Friday, July 20, 2018

Results of my KU Experiment Take 2

This has nothing to do with anything except I need a drink after so much math
Last September I announced I was going to experiment with Kindle Unlimited again--and that I would publish the results once I had them.

If you missed that post, here's my reasoning. I still think the reasons were valid--and I am still against pinning your entire writing career on Kindle Unlimited for several reasons:

1 - Amazon is already way too powerful and we are all way too dependent on them--even those of us who continue to resist the lure of Kindle Unlimited.

2 - I believe the only way to guarantee a healthy market is competition--and Amazon's competition cannot survive if we all give in and go exclusive. Without a healthy thriving marketplace, Amazon only becomes more powerful and more autocratic. If you're angry at the way they deal with reviewers and royalties and all the rest of it now, just wait for the day when Amazon is the only game in town.

3 - Amazon is changing both the way people read and the way books are written--and not for the better. In order to thrive in the Amazon food chain, a steady supply of books must be cranked out which results in burnout and breakdown--and encourages writers to take short cuts that absolutely affect the quality of books. Some of those shortcuts including hiring ghostwriters--which is good for the ghostwriters, I admit--but it's also a disingenuous way to do business. You can see the effect of KU in how people read too. There's a lot of skimming and scanning by what are now referred to as "whale readers." Readers who consume vast amounts of product without really absorbing much of it--not least because a lot of it is just sand and water.

Anyway, those are my main reasons. I admit that Kindle Unlimited can be a great tool when used in conjunction with exercise and diet--wait. Wrong lecture. When used with a game plan that includes also going wide at intervals, but putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. And that's actually also my advice for traditional authors as well. Diversify, diversify, diversify.

Anyway, it took me a while to get around to figuring out the data on my experiment. For one thing I wasn't in any hurry because I believed I already knew the answer to my question.

But it turns out I was partly wrong. And, hey, I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong.

There's a handy dandy relatively inexpensive tool called Book Report. It allows you to get insights from your Amazon sales dashboard that would otherwise require ninja math skilz I don't have the patience for. Like your lifetimes sales. Or your lifetime sales on a particular book. Or your lifetime sales on a particular book versus your page reads on that book.

By using Book Report I was able to see at a glance that I earned way WAY more in sales than kindle page reads during the six months I had Murder Between the Pages available in Kindle Unlimited.

That one's not even close. I suspect that choosing a historical--and a quirky, satirical historical novella at that--was not a good choice for Kindle Unlimited. Probably a more realistic experiment would have been something more typical: a novel length standalone FBI thriller, for example. That might have offered a more fair comparison.

But anyway, that was the original book I chose to experiment with and those were the results.

With my second KU experiment I decided to create a couple of box sets and see how those did. One of the box sets I was experimenting with was an existing set Male/Male Mystery & Suspense Box Set: 6 Novellas which is usually priced at $9.99 but was priced at $3.99 for the 90 days it was listed in KU.

The second set was created specifically for my KU experiment: Partners in Crime: 3 Classic Gay Mystery Novels. This too was listed at $3.99 for the 90 days it was listed in Kindle Unlimited.

The third collection was Los misterios de Adrien English, the Spanish translations of the first three Adrien English novels. List price $3.99.

Now, again, the English titles are all older titles that earned out long ago. The Spanish translations do almost nothing, so I was curious as to whether KU could move the needle on them.

And the winnahs are...

The results were kind of all over the place. With the six-novella box set--which has been available forever--I made more money in outright sales than KU reads. I think this is because my existing readership saw a chance to pick up some completer titles and simply bought the box set outright.

With the three-novel box set, I made more in page reads. I'm going to guess that's because my existing readership has all my novels already and so the sale was not useful to them. The page reads probably came from new readers, but they were really pretty low, so going wide would easily made up the difference there.

As for the Spanish box set, I earned more in page reads, but still again, very minimal numbers.

My conclusion? Advertising probably would have made some difference, but old titles are probably not useful as far as any kind of serious experiment.

At this point in my calculations I realized I had left out a key comparison, which is what the single titles typically averaged in sales during a three month period.

However, because I'm a glutton for punishment, the first thing I checked right off the top was how much had the novella box set earned at its regular price. Never mind 90 day averages, the entire amount it earned for 2017 (not including the period of my KU experiment) was $557.55. So basically it earned more in three months of KU than the rest of the year. Ouch.

Okay, but that was just through Amazon. Including my other sales channels, the book did sell more at full price wide in nine months than in three months of KU. BUT the fact that the numbers are that close is...well, it can't be dismissed. What also can't be dismissed is I sold more copies at $3.99 in three months than I did at nine months of $9.99.

