Kindle Unlimited: a few observations

This is a post for writers.

Some background:

In July 2014, Amazon rolled out its Kindle Unlimited program. For $10 a month, Kindle owners in the US, UK, and some European countries can “borrow” as many ebooks as they want. I don’t have a Kindle and if you’re interested in this feature, I suggest you go to the Amazon website and check it out.

In short, it’s a subscription service.

For authors, any book that is enrolled has to be exclusive to Amazon. For some, mega-selling authors, they sweetened the deal with a “winners” pot of extra bonuses and they dropped the exclusivity requirement.

A lot of self-published authors reported big losses in sales numbers in July (I didn’t, but I seem to be in a minority). These were authors who were in KU and ones who were not. The theory went that all readers were sucked up by the program. For a while the top sellers were putting on a brave face.

Amazon bestselling author H.M. Ward broke the ranks by posting this

And then Joe Konrad added his voice

In short, it seemed that KU caused widespread carnage amongst self-published writers.

Well. Maybe. Or maybe not.

My sales have suffered absolutely no effect whatsoever. In fact, KU has been a nice little bonus to me.

So what have I done and what are my thoughts on the program?

I had a couple of short stories that I was thinking of bundling. I put them in the KU program for three months for a look-see. People “borrowed” these stories. I’d previously found it impossible to sell single short stories. I decided to add some stories that had never sold a single copy on Amazon before (short stories used to do OK on B&N but that’s no longer happening). Some of these stories feed into novels. People are clicking on the links in the back of the short stories, so I presume some sales come from them. The amount of money involved is not huge, but I’d call this a win because previously these stories were making me precisely $0 per month.

But would I put any of my full-length novels in it? No way! Why should I take $1.39 for a “borrow” when I can get $3 for a sale? I think that best-selling authors who fell for this had the wool well and truly pulled over their eyes. Maybe Amazon promised wonderful marketing. Maybe. But I’m always astonished by people who only ever expect growth, and whose outlook for the future does not include the possibility that they’re already at the top of their current game, and that there is no more growth in their current readership. After all, who still buys Twilight today?

Ironically, the whole KU affair also illustrates why, as a writer, you need to stop relying on Amazon to market your book and take control of your audience. If you plough through that thread on the Kindleboards, you’ll see people musing on Amazon’s rationale for introducing the program. That they introduced it to crush similar subscription services seems to be a popular opinion, although, by requiring exclusivity, Amazon seems to have ended up with an infinitely inferior product to, say, Scribd.

This raises the question? What actually is KU? To which my answer would be: an excellent place to stick pay-per-read articles and short fiction.

Another thing that frequently comes up in these discussions is that Amazon isn’t interested in selling ebooks, or books even, but wants to sell everything. And here we arrive at the single most important reason why as a writer you should list everywhere: because the full sentence should read:

… because they want to sell everything to people in America

If you’re not in America, Amazon doesn’t want to know about you. They charge quite exorbitant postage to deliver the littlest things. I tried to buy a $15 piccolo stand a few months back. They were going to charge me $35 for the cheapest delivery option. What. The. Actual. Fuck.

Want to sell everything, my arse. I’m not in America so Amazon doesn’t give a shit about me as customer. See also the anaemic presence of Amazon’s AU store, where we can buy ebooks only with less choice for inflated prices.

As writer, you should list everywhere, because the majority of people who read English are also not in America.

You should stop relying or spend huge wads of time figuring out how to game store algorithms, because they only need to change one line of code in their site software and you’re Dead. In. The. Fucking. Water.

Take responsibility for your own readership.

Spread yourself widely, and yes, listing widely includes having some short stuff in KU

  • Set up and maintain your website and blog
  • Set up and maintain your mailing list
  • Offer some freebies across all sites. Don’t get me started on the inability to make books free on the Amazon site by simply entering $0 in the price field, and Amazon’s inane tendency to randomly un-free titles, especially in the non-US stores. Get my stuff at Kobo, people. Please. they’re nice and reliable.

Kindle Unlimited: a few observations was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants


Is the self-publishing wave about to crash?

As we move into the months where book sales are traditionally slow, I’ve been hearing self-published writers express the feeling that they feel “lost in a tide of crap” and “it’s so much harder to gain traction now than it was two years ago” and “you might be better off with a traditional publisher”.

