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Starting out as an indie author: Rolling with the changes

Starting Out as an Indie Author

Last week, I posted about eBook pricing in the “Starting out as an indie author” series. Among other things, I mentioned a strategy often used by erotica authors: publishing short stories with KDP Select, charging $2.99 per story, and relying on borrows through Kindle Unlimited to make money.

Shortly after I had finished that blog post and published it, I received an email from Kindle Direct Publishing announcing new Amazon payment per borrow calculations — a payment scheme that will make the above-mentioned strategy for erotica authors obsolete. Here the pertinent passage from the email in question:

As with our current approach, we’ll continue to offer a global fund for each month. Under this new model, the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read rather than their share of total qualified borrows. Here are a few examples illustrating how the fund will be paid out. For simplicity, assume the fund is $10M and that 100,000,000 total pages were read in the month:

• The author of a 100 page book which was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

• The author of a 200 page book which was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $2,000 ($10 million multiplied by 20,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

• The author of a 200 page book which was borrowed 100 times but only read half way through on average would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

Right now, no one knows what Amazon’s per page price will end up being, but with the monthly pot being divvied up by pages rather than borrows, it is safe to assume that 20 page erotica short stories are going to end up with significantly less than $1.40 per borrow, the payout in previous months.

What that means is, the authors who were relying on the above business model to make money are going to have to react to the changes and come up with new strategies, such as pulling their stories from KDP Select and going wide, or bundling their short stories to make longer works and take advantage of page count, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about this — I actually think the new payment structure for borrows will be much more fair than the previous model.

But there’s a lesson to be learned from this that’s important to all indie authors, whether they write erotica or not: the “rules” of self-publishing are constantly changing, and we have to learn to adapt as we go.

An example: I pulled my monster epic fantasy novels, Yseult and Shadow of Stone, from KDP Select some time ago, because I didn’t feel like “giving them away” for the minimal amounts made by a borrow. But if Amazon is now paying per page read, it makes KDP Select much more interesting for a 200,000 word novel. So I went back and counted my sales on all other venues for the last year and a half, and it comes to a little over 60, less than half of which are for Yseult and Shadow of Stone.

As a result, I will be reacting to the current changes by pulling my Pendragon novels from other retailers at the end of the month and putting them back in Select for at least a while to test the waters. On Kboards, people are speculating that the per page payment for borrows could be higher in the beginning, in order to entice people with longer books back to the fold. If that’s true, it would be nice to be able to take advantage of it.

I don’t know yet if this is actually going to be a change that will be good for me, but it’s worth a shot. I’ve gotten to the point now in my indie career where I’ve realized everything is in flux, and I have to learn to roll with it.

It wasn’t always that way. When I decided to go indie with the English original of Yseult, after I had gotten the rights back from Random House Germany where the book had been published in translation, I got incredibly lucky. Amazon had just introduced KDP Select, and I decided to go with it, since I still needed time to learn how to publish with other retailers. In order to get some initial traction, I did a free run shortly after publication, once I’d gotten the first couple of reviews. Yseult was picked up by Pixel of Ink, which back then was what BookBub is now, and it was downloaded almost 10,000 times — a lot in early 2012.

That put my book in several bestseller categories and made it a hot new release. As a result, in my first months as an indie author, I was easily selling hundreds of books a month. I had plenty of previously published short stories, and I bundled them in collections, which I regularly offered free while I worked to get Shadow of Stone ready for publication. For that first year, with staggered free runs and no paid advertising, I was able to continuously increase sales.

Then Amazon changed their algorithms. A book that was downloaded for free no longer counted as much towards “bestseller” status and thus was not as effective in making me and my books visible. The strategy that I’d been using to sell my books was no longer working the way it had been, ever since I first started self-publishing.

I started using paid advertising. I managed to get a couple of BookBub ads. I had a couple of amazing months as a result — but there was no longer any lasting effect, as far as I could see, at least not compared to those first months.

A couple of things happened. Short story collections no longer helped in getting eyes on my novels, and I realized I had to get more longer works out.

And I got frustrated. My sure-fire strategy had turned into a limping loss leader. So I basically gave up, which led to my “year of marketing dangerously,” which I’ve mentioned before.

The moral of this little story is: if you ever have any success, put it in the bank, because you will need it when success leaves you again. (James Lee Burke once said something along those lines, but I can’t find the exact quote, so I have to paraphrase.)

The other moral is: try to keep abreast of changes in the market and adapt accordingly. What worked all through 2012 no longer works mid 2015. While some will say – DUH – we are only talking a little more than two years here, not a lot in the big scheme of things.

I have no idea if this brave new world will ever settle down — but if you want a comfortable life, you shouldn’t be a writer in the first place. 🙂 That basic fact has not changed with the self-publishing revolution, despite the few exceptions. The responsibility is ours now, more than it has been in a long time.