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Is KDP Select Salvation or Damnation for Indie Authors?

Ultimately, whether KDP Select works for you depends on the strength of your sales across various platforms.

By Carolyn McCray

It’s funny how whenever I discuss the KDP Select Program — the Kindle Direct Publishing Select Program from Amazon.com —  I feel as though I must either carry a pitchfork or a harp. The program is either the salvation of indie authors, or its damnation.

The KDP Select Program is neither. It is a marketing opportunity that may or may not work for you.

Utilizing KDP Select’s tools has worked for me. I leapt into five-figure monthly royalties and was announced as one of the top ten authors in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library for the month of December.

I could sing the praises of the program all day long, but it would not help you decide if the program was right for you.

In this article, I hope to demystify KDP Select and give you actionable advice on how to evaluate if the program is a good match for your marketing efforts (whether you’re just entering the program or renewing in ninety days).

Quickly, let’s review the major “pros” and the “con” to the KDP Select program.

Pros of KDP Select

  1. You are allowed into the Lending Library, where the current value of a lend is $1.70.
  2. Each lend counts as a “unit sold” and helps your paid sales rankings.
  3. You are allowed to control five “free” promotional days.
  4. You must commit to exclusivity with Amazon for 90 days.

Cons of KDP Select

Notice how I didn’t say “commit to Amazon for your entire lifetime,” but commit to them for only three months. In the scope of your book’s longevity, that is a blink of an eye. Now, it may be an important blink, but a blink it is.

I know that many people have had an exceptionally sharp knee-jerk reaction to this exclusivity clause, but hopefully, after this article, you will understand how to interpret that clause as it relates to you directly, so that you can make the most informed decision possible.

The exclusivity clause does mean that you must remove your e-book from all other retailers and give up royalties from B&N, Smashwords, Kobo, your own website, etc.

This is the first factor that we consider when deciding if KDP Select is a match for your title(s).

As a general rule of thumb, if, on the books you are thinking of enrolling, you are making 95% or more of your royalties from Amazon, then the decision to go exclusively with them in order to enter the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and have control over free promotions is a pretty easy one.

There is very little downside in losing 5% of your monthly income on these books to gain these exceptional tools. Therefore, most authors in this 95% Amazon royalties bracket can jump into the KDP Select program with both feet.

You are risking so little by leaving the other sales platforms and potentially gaining so much with KDP Select, that the decision is simple.

Conversely, if your KDP Select-enrolled book is earning more than 30% of its monthly royalties from non-Amazon sources, the decision is pretty easy.

Why?

Because, on average, by joining KDP Select, you can earn an additional 26% in royalties from the KDP Select fund, on top of royalties from your paid sales (see the Amazon KDP Select Press Release for details on that figure).

Sure, you could outperform this 26% average bump, but you would be gambling on having greater than a 30% return on your exclusivity investment for these books.

And what if you happen to underperform and only increase your sales by, say, 15%? How many royalties would you have lost from those non-Amazon platforms?

You also must consider that in leaving those other platforms you are also giving up your current sales rankings.

This is that important “blink” that I spoke of.

A “blink” of three months off of those other platforms could have catastrophic consequences to your overall royalties, since it can be very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to scale those bestselling lists again and reclaim your previous royalties from non-Amazon sources.

For these reasons, it makes very little sense for authors who have a significant royalty stream in excess of 30% from non-Amazon platforms to give up those royalties in the hope that they will overperform the average KDP Select revenue bump.

Therefore, those authors who earn 6–29% of their royalties from non-Amazon sources must really drill deep to see if KDP Select is for them.

How do those authors decide if KDP Select is a worthwhile risk? The answer to this question is a bit more complicated. Let’s take the decision-making process step-by-step.

Start with this question: how well are you selling?

The more you are selling, the more likely you are to be on best-selling lists at Amazon, which greatly increases your discoverability and usually translates into higher lends and “free” giveaways (and therefore greater post-“free” sales).

On the other hand, you also might be well positioned on your non-Amazon platforms. Which weighs more heavily? Being well ranked on Amazon or non-Amazon platforms?

The answer is in sheer sales volume. Amazon has the lion’s share of the market. Therefore your ranking on Amazon is weighted much more heavily than any other platform. You simply have a far greater chance of selling far more books on Amazon.

But let’s drill deeper than even that.

If you are in this mid-bandwidth of non-Amazon royalties (6–29%), you will need to calculate your exact royalties over the last three months from all other sales platforms combined. Hang onto this figure.

Calculate your last three months’ Amazon royalties.

Then calculate a potential 26% bump in Amazon royalties for the book you would like to enroll in the KDP Select program (by gaining royalties from “lends” in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library).

Now, let’s turn our attention to your rankings.

If you are already on a Top 100 Bestselling list in a genre, what would a 26% increase get you? Meaning, would that 26% increase propel you into the Top 80? 60? 40? 20? 10?

