Showing posts with label Kindle Unlimited. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kindle Unlimited. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

How to Analyze a Free Book Promotion


In today’s post I will show you how to analyze a promotion’s financial efficacy.

Given my lackadaisical approach to marketing my Seamus McCree series of mystery/suspense/thrillers, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that I earned an A in Marketing during my MBA studies. Knowing what to do and understanding how to evaluate results are different skills than actually doing the darn thing. While I deserve an A for analysis, I’d give myself a gentlemen’s D for my actual marketing efforts.

Fortunately, that lack of marketing means I have near perfect data to analyze a recent sales tactic I employed: providing free copies of the Kindle version of book 1 of the series (Ant Farm).

My specifics:

I have so far published five books in the Seamus McCree series. All are available in paperback, and I have assumed the Kindle promotion had zero effect on paperback sales. I am currently, and have been for some time, part of the KDP select. That means the only place you can buy an electronic version of the books is on Amazon for a device that reads the Kindle format (reader, computer, phone). All my books are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (a subscription service that allows readers to read unlimited pages each month for a fixed price and pays the authors an amount per page of their works read).

While the calculations below are based on my Amazon-only sales universe, the concepts are equally applicable to authors who have their books available for wide distribution (Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc.).

Step 1: Determine baseline sales.

For me, this was relatively easy because I had done no marketing during the two and a half months prior to the sales campaign. Count the number of books sold (or better royalties paid) for the base period for each book in the series and divide by the length of the base period (in my example 2.5 months).

If you sell wide, you can add together your sales for each book or perform this step separately by venue. For those of us participating in KDP select, we’ll need to collect the royalties for electronic books sold and the Kindle Unlimited (include KOLL) pages read for each book in our series. Normalize these results by converting everything to a per month basis. I assume Amazon will pay an average of $0.045 per page read. That means I expect to earn $45 for every 10,000 pages read.

The reason I estimate revenue per KU page read is I am not willing to wait the extra time for Amazon to let me know exactly what each month’s actual payment rate will be. (It varies each month based on Amazon whim—er secret formula.) If I wanted, I could redo the analysis once the final figures are in.

These are your Base Level Results. If you did nothing else, these are the revenues you would expect to generate from your series.

Step 2: Determine Cost of Each Free Download

If you simply announce the giveaway on your social network feeds and to your newsletter subscribers, you have no cost (unless you have enough newsletter subscribers so you need to pay for that). I chose FreeBooksy (owned by Written Word Media) to advertise my free download opportunity for Ant Farm and paid for a feature that advertised that the giveaway was part of the Seamus McCree series. It cost $142.50.

During the five-day promotion, Amazon indicated I had “sold” 5,915 books at the bargain price of $0.

The Cost per download is Cost of Promotion)/Number of downloads. For this promotion that was $142.50/5915 = $.024.

Step 3: Determine the Revenue earned per download:

Wait a minute; it’s cost me $0.024 per download, where’s the revenue come from?

The great thing about series is that if people like the first book in the series, even though it was free, some of them will buy the second book in the series. If they like that, some will buy the third book in the series. Etc.

The most read book in a series is almost always the first book. Someone who discovers Sue Grafton’s Y is for Yesterday, likes it and wants to read more, is likely to start at the beginning with A is for Alibi. The same for me: they read Empty Promises and like it, they’ll go back to the first book, Ant Farm.

By giving away Ant Farm, I hoped to earn revenue from sales (or KU pages read) of other books in the series.

Because I haven’t run any other promotions on the Seamus McCree series after the giveaway, I can determine how long the effect of the sale lasted. For Kindle purchases, it was about 2.5 months. Interesting to me, for Kindle Unlimited pages read, I’m experiencing a new, higher, “normal” level after the promotion. Regardless of that continuing bump, I cut off the KU effect at 2.5 months as well for purposes of this analysis.

For each book I determined royalties received and Kindle Unlimited pages read during the 2.5 months following the promotion.

