On Going Exclusive

by James Scott Bell

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can’t.

And there are two kinds of indie writers: those who are exclusive with Amazon, and those who choose to “go wide.”

We’ve had several discussions about going wide. See, for example, here and here. Today I thought I’d bring you some thoughts on exclusivity.

Exclusive, of course, means distributing your ebook only through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). As you set up your book in the dashboard you’re given the option of putting your ebook in KDP Select. All you have to do is check that box and you’re in. As Amazon explains: “When you choose to enroll your book in KDP Select, you’re committing to make the digital format of that book available exclusively through KDP. During the period of exclusivity, you cannot distribute your book digitally anywhere else, including on your website, blogs, etc. However, you can continue to distribute your book in physical format, or in any format other than digital.”

KDP Select is in effect for 90 days from the publishing date. You can withdraw your book from the program after that, or leave it alone and get automatically re-upped for another 90.

Your ebook is now available not only for purchase in the Kindle store, but also for Amazon’s reading subscription service Kindle Unlimited (KU). Subscribers read KU books for free, but you get paid for every page of your books that’s read by a KU subscriber. Your payment comes out of the KDP Select Global Fund, a big pot funded by KU subscriptions. The calculations are explained here.

Beyond getting paid for KU reads, your book gets an algorithmic boost in the Kindle store. The primary reason for this is that downloads of books through KU are treated as “sales” for ranking purposes. This increased visibility leads to more actual sales from non-KU readers. It’s a double win. And it’s not just in the U.S. KU books are also available in the U.K., Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, India, Japan, and Australia.

Being in Select helps enormously with discoverability because of its promotional perks. You are given five days within each 90-day period to run a promotion where your book is free. (There’s also a price-countdown promo available.)

The idea is to get new eyeballs on your book and do some back-end marketing with it. If you have a series, for example, you can make one of the titles free and have links to the other titles in your back matter. For a new author, you can incentivize sign-ups for your email list (which is a whole subject in and of itself, beyond the scope of this post.)

The current wisdom is to use all five of your promo days at once, and couple it with a deal-alert service, like BookBub. A BB featured deal is hard to get, especially for a new author, but there are other services you can use, such as BookGorilla, ENT, and The Fussy Librarian (a list of other deal-alert sites can be found here).

Starting off in KU keeps things simple as you learn the ropes of indie publishing. If you need to fix a typo, boom, five minutes. Want to change the price? No problem. Why would you want to change the price? Because you can run your own promotions using 99¢ as your price point.

These things can be done on a “wide” basis, too. It’s just that things are more cumbersome and time consuming. A lot of plates to spin, which is fine if you like plate spinning. Exclusive authors would rather spend that time writing more books.

But the main reason to go exclusive is that it brings in more revenue. I was wide for six years, then moved to exclusive, and each year since has seen a 3-4x advantage over what I made on all the other platforms combined. There is plenty of testimonial evidence out there to the same effect. One indie writer summed it up this way:

I should perhaps add, that going exclusive to Amazon at the end of last year with the majority of my books has given me a massive increase in sales through the pages read thing with Kindle Unlimited. After a number of years as a staunch ‘go wide’ author, I’m now reluctantly very happy with my royalties, even though I miss the Apple, Kobo, and Nook readers.

A hugely successful indie publisher, Wolfpack Publishing, specializes in genre fiction, primarily Westerns. All their ebooks are in KU. In an interview in The Hotsheet (subscription required) CEO Mike Bray said, “I honestly believe KU readers consume more books than all of the other [non-Amazon] digital book platforms combined.”

So if it means more lettuce, why would an author resist going exclusive? The reasons are mainly philosophical. Because of Amazon’s dominance, some writers view it the way a small businessman viewed the steel and oil trusts of the Gilded Age. As one author of note puts it, “It twists my knickers to give Amazon that much power.”

Others are wary of being beholden to one retailer that can change its rules at any time. This is basically a risk calculation—forego added revenue now because there’s a chance Amazon will someday remove its advantages.