Fair enough, but it is a very old collection. And the stories in the collection were very old when I collected them.

On the other side of that, ideally I'd like every single title to continue to earn something forever. My challenge is to figure out the best way to do that.

Okay, so on to comparing sales of the single titles.

So basically in three months the box set earned more in page reads than any of those single titles did in a year AND it very nearly matched what they all did individually within the year. So yes, safe to say the KU earnings were more than the titles could have earned individually in the same three month period.

That said, again these are really, really old titles AND the single titles were available in the box set during that period, so some people would have opted to buy the box set... But really, I'm just going around in circles here. The books sold more in KU than they would have outside of KU. That's the bottom line. There is really no arguing with that, as much as I am inclined to try.

And what about the three novel box set? How did those single titles fare in comparison?

The first and obvious difference is, with the exception of Murder in Pastel, which has never been a big seller (perhaps partly due to its role in certain dramatic events) this time the KU numbers did not outstrip the books' annual earnings or even quarterly earnings.

Three months at the $3.99 sale price did not equal what Winter Kill typically earns in a regularly priced month and barely beat out Somebody Killed His Editor, so there's really no contest there.

And same with the page reads.  The 90-day KU earnings for those titles was $824.82 whereas in a three month period those three titles would typically average around $1938. And that's not including my wide sales, which of course are lost during the KU period.

Now the point of the experiment was to introduce my work to new readers so maybe there's some read-thru value there that I can't see, but numbers-to-numbers, the novels box set earned less in KU than the titles typically earn sold individually at full price. The novella box set earned considerably more.

Had I run a huge advertising campaign on the novels box set, that might have made a difference, but how much would I be willing to spend in order to earn what the novels are already earning? ;-)

There are always variables. These novels will continue to age and their earnings will continue to decline. And, in fact, out of curiosity I compared the earnings on these novels for the last three years both at Amazon and everywhere else. What I found was series remains strong everywhere. Standalone is dropping fast and faster. Well, hell.

In conclusion? I have a lot more information, but I'm still not completely sure what to make of it. There seem to be a lot of x-factors involved in calculating when or whether to put something into KU. The much vaunted formula for success is to produce something new every month or so, release in KU and price at .99. Repeat as necessary for success or until you drop dead. Whichever comes first. I mock, but it's a formula that certainly seems to work for a lot of authors.

Of course when I say "it certainly seems to work," I mean it works for a percentage of KU authors in the same way that the old formulas worked for a percentage of us, er, Old Guard.

Personally, I think the best way to build a large and loyal readership is to stay wide as much as possible. Staying wide is also the only chance of not becoming completely dependent on Amazon, and that should be a major concern for all of us.

But...I don't want to make bad business decisions based purely on emotion. Kindle Unlimited is not going anywhere anytime soon, and I have to factor it into my plans moving forward. I don't know what that means yet, I just know I have to looking at everything objectively.

Thoughts? What did I miss? What did I get wrong here?


  1. I had to chuckle on your tab for how to do a screen shot. I've had to look that up before and would need to again.

  2. I have found that for me, if I release in KU and remove it after the 90 days, I'm very satisfied. the 30 day cliff is STRONG in contemporary romance. I do think however that the 99 cent releases may be becoming a ting of the past. I don't see many any more. Thank goodness for that. Of course I don't know how much I'd earn in page reads if I kept al of my books only in KU but that is NOT an experiment I'm willing to do until Amazon proves itself to be a worthy co-partner.

    1. I think that would be the surest test--write something contemporary and put it in for 90 Days and then yank it out.

      The problem is that tactic offends the readers who share my feelings about Amazon and try to honor my request to buy elsewhere.

      I really am conflicted about what to do.

  3. Hm. Interesting. I have readers that would not buy if I only sold through Amazon, and did not buy until I started publishing at Smashwords. My earnings from Smashwords are small, but not insignificant. I don't think I'll change my strategy. Thanks for conducting the experiment!

    1. That's true for many of my readers as well. When I ran the reports at all my vendors it was a bit depressing. I mean, I'm still earning, but the numbers are definitely dropping. And I can't see that getting better.

      In some cases, single titles went months without a sale. My feeling is every book should be earning *something* all the time.

      That may no longer be a realistic expectation.

    2. I’m not a writer, but as a reader, I try not to buy through Amazon if I can avoid it. There are a couple of authors I like who always seem to only be available there because of KU, but if I can wait for a title to be available in a different format elsewhere, I will.