On average, increasing your best-selling ranking by each page will increase your royalties by about 7%.

Example:

You sit at ranking #85 in your genre. By using all the tools that KDP Select provides for you, your book should get you a bump into the high 70s. That gets you onto the #60-80 rankings, which should give you about a 7% bump in royalties.

Now, add together your potential 26% bump from the KDP Select Fund along with your 7% bump from moving up the best-selling lists (if you are at the cusp of moving up to another page).

How does that compare to the money you would lose from your other sales platforms by going exclusively with Amazon? You then can decide if the leap to KDP Select is worth it.

One other factor to consider: As other authors enter the KDP Select program and begin using its powerful tools, they may begin to outsell you, forcing your best-selling rankings down, and therefore negatively impacting your Amazon royalties. Remember, if you fall off by a page — going from 79 to 85 — it will decrease your royalties by about 7%).

Lastly, let’s consider the author who is deriving 6–29% of their royalties from non-Amazon sales platforms, yet isn’t selling well (ranked worse than 50,000).

How do they determine if KDP Select is for them? Of most importance, the one factor that is not in play is losing your sales rankings on the other e-book platforms.

More than likely, if you are ranked 50,000+, you are not on any significant bestselling lists, so therefore, you will not feel the sting of leaving that platform and returning far lower.

With that concern out of the way, the decision really is 50-50. Basically, if you sell well, you will lend well, and you will “give away” well. If you aren’t selling well, you won’t lend well, or even “give away” well.

But what are you giving up to take the chance that your book is one of those “breakout books” that beats the odds?

There is no guarantee with this strategy, but if your sales on the other e-book platforms have been stale, then taking a three-month gamble on KDP Select might be an interesting experiment.

Hopefully, this article has helped to clear up many of the misconceptions and superstitions surrounding the KDP Select program and has given you some metrics to logically evaluate whether KDP Select is for you!

Carolyn McCray is a social media and sales consultant to writers and publishing houses alike. Her non-fiction book, “Dollars & Sense: The Definitive Guide to Self-publishing Success” debuted at #1 on the Amazon Bestselling list for Study & Teaching and reached #2 on the Authorship Bestselling list beating out such rock stars as JA Konrath and Zoe Winters. Carolyn is also the founder of the >Indie Book Collective, an organization dedicated to helping writers utilize social media to sell their books.

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23 Comments

  1. Danio
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    “Conversely, if your KDP Select-enrolled book is earning more than 3% of its monthly royalties from non-Amazon sources, the decision is pretty easy.” should read 30%. As it stands it is very confusing and left me wondering for a while before I figured it was a typo.

    Even with that change though I didn’t find it very clear on first reading what the easy decision should be. Writing “the decision to leave KDP select” would make it clear.

    But these niggles apart an interesting & informative article.

  2. Posted January 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    The fact that one has to weigh the disadvantages is proof that, once again, Amazon has found a way to offer a glittering piece of mica and call it gold. The problem with lending programs of this kind is that the author still has no expectation to sell the books any better than before the program was launched. The exclusivity clause alone made me take a step back and say, “this is not going to work for me.” I’d like to see Amazon make a better effort at promoting the tons of titles which most readers will never see, thanks to Amazon’s vast size. In the last six months I saw better sales on other sites than on Amazon, and I don’t plan on participating in this kind of program for the future.

  3. Posted January 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff, Carolyn, thanks!

  4. Posted January 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    This addresses Theresa M. Moore’s comment…

    Theresa,
    I can hear the frustration in your comment but I would recommend that you take a step back because many of your statements are not validated by fact.

    It is cool to decide not to participate in any program, however I would recommend you do so based on weighed, objective observations and facts and not solely on emotion (and yes, I have been called a cyborg before so no worries).

    First, ANY marketing endeavor has a negative side. Either it is expensive or it could backfire, etc. There is no guaranteed marketing promotion out there. Each must be weighed by its ROI (return on investment). KDP Select is no exception.

    You state that “the problem with lending programs of this kind is that the author still has no expectation to sell the books and better than before the program was launched.”

    While Amazon makes no guarantees (just like any advertiser), they do have strong statistics that show that on average, KDP Select authors saw a 26% increase in overall sales. Some of course saw more, others saw less, but it does give authors a benchmark by which to weight their options.

    Again, as my article states if you are selling well (>30% of your total sales) on other platforms then KDP Select is not a viable marketing strategy for those titles.

    Lastly I must respectfully disagree that it is Amazon’s job to some how put in a better effort at promoting our titles. Since when did Barnes & Noble help an indie author do anything? Every promotion spot in every chain brick and mortar store is PAID for by the publishing companies.

    Amazon at the least, during this window, has a fairly even playing field so that if I figure out how to sell my book it is displayed in the bestselling lists along side Clive Cussler, etc.

