Wide vs Exclusive is No Contest

Ok, let’s talk about the elephant in the room…

I’ll admit to something, right here and now, but if you ever tell a soul I’ll deny it.

I have books in Amazon’s KDP Select (also known as Kindle Unlimited or KU).

Not all books! Just some. A series. That’s it. And not even the whole series, I swear. Call it 9 books out of the 50 I have in print. Measly. Miniscule. Barely worth noticing!

Yeeeeesh. Hopefully nobody from D2D is reading this, right? Pure blasphemy.

Except…

Here’s the thing about KU: It’s kind of an easy start for authors, when it comes to making money. And yeah, it locks authors into an exclusivity deal for 90 days, preventing them from reaching a bigger audience under penalty of full excommunication from the the cathedral of Amazon. Seriously, crossing the line and turning your nose up at the rules can come with some pretty scary penalties, along with some equally harsh-worded emails.

But it’s absolutely true that KU can be “easy money.”

I fell for this.

Back when I first started publishing thriller novels I wanted access to that easy money. So I made the series exclusive, leveraging Amazon’s infamous (dare I say mythical?) “algorithm” to help me start making some lovely indie author cheddar. My strategy at the time was that I would use Amazon to build up income and brand recognition, and then I would bail, taking my books wide and coasting into glory.

Except…

Ok, I’m not going to kid ya. I do make a pretty big chunk of change from KU sales. And it’s not just page reads. I get individual unit sales, too. And lots of them.

I can’t prove it, I can only speculate, but it does seem that Amazon does more to promote books that are exclusive to their platform, assisting readers in finding those books and those authors who have paid fealty to the great master. I won’t deny this, it’s looking pretty obvious from my perspective.

And so, when I started pulling those KU books out and taking them wide, I saw a drop in revenue. A pretty significant drop. Money, bleeding away, soaking into the floor of the digital desert. My dreams of retiring to a private island on Mars, to be served cloned chicken wings by robots… all gone.

In other words, my plan to leverage “the best of both worlds” didn’t work. I couldn’t make the leap. The chasm was too wide.

Here’s what I learned:

First, the most painful lesson—I wasted a lot of marketing effort.

Taking books to KU was kind of like turning to the Dark Side. It was quicker, easier. But it brought great suffering. Yoda would be shaking a little green fist at me. Maybe with a finger raised.

The allure of all that fast and easy money was hard to pass up, and so I didn’t. But the consequence was that I spent all that time, and all those books, and all those marketing dollars building an audience that was land-locked into that one retailer, while simultaneously sending a pretty icky message to readers from other platforms: “I’m ignoring you because you don’t matter.”

I was alienating the wider audience while catering to an audience specifically trained to get books for “free,” and to only buy books from that one retailer. That meant that even though I was putting in the hours, days, weeks, months, even years of market effort, even though I was spending thousands of dollars on ads and paid promotions, even though I was killing myself to be on every podcast and broadcast I could find, it was a bit like trying to fill a colander from a faucet. Perfectly good water going everywhere, and barely any of it staying where I wanted it.

And I was so very thirsty.

The second lesson was one I already knew, but for some reason keep wanting to ignore—slow growth is better than fast growth.

Not always, obviously. There are plenty of examples in the world of business that can show how fast growth sometimes builds unstoppable momentum. Maybe that’s the exception that proves the rule, though. Because in my experience, and in the experience of nearly every savvy influencer and entrepreneur I know and/or study, the key to long-lasting success in any business is consistent effort and growth. And that, in a nutshell, is “slow.”

By pursuing the quick buck that can come from exclusivity, I got my dividends early. But I was neglecting the long game. And that is a recipe for failure.

Because the long game goes on with or without you. And either you prepare and do the work and build your success one consistent action at a time, or the game keeps going and leaves you behind.

Remember the fable of the grasshopper and the ant? You can feast on the easy, lush, green grass now and then starve in the winter, or you can diligently store up and prepare, and feast through the hard times. WIth this series of books, I chose to be a grasshopper. Luckily I had some ants working for me, too. Which brings me to…

The third lesson—change direction when you see you’re headed for a waterfall.

I tried a handful of tactics while I was pushing books into KU. The further along this little experiment went, the more I started to notice that Emperor Amazon had no pants, and that by keeping myself in that exclusivity arrangement I was just tightening my own leash. Eventually it was going to become a noose—there’s just no other ending for this kind of thing. Either I would find a way to extricate myself from exclusivity, or one day they’d find my proverbial bloated corpse floating in that river.

That joke totally works because the Amazon really is a river… tee hee. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.

The trouble was, I was too dependent on those Amazon dollars. The easy money had ensnared me, sticking me in place like a flytrap. If I had any hope of escaping, I was going to have to do something dramatic.

I tried several approaches. First I simply started pulling books out as they hit their 90-day mark, taking them wide immediately. My strategy there was to keep writing new books and plugging them into KU as old books came out. Sensible, right?

I can’t tell you exactly why that strategy bombed, but it bombed, and big.

For one thing, I’m a pretty fast writer, but keeping up a pace of one-for-one every 90 days was kind of exhausting. It’s not like when I first started publishing—I got other work to do on top of all that writing. So a book a month puts a lot more strain on me than it used to.