Is self-publishing about to come full-circle?

Here are a few of my thoughts about this:

1. It’s right that the early wave of self-publishing had a lot of luck. Ebooks were new, self-publishing was exciting, and a couple of writers had phenomenal success. There weren’t as many books to choose from, and Amazon sweetened the deal with the Select program that helped many writers sell thousands of books. The industry is maturing. It’s not so exciting anymore. Books are again about telling a good story and hooking the reader, and Amazon has whittled away any unintentional advantages gained by giving away massive numbers of books. OK, what’s new? No one said it would be a picnic.

2. The “tide of crap” argument. This makes me uneasy. Yeah, OK, there is stuff out there that probably shouldn’t be, but implied in the “tide of crap” statement is that your books aren’t going to be judged part of that “crap” by someone else. Guess what? So please, spare me the downputting terminology. There are a lot of books out there. Reading is becoming much more diverse. I think this is a good thing. I see people express the feeling that they’re tired of standing in the Amazon stream and shouting to be heard. But I think if you’re trying to do that, you’re not doing it right. People buy because of word of mouth. So let Amazon be and work on creating word of mouth through the three B’s: Be there (on Facebook and Twitter etc), Be interesting (by posting about whatever interests you), Be genuine.

3. Self-publishing is about seeing some money from your work, and traditional publishing is about gaining traction in a different market. I passed a milestone recently. SFWA considers a novel a “pro” sale when you’ve received more than $2000 as advance. Some time this month, I passed that for Fire & Ice. The book still sells every day. The other two volumes are not far behind. Neither is Watcher’s Web. All these books are still selling, and this is what keeps my motivation going.

4. Being published is hard work. Many people will try and give up.

I think that a lot of people who jumped into the self-pub market will drop out because they become discouraged, but the vast majority of those will be lost as writers altogether. That is not that different from how it has always been. Self-publishing has just made this whole process more public.

Nothing has changed except the technology.

Patty writes hard Science Fiction, space opera and fantasy. Her latest book is Trader’s Honour, in the space opera series The Return of the Aghyrians. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date with new releases, remember to sign up for Patty’s new release newsletter. The image in the header of this post is the new header for Patty’s Facebook page, where you are all welcome.

Self-publishing successfully, seven further thoughts

Publishers are only evil gatekeepers that stop people from recognising your genius? Think again! Publishers have huge marketing networks and have accumulated much experience about what works in terms of selling books. Quit blaming them for all your ills and watch what they do and how they do it, and how long it takes them to do it.

One of my most popular writing posts is Ten Home Truths About Starting out in Self-Publishing which I wrote a few months ago. In it, I outlined in a nutshell my feelings about the average self-publishing no-name author. It’s awesome to see all those points agreed with and elaborated on by Mark Croker from Smashwords in his free guide The secrets to Ebook Publishing Success


But, OK, you’ve self-published. What next? Here are a few more observations.

1. Experiment with your books’ listings
Use some of your earnings to design a more striking cover. Try a different sales blurb. Ask random people for their opinion. Do they find the cover attractive? What genre do they associate with the image?

Make sure you fill out all fields relevant to your book in Amazon’s Author Central page. Change the categories your book is listed in from generic to more specific. Prepare some books for a print version.

2. Giving away books helps sales
This one sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. Don’t be stingy or demanding about copies you give away for the purpose of getting the book reviewed. Many people won’t get around to reading or reviewing. Get over it. Give away some more books. Saddest thing I ever heard a self-published author say: “Let’s face it, your friends and family will be the only ones to buy your book.” No. Your friends and family should get the book for free. At this point in the game, the word is generosity. Getting your stuff read. Give lots of freebies. This month, I’ve given away over six thousand copies of various pieces of fiction.

3. Don’t sweat the numbers
Especially if those numbers are Amazon sales rankings. Who cares? Who of you intended audience browse by popularity anyway? Most will browse by genre and author name.

