Friday, June 26, 2015

Kindle Press’s (Presumed) Long Tail

Earlier this month Kindle Press released Ant Farm into the electronic publishing world. To celebrate I held a virtual release party—a new experience for me. Unlike the physical release party I held for the publication of Bad Policy two years ago, this cost considerably less (the prizes were real, but the food was virtual and Facebook charged nothing for the “room” in which we held our conversations).

Also different: I sold no books during those two hours—although one ebook sold on Amazon shortly after we ended.

For traditionally published authors, presales and first week/month sales are absolutely crucial. Physical shelf space is a scarce commodity (scarcer as bookstores use more of their square footage for nonbook merchandise, coffee bars, and the like).

Only so many books can be featured in high sales locations (new releases, the bookstore’s staff “picks” on a table shoppers must pass). Make a big splash and your book continues to command prime store real estate. Make a moderate splash, and your book remains on the shelves. Not enough of a splash to scare a goldfish and your books are returned to sender, with negative consequences for future book sales by the same author.

This traditional approach is all about the head of the sales beast—the big rush at the beginning—and very little about the tail of the distribution.

Kindle Press with the Kindle Scout program takes a different approach: it gives away the head. [Skip the rest of this paragraph if you already know how the Kindle Scout nomination process works.] As part of how Kindle Press determines which books to publish in electronic format, each book is presented to the public for thirty days for people to nominate. If someone nominates a book that Kindle Press selects, then when the ebook is available for pre-sale, that person will get a free Kindle version of the book, with the expressed hope they will leave a review.

These free copies of the Kindle book are a significant portion of what would have been the distribution beast’s head. Given the extensive campaign I undertook to make people aware of the Kindle Scout nomination process for Ant Farm, there are very few people I know who read electronically who will not already be receiving a free book. No one who came to the virtual release party needed to buy Ant Farm; they already had it.

For someone like me with a small following (although loyal, thank you readers), the only way Kindle Press will recoup its upfront costs is through their marketing of Ant Farm. Not that I can’t and won’t continue to promote the book, but the choir to which I can preach already know the hymn. It is up to Kindle Press to find new churches in which to sing Ant Farm’s praises.

Picture traditional publishing as a controlled flood (an oxymoron?) They hold back a reservoir of books until publication date, open the sluice gates, and in a massive rush the books pour out, hopefully to be purchased by the buying public. If not, then the detritus from the flood is cleared away in bargain bins, sold to remainder operations, or recycled.

Consider the Kindle Press experiment as akin to a leaky faucet. It steadily drip—drip—drips its way to success. Oh sure, from time to time someone opens the faucet and lets it run wide open for a while, but even when that gush of promotion turns off, we still hear the steady drip, drip, drip as a book here, a book there finds its way electronically onto someone’s reading device.

Some of the Kindle Press books have taken off from the start—the faucet is wide open. Many of the romances have done particularly well, rising into the top 1,000 ranking of Kindle books sold, meaning many people are buying the books daily. Others books, started with the drips, but with a blast of Amazon attention suddenly sell a bunch before returning to the drips as the promotion ends.

The Kindle Press advance is $1,500. They also have their time and money invested in each book (editing, layout, overhead, etc.) Let’s say that’s another $1,500 (they won’t say). Since royalties are mostly at the 50% rate, it takes selling roughly 1,000 books to cover the advance and the estimated internal costs. (It varies based on the book price, but Kindle books have been initially priced between $2.99 and $3.99, with the average currently at $3.45). Recently a number of the Kindle Press books entered a month-long $2.00 promotion and sales for those books increased significantly, but at a smaller profit.

The Kindle Press contract locks authors in for two years. To cover the $3,000 initial outlay they need to average selling a bit less than one and a half books a day. Drip, drip, drip. To continue to control the book for the next three years means Kindle Press needs to generate royalties of at least $500 a year. A book a day will accomplish that. Drip, drip, drip.

After five years the author can exit the contract if Kindle Press has not paid at least $25,000 in royalties. I predict many books will not reach that payout. Regardless, let’s assume all a book accomplishes is to make enough sales to keep the author in the contract for the five years. That will be a minimum of 2,000 sales over the five years.

Rounding liberally, that means that book has gross sales of $7,000. Royalties are a something over $3,000 (reflecting transaction fees); gross income is the same $3,000. Profit is $1,500, or 100% after 5 years. Not a bad return on investment. And remember, that’s on a drip, drip, drip of sales—just slightly more than one a day. When one of the Kindle Press books has the faucet wide open, the profit margins for Amazon are quite high.

It is easy to understand why Amazon would like the premise behind Kindle Press. What about an author’s perspective?

I have a series. People who read my books like them (average reader ratings are well over 4 out of 5), but not enough people know of the books because most people don’t like them so well that they buy them for other people or insist that their libraries stock them. In what I consider a worst-case scenario, if Amazon only sells 2,000 books – those are 2,000 new readers (remember my old readers received the book for free). Some percentage of these folks will buy other books in the series. That means the distribution of my sales tail is even fatter than Amazon’s!

And if Amazon works magic and Ant Farm becomes a big seller, it’s all to our mutual benefit. What that means is I am not stressing out that as I write this Ant Farm’s ranking is just around 100,000, It’s early days of a very long tail, and I am planning on enjoying the ride.

Oh yes, if you would like to add to my drip, drip, drip, here’s a purchase link for Ant Farm.

~ Jim

[An earlier version of this blog appeared on Writers Who Kill 6/21/15]


  1. Thanks for the description, Jim. This is the clearest explanation I've seen of how Kindle Press affects authors.

    1. Thanks Allan -- we'll see how it all sorts out in the long run. One of the Kindle Press books, Eddie & Sunny, just broke out and nearly cracked the top 100 ebooks after spending nearly three months in the drip, drip, drip stage -- pretty exciting for the author!

  2. Jim, I'm almost at the halfway point in my Kindle Scout campaign for ROSETTE, a novel of pioneer Michigan, based on a real journal. It's not the usual genre fiction, but they opened to my category, so I hope they really consider it!

    Your post here is very helpful for thinking through the economics of the venture, and I was hoping you might give an update (or perhaps I haven't found it yet).

    1. Hi Cindy. First, best of luck with ROSETTE. One of the people who won just about the time I did ended up with a publishing contract with Little A (an Amazon imprint) because it was more literary than most and they wanted it. You can check out Jennifer Skutelsky's GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRD at It is currently in pre-release. All of which is to say that you never know what will happen after a Kindle Scout win.

      Many of the Kindle Scout winners have done very well, better than they ever anticipated. Others have done okay. Others have so far lagged behind everyone's hopes. That has been the situation with my ANT FARM. But I have watched other laggards with good reviews finally take off, so there is still time for me and my fingers are crossed.

      ~ Jim

    2. Thanks so much, Jim. I did see HUMMINGBIRD on the fly somewhere, so I will take a look again. I confess I did have a bit of a fantasy about ROSETTE and Little A the other day . . . ;-) Now I look forward to settling in to read more of your blog entries--and congrats on ANT FARM--intriguing title! I'll have to check that out, too!