjoy combining naughtiness with space or dragons. So yeah… but one is billionaire stuff as well as near future. *grins*

lol, those billionaires are trendy. Better ride them. 😀

I tried wide when I first started. Even with a free short story out there the amount of downloads on Amazon vs the other sites was amazing. For me it became obvious that Zon was the place to be. I’m still an unknown writer and average out to one or two books sold a day, but the KU page reads have been great. I’ve gone from about $50/mo to around $200. And after a BookBub ad I made $1500, which for me was dance in the street money. 🙂

As you said, it can vary for folks. The advantage we have is indies is we can test things and adapt. For now Select is best for me and the neat thing is I’m only committed for 90 days at a time.

As always, thanks for sharing so much wonderful info about publishing. It has really helped me on my journey.

Yes, 90 days isn’t forever. Good luck, and congrats on the Bookbub action. 🙂

Thanks so much for sharing, Lindsay! I’ve been KDP Select for almost a year now. I’ve added 3 titles since – which helps – but when I was wide, sales of my 3 existing books were nonexistent, and the time-consuming effort of creating epubs and uploading each new title to every platform – forget making edits or corrections to them all and trying to go “free” on one title or another for promos – almost drove me nuts.

I’m still a struggling newbie, but my sales are now $1500 – $3000/month across all titles, and last month I earned more from KU borrows than sales. I never planned to stay in Select – and I won’t if KU payouts are significantly reduced – but for now I’m not going anywhere. I also do not like the idea of exclusivity, but at the same time, that exclusivity is paying the mortgage, and I’m thrilled.

If you can use Amazon to get ahead, it’s definitely worth considering. Congratulations on the mortgage payments! There’s nothing shabby about that. 🙂

I feel like if you’re just starting out, it probably makes more sense money wise to be exclusive. I know with my own experience that my sales while not the greatest to begin with, have gone down since Select.

Luckily, for some reason, my Kobo sales have grown and overtaken my Amazon and I sell more internationally.

If I started out now, or had to do it all over again, I still wouldn’t be exclusive. It doesn’t align with my goals.

That’s great that you’re doing well on Kobo. They’ve been picking up for me lately too.

One of the other toughs truth about Select is that if you’re *not* in (and not getting those KU borrows), it’s tougher than it used to be to maintain the same sales ranking. Because borrows are factored in, it takes more pure sales to hang at the level you might have held at before.

Thanks Lindsay. Another outstanding post on the ins-n-outs of indie publishing. I follow a few sites that offer indie tips and pointers, but none of them match your hands-on approach to trial and error, balanced with the limitations involved with a one-person business. Well done!

You’re welcome, Don. Thanks for reading!

Dear Lindsay,

I’m getting ready to post my first book – on Amazon, in KDP and KU and KOLL – and this is lovely confirmation.

I expect more KU borrows than sales, and I have a very long book. If I find readers who like it, and read to the end, we will all do well.

From what I read above, this is a good strategy (I have very little physical energy; going wide would require paid support). I am an extremely slow writer, and Book 2 will take years.

Thanks for taking the time to write these posts, and thanks to TPV for excerpting them.

Alicia

I am a newbie author and just about at the point where I need to make a decision about going wide or KU. The internal debate has been making me very anxious (largely because of all that I don’t know) and this post was immensely illuminating and helpful. I really appreciate your taking the time and energy to put this out and I’m signing up for your newsletter.

Thank you for the clarity! I just released my 3rd book under KDP Select, mainly to see what these alleged benefits are all about. The facts change every year, so last year’s advice isn’t necessarily helpful. And I always appreciate the orderly way you out the competing considerations. Like you, I am philosophically unhappy with exclusivity, but I am a relatively new and unknown writer, just getting rolling with the publicity end of things. Your article really helps me get a grip on the concept. Thanks!

Great post, Lindsay. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My sales have been way down because I haven’t had any new releases this year. That especially hurts with my main series. But I’ll have three new books out before the year’s out, so that will help. The one thing that has carried me along has been my sales at iBooks and Google Play. Without that income it would be very bleak.

However, next year I’m launching a space opera series. I’m not sure how many readers of my YA fantasy and sci-fantasy will cross over into space opera. So it’s very tempting to launch the series under KU for a strong start. I won’t be using a pseudonym though. So I could tell my mailing list, but at the risk of offending some. And I wouldn’t stay in KU permanently because I don’t like the idea of exclusivity much.

Tough choices.

Just before Amazon introduced the new payment structure for borrows, I pulled my “big books” (Yseult and Shadow of Stone) from other venues and put them back into KDP Select. I was never really able to get any traction with them elsewhere.

KU 2.0 has been very good for me. With books of about 1000 payable pages in the program, my income from borrows has gone way up, more than making up for loss of sales elsewhere.

But I do still keep a number of short stories and collections wide, for exactly the reasons you mention. Not that it will help much, since so few people read short stories …

Heya, Ruth! KU2.0 is definitely set up to reward authors of longer books (finally!), so it’s especially tempting for those of us writing fantasy and science fiction, which so often go longer. I also wish more people would try short stories! I’ve completely stopped writing anything under 40K anymore, both because the shorter stuff isn’t that popular and because the 35% on a 99 cent sale isn’t that appealing.

I have one pen name in Select and the other two names are wide. My YA books consistently sell better on Apple than Amazon (and they’re not romance). Overall, though, Amazon is roughly half of my income with iBooks a strong second, then B&N and Kobo.

I’m almost ready to publish my first novel – a historical of about 118k words and have been seeing conflicting advice and info about KU. Thanks for bringing all the info re KU all together for reference so I didn’t have to.

