Is KDP Select Worth It? (An Example From a Real Person)

kdpselectAmazon’s KDP Select program has kind of been marketed as a Miracle Grow for Books. It seems that, whenever you Google something about KDP Select, you run into another article boasting about authors who got rich and famous from just using KDP Select and barely marketing their book at all.

Like a lot of authors who are having an identity crisis because of the eBook “revolution,” I decided to try the whole self-published route myself. My self-imposed requirements were that I would do minimal marketing, pay nothing to advertise or format it, and publish solely via KDP Select.

The test was this: was KDP Select worth it? Could it actually boost my book, and myself, into super stardom? Was it the future of books?

My first week as a self-published author

After formatting my book (which is really easy and I don’t know why people pay hundreds of dollars for it, I’ll write how to do it soon) and getting some artwork from my friend, I published my short story collection, “Technology and Culture Stink!”

Other than a few blog posts announcing the book, I did nothing. I let it sitting there, in the abyss of six-digit sellers. My mom bought one. A coworker bought one. That was it.

So, the first lesson here: without substantial advertising, people won’t buy your book.

No surprise there. Although I was vaguely surprised that no one reading this blog bought the book (and still hasn’t). Then again, I wasn’t.

My three days of KDP Select

First, let’s go over the stipulations of the KDP Select program:

  • Your book is given away for free
  • The price is matched if Amazon Prime readers borrow it
  • It gets promoted under Amazon’s illustrious “Free” category
  • You can’t have the book published anywhere else online
  • Amazon recently changed the algorithm to make it much, much harder for KDP Select, self-published books to get popular

Ok. I was a little worried that you couldn’t even have a few short stories circulating from a much broader collection, but then I saw that Amazon allows you to use about 10% of the book in excerpt form to promote an eBook available via KDP Select.

I ran the KDP Select Promotion.

The Facebook effect

I made one pretty unfortunate mistake here: I promoted on Faecbook without tracking how many of my friends clicked the link. So, at the same time I ran the KDP Select promotion, I also promoted it on Facebook.

I curiously watched as my book rose the charts of the “Free Satire” category, where it rested at #4 and moved around between #4 and #10.

Amazon

Oh, what’s the number of books you need to give away to get into Free Satire’s Top 10?

About 60.

The results of the KDP Experiment

In three days, I gave away 85 free books and made zero dollars. One week later, I have sold one book and the collection has fallen into infamy again.

I was very, very surprised that 85 people decided to download “Technology & Culture Stink!” although I think a five-star review from a very close friend (read: mom) probably helped spur them to action.

How many people will read it? How many will review it? I’m not sure.

Here’s what I’m left asking:

Is 85 readers worth giving away your work for free?

I love the idea that eighty-five people downloaded the book, but I cringe at the implications.

Writers love to self-righteously proclaim that they don’t want to make money from their work and Amazon is calling the bluff. If readers become accustomed to getting great writing for free, why would they ever pay again?

We saw what this model did to the music industry… and that industry was actually popular and profitable before.

Are writers actually writing themselves out of jobs? If we aren’t able to spend hours and dollars marketing our work, should we not bother?

Also, if everyone can publish something and give it away for free, is Amazon actually destroying its own model by offering no quality filters?

Finally:

Is KDP Select Worth It?

That depends what you’re looking for and what you put into it.

In a saturated market of free eBooks and confused readers, however, I can confidently say that it’s not going to make you rich or famous by itself. Amazon’s recent changes to the algorithm and a huge, huge influx of self-published books have basically made that impossible.

Will I do it with the new novel I’m working on?

Hell no.

First Photo Credit: Carlos Porto

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17 Responses to Is KDP Select Worth It? (An Example From a Real Person)

  1. Erik Hoel says:

    Interesting. Also, you are inherently restricting yourself to the solely Kindle marketplace, which, I believe, only accounts for a small share of the total amount of readers out there (e.g. I don’t have a Kindle).