    3. I really do appreciate that. I mean, I get why authors want to just throw up their hands and leave it all to Amazon. Amazon makes it so very easy--their best tools are all exclusive to KU--and the other platforms seem to go out of their way to NOT make it easy. But still.

  4. I'm just glad none of your tabs said "How to bury a body." We don't need to make it easy on the cops. lol


  5. I'm not sure I want to read a lot of books that have been written in a month. I guess I'm really a dinosaur, but I think quality takes time.

    1. I think so. What I've realized is KU serves a segment of audience that previously was under-served. Readers who honestly don't care about what I deem "quality," they just want to read a LOT at an affordable price. And that is absolutely OK. But that's not my core reader so they can't really figure in my calculations.

  6. Being a reader only I am very grateful to those authors who sell through sellers other than Amazon. I don't own a Kindle or a Nook or anything similar and I don't want to buy one. My ereader accepts pdf, edup, mobi and a host of other formats and I want to stick with it. I buy your books from Smashwords. I also buy all of Meg Perry's books from them as well. I don't like what Amazon is doing and I try to find alternative sources for anything that I wish to buy.
    However, I also understand that authors need to make a living and sometimes Amazon is what is best for them.
    I just hope that the independent booksellers remain in the picture.

    1. There's some good news here in that indie bookstores are actually bouncing back a bit. That's a promising sign for the future. And while I wince when I see some KU authors having six figure months, they're making choices I don't want to make. I want to write my own books and I don't want to kill myself doing it. My goal is to enjoy a quality of life I've worked hard to attain--and so far that seems doable.

  7. I bought everything I didn't already have from Smashwords, so I think I'm caught up. I only buy print books from Amazon, not ebooks. When I started buying ebooks about 7/8 years ago I started with epubs and I am too far down that rabbit hole now to want to switch formats. When I do get an ebook from Amazon (I usually get an email from the author saying its free so I think why not), if the rest of the series is in another reader I usually forget and buy it again and then I get irritated. I understand most people do not want to manage their own library and Amazon is great for doing that for you--but there are a lot of nasty trade-offs for being lazy that I just don't want to support, an Amazon monopoly being on of them. Increasingly I try to use an author's payhip first, then direct from the publisher, then Kobo or Smashwords, and then if they only publish in Amazon, I wait. I subcribe to their email list and wait to see if once the book is old, that they might put it up for sale at other retailers once they think they have gotten their money from the Amazon crowd. Sometimes an author will put it in KU first and then after 3 months, sell it at other retailers, so I wait. This is the long game.

    1. Ever so slowly, I'm trying to make all my self-published titles -- and (moving forward) audio -- available on Payhip. Some of the really, really old stuff will be exclusive to Payhip--but will still be on Amazon and other platforms in box sets. The more control I can retain, the better I like it.

      One of the things I like about Payhip, is I can price short stories for less but still earn more than I did through other platforms. $2.99 is high for a short story--but it's the minimum price point for Amazon to earn 70% royalties. I can price my shorts at $1.99 on Payhip and earn more than $2.99 on Amazon.

      So I'm experimenting with things like that. Seeing what works, what doesn't in the every changing publishing landscape.

  8. This was interesting to see. So I'm someone who occasionally uses Kindle Unlimited to find new authors (and found you through it). I don't particularly like KU. It can be difficult to wade through books that aren't that great of quality.

    My suggestions are:

    1) Don't do 99 c books. This actually makes me suspicious that I'm not going to get a quality book. $2.99 or $3.99 is a better price point.

    2) The strategies that have probably made me buy the most of an author's work are either a) put the first book in a series in KU but leave the rest out or b) put up a few novellas so I can get a sense of the writer's style. A) is probably the most effective though because if I really like the book, then I want to go read the rest. Something like Dangerous Ground would be a good one to put the first book up in KU since it's shorter and there are 5 books in the series.

    I agree though, that Amazon has too much power. I don't think everything should go to KU.

    1. It's interesting you say that. I have a KU subscription too--and use it similarly--and am equally skeptical of .99 books.

      DG is a good option. I was resistant to the idea previously, but after the month long sale at Smashwords, I feel like everyone has had plenty of opportunity to get that entire series at a great price.

      The only hitch is if it's in one of the boxsets... I'd have to check on that one. My series books are really what carry me earnings-wise.

