Back around 2011, I kept hearing stories about people who were “crushing it” on Kindle. These authors were publishing books at a clip of one every three or four weeks, and bringing in thousands, sometimes tens-of-thousands of dollars per month.
On closer inspection, many of these so-called “books” were little more than a collection of re-purposed blog posts. Often, the writing was bad, full of grammatical errors, and frankly a bit thin on actual content. Many selections were 40 pages or less.
These books did, however, have beautiful cover designs, and were keyword-optimized for Amazon’s ranking algorithm. Add a massive amount of marketing effort via social media and book promoting websites, and the gold rush was on.
At the time, Amazon did little to discourage these publications, which were essentially gaming their system. The biggest name in online book sellers was more concerned with dominating the market, and so they wanted a platform that encouraged authors to use their site, and their site alone.
To that end, they created KDP Select, which provided huge incentives for writers who committed their work to Amazon exclusively. In exchange for exclusivity, Amazon upped the commission rate from 35% to 70%, and also gave the KDP authors preferential treatment in their search engine.
Further, books enrolled in KDP were also eligible for “borrowing” by Kindle Unlimited members. The authors were paid a share of the overall revenues from this program, which usually amounted to about $2.00 USD per book, per borrow. For lower priced books, this amount approximately equaled the commission on a regular sale. So there was a powerful incentive to remain exclusive to Amazon.
The good times were rolling, indeed. But you probably already know where this story is going.
Little by little, Amazon began to exercise more control of what was published, as well as how the commission structured functioned. Feeling very secure in their global dominance of eBook publishing at this point, they began tweaking the algorithm to weed out the chaff, and reduce compensation for all small-scale authors.
The harshest blow came in June 2015 when—overnight and unannounced—they changed the borrowing program from number of borrows to number of pages read. Now instead of $2.00 per borrow, it became 0.00578 per page read.
So a book of 40 pages was now only getting about 0.23 cents per borrow—and that’s assuming that the reader finished the entire book, which is not always the case. Obviously, a book of 400 pages would get $2.30, but even that isn’t much more than they were getting before with the straight-up “number of borrows” scheme.
My Lessons from Kindle Publishing
Besides these historical facts, I also had my own personal experience with Amazon and KDP select. I knew that I was a bit late to the party, but in mid-2012 I published four books on the Kindle platform, at first using the aforementioned strategy of re-purposing blog posts. I wrote subsequent books taking more time to create original content, and I even hired an editor to clean up the copy.
Well, my “success” as an author pretty much paralleled the arc of the general story mentioned above. After some initial success where I was making $500-600 dollars a month in totally passive income, reality hit in the summer of 2015 when I saw my sales figures decrease by 50%. By all accounts, this number will continue to decrease.
I have no regrets. It was good while it lasted and I learned the skill of publishing eBooks on large distribution networks; a skill that I can call upon in the future if I decide to change tactics and republish on different platform. But…
The Moral of the Stories
What can we take away from these tales of feast and famine? You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: Don’t build your house on someone’s land. Whether it’s a publishing platform such as Amazon Kindle, a social media network, a distribution channel like iTunes, or even a 9 to 5 job, it’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket—especially a “basket” that you don’t own and control.
Instead, invest time and money in your own brand. Your brand needs a hub; a place to call home in the cyberworld. For most people, this takes the form of a blog or website. Yes, it could be a podcast show or video channel. But a blog makes the most sense for most brands, at least in the beginning.
Equally important is building your email list. Having the email addresses of your readers will give you a direct channel for speaking to them and solidifying the relationship. And, every once in a while, you can reach out to them and offer your products or services.
Why is this important? Because most people won’t visit your blog every day or seek you out on social media. But, they WILL check their email every day, if not several times a day. This gives you control of keeping the relationship alive. And that should be the goal of most emails that you send: deepen the connection and build trust. Provide value so that they’ll continue to follow you and stay interested in your brand.
So does this mean that you should abandon social media entirely? No, of course not. It’s too ingrained into a culture at this point, and social media is where you’ll likely find the bulk of your new fans, followers, and readers.
In fact, I’m a big believer in the power of a Facebook Fan Page. Some have complained about Facebook, because they have done something similar to what Amazon did. They got us all hooked on “free” organic exposure, and then changed the game by asking us to pay to reach our own fans.
However, I would argue that in the case of Facebook, this was actually a good thing for people trying to build an audience on their platform. But that’s a discussion for another day.
I still think that Kindle publishing is a good platform for many online entrepreneurs. Amazon is the third largest search engine after Google and YouTube, and unlike those platforms, people searching on Amazon already have their credit card information entered, and the “Buy” button is just one click away.
Also, having a published book (or two, or three) adds credibility to your overall brand. With Amazon’s “Create-A-Space” and “Audible” applications, you can easily have printed and audio versions, too.
The mistake would be to rely on this avenue of income exclusively. Don’t think of your Amazon account as land that you own or a house that you’ve built. Rather, it’s merely a nice rental property that provides a bit of passive revenue and looks good in your portfolio.