    I fear if an author has the attitude of waiting for Amazon to help with the discoverability of their book they won’t be doing the elbow grease necessary to get their book noticed. For all of Amazon’s faults, and they have MANY, their greatest asset to the indie author is how their internal recommendation queue rewards sales.

    Which is why on average KDP Select authors had a 26% rise in sales.

    Again, totally cool if you are selling well on other platforms so the down side for you is enough to not participate in the KDP Select program, I just hope authors can see there is a bigger picture here so that they can weigh it all in for upcoming promotion of any stripe :-)

  5. Posted January 21, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Carolyn, I’m one of those authors who are at the bottom of the rankings and although wondering what to do to improve this have been loathe to offer my books for free. I opted for KDP Select a month ago but as yet have had no nibbles. After reading your article I’ve decided that I have absolutely nothing to lose by having a 5 day free promotion in the hopes that it will increase the visibility of my books and therefore bring about sales. Thanks.

  6. Felix Torres
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    It is pretty clear that publishing on KDP and other direct publishing ventures isn’t a “fire and forget” effort but one that requires regular management and external support.
    One example of how this can be used is found in this CNET report from last year:
    http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-18438_7-20037800-82.html
    …citing the experiences of Christopher Smith, who effectively “throttled” his price point between US$0.99 and $2.99 to balance his ranking and revenue.
    A 3-month “rinse” through KDP can be seen as a similar marketing tool.

    eBooks are a whole new business and the rules of the new game are still terra incognita. There is a lot of churn and a lot of chaos. But as a certain movie character (Operation Petticoat, BTW) famously said: “In chaos, there is opportunity.”

  7. Posted January 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    @Carolyn: All your comments are completely subjective and based on your own experience, not mine. When I make a risk assessment for moving my books forward in a given program I do a historical analysis first. My experience has been that I have promoted my own books heavily for years, and that of all the sellers I have worked with, Amazon has been the worst. You yourself point out that the drawbacks of working with sales rankings correlates with Amazon’s own selling model, which is that the longer your books are listed on Amazon, the less likely it will be that the books will sell better. For you to tell me I don’t know my own business is proof that you don’t know how bookselling works in general, and I would advise that you re-examine your approach for the future. You may find that there are more who would agree with me than not.

  8. Posted January 24, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    This seems a very divisive issue. It goes back to the problem that each author is in a different situation and therefore has different factors to evaluate. I will have a new book “free” via Kindle Select every single week this year because I have a huge backlist. The first book was last week and the tentative results are very positive. Two books are free the next three days. And so on. I’ll blog more about it after a month or so of experience.
    While things move fast in the digital world, promotion works slower. I’ve found that it takes at least a month, if not several, to judge the results of any change.

  9. Posted January 25, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the article. I am launching my very first book in a few days and I was debating this program. This validates what I was thinking, that it would be no brainer for me as I have no popularity, and I am not currently selling my book anywhere. So, this might (if I understand) even create better awareness for my book, and also considering my niche (personal finance) might create be among less competition due to the unwillingness for other more popular personal finance authors to be exclusive on Amazon. Also for the fact that it’s only for 90 days, makes it a tolerable experiment for me.

  10. Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    You must not have had anyone steal your content and republish. The math for what it costs you when Amazon disables your entire account because they think you are a plagiarist or in breach of contract due to piracy you don’t control is 100%.

    This has not happened to me but I know authors who have dealt with this and lost quite a bit of money. Meanwhile, they have no diversification with other distributors to keep them afloat.

    To make it more fun, some authors have only been given a day to respond. A day to track down the piracy or plagiarism (Amazon won’t tell you what they found because that would be too efficient and cooperative). I don’t know about you, but my router is dying. I could easily go for more than a day without internet access and have Amazon destroy everything.

    Until their contract enforcement is more rational and based in the reality that their Kindle technology does not prevent piracy or plagiarism, KDP Select is too risky for a mere 5 days free and a measly $1.70 a lend.

    I’m out.

    Michelle

  11. Posted January 31, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    Your post (and others) have convinced my to sacrifice BN and the bundle I sell myself and try out Amazon KDP Select for a bit. I’m writing technical, non-fiction, so I’m interested to see if there will be similar results.

    Thanks!

  12. Posted January 31, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had great success so far with my Kindle Select Experiment. You can read the 8-Part series on my blog at http://www.cherylktardif.blogspot.com.

    I was skeptical at first, but my after sales have been consistently higher than normal, even 6 days after my free promos ended. And with over 40,000 new readers reading free copies, I’ve seen it affect reviews and sales in a positive way.