That’s not all extra revenue, If I hadn’t done anything, I’d expect to continue to earn all the base revenues for each book. To get the excess revenue for each book, I needed to subtract the 2.5 months of the baseline from the actual sales.

I know lots of authors go cross-eyed looking at formulae. So, using words: we take the average monthly revenue for a product after sale and subtract the average monthly revenue for the same product before the sale to get the effect of the sale. Then, if the effect lasts longer than a month (in my case it lasted 2.5 months) multiply that result by the duration.

Here’s a simple example to see how this works. Say before the sale I earned an average of $10 a month on Book 2. During the 2.5 months after the sale, I earned (say) $60. My extra profit is the $60 less what I would have expected to earn during that period ($10/mo. x 2.5 mos. = $25). The extra revenue is $35 ($60 - $25).

Since I have five books in the series and I have both Kindle sales and KU reads, my total profit on the promotion is the sum of the excess profit on Kindle purchases and pages read under Kindle Unlimited for all five books.

An Aside about Kindle Unlimited

My expectation was that by giving away Ant Farm, those possibly interested in reading it would download it for free. Kindle Unlimited folks apparently have a different mindset. They don’t need to “own” the book; they’re happy to read it and “return” it to the Amazon library. During the 2.5 months following the giveaway, KU readers read over 50,000 pages of Ant Farm, which is the equivalent of almost 100 books for revenue of $225+. That group alone more than paid for the advertising expense of $142.50.

Back to the Main Analysis – Average Revenue per Download

Adding the extra revenue earned because of advertising and giving away free Kindle copies of Ant Farm from both Kindle sales and Kindle Unlimited reads totaled $1,023.60. Dividing that by the number of downloads gives average revenue per download.

$1023.60/5915 = $0.173

Recall that each download cost $0.024. The profit per download was $0.149. Yippee!

Takeaway #1

If we assume future readers will act in the same manner as those who participated in the analyzed sale, my break-even point is 17.3 cents per download. A quick analysis of whether a promotional website delivers value to me suggests that if the cost per download is greater than 17.3 cents, I should avoid it. How can you tell in advance? You can’t, but if something doesn’t work for you, don’t repeat it in the hopes the second or third time is the charm. Also, you can search for results other authors have shared in blogs like this one.

Question: Can we learn more from the data?

Of course. I wouldn’t have posed the question otherwise. It was an unexpected bonus to discover many Kindle Unlimited readers preferred to read Ant Farm through KU rather than downloading for free. Those pages read paid for the advertisement (and more). My original expectation of where I would make money from this promotion was that enough people would like Ant Farm well enough that after reading it they would buy the next in the series, Bad Policy.

And those who also like Bad Policy would read Cabin Fever, and so on down to Doubtful Relations and Empty Promises. [Did you catch the subtle use of the alphabet for the order of the series novels?]

That follow-through from one book in the series to another is called “Conversion” in the trade.

Conversion

Good conversion, I thought, was the key to making money from giving away the first book of a series. I figured I had a good chance of converting people from Ant Farm to Bad Policy. Ant Farm has a 4.6 rating on Amazon (50+ reviews) and 4.35 rating on Goodreads (100+ ratings).

Before I saw the results of the giveaway, I only considered one kind of conversion: from giveaway to sales of books 2, 3, 4 & 5. I discovered (others already knew this, but I hadn’t thought of it) that Kindle Unlimited readers have a separate conversion from book 1 to 2 to 3, etc.

Here are my actual Kindle sales conversions during the 2.5 months following the Ant Farm giveaway:


Book From
Book To
Conversion %
Ant Farm (free)
Bad Policy (paid)
0.59%
Bad Policy
Cabin Fever
60.00%
Cabin Fever
Doubtful Relations
80.95%
Doubtful Relations
Empty Promises
88.24%


Conventional wisdom suggests that those who download free books do not buy books at market prices (in my case $3.99). In fact, some readers use free books as a no-risk way of checking out new-to-them authors. If they like what they read, they’ll buy more. During the 2.5 months following the free-giveaway, only .59% purchased Bad Policy.

