KDP Select: New Road to Riches or Fool’s Gold?

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, November 2012.]

On December 8, 2011, Amazon announced KDP Select, touting the new program as a method for authors and indie publishers to “make money in a whole new way.”  Almost one year later, authors are still struggling to determine how to make that program work most effectively for them.  This article offers several case studies in the use of KDP Select.

Just the Facts, Ma’am – What is KDP Select?

Tantalizingly, Amazon allocates funds each month to be shared by all participating authors.  Amazon expects to pay out at least $6 million in 2012; it has allocated at least $500,000 every month since the program’s creation.  (In September, the most recent month available at the writing of this article, the allocation was $600,000.)

Authors participate in KDP Select on a book-by-book basis, enrolling individual titles in the program.  Those titles might have been previously released in the Kindle Direct Publishing program, or they might be completely new to online sales.  When authors upload books using the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, they have the option of immediately including the book in KDP Select, simply by checking a box.

Books included in KDP Select are placed in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.  Those titles are made available to Amazon Prime members (members who pay $79 each year to participate in Amazon’s highest tier of service).  Each Prime member can borrow one title a month, with no due date.  There are currently more than 145,000 titles in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

Participating authors are paid each time a book is borrowed.  Payment is actually a share of the monthly fund allocation, based on how many times a book was borrowed relative to how many titles were borrowed overall.  In a month when Amazon allocates $500,000 to the fund, when 100,000 titles are borrowed overall, an author whose book was borrowed 1500 times earns $7500 (1500/100,000 or 1.5% of 500,000).

In addition to borrowing for Prime members, KDP Select books remain available for sale in the Kindle store at a price set by the author.  Also, KDP Select authors can take advantage of “free days” for enrolled titles, offering their books for free for five days out of every ninety days they remain in the program.

Amazon requires exclusivity on the digital format of every book in KDP Select.  Authors may not sell electronic copies of any KDP Select book on any other platform.  (Print sales and audio sales are, though, still permitted.)  KDP Select terms and conditions last for ninety days; authors can renew the terms if they choose to do so at the end of the term.

Early Success Stories

Some authors leaped to take advantage of KDP Select.  Attracted by the lure of large payouts for borrowed books and the ability to reach broad new swaths of readers, writers quickly enrolled.  Many of the first authors who joined up saw huge success.

For example, Ginny Baird, author of The Christmas Catch, was thrilled with her early KDP Select results.  After a five-day free promotion, her first KDP Select novel achieved over 20,000 downloads.  When it was no longer offered for free, Baird saw a “spillover” effect – sales of more than 100 copies a day.  After placing a second book in the program and enjoying similar results, Baird calculated that she was earning more from KDP Select than she was with her day-job.  She decided to write full time.

Patrice Wilton, author of Champagne for Two, was another early fan of the program.  Wilton was thrilled when her novel was downloaded 24,000 times, resulting in sales of 800 volumes in two weeks.  With over $3000 in sales for that title, Wilton intends to use KDP Select again.

Cara Marsi (Storm of Desire) also enrolled her first book shortly after the program began, and she was very happy with results.  “I had 15,000 free downloads in one day, and after it came off free, the sales continued very strong.  My book was ranked in the top 100 in romance for about a week.”  Marsi enjoyed strong royalties that month, even though she did not see spikes in sales for books that weren’t enrolled in KDP Select.

Finally, Lyn Cote enjoyed early good fortune with her KDP Select offering, Autumn’s Shadow, and she was able to harness that success to advance the sales of related titles. She offered Autumn’s Shadow for free over five consecutive days in March 2012, resulting in more than 14,000 downloads.  The novel was book two of a three-book series, and Cote discounted the first book.  She found that 20% of the people who downloaded the free middle novel bought the first (for $1.99 each) and 10% of downloaders bought the third (for $2.99 each).  Cote enjoyed some nice spillover for several months following, with sales of all three works continuing strong, long past the free download days.

Of course, authors also received money for the “borrows”.  Every author spoken to for this article was much more concerned with volume of free downloads and sales of their work than payments for borrowing.  While one author noted that she received about $2.50 per borrow, no one else supplied specific data regarding that point.  It seems likely that borrowing fees become immaterial for most authors, in light of the relatively restricted borrowing audience (only Prime members and only one book per month per member).

The Rose Fades

Alas, many authors found that their early KDP Select successes did not last.  There is rampant speculation that Amazon has changed its algorithms, so that free downloads through KDP Select are no longer weighted the same as other free works.  If KDP Select free downloads are given less weight, then those offerings are less likely to place in the Top 100 Free bestseller listings, and authors will not obtain the valuable publicity afforded by those lists.