    Cheryl Kaye Tardif

  13. Posted February 1, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article, and proof positive that one must know one’s own business. My titles in ePub format outsell the same titles on Kindle by an order of 100:1 … and that is not an exaggeration. Heck, my own reader uses ePub. If I went with KDP Select, I would not only be thumbing my nose at every Nook/Kobo/iPad/Sony/Lizst/Stanza user — I wouldn’t even be able to have a copy of my own published eBook for show-and-tell.

    Everyone’s business is different, and I recognize that. I am just not willing to cut out a great deal of my discoverability on the off-chance that this draconian program will work for me.

  14. Posted February 3, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    I want to thank everyone who made comments about KDP Select. As a first time user on Amazon Kindle, I wanted to review opinions before deciding. I have not uploaded to other programs–Amazon is the first– so I am not challenged with decisions on loss royalties. Thank you, Carolyn McCay for your insight and Theresa Moore for expressing concerns. It Seems the decision is truly one based on personal business choice. We each have a different starting point.

    Book marketing truly is a combination of exploring strategies, testing, assisessing position and maintaining an openness to explore all avenues of exposure. There is no one “quick fix” or “magic answer” and there are clearly many opportunities to be disappointed with a strategy. The best part advice seems to be to work with more than one strategy at a time, learn from the mistakes, and move on. Much success to you all. I will let you know my results with KDP Select :)

  15. Posted February 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Good overview with more in depth analysis than I had seen. Thank you.

  16. Posted February 23, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Some excellent info here. The program worked for me. I was able to give away 16,000 copies of my spy thriller, LETHAL CIRCUIT, in a 2 day period and my sales have been very strong since. If you’re interested in numbers, I blogged about it here in the post entitled, “Bigger than the Bible.” http://www.larsguignard.com/?page_id=90

  17. Posted February 24, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that Michelle McCleod makes the best point on why this is dangerous. I’ve also heard of authors who’ve had books removed by Amazon like this. I also know someone personally who was told by Amazon if she didn’t adjust her price, her book would be removed in 24 hours. She is selling the top #1000s at the Kindle store without the help of Select, so imagine how devastating they could have been for her. She’s building her platform on other sites like B&N, but she was horrified to learn that one simple thing could put her off Amazon, and what if she had been on vacation or unable to get to her computer for a day? Once your book is off Amazon (even for a day), you lose ranking so fast that it’s hard as heck to get it back.

    That’s not why I’m avoiding Select, but Michelle McCleod has a very valid concern that emphasizes how dangerous it is to be in once place. You can lose ranking at B&N, Apple, and other sites by pulling books out of them, and trying to get those rankings back…good luck because I’ve been watching authors struggle with it and from personal experience of pulling off a book and then putting it back in the span of a couple days made me realize how important it is to keep your book where it’s at so it can (hopefully) increase.

  18. Posted March 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Nice post, and the pros and cons of the program are dead-on… I’ve been in since the beginning and so far all my books (even the ones not in) are benefitting from it.

    Armand Rosamilia

  19. Posted April 8, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this detailed primer on a confusing, yet very exciting, option for independent publishers. As a niche micro-publisher in the English language learners education market, I’ve found the Kindle Direct program to be quite profitable and extremely satisfying. My small advanced oral skills textbook has been sold to thousands of English as a Second Language (ESL) students and teachers that probably would never have heard of my critically praised, but under-distributed titles. I’ve even been able to break into the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) high school market which had previously been essentially closed – and I even appeared in the top 10 for high school textbooks a few times. (Compare that success to having only a few elite high schools in Japan, Chile, and Vietnam have adopted Compelling Conversations as a physical book). Consider me quite satisfied with Kindle Direct – and I strongly recommend it to all small, independent publishers.

  20. Posted June 23, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me, for a new author, KDP might be the way to go to initially get your name out there and get some exposure, at least more than one might without its features. A “home-run” hitting program it is not, but then again what is? Nice article though I thought, based on experience and consideration for other’s unique situations. Thanks for the words.

  21. Per Pedersen
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Great help. Than you.
    I am a Norwegian 1st time independent self publisher and this helped me greatly. I have been browsing page after page to find out what to do and the best way to do it. I see this article is a few months old, but still helped me decided what to do. I’ll go for KDP for my children/young adults/family Christmas book.

    P. K. Pedersen

  22. LJBooker
    Posted December 20, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    No one seems to be mentioning the fact that the bestselling books that are in Amazon’s select program are not exclusive, like, for example, the Harry Potter books. Those are for sale at Barnes and Nobles Nook store. It seems that there are two sets of rules. Only the indie authors have to give up their rights to sell elsewhere. This way Amazon gets to brag ‘exclusive’ books, while undercutting the other stores with free popular books. And those free bestsellers are getting all the funds in the pot. This whole promotion is about putting everyone else out of business. Has no one else noticed this?

  23. Posted December 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    If you can only promote for five days in the kdp program, what happens if someone else says something about your book on facebook or their blogs and you don’t know it

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