Self-publishing offers an author a lot of freedom. You’re no longer bound to the schedule of a publisher; you can release your books whenever they’re ready, or according to a strategy related to your personal future plans. A self-published book does not need to fit neatly into genre-based pigeonholes. You can write and publish work that reflects your creativity and vision, rather than the often rigid categories that supposedly define “the market”. Furthermore, self-publishing can spare you sometimes painful fights with house editors about words, phrases or content that violate the house style rules. You, the author, are in the driver’s seat, and your book is 100% your own.
On the other hand, you become responsible for many critical decisions. What should the cover look like? What categories and keywords should you use? How should you position the book, with respect to your other work as well as the competition? What price should you set? How should you promote the book? All of a sudden you’re not just the author, but also the publishing executive and the marketing manager.
One thorny issue facing any self-publishing author at the moment is whether to go narrow or wide. Everyone knows that Amazon commands the largest share of the ebook market. “Going wide” involves publishing and selling on other platforms as well as Amazon, for instance Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Google Books. If you want to go wide, there are a variety of sites that will publish and distribute your books to a range of online vendors, including Smashwords and Draft2Digital. In return, they take a cut of the royalties (but a smaller percentage than a regular publisher). As an alternative, you can upload your book independently to different sales sites, which takes more effort but can result in somewhat higher returns as well as better control over format.
“Going narrow” means publishing exclusively on Amazon, enrolling your book in KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited (KU). You may publish and sell a print version of your book, but the ebook version must not be sold anywhere else.
KU is a subscription-based model for reading ebooks. Rather than paying for books individually, KU members pay a monthly fee (currently about $10) in order to download and read an “unlimited” number of books. (In fact, I believe there are some restrictions on how many books you can be reading concurrently, but I have not been able to find the details on the Amazon help pages.)
Since readers don’t purchase books under the KU scheme, Amazon pays authors according to the number of pages of their books that KU members read. The actual unit is called KENP (Kindle Edition Normalized Pages), a quantity which is calculated based on a (secret) algorithm. Authors receive a certain amount of money per KENP; the amount is also a secret and varies over time, but is some fraction of a cent. Note, by the way, that Amazon systems must periodically access individual readers’ Kindle devices or apps in order to compute KENP.
Many authors swear by KU as a way of making more money. It does seem that KU reads do not reduce the number of outright purchases by much. KU subscribers are a different population from purchasers. On the other hand, by going narrow, an author risks losing sales from readers who prefer to buy from other sources. This includes a segment of the reading public who actively avoid Amazon for various reasons including the company’s monopolistic tendencies, their intrusiveness and their indie-author-unfriendly policies. In the interests of full disclosure, I will personally confess that I fall into that segment.
My personal experience with going narrow is very limited. I have one book, a boxed set, available in KU. Since I released that book, in February 2020, it has logged 22,217 KENP. The payment for this has been $54.22. So I’m getting about 0.0025 cents per KENP. The book is about 600 pages, so the page reads translate to roughly 37 sales. The purchase price is $4.99 and the royalty percentage is 70%, so if I’d actually sold these copies, I would have received $3.49 per copy, or $129.13.
Of course, it’s not likely I would have sold all those additional copies. As noted above, KU subscribers wouldn’t necessarily purchase the books they download as part of the program. Like all “unlimited” subscriptions, Kindle Unlimited encourages readers to take a chance on merchandise they’re not sure they want, because there’s no penalty to downloading a book but not finishing it. In addition, KU subscribers have an incentive to consume as many books as possible in order to “get their money’s worth”.
It is clear though, that Amazon itself saves money when authors go narrow. Given the current KENP formula, for a complete KU read of Vegas Babes, they only have to pay me about $1.50, which amounts to a royalty rate of 30% - rather than the 70% I get for an outright purchase.
Still, there’s a segment of the reading community that loves to see the words “Free on Kindle Unlimited” splashed across a book banner. It’s not really free, of course, but once a reader has paid the monthly fee, they will tend to forget that.
Mostly, I’ve gone wide, because I want anyone who is interested to be able to buy my book. As noted above, I personally don’t have a Kindle or buy ebooks from Amazon. I read 5-10 books per month. Knowing how important this is to authors, I try to review almost everything I read. Since I’m active on Goodreads and host a lot of authors on my blog, I frequently encounter books that sound interesting. If the book is available on Smashwords or Kobo, I’ll consider buying it. However, if it’s exclusive to Amazon, that kills the notion. Hence, my fellow authors are losing out on reviews from me because they’ve chosen to go narrow.
I don’t want my own potential readers to have the frustrating experience of wanting to acquire my books but finding that Amazon is the only source.
I know I’m not neutral on this topic. I recognize that many of my author colleagues have made a good deal of money by going narrow. It’s your decision – and it’s not irrevocable, since you have the option to remove your book from KU after ninety days.
I’d like to finish by presenting some interesting data. I just ran a contest for members of my email list. To enter, they were required to send me a message answering three questions:
1) Approximately how many books do you read per month?
2) Where do you get your books? (Amazon? Other online sites? Bookstores? Garage sales? The library?)
3) Do you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription now or are you considering one?
I received 26 entries. (I have about 300 people on my list.) They read an average of 11 books a month, with a lot of difference between readers (minimum 1, maximum 30).
The majority of respondents (16 or 62%) get books from many sources including Amazon. Other sources mentioned included BN, Kobo, Google, ARCs from authors or publishers, BookFunnel, yard sales, brick and mortar book stores, and libraries. Seven respondents (26%) mentioned only Amazon. Three people (12%) did not mention Amazon at all.
Only six people (23%) said they had or were considering a KU subscription. One or two said they really loved it, since they read so many books. One person said she was considering dropping it, because she didn’t read enough to make it worthwhile.
Finally, I got a couple of comments that, I have to admit, mirror my own feelings about Amazon. One person, in response to the third question, said: “No, I like to keep my books and hate to think they're tracking me.”
Another reader said: “No, I do not have Kindle Unlimited nor do I plan to get it because a couple of years ago Amazon banned me from leaving any type of reviews, so why should I pay to read on there?”
So: narrow or wide? It’s not a straightforward decision. By choosing to go narrow, you’re probably gaining some new readers, but you may be losing others.
I will leave you with this thought: Amazon wants you to go narrow, not only to freeze out the competition, but because they can pay you less per book than they’d have to if you went wide.
Here’s another consideration: what will happen to authors (and readers) when Amazon is the only place you can buy ebooks? Prices will go up. Royalty percentages or per-KENP payments will go down. It’s inevitable. Monopoly is never a good thing for either suppliers or consumers.
That’s enough to clinch the decision for me. Your mileage may vary.