That seems dismal; but in fact, taking those people and following them through the extra sales of the other three series books was sufficient to make the advertising buy profitable.

There is a HUGE drop-off between those who acquired Ant Farm for free and those willing to spend money to purchase Bad Policy. Of those who went on to buy Bad Policy, 60% purchased Cabin Fever and if they bought Cabin Fever they surely became fans: 81% bought Doubtful Relations and of those 88% bought Empty Promises.

As I thought, if I could get people to buy a book of the series, a significant percentage would really enjoy the book and buy more. They key is how many people actually read free downloads. That, I have no way of determining, but enough did that their subsequent purchases more than covered the advertising costs of the giveaway.

Takeaway #2:

Even though the only place to purchase electronic copies of my novels is on Amazon, the giveaway was profitable. Those who could also give away and sell in other markets would be even better off for ebook sales alone.

Conversion for Kindle Unlimited Readers

For Kindle Unlimited, the percentages are a bit different:

Book From
Book To
Conversion %
Ant Farm
Bad Policy
106.90%
Bad Policy
Cabin Fever
60.24%
Cabin Fever
Doubtful Relations
87.58%
Doubtful Relations
Empty Promises
75.37%

I speculate that the result of more than 100% for conversion from Ant Farm to Bad Policy reflects a group of people who did download a free copy of Ant Farm and then used Kindle Unlimited to read Bad Policy. The other percentages are consistent, except the conversion from Doubtful Relations to Empty Promises is lower for KU readers. My guess is that this reflects non-binge readers. Some will pick up Empty Promises in the coming months.

In fact, while Kindle sales have stabilized at pre-giveaway levels. Kindle Unlimited pages read are still more than twice pre-giveaway levels.

Takeaway #3:

Kindle Unlimited readers changed what would have been a modestly profitable advertising buy and book giveaway into a (relatively) huge success.

Takeaway #4:

Although Bad Policy is the second in the series, it was the first published. In my opinion it is the weakest writing of any of my books. Ant Farm, the intended first book, was not bought by a publisher until I completely rewrote it after publishing Cabin Fever. The 60% conversion from Bad Policy to Cabin Fever might be because of this weakness.

It also might be that the back-matter material in Bad Policy is not optimal for eliciting readers to immediately purchase Cabin Fever. I’ve recently changed it, and time will tell whether that will bump up the conversion to Cabin Fever. Anything I can do (other than rewriting the book) is worth money because the conversion rates after Cabin Fever are stellar.

Takeaway #5:

As expected, I earned the most money on sales and pages read of Bad Policy. What surprised me completely was that Ant Farm provided the second largest profit, both from Kindle books sold and Kindle Unlimited pages read.

This, I think, shows the power of Amazon lists and “also reads.” People who did not know of the initial giveaway discovered the book through the power of Amazon’s platform. This had everything to do with placing high on Amazon’s best seller lists. During the giveaway, Ant Farm reached #22 in the overall Kindle Store for free books, and #1 for free books for both Private investigators and Suspense within the Mystery, Thriller & Suspense category.

Takeaway #6

The overwhelming effect of Kindle Unlimited for me is the reason why I remain in the KDP select program and have not gone wide. Most people who have their ebooks available on multiple platforms say they receive anywhere from a rare low of 60% to a more typical 75-85% of their sales from Kindle sales on Amazon.

By comparison, in this sale, I received only 49% of the additional revenue from Kindle sales. The remaining 51% came from compensation based on Kindle Unlimited pages read.

Your results will vary.

You have a different series, different target audience, Mercury may be in retrograde, a tweet could cause everyone to forget to look at books for several days. You may be selling wide, whereas I am concentrated in the Amazon universe. You may have great international sales (mine are miniscule).

The point is, to figure out if your promotions work, you must do this kind of analysis. Now you know how. Questions?