    I believe it’s the short term nature of the boom/bust cycle. What worries me is that books are becoming as expendable and short-term in their fame as, say, a Youtube video. For example, someone might get high hits on a Youtube video, but then the hits decrease drastically. Compare this to say, the slow evolution and release of movies, which are allowed to stay in theaters, then stores, etc. This is because of the simple reason that movies.
    A. cost a lot to make
    B. there are thus necessarily few of them
    C. the competition between them plays out over longer timescales
    and thus D.
    D. Movies are a thriving and accessible art form

    Publishing used to self-enforce rules like this – there were always a bunch of crappy shit out there, but publishers kept it at bay. Consider the “slow-running” evolution of the popularity “algorithm” that use to run in the publishing/book-selling industry.
    A. Agents put support behind a book.
    B. Finds a good publisher.
    C. Publisher put support behind a book.
    D. Book is released in a certain amount (first printing run).
    E. Book sellers independently respond in different ways, recommend it to customers, put it certain places (accessible, less accessible) over the hardcover edition.
    F. Word of mouth from actual buyers (allows time to accumulate)
    H. Hardcover edition is replace by paperback (2nd attempt to get upswell).
    I. Book settles into a place over months in relationship to the other books being published at the same time.

    That is, in other words, an algorithm that determines “book fame” which operates over a vast timescale – lots of time for competition, lots of 2nd changes, lots of selection occurring at multiple levels (agent, publisher, editor, book-sellers, book buyers, etc) and in lots of different ways and outlets (every bookstore was different). This is, I think, a very good selective system.

    Now consider the modern/future way.
    A. Put on Amazon, give a bunch away.
    B. Move up in the ratings (which are measured in a short-term manner).
    C. Thrive or die within a week (boom/bust).

    There are plenty of examples in nature where selection, in order to be effective, has to work over longer timescales. In other words, complexity/robustness of selective algorithms are most effective over long timescales (brain development through neuronal selection, large phenotype development in evolution, etc).

    So basically, what I’m saying is consider the complexity/robustness of the original selective mechanisms for the publishing industry pre-2000, all the independent minds and opinions and outlets that differ (bookstores) and the timescale that that occurred, and now consider the complexity/robustness of the selective mechanisms of Amazon (a few lines of code).

    • Blaise Lucey says:

      All good insights — although, to be fair, you can read a Kindle book on any device through a Kindle app, from smartphone to computer to tablet.

      I think there are bigger problems for the book market here:

      1. People don’t read already and Amazon’s free model is cannibalizing already weak sales.

      2. Movies have an inherent advantage in that visual mediums continue to make millions. The same goes for music. Sure, “free” or “digital” dings sales, but the impact isn’t felt nearly as much. Reading in itself is already a niche activity. I watched two TV shows last night and read about 10 pages of a book that’s 400 pages. At that consumption rate, there’s no chance for books.

      However, I was actually heartened by my weak free “sales,” because it shows that, despite the marketing hype, I don’t think readers are moving onto digital formats as much as people think and people CERTAINLY aren’t downloading free books by some nobody (such as myself) if that nobody hasn’t been properly vetted by 3rd parties.

      With Amazon’s current model, I think we may see a total over-saturation of the eBook market, an exhaustion of readers who are willing to take risks on unknowns (which I know I don’t, ironic given that I asked for the risk).

      But that probably won’t happen. Instead, we’ll see gatekeeper models crop up and more blended multimedia formats. And, in the back, print books will limp along, stoic soldiers as always.

      • Erik Hoel says:

        Yeah but isn’t that addiction to “empty calories” of entertainment (something I am guilty of myself, from TV to youtube videos) a problem for our whole generation – a problem for nonfiction, for fiction, for social interactions, for politics, for religion, for fitness and health, for the mental and physical and the soul, isn’t it stymying all attempts to edify, to, in DFW’s words, “be a fucking human being”?

        DFW’s genius was that he realized that there was no distinction between drugs and entertainment, it was all just a continuous spectrum. Most people haven’t realized that yet, that just as we must exert will to not eat that burger but instead eat a salad, we must exert control over our information intake, that there is revelation and rectitude in sustained, willful attention.