Hi Lindsay,
Thanks for this post – I’m glad I found it! I’ve been learning as much as I can over the last 2-3 years about self-pubbing, and with the goal posts constantly shifting, up-to-date advice is invaluable.

My feeling has alwas been that as a ‘newby’, going exclusive with Amazon for the first 90 days would be the right move, and it seems like your experience confirms that. At the moment, I’m occupied with selling a short print run locally, and it’s ticking over slowly but surely – after that, it will be time to concentrate on ebooks.

I was kind of pleased to read about your genre, too 🙂 My series is a fantasy/romance/soft sci-fi/mythology that really doesn’t sit square in any single one of those – yay! to know that there are readers out there.

If I could go back four years, knowing what I know now about the business side of writing and publishing, I may have tried to make my life easier by colouring inside the lines a little more – but then, it would have been a different story.

Thanks again!

Thanks, Lindsay. Good stuff. I’m all in on KDP Select but often on the cusp of taking some books out. When I read about how people are reading more and more on their phones (I’m one of them) and understand how much potential market Apple has there I don’t see how I shouldn’t get into the Ibooks store for the long term. As soon as I have my new series in place that will probably happen, although I may still mix and match.

There really is a lot to consider, it’s isn’t an easy yes or no thing. I have heard that some distributors sell better with certain genres. I find that totally fascinating.

For all you new authors, it’s a hell of a lot easier to start in KU then go wide right away. Amazon makes everything painless, and it’s super easy to get out of KU. (I’ve read stories of authors emailing and asking Amazon to let them out of their 90-day commitment early, and they’ve said yes.) If you start out wide, as I did once upon a time, trying to get your books off all the other vendors in order to go into KDPS is like pulling teeth.

Besides, it’s 90 days, guys. Jump in and try it out. Most of us have committed longer to TV shows.

I started out wide, then went to just kindle (which took some time), and then went wide with certain titles and kept a few just kindle exclusive. I haven’t had huge success anywhere, so I can’t give good numbers on anything, but I have noticed that a few other sites pull in sales when my kindle account seems to be dead.

Thanks for the thorough look at this topic!

I would be interested in seeing a comparison of the numbers between your pen names books and your recent LB books.

I sell more LB books overall, if we’re talking one of my larger and established series. Since I don’t do KDP Select with those books, I can’t speak to page reads or how well they would do in Kindle Unlimited. I’ve also started doing pre-orders on the Dragon Blood books, so it’s hard to compare what a release month would look like when I’m putting a new novel out in an existing series. DB6, which comes out at the end of this month, is sitting at about 5500 preorders, most from Amazon.

Hi Lindsay,
Thanks for your blip on the publishing topic. I’ve always wondered about this topic and have asked an author before why they aren’t in the KU program. I read a lot and I LOVE the KU program! Frankly, it’s the only way I can afford books, again because I read so much. I’m not a writer but an avid reader and a very curious one at that. Lol I was wondering about the comment you made about being paid by the page. Does it matter if I return my book with the book open and on page…66 of 300 even though I’ve read thru to 300? Can Amazon technically identify that I read thru the whole book even tho it’s returned open and on i.e, page 66? I would hate to think that I’ve read many books all the way thru but when returning had the above happen and the author only got paid for a partially read book when it should have been for the whole book. And respectfully, how do they know a person didn’t borrow the book, open it and page forward all the way to the end, then return it? They must have some way of digitally tracking how long and how far we’ve read. Have any knowledge about this? PS-I LOVE your books!!
Thanks!
Julie ?

I’m guessing that if you got to the end of the book once, that’s all it takes. I don’t know for a fact, but I’ve heard that they do time things, so that the author wouldn’t be paid if the person just flips through.

Thanks for this great article. I honestly had no idea how much KU borrows affected Amazon sales rankings overall. Good to know.

I was just wondering if anyone’s opinion’s on KU have changed in the new year? I think I understood that Amazon has new way of calculating the number of pages read for payment…

Thanks!

The borrows still count toward the sales ranking. Right now, you’re getting paid based on page reads instead of the 10% thing, so that’s changed a few things for people. Amazon recalculated people’s page totals in February, so caused some people’s KU incomes to go down a bit. They also put a cap (3000 pages max) on what you’ll get credit for. There’s been a lot of news of scammers of late too. Overall, people are still doing well in it.

Thanks for the response. This article has been a super helpful resource.

Although I’m agented and working toward a trad deal, I LOVE learning about indies. I hope to walk both paths eventually as self pubbing has this control element I love. Hello, cover art choices. I also run a small family business, so I’m already an entrepreneur! Thanks for your work on your SFF podcast and these blog posts! You are an inspiration! Keep it up, pretty please with alien tentacles on top! 😉

Thanks for listening, Alisha. Good luck with the trad deal! I think the hybrid authors have the best of both worlds. 🙂

Others seem able to read this post, but I only see a couple text boxes of white-background text; the rest is black on dark grey, which my eyes and neck are rebelling against. Can you fix this? Thanks!

And, it just changed to white–an opening-page glitch, I suppose. Nevermind! :/

What a great breakdown of a complex debate, Lindsay! Thank you for this. It convinced me to try something new that I’ve avoided until now.

[…] because what is right for one author might not be right for you. There are pros and cons to both options. Your book publication needs to be handled strategically so you can be […]

when doing a pen name do you need 2 separate bank accounts also or does that matter with Amazon and KDP?

Nope, you can publish everything through your regular KDP account. I think Amazon emailed me at one point to ask me to prove I had the rights to publish this other author, but all I did was email back and say it was my pen name, and that was the end of the issue.

thanks

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