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill 10/7/2018

* * * 

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why I Am All In with Amazon for Ebooks

Every Indy Author (a.k.a. Self-published Author) must make a fundamental decision about how to market their electronic books. Do they jump in bed solely with Amazon or play the field, allowing readers to purchase books from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play and others?

Authors must evaluate many factors before coming to a decision about how to sell a particular book. The size and breadth of their following, including the percentage of readers in the U.S. compared to other parts of the world where Amazon is less dominant can impact their choices. The price of the book can also matter, since Amazon will only pay 70% royalties for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99, inclusive.

Print editions have other considerations. Today I want to concentrate on electronic books.

A year ago I regained rights to Bad Policy from a small publishing company whose philosophy is to go wide, making ebooks available on every platform they could find. During the three years they controlled the distribution and pricing, 80.3% of electronic sales by both volume and royalties were through Amazon and 19.7% through other outlets. My second book, Cabin Fever, (currently, with nearly three years of sales data with the same small publisher) has Amazon at 81.9%, with 18.1% for all others.

For simplicity let’s round the split to 80/20. Choosing to become exclusive with Amazon for Bad Policy, I’d potentially give up 20% of my sales. What would I get from Amazon that could justify reducing revenue flows by 20%?

The main advantages of going exclusive with KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing platform) are (1) simplicity in the publishing process, (2) the use of a limited number of days to use countdown deals/and or give the work away for free, and (3) access to Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL).

Simplicity is nice, but not a very high hurdle. With a broad distribution, you can (with work) nearly duplicate the effect of Amazon’s countdown or free days. The difference-maker from my perspective is access to KU and KOLL.

Ant Farm, the first Seamus McCree novel, was published by Kindle Press (an Amazon imprint), so the ebook is Amazon-exclusive. KU and KOLL revenues for it represented 29.9% of revenue—greater than the 20% I was losing by cutting off alternative sales outlets.

Now, the first thing one must realize is that the extra 10% is not all additional revenue. Some people who read the book would have purchased it from Amazon had it not been available on KU. I cannot quantify that number, but my gut sense is that it is very small. In talking with people who subscribe to KU, they claim to rarely buy books, preferring to read exclusively those available through KU. Amazon probably knows for sure whether that is true, but it seems unlikely those people buy many books from non-Amazon sources—which is why Amazon pushes KU subscriptions.

Offsetting that “double-counting” are people who prefer to read electronically using their Nook or Kobo, but have a Kindle reading app they use when that is their only choice.

I decided the gains would outweigh the losses, so when I reissued Bad Policy, I made the ebook exclusive to Amazon. It’s been less than a year since the reissue. During that time, KU has generated 30% of revenue—the same result I have had for Ant Farm, which has always been exclusive to Amazon.

When I published the fourth Seamus McCree novel, Doubtful Relations, in August 2016, my experiment with Bad Policy was already producing positive results. But I was reluctant to write off the 20% of my readers who were reading my books on non-Amazon platforms. I chose to go wide, using Draft2Digital to distribute to the other platforms. Instead of the expected 20% of sales from the other retailers. I earned less than 10%.

The reasons are not all that clear to me. Perhaps since Bad Policy’s original release in 2013, fewer people are reading on alternative platforms. (I know I initially preferred Nook, partially to help keep competitiveness in the ebook market, partially because I could turn my Nook into a tablet. I gave up on using my Nook as a tablet when much more powerful tablets became ubiquitous, and because it was so difficult to navigate B&N’s website and so easy to find what I wanted on Amazon.) Although I do enjoy detailed numerical analysis, I have not taken the time to do a month-by-month comparison to determine if the Amazon ratio had been increasing in the past year.

After three months with the same low rate of non-Amazon sales, I made Doubtful Relations exclusive to Amazon and enrolled it in KU. It’s too early to know for sure how that decision will play out, but in that partial first month, KU revenue was twice what I had earned from all other retailers in the previous three months.