  2. I watch with interest as my eBook sales trickle out, following a weekend giveaway where over eight hundred copies shifted. How many of those free copies will return a review? Precious few, I imagine. Was it worth giving those copies away? Perhaps…if those readers A) actually read them, B) enjoyed them and C) are keen to read the sequel.
    Time, as always, will tell.

  3. Tim Scott says:

    The glory days of KDP Select are over. Period. When it first started, I was able to get 1200 downloads in two days with no promotion. The sales boost after this was significant, and I made 100x more in one month than I did in the previous 12 without the “free” promo. Now? You need to advertise on sites like POI and ENT, and even then you need to push 20k+ free downloads to see a decent bump in sales.

    The answer to your question is: yes. If everyone can go “free”, it’ll eventually destroy the model. In the example above, this is what I call “free inflation”. The fact you need to give away 20k copies of your book to get 50 sales has significant implications. Not only are people getting used to, and expecting “free”, the sheer amount of people running “free” promos are inflating the required amount you need to give away to see a sales bump.

    Is it a waste of time? No. The fact is, as fledgling author, you must find exposure. If you receive no sales bump after giving away 5000 copies, they still have your book and hopefully, eventually, 10% of them may end up reading it and another smaller percentage will enjoy it enough to like you as an author. With the glut of free books, however, it may take quite awhile before they ever get to your book. It could take months before you get a decent amount of reviews.

    I have a hunch Amazon will be addressing their KDP program in the near future. One of the best ways for a new author to get exposure and reviews, is through a Goodreads Giveaway. I recently gave out 15 signed copies of my book, and within a week of the winners receiving their copy, I’ve accumulated 5 glowing reviews. In the five months I’ve been in KDP Select with the same book, I’ve received 6 reviews.

    As authors, we need to think long term. Our writing is an investment. Not only monetarily, but of ourselves, and an investment in our future fans. It may take years before any of us achieve a loyal fan base who are willing to purchase anything we release, and get 50+ reviews within the first week of the book being published. KDP Select was fun while it lasted, but this truth remains: keep writing, and good luck! 🙂

  4. Did you happen to sign up for free promotions on sites such as Ereader News Today, Indie Book Promo, Free Books Daily, plus a ton more? Facebook is fine, but to reach the masses, you really have to get promoted(posted on your free day) on top indie sites (according to the ‘experts’). I’m about to launch my free promo and I’m signed up on 20 sites (some don’t guarantee a spot) and I have another half dozen to post on the day the title goes free. I’d try doing the promo again (you get 5 days anyway) and perhaps expand your promo “blast.”

    Here’s a site that lists a bunch of promo places: http://thewritersguidetoepublishing.com/go-to-list-for-helpful-indie-rescources

    And Rachelle has added some as well: http://www.rachelleayala.com/p/promo-sites.html

    Without the promo (minus facebook) hardly anyone will find your free book.

    And with the new novel, authors say free days work better with more than one novel and especially if they are part of a series. Price one free and the other really cheap and your free novel will drive sales to your cheap read.

    Good luck!

    • Blaise Lucey says:

      Great advice, thanks! I didn’t really do much promotion at all for my book – this one was mostly kind of my prototype. I just wanted to send it out there and see what happened. But making one novel free and pricing another pretty low is a great idea!

      Best,
      Blaise

  5. I feel obligated to make a comment regarding your assertion that the music industry “was actually popular and profitable before”, with the unspoken assumption that it no longer is. As a musician, I can tell you without reservation that the music business is more popular and profitable than EVER before … if you make music. Digital music stores mean that more people buy more music from more artists than ever before, and the best part is that the new model has most of the money goes directly to the artist.

    What HAS disappeared is the massive profits of the record labels, and good riddance. Porfits should go to the artists and creators, not the hangers-on and parasites that used to control them. The people who cry about the revolution in digital music are the ones who got fat forcing consumers to buy a probably-unwanted package of songs at an inflated price simply to get the one or two songs that they really wanted, the ones whose business model was based around controlling creativity, not encouraging it. If the same thing happens to the handful of companies who until now have controlled and restricted the marketplace in books, then hooray.