Or have its advantages removed by the government. There’s been recent chatter about a possible antitrust action against “unregulated Big Tech monopolies.” See, for example, this Congressional press release. However, there is considerable doubt about any such move being imminent.

Still, the sides are getting into position. Amazon VP of public policy Brian Huseman issued a statement warning of “significant negative effects” on Amazon consumers and small- and medium-sized businesses that sell on the platform.

“More than a half million American small- and medium-sized businesses make a living via Amazon’s marketplace, and without access to Amazon’s customers, it will be much harder for these third-party sellers to create awareness for their business and earn a comparable income….The Committee is moving unnecessarily fast in pushing these bills forward. We encourage Chairman Cicilline and committee members to slow down, postpone the markup, and thoroughly vet the language in the bills for unintended negative consequences.”

Even if action is taken, antitrust cases of this magnitude take years to resolve in the courts. For example, an antitrust investigation into Microsoft’s practices re: its Internet Explorer browser began in the early 1990s. Suit was filed in 1998. The DOJ won at trial, but was reversed on appeal. The case finally settled in 2001, with the DOJ abandoning its goal of breaking up the company.

It’s a safe bet, then, that the advantages and revenue of the KDP Select program are going to remain in place for a long time to come. For indie writers who do this for a living the motto is: Gather ye page reads while ye may.

There is no one right answer for every writer. Study it all out, think about your goals—both immediate and long term—and make your choice. And if conditions ever change significantly, remember we have that other indie motto to fall back on: Writer be nimble, Writer be quick, Writer get busy and change your shtick.

Comments welcome.

40 thoughts on “On Going Exclusive

  1. Thanks, Jim, for the concise description of the ins and outs of author exclusivity with Amazon. One “out” for some authors may be that the “exclusive” part of the deal means that Amazon does not grant access to its ebooks to libraries. This understandably has library systems upset. It is another separate but related aspect of the anti-trust issues which Amazon faces but which, as you pointed out, will take years, if ever, to resolve.

    • Thanks for the added datum, Joe. The ALA has indeed taken that position, and not only re: Amazon but also at least one Big 5 publisher. Whether such a position holds would make a great law school antitrust question. As I am far removed from law school, I shall now pour myself more coffee.

  2. As the one whose knickers get twisted, I’m still wide. Kobo has a subscription program. It doubles my income there. Wide for me has provided a much larger stable of international readers. But, as I believe I said, I’m not in this to maximize income. I’m retired, I have little debt. I’m in it to reach readers. I like being able to set my own prices to free whenever I want to for promotion. I like being able to participate in curated promotions. And, I always root for the underdog.
    Do I accept my Amazon royalties? Of course, and they’re the majority of my income. But it’s nice knowing that when I have a ‘slow’ day at Amazon, I’m making up the difference elsewhere. And that I’m reaching readers in countries I’ve never heard of.

    • Terry, if maximizing revenue is removed as a consideration, the decision to go wide is easy. You’re also enjoying yourself, which is another consideration. Wide or exclusive, being an indie is, indeed, fun.

      BTW, you can find a great new pair of knickers on Amazon.

  3. Thank you for this concise summary of going exclusive. For me personally, I can only think of maybe 1 person I know who reads digital books that does NOT use Kindle. I don’t know how that squares with the habits of the masses.

    • I agree, BK. We have to appreciate what a breakthrough the Kindle was, what a benefit to consumers. And then, for writers, it became the most important literary development since Gutenberg, making it possible, for the first time in history, for a writer to make a competitive income on his own…and to continue to write even if unceremoniously dropped from the Forbidden City.

      • I’m speaking as a pre-Kindle digital author, which might explain part of my bias. Before there was the Kindle, there were ebooks. Yes, that’s a fact. My first published works were with digital first publishers. Readers had to go to the seller’s website and purchase the books there. PDAs were the reading devices of choice. Anyone else remember .rb format? My first e-reader was the wonderful backlit eBookWise. Spoiled me on all others until the Nook Color came out. Didn’t need external lighting. So, basically, I’ve been in the digital publishing world longer than I’ve been in the print world.