This past Tuesday, LowcountryCrimes: Four Novellas made its debut. I polled the other three authors to determine if they had very strong readership on non-Amazon platforms. Everyone was noncommittal, so I went with my gut, which said KU readers would be willing to take a gamble on our four novellas. It only cost them reading time to try authors they might not know, and I (technically my publishing arm, Wolf’s Echo Press) made the ebook exclusive to Amazon.

But I also decided to publish each novella separately. And there I went wide! My thinking was that if you could get all four for free in KU, there was no advantage to having individual novellas enrolled in KU. If someone wanted to read (say) Tina Whittle’s “Trouble Like a Freight TrainComing” they could order up the entire anthology and read her story. Maybe they’d give the others a try. But, if Tina did have fans who read exclusively on Nook, I’d give them an opportunity to acquire her novella at B&N as well. Plus, I found a publisher (Pronoun) who pays 70% royalties on books priced less than $2.99, double Amazon’s policy of paying only 35%. The total anthology ebook is priced at $3.99; each novella at $1.99. (So you can purchase the entire anthology for the price of two separate novellas.)

That’s my current thinking. Will it change in the future? You betcha. The publishing industry remains in flux, and any business (and being an author is a business) needs to continue to keep on top of trends and experiment.


I’m curious, dear blog readers: has your way of reading changed over the last few years? Do you expect it to change in the future? Those of you who are authors, what are you finding with your sales?

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on Writers Who Kill (2/12/17)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Hybrid Author’s First Ad Buy

As I write this blog, my foray into hybrid author advertising has 19 hours remaining.* When I took back the publishing rights to Bad Policy I decided to (for now) exclusively sell the ebook on Amazon. That allows me to (1) participate in the Kindle Unlimited under which I am paid when people read the book through Amazon’s subscription service, and (2) retain a 70% royalty rate (rather than only 35%) when I run a sale and price the book at $0.99.

Bad Policy is normally priced at $3.99. I dropped it to $0.99 for seven days (the maximum allowed by Amazon for any 3-month period). I chose June 16 through June 22, inclusive. (Amazon is headquartered in the Pacific Time Zone and that is the time zone they use.)

A reduced-price ebook sale doesn’t work without advertising. I tried scoring a BookBub ad. They are believed to be the premier site to advertise ebook deals, but they are very choosy (without defining exactly what their selection rules are). The big publishers have discovered them, and it is now much more difficult for indie authors to score an ad. They turned me down. Based on research and availability, I chose to run three ads. With 19 hours to go, here are my preliminary results.

6/16 (Thurs) Many Books ($25) ad, FB Post, Tweets - sold 40
6/17 (Fri) Tweets - sold 4
6/18 (Sat) Bargain Booksy ($50) ad, Tweets - sold 16
6/19 (Sun) - sold 6
6/20 (Mon) Fussy Librarian ($16) ad, Tweets - sold 28
6/21 (Tues) Tweets - sold 8 (@4pm EDT)
6/22 (Wed) This Blog (which will result in a FB post) & Tweets - sold 11

Total ad cost: $91

Total sales: 113

Estimated Royalties earned: $69.

Net loss, $22.

Takeaways: Since previous week sales were exactly zero, I am attributing all sales to promotional activities. (1) Based on timing, Many Books and Fussy Librarian paid for themselves. (2) Bargain Booksy, the most expensive, was the least effective.

Questions yet unanswered: (1) Are sales on weekends normally worse than weekdays and that is why Bargain Booksy was so ineffective? (2) Although I am a father, mine is deceased so I had no recollection this was Father's Day weekend -- did that also negatively affect weekend sales? I Googled to find out how sales on weekends compared to weekdays for other authors and came up with as many answers as there were people providing opinions. As a result, I don’t know if I made an unlucky choice for the Bargain Booksy ad buy, or they were not as effective for me.

Bonus: My KENP (Kindle Equalized Number of Pages