    There is no longer a place for the middleman. People will always be willing to pay a fair price for quality – you don’t need to give your work away for free. Give people a reason to buy and a fair price point and they will. Period.

  6. Debra says:

    I used KDP for my first three books. KDP canceled my account because one of the books was pirated. No matter how many times I wrote to tell them that I couldn’t get it taken down and that it was stolen from me, they not only didn’t answer me, but shut me down any way.

    I don’t like to work with people like that and find myself well shed of them.

    • Blaise Lucey says:

      Hi Debra,

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m sorry to hear about your book… in a way, the pirating is even worse than the reaction. I’ve often wondered just how easy could be for all of eBooks to crumble around us, if someone was dedicated enough to make everything free…

  7. Blaise, and Victoria, thanks for sharing the link to my promo page. I’m about to release my fourth novel and will probably put it on Select and do a controlled free promo. I don’t know if it’ll generate as many downloads as I did a year ago with Broken Build, but time will tell.

  8. dermot kelly says:

    KDP – a disaster – I am counting the days to get my books out of there and back in the free market again.

  9. Jon says:

    I’ve been reading threads like this one all day to get some idea of what KDP Select offers. What I find absolutely amazing is that not one (literally) would-be author complaining about his or her results seems willing to even consider that they might just be really bad at writing. In fact, the whole idiotic conversation (here and elsewhere) proceeds on the assumption that the books in question are all sure-fire bestsellers in waiting, and that it’s only a question of whether or not the “system” is good enough. I would say that 90-95% of the self-published books on Amazon will fail to make the author a successful one because they’re not novels at all, but hobby horses masquerading as literature.

    • Blaise Lucey says:

      Hi Jon,

      I think you raise a good point, both eloquently and caustically, but I think it misses the actual point of this post. Regardless of book quality, we’re talking about KDP Select as a way to get your book visible. The download and sales numbers track the value of the promotion as a way of getting your book seen, not the quality of the book. Readers buy or download the book before reading it.

      KDP Select purports to be a way to generate sales through this visibility. Even if the book was terrible, you should hypothetically see an influx of sales after offering your book for free. Is that happening? No, because KDP Select has actually saturated the eBook market with free books so there’s no reason to pay for them.

      Best,
      Blaise

  10. charmdbaker says:

    Hey there Blaise, while I enjoyed both this post, and the one about paying for creative work online, I tried to take a different approach. I just started testing the KDP Select myself, and I wrote this press release to explain why. I’ll keep you updated on my results and share them with you after reviewing your book: Technology Stinks (sounds fun yet informative), umkay?
    http://www.prlog.org/12294719-amazon-kdp-select-holds-another-new-author-captive.html

  11. Janet Martinez says:

    I’d like to know how indie writers are getting thousands of downloads on their free promo days. I did a free promo on my newest novel and got about 500 downloads and no sales. I think in 2 months I’ve gotten a total of about 10 sales and 1 borrow. I’ve given signed copies away and the people who’ve read the book love it, so I’m thinking it’s a decent read. I’ve signed up for smashwords, awesomegang, bookgoodies and goodreads. So far none of those sites have helped one bit. I’m now working on a “postcard” that I plan to deliver to everyone in the neighborhood when I walk the dog and see if that does anything. Even if most of them end up in the trash, maybe I’ll get enough exposure to at least make up the promo fees on awesomegang and bookgoodies. I appreciate the fact that you can’t develop a following if no one can find your book, but getting the book out there is really difficult. I seem to be spending all of my time on this to the detriment of my writing. If anyone has any really helpful suggestions, please let me know.