        • I recall being shown a Sony Ereader about 20 years ago. It was really cool….but expensive, and had limited content, and no guarantee of getting cooperation from publishers. So it died.

          The Kindle gave access to all the e-content from Amazon, a wedding that ushered in the true digital revolution.

    • Kay, aggregators like Smashwords are naturally against exclusivity because it affects their bottom line. It is, as they say, business. So is choosing exclusivity. And so should it be for choosing “wide.”

  4. Concise, detailed rundown of going exclusive with Amazon, Jim. It’s a very handy overview for someone considering KU.

    When I published my first Empowered novel in January 2017, I launched into KU. I added a prequel novella in February and then the second novel in late March. he first few months went well, especially for a newbie writing a superhero urban fantasy with a thriller vibe. My visibility abruptly changed in June, and by late July sales and page reads had dried up. I made the decision then to go wide, something I’d considered since deciding to go indie at the end of 2015, when I began working on the Empowered. Honestly, it was my preference from the beginning, but KU did provide a useful training ground, as you noted.

    Several author friends have told me since that they were convinced that Amazon did some heavy-tweaking of its algorithms in late spring/ early summer of 2017 and that was why a number of us in KU had taken hits visibility hits. It’s also possible that if I’d had Book three ready to publish in May or June, I’d have weathered that. I know people who’ve succeeded in KU via “rapid releasing,” but I also know others who do well at a slower pace. Like many things, the answer is at least partly, “it depends.” Certainly I’m not a book a month or a book every other month, or even every quarter writer.

    For my part, I’m very happy wide. My Empowered box set (the first three novels) was accepted for its first Book Bub in February 2018 and I’ve had several since. The pace may be slower, but it’s also more relaxed for me. My income has waxed and waned on the various retailers. Amazon has been #1 for much of the time, but other times, Barnes and Noble or Google Play has been. Two weeks ago I took a great webinar from Apple Books about that retailer and in-house promotional opportunities, which I look forward to, especially with my soon-to-be released library cozy.

    Like Terry, I don’t need my publishing income to keep a roof over my head (we own the roof 🙂 I do need my publishing to be in the black, and so far it is. It given me some nice extra change. But for me, it’s really about reaching readers. I love selling books in a huge number of countries, as well as having my books available to libraries. As always, others mileage may vary.

    Thanks for a great post! Happy Sunday!

  5. Thanks for a great post and for covering the discussion of going wide vs. KDP Select. I’ve been on the fence for awhile now, so this discussion is timely for me.

    Your points are well taken, and I’ll probably stay with KDP Select, but I like the idea of making the first book of a series permafree, which you can’t do with KDP Select. And I don’t like the way Amazon “hides” the price (and choice) of an eBook from someone who wants the eBook but doesn’t want to sign up for Kindle Unlimited. The price is “hidden” at the bottom of the Kindle paragraph. The price (of the eBook without KU) won’t allow you to click on it while you’re on the author page. You have to go to the book page. I’ve had more than a few people not buy because the “didn’t want KU.”

    On the topic of publishing (and formatting): You’ve discussed Vellum. A new program, Atticus, is available, and may be of interest to some. It is still being developed, but is useable now. It does what Vellum does, and more. It works on PCs as well as Macs. I believe the “early adapter” price of $117 ends this week, and the price goes to $147 next week. (https://app.atticus.io/)

    Thanks for a great post.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Steve, I saw something about Atticus the other day. Looks promising for those with PCs and therefor can’t use Vellum. I’m not sure what the “and more” is, however, when it comes to formatting. I know Atticus also does some Scrivener-type stuff, so it’s competing on that level, too. I’ll be interested to hear reviews once it becomes widely used.

      • I bought it at the early adapter price and have been playing with it. They claim they will become Scrivener + Word + Vellum. They have a writing module now, but it is bare bones, and I don’t think it will ever be as powerful as Scrivener. I plan to continue using Scrivener to write. They really haven’t developed their editing component yet, and I don’t see how they can compete with Word. I’ll continue to edit in Word. But, the formatting is as simple as Vellum, and it offers more choices. I think the price of the program is worth it just for the formatting. As of August 1st, Amazon will only accept ePub files (i.e. not mobi files), therefore with Vellum or Atticus it would seem that we only need one file, even if we were to go wide.