And besides that, it didn’t work. I put in three new books as I took three out, and though I saw my income spike on release days and then halo for a month or so, it all eventually settled and even dropped off the cliff by the 60-day mark. The books I was taking out had some momentum and reputation, and when they were no longer in KU they lost a significant chunk of that influence.

Basically, even though I was adding new books to that series, they didn’t have enough juice to overcome losing earlier books. The moral seems to be that Amazon does actually promote back catalog books that have been in KU for a good, long while, and removing them comes at a cost.

Considering that revelation, I had to try something different. And I knew what that had to be… God help me.

I had to start writing a new series.

Back in 2016 I shifted gears from writing science fiction and fantasy to writing thrillers, and it made a huge difference in my career. But a lesson I learned at the time was that readers really, really like sticking with one set of characters long term. They like series, and they like those series to run deep. If there’s been a secret to my success, it’s that. I wrote a ton of Dan Kotler stories.

Because of that experience, and drawing on some anecdotal evidence from other authors, I knew that if I started a whole new series it was going to cost me something. My readers, attuned to sharing in the adventures of Dan Kotler, might rebel at the introduction of new universe, with new characters, doing… well probably not new things. Thrillers are thrillers, after all.

But the point was, they might straight up ignore the new books, and never buy them. They would surely complain that the new books were not in KU.

Knowing this, I made a decision: I would write the new series, and I would connect it to the Kotler books.

By putting both series in the same universe I could promote it to the old audience while simultaneously building a new audience that was on a wider platform.

And, I decided, I would continue writing books for the Kotler series as well, putting those in KU!

This, I’ll confess right now, turned out to be a dumb idea.

Dumb, because it meant I was still feeding the machine, and still diluting my progress. Every KU book I published meant that the time and dollars I put into marketing it were effectively wasted. At least in terms of my long game goals. More water in the colander. Still so very thirsty.

It took a long time to come around on this, but when it finally sunk in I realized what I had to do,

I had to leave every book that was currently in KU, for now.

But from that point forward I had to publish every book wide.

The new series would give me some bulk, and some discoverability. It would allow wide readers to find me and Kotler. That was good. Slow growth, but good.

And as I wrote new Kotler books and made those wide, it just increased the range of income for me.The existing Kotler books would keep earning, leveraging their reputation and momentum, even as it slowly dwindled and faded. New Kotler books would get my current readers excited, and would give wide readers some hop-on points for the series. And once I reached a certain level of income for the wide books, I could safely start peeling away the KU library, taking every book wide. Eventually.

And now for some math…

The realization fueling this, by the way, was pretty simple:

If I were to traditionally publish these books, I’d be lucky to make 3-5% in royalties. That’s a pretty crappy deal.

But publishing to KU, I’m lucky to get .0005 cents per page read. That’s on the high side of the payout from their global fund, actually. It’s typically lower. But at that rate, every 350 page book I released could only ever bring me about 18 cents. Per book.

Think about that for a second.

If making 3-5% per books is a crappy deal (and it is), what with it paying the author of a $6.99 book a scant .22 to .35 cents per sale, then making just 18 cents per sale (regardless of the book’s cover price, by the way) is kind of a smack in the gob, isn’t it? I mean, at least in a traditional contract the publisher offers some marketing and administrative help, not to mention covering the overhead for necessities like editing, cover design, copywriting.

Amazon gives you… well, mean and threatening emails, mostly. All that and a rate lower than any other publishing deal on the planet? Why wouldn’t you sign up!

Contrast this with making anywhere from 35% to 70% on each sale—or $2 to nearly $5 on that same $6.99 book—plus have full control over your price so that whatever you make per book is really up to you, and even a math dunce like me suddenly loves his spreadsheets.

I’ll grant that the cumulative effect of all those teensy royalties can add up. But C’mon… even at a lowball 35%, I only have to sell one measly book to make up for losing ~11 KU readers. And I can spend the exact same amount of marketing money and time capturing those readers to net a much bigger payoff.

Your growth from selling wide might be slow, but it compounds much faster.

So… lessons learned. Painful, embarrassing, excruciating lessons.

The long game is where it’s at.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. First, this KU strategy wasn’t the only card I was playing. I went into it as a kind of experiment (a long-term experiment, I’ll admit). But even as that series was growing in KU, I had dozens of other books available wide. And I did spend marketing time and dollars on promoting and building that audience. I have pen names and side series floating around that have some decent purchase. Maybe not quite as good as the KU books, financially, but well enough that I’m not going to starve. And they’re starting to pick up the pace.

But I think the lesson in all of this is pretty obvious: Wide is ultimately better exclusivity. It just is.

It’s more stable. More secure. There’s far less chance of someone coming along and telling you that you no longer have an income, and that there is no appeal. And you have more control over practically every aspect of your business, from pricing to promotion to release dates.

Wide is just better.

Learn from me. Take the right lessons from this. It’s hard, I know, to turn away that easy money while you struggle to build an audience, while every single book you sell comes at a cost of teeth gnashing and fervent prayer and tears of frustration. But keep to it. Keep going. It’s going to pay off, if you spend the time learning, growing, and building, it will pay off.

Easy money costs too much.