  12. Nathaniel Dean James says:

    Four things:
    1. Most self-published books are garbage. Period. Lackluster, uninspiring garbage. For every Jimmy Page and Mark Knopfler there are ten million tone deaf dilatants that own guitars. The average self-published book is a deluded attempt at emulating what is already out there, riddled with hopeless syntax, hollow characters, atrocious grammar, pre-school spelling, highly predictable plot threads, poor cover design, and Kung-Fu movie dialogue. There are over half a million books available from Amazon. Half a million!!! Try to name fifteen really good authors. I rest my case.
    2. Most self-published authors are blind to the possibility that their work may just be too shit for anyone to want to read. This is human nature. I would estimate that 75% or more of the authors who go around ranting about the hardships of marketing and their exasperation with poor reader response are trying to sell something that few people in their right mind would be willing to waste money on.
    3. Passive marketing is a numbers game. I don’t know what percentage of free books obtained through Amazon are ever read, but I suspect it’s very small. As for the chances of those who do read them leaving a review, I think you’d be lucky to get even one out of a hundred. Giving a book away through a platform as impersonal as Amazon is about the weakest marketing tactic there is. By weak I mean it has a very low per-person impact. First of all, the receiver makes no commitment of any kind under these circumstances. Nor do they have any genuine incentive to read it beyond the fact that they didn’t have to pay for it. People love free “stuff”, sales, bargains, giveaways, etc. It’s the world we live in. For a tactic like this to pay off you need to be giving away not hundreds, but thousands, or hundreds of thousands of copies.
    4.Active marketing (one on one) is an hours game. The critical mass any author is hoping to achieve is a reaction that begins small. If you don’t have the cash to hire a Madison Avenue firm to create it for you, you need to get your hands dirty. Begging book blogs to throw your title onto the end their two-year waiting list is not hands on. Nor is tweeting about it, or posting threads on your Facebook page.

    Creating your own blog can be an effective way to generate a following that may eventually prove useful for marketing. But building up a blog following requires the constant creation of content, the more original and interesting the better. Trying to reignite the debate about “Amazon v the big 5” is not original or interesting. A quiet or boring blog dies quickly.

    Your best bet is to start with Goodreads and Library Thing. I’m not talking about the mutual congratulation society groups on there where authors swap high fives and big each other up and no one is actually listening because everyone is actually too busy talking. You can safely ignore that half. What you need more than anything else at the beginning is personal contact with “organic” readers who have expressed an interest in your book. By organic I mean actual people who read actual books, as opposed to other authors, family members and friends, who don’t.

    Goodreads: Get a hold of ten print copies of your book using CreateSpace or some such. Initiate a giveaway. Chances are (unless your book looks awful and reads worse) you will get over a hundred people requesting it, and probably a lot more. Your books should have a polite “Note to Readers” at the back asking them to leave a review. This is a no-brainer that will cost you to ignore. Send off your paper copies and include a personal note to each recipient asking for a review. Make sure they are all your “friends” on Goodreads and keep in touch. Inquire if they received the book. After a couple of weeks, ask them how they are getting on. Encourage them to contact you with feedback. In the meantime, friend request every other person who requested the book with a message offering them a eBook copy as a consolation prize. Now keep up the dialogue with them too.

    Library Thing: Here you can either do a print book giveaway, a eBook giveaway, or both. Again, friend request all winners and stay in touch. Keep all names and email addresses on a spreadsheet and keep track of them. These are the people that will read your book, review your book, and recommend your book to their friends. They are the only people that should really matter to you. They are the core of what will, or will not, become your audience.

    The key is gentle coaxing, not aggressive hounding. Most people have no problem at all with this approach. Some will inevitably get annoyed, but if this kind of thing makes you squeamish, you’re in trouble already. If you can’t face going door to door in your neighborliness with a handful of your books, writing letters to your local rag, or handing every person you see with an eReader a flyer or marketing card for your book, you’re in the wrong game.

    Trying to find some magic formula, some one-shot slam dunk that will propel your book into the public eye is a fool’s errand. The few who manage to fight their way out of the crowd and rise to prominence on the back of a well-written book or series of them are the ones willing to do just that little bit more than the rest of them. There are exceptions, of course, but these are anomalies and few and far between.

    And if, at the end of it all, you still can’t get anyone to buy your book, you should be prepared to cut your losses and go back to the drawing board. Most good writers spend years writing stories no one will ever read to get where they are. If you’re publishing the first thing you ever thought up and committed to paper, you’re probably slapping reality in the face.

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