4. Don’t talk back to reviewers
Even if they are clearly wrong or show no sign of even having read your book. It just make you look like an arse. Online bookselling sites are the domain of readers, not writers. Don’t be creepy and look over the reviewers’ shoulders. Browsing people can see that some reviews make no sense. Trust their intelligence. I don’t remember who said If you fight with a troll, you both get dirty, only the troll likes it

5. Work to make your name memorable in a good way
Love your work, be proud of it, and develop it as best as you can. Be interesting. Don’t spam people with Buy-my-book messages. Your Twitter and Facebook followers know who you are. There’s no point in spamming them.

6. Write more fiction
So that the people who have liked your freebie can buy it.

7. Start over with point 1
Selling fiction takes a long time, but put yourself in the best position for when an opportunity comes along.

Selling fiction–anywhere, self-published or traditional–is like bashing your head against a wall. You will see cracks every now and then, but few of the bricks ever fall out. “Will this book sell?” is the eternal question, even if you have had fiction successfully published with large publishers.

The great ebook experiment mark 2 (because I can)

February this year marked my entry into the ‘self-published’ ebook market. I put ‘self-published’ in quotes because the material I put up first were reprints, but I eventually increased the number of works available to nine, ranging from a full-length novel to a MG novel to a short story collection to individual short stories to non-fiction. While none of the books have been a runaway success so far, I am not unhappy about the results, and certainly not because these works will remain avialable for the forseeable future as I increase sales and writerly clout elsewhere. Like selling traditionally, ebook self-publishing is a matter of persistence. The difference is getting some income while you are shooting for the big deal that may never come or that may become less desirable as ebook sales rise.

But what about the all-self-pubbed-material-is-crap crowd?

For writer, trying to sell something is about validation. Published work has met a certain quality standard. Of course, crap will still be published–according to your standard, or mine, but my this-is-a-crap-book will be different from yours. The important thing for a writer is to say so-and-so bought my work so at least this person thought it was worth a professional level of payment. Validation. For me, that came in this past year by selling three stories to pro level magazines. The picture at the top of this post shows me with at the Writers of the Future ceremony. To the left of me is Eric Flint, the editor who bought my first pro story.

You cannot possibly over-estimate the importance of validation for a writer trying to justify hours in front of a computer or time away from family, or money spent going to cons. And wouldn’t it be nice if you get a little income from it as well? Again, income = validation.

You can’t, of course, live off $10 sales to token magazines, or even sales to pro magazines, but last financial year, my fiction sales broke well into the four figures just from selling short fiction (and that’s not counting the money I won at WOTF). There is money to be made, and it’s up to you to find it.

Short fiction sales are fun, quick and easy. You submit, wait up to three months for a reply, wait a further few months as your story is in the pipeline, and then either upon publishing or after a number of months (usually three or six) the story is yours again to sell as a reprint.

Novel sales… well, I’ve had a manuscript with an agent who requested it a year ago… six months after I sent the query. If I found an agent for this novel, it might take another year to sell it to a publisher, another two years before it sees the light of day, and another six months before I get to see any income from it. And that is if they publish as planned, and I’ve seen enough delays happen to friends’ novels to know that this doesn’t always happen. What would be more of a bummer being told that no, we won’t be publishing your book at the end of this year, but at the end of next year (if we’re still in business). This sort of stuff leaves you powerless. They’re sitting on your work, not doing anything, and you signed the contract that allows them to do so.

Authors are told to grin and bear it. It’s hard enough when you have ten other novels out, but for your first one… I don’t think I could put up with it. Four to five years is a huge chunk out of your life, a huge time slot in which you have to justify your writing and muster enthusiasm to keep doing it. Meanwhile, bills have to be paid and maybe you or your partner are considering working less or stopping work altogether. You do not have this much time to muck around and beg for income to justify time spent writing.

So, there you go. Here are reasons why, for the forseeable future, I will continue to send stories to regular markets but to release novels myself. In that vein, there will be some announcements soon.

The marketing gurus are all wrong

Every day, we’re bombarded with messages: Market your book! Use Twitter to increase sales! And a never-ending stream of tips,do-s and don’t-s, which go from plain common sense to very strange indeed. Apparently, according to one site, you are not supposed to have dates on your posts. Apart from the fact that I can’t delete mine, I have no idea how this is going to help you. Sure, a reader won’t be able to see if he or she is visiting an older post, but then again, if they can see it’s an older post, they may just as well be tempted to look at newer posts… wait… I think I’ve spotted the problem.