  6. Thanks for the post. This fills in some holes.

    I wanted to mention that I am a Prime Member and do have a Kindle Unlimited Reader. My primary reading habits are to choose Kindle Unlimited Books and other titles that are free for being part of the prime program. As an upcoming Indie Author, I’m also doing this to find other outstanding books by Indie Authors too. Actually, this is how I first found your fiction titles.

    It also comes in handy because I also love audible formats and get just about any Kindle download can be voiced back to me by my phone. It really handy, because I can use Alexa to read the book to me when I too busy to do it myself; like when I’m driving, walking the dog, or trying to get to the sleep at night.

    Have a safe week,

  7. I don’t buy from Amazon if I can avoid it so I appreciate my favorite authors who go wide in the early days of their e-books. I preorder their books from B&N Nook the day they go up because the books may disappear after a month or so to go exclusive with Amazon. I also send a thank you to the author for doing so.

  8. As a reader, I enjoy KDP Select because I have a KU subscription. I do buy ebooks that are wide, but I use KU to read about 10 exclusive books per month, probably more if you count the DNF’s.

  9. Yep, I’m with you, Jim. Just checked my stats and in the U.S., 50% of my royalty revenue is from KENP pages read (KU). Same in UK and CA. Interestingly, not as much in AU, but ALL revenue in India is from KU. So if it ain’t broke…

    • Thanks, Harald. Your stats are in line with mine and what I hear from other Select authors I know. Business is business. I understand that’s not the operating principle for some writers, as has been expressed in other comments. But is it for me, as writing is how I get the butter for my bread.

        • Sorry you took it that way, JR. I have not demeaned, I’ve only pointed out the differences in outlook. I mean it when I say I understand the other viewpoint. It’s okay not to have a business-only perspective. I never put down other writers’ choices.

  10. Thanks for explaining what is in my head and getting it wrong. I am ‘wide’ because I have many readers who buy from other retailers, the largest number from Apple. Not that many readers of my genre ‘borrow’ from Kindle Unlimited. You need to stop assuming that everyone limits themselves to thinking the same way you do.

  11. Thank you for shinning the light on this. I went exclusive after a year trying to go wide and I tripled my income in one month. For new writers, going wide might sound like a great idea but it is extremely difficult to get traction unless you already have an established readership or you got in when indie publishing was new. You might have also mentioned access to Amazon prime giveaways that can really grow your readership.

  12. Exclusive vs wide is a top indie subject, Jim, and thanks for raising it this morning. I “went wide” in April 2020 and it was the best book business move I’ve made. That’s because indie pubbing on Kobo, Nook, Apple, and Google simply increased my global reach without any significant penalty over at the Zon. I still get about 75% of book income from AZ, but that extra 25% from the other e-platforms is a nice bonus for a minimal effort of uploading already-made work. To each indie their own, but I don’t see any real downside to being wide. Enjoy your day, and thanks for the excellent mentorship from your instructional books and your great hardboiled fiction series.

  13. Thanks for the breakdown, Jim. My experience dovetails with your own. Yeah, I’ve chosen to go steady with the devil and not regretted it. Although I do feel the need for a shower afterwards at times. 🙂

    That said, my experience with the Amazon imprint Thomas & Mercer was start to finish, very satisfying. Great editing and years later, they’re still run promos on our book. Would sign with them again in a heartbeat. But that’s a different kettle of fish.

  14. All of my computing is on APPLE, the other devil. But Amazon provides free programs to read in their format. Therefore, I buy my books on the Borg-azon.

    We have no control of our money after we spend it. I’m sure I’ve spent enough to buy that wonderful cowboy hat “The Devil that shall not be named” was wearing after his space flight. It looks like he got it at O’Farrels in Santa Fe. https://ofarrellhatco.com

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