In addition to the algorithm change that many authors suspect has occurred, writers are clearly affected by the sheer volume of works now enrolled in the program.  Not only do readers have more trouble finding specific titles, but there also seems to be less value placed on individual titles that are downloaded.  Ginny Baird speculates:  “With so many freebies to pick from, readers would rapidly download titles, many of which they’d never read.  And because [the books] were free, readers would download titles without careful consideration, then decide to ding the author with a one- or two-star review because they hated that kind of book.”

Perhaps because of these factors, Baird saw a steep drop-off in the number of free downloads for her more recent offerings; her April 2012 title achieved only 5000 free downloads.  She notes there are many variables in play beyond those discussed above.  For example, all authors are still learning the market cycle for KDP Select, and spring and summer sales might naturally be depressed, relative to winter sales.

Cara Marsi also found that the books she enrolled later in the program did not perform as well as her first KDP Select title.  She discovered that she had to offer books free for two days in a row to reach the number of downloads she’d enjoyed in a single day with the first book.  In addition, the number of borrows for her books have dropped significantly.  On even more recent enrollments, Marsi has found that she does not even use up all five of her free download days – the numbers just aren’t sufficient to warrant their use.

Lyn Cote was another early adopter disappointed by her later KDP Select offerings.  Her historical novella For Sophia’s Heart saw only 1200 free downloads, and it did not make the Top 100 for free works.  (20% of those who got the free download did, however, purchase another historical that Cote was selling at the time.)

Teri Thackston, author of Wait Until Moonrise, is a relative newcomer to KDP Select.  (Thackston provided the most recent statistics of all authors who shared data for this article; her first 90-day exclusivity period expired on August 22, 2012.)  Thackston offered her paranormal romance as a free read on three days, but she saw only 911 free downloads and very few sales.  During the contractual period, her title was borrowed only one time, despite her publicizing the work extensively.  She also saw no change in the sales of her other novels.

Reading Tea Leaves for the Future

Almost every author who commented for this article expressed disappointment in recent KDP Select numbers.  When asked whether they would continue to use the program, authors had a variety of answers.  Some of these differences may stem from specific financial results.  Other differences might relate to basic personality traits – whether the author is an innate optimist or pessimist (or, as one author said, “a glutton for punishment”).  Also, feelings about KDP Select are highly influenced by whether an author sells well in other venues.

Some KDP Select fans, like Patrice Wilton, remain extremely enthusiastic.  Wilton intends to enroll her newest release.  Even so, she will limit that enrollment to three months, so that she can offer the title elsewhere.  “My sales in other places have been low in comparison,” she notes, “[and] I do want to build my readership.”

Cara Marsi says that she would enroll a new book in KDP Select, but she does have some reservations.  “There are too many free books out there now and the novelty has worn off.”  Marsi speculates ruefully that some readers don’t buy certain books that they would otherwise purchase.  Instead, they wait for the days that the books are available for free.  This belief may influence Marsi’s decision not to use all five of her free days.

Ginny Baird, having seen the highs and the lows of KDP Select, is willing to try the system again.  She timed her latest release, a Christmas novella, so that its 90-day window of exclusivity would expire in time for her to get the work to other retailers by mid-November.  She remains hopeful that KDP Select will help her find new readers.

Jody Wallace, author of Stalking Evan, was another author disappointed with the KDP Select performance of her short paranormal romance novel.  She notes:  “Select works better if you have several books in a series available, and you make the first book in the series free.”  In short, KDP Select is not a “one size fits all” opportunity

Most authors chafed at Amazon’s exclusivity clause.  If they had books that sold strongly in other outlets, they were reluctant to remove them from those venues, making themselves more inclined to forsake participation in KDP Select.  Jody Wallace, an author who sells more at Barnes & Noble than at Amazon, notes “I don’t like putting all my eggs in Amazon’s basket.  The more power and influence Amazon has, the less likely it will maintain competitive contract terms for self publishers.”  Several authors noted that if they do return to KDP Select, they will only enroll their books for the 90-day minimum, not for the longer periods that they tested earlier.

Nevertheless, KDP Select continues to offer a clear path toward thousands of motivated readers.  Moreover, even disappointed authors, such as Teri Thackston, found that KDP Select was very easy to use.

In summary, Shannon Donnelly (Paths of Desire) stated her belief that KDP Select remains a great program “if you know how to work it.  It does require you look at schedules, marketing, and a lot of other factors.  Like anything else, it’s something you have to devote some time to understand in order to use it well.”

One Year and Counting

With less than a year of data, KDP Select remains an “unknown” for many authors.  As Amazon continues to modify algorithms, allocate money for the payout pool, and expand its Amazon Prime program, we authors can watch, evaluate, and make individual decisions for specific books.