Sorry, but if you have to resort to such strange things in order to get people visiting your blog, there must be some other problem.

As far as I know:
– People detest being marketed at
– That doesn’t mean that you should never do it
– As long as you do other stuff as well
– If the big publishers haven’t been able to figure out why a book suddenly takes off, what chance does anyone else have?
– In other words: NOBODY KNOWS!

I heard interesting discussions on the subject of sales, or not, between self-publishers. Some people are convinced there are seasonal patterns. Other people mentioned how they’d been sick or otherwise away from the marketing effort, and had suddenly gotten a lot more sales.

Some anecdotal truths:
Most people report better sales the longer a book has been available. It seems a book needs to be available for at least six months before any kind of word-of-mouth is happening.
Most people report better sales as a result of having more items available.
Most people can’t pinpoint sales to any activity.

I want to offer a one-word analogy: mushrooms.

As some of you may know, I also sell books on natural history. This includes guides on identifying fungi. You know, toadstools. Mushrooms. Seeing as it’s autumn and the weather is cooling down, these things are making their mushroomy appearances all over our lawn. In fact, some were already doing that a few months ago. The mushrooming is likely to continue for the next few months. In the nature strip in the next street, there is a mushroom that is so incredibly hideous, it looks like someone has left a baseball glove on the grass (about that size, too). Some years it’s there, some years it isn’t. Some years it’s late, some years it’s early. But one thing is for sure: at some time during the colder months of the year, there will be a day or two that everyone is buying mushroom books. It’s like everyone is saying to each other ‘hey, let’s get a guide to identify fungi’. There is no pattern other than that it usually happens in the cooler months. That is what sales are like.

Like mushrooms: you can keep the soil moist, but no one can predict when and where they’ll appear.

when does promotion become annoying?

I think with people publishing, and self-publishing, and advertising on Twitter and Facebook, everyone comes across this question sooner or later. A lot of promotion is white noise you’re happy to glance at but otherwise ignore, or file for later use, depending on whether it interests you.

The threshhold to the realm of annoying marketing is not the same for everyone. Some people aren’t bothered by promotion, others want none at all. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

We don’t mind self-promotion on a site or blog, if the site contains other, non-promotion material.

We don’t mind posts on Facebook and Twitter, as long as the promoter takes part in the social network of these sites as well.

I suspect that most of us draw the line at personal messages. Personal messages come up on your email program with a beep. You can’t ignore them. You hope to receive a piece of communication you’ve asked for, but instead you receive an ad you haven’t asked for.

I think promotion crosses the line when it no longer allows the recipient to casually glance at it in his or her time, and put it aside. It’s annoying when it’s phrased in language that demands attention (so-and-so invited you to so-and-so launch halfway across the planet). If you are going to target people with emails, select your recipients carefully.

What do you think?

Tax headaches

There is probably nothing to make a group of writers disperse more quickly than by raising the subject of business and—gasp—tax.

The cliché goes that there is nothing certain except death and taxes, and so it is certain that as soon as a writer starts earning money, there will be a tax bill.

Worse, if you don’t live in the US and you’re selling books through Amazon or similar, that time will come sooner rather than later.

Because when you set up an Amazon account as seller, it asks for a mysterious thing called a social security number, or something called an ITIN. When you can’t provide this, every payment from Amazon will deduct tax.


After looking into the subject for a bit, I’ve decided that this sounds a whole lot worse than it is.

First of all, you can claim it back, or you can claim a tax offset against the tax you’ve already paid. In Australia, you would do that through this link. If you are elsewhere, it is likely that your local tax office provides similar advice.

Otherwise, it is possible for a non-US citizen to obtain an ITIN number. My writing friend Shayne Parkinson has written a six-page instruction on how to do this. Shayne lives in New Zealand, but the process would be similar in other countries. It can be quite expensive. I needed a notary public in December and was charged $100 for the service.

It’s my guess it’s only worth it if you make a lot of money (so you pay tax later) or if your country doesn’t recognise tax already paid in the US.

I will probably revisit this subject later.

If you appreciate Shayne’s information, please visit her Smashwords page here. Shayne writes historical fiction set in New Zealand and I recommend that you check out her work.