  9. #OFF-topic#

    Hello :)
    Are you planning any book signings soon?
    (~hopefully in CA~)

    1. I don't really have any plans yet as far as signings. Well, beyond attending GRL in the fall (and the Fanyon Catalina Meet next year). Maybe once I get everything else organized -- website, print distribution, etc. -- signings make more sense. But bookstores don't typically carry Createspace books, so there's no real incentive to set up signings at this point.

  10. Interesting to see the numbers this way. For me as a reader, KU is not an option purely from an economic point of view. I read more then most of my friends and family, still not enough to make KU worth it. A KU exclusive book so basically doesn't exist if I can't purchase it elsewhere. For getting to know new authors I use the samples or freebies they offer.

    1. I think it only makes sense financially if you really do read pretty much everything that comes out in your favorite genre. I don't get my money's worth out of it, that's for sure. I have a terrible habit of selecting books, never reading them, and then trading them out for a new batch I think I might read. :-D There are probably enough readers like me to make it very lucrative for Amazon.

    2. I don’t understand how someone who reads even 3 books a month can’t justify KU. Most ebooks are at least $3 each. I admit to being a book consumer, or book whale as you put it. I read between 7 and 15 books a week. I see lots of nice reviews about you, but have yet to manage to catch anything of yours on KU, so I haven’t read you. I won’t finish a book that doesn’t interest me. As a college writing professor, I get paid to read things I don’t really enjoy, so I will not do so in my leisure time. Therefore, I won’t try an author unless he or she is on KU. If I’ve liked a book on KU, I may consider purchasing previous titles from an author. Since rarely read anything more than once, purchasing books is an indulgence I can’t afford with my reading rate (see profession above). I was a library person prior to the advent of ebooks, so this isn’t new! KU has been the only way I can justify my reading habit. I’ll keep an eye out for you on KU so that I can hopefully read you one day. Publishing is a nasty business (I have to do it to keep my job, and then nobody but a few cranky academics ever read it).

    3. Subscription services are a great deal for readers, and I completely understand why they're so popular. Even as an author I can see the value of occasionally using KU as a discoverability tool. And in fact, I have two old but still popular series in Kindle Unlimited: the Dangerous Ground series and the I Spy series.

      These titles are old enough--and I've run enough sales on them--that I feel confident I'm not robbing loyal readers who prefer other platforms and vendors.

      The problem for authors is KU pays less than a quarter of a cent per page read, so to make any money you've got to have literally millions of page reads. That means cranking books out constantly OR hiring click farms (an increasingly popular if not ethical solution.) Not only is that pace brutal on the mental and physical health of authors, it doesn't encourage taking any kind of real time or care in storytelling--and KU authors will be the first to profess time and care is unnecessary to their readership.

      I'm sure that's not universally true, but it's got to be *partly* true given that KU is clearly a success story for Amazon.

      The challenge for authors like me is to find a way to use KU strategically without being swallowed whole.

  11. If I may come late to the conversation - From my point of view as a reader, I like a well written and entertaining book in a fairly narrow group of genres. I have two electronic libraries - pdf format and kindle. If the author doesn't publish in those formats then I don't buy their books.
    The other thing I like is convenience. And that is the power of Amazon. Not only are the majority of the authors I like in the one place but I am recommended books of similar type from other authors. I am far more likely to read an unknown author from this source than from the New Releases list from Smashword or MLR Press, etc.
    Monopolies are in noone's best interest ( except the monopoly) but wouldn't the biggest threat to a publishing author be obscurity?
    And in terms of your older books continuing to earn, everytime you release a well written book, somewhere a new reader is going to like it so much they look for your previous books.

    1. I'm sure this conversation will never be over, so your thoughts are welcome! :-)

      Amazon does many, many things well--from customer service to innovation. I wish they treated their employees better and I wish they were happy being the biggest player in the game without having to utterly destroy the competition, but it's not like either of these things is uniquely Amazonian in corporate America.

      Obscurity is certainly the biggest obstacle most (competent) authors face. But being able to afford to continue writing remains a real issue. While more authors have been able to finally earn some money through KU, fewer authors than ever before are able to support themselves through their writing.

      So something is not working.

      Amazon has created a redistribution of author wealth, which is very interesting--and that's got to be thrilling for authors were previously unable to get any traction in their writing careers. I understand why a lot of authors embrace KU like a religion.

      And I want to be realistic. Nothing stays the same. Pining for the good old days when an author could publish a book a year and be considered productive doesn't get anyone anywhere. KU is a fact of life. It will continue to change the industry--until it too is replaced and becomes an obsolete model.

      My goal is to successfully navigate these ever changing waters for as long as writing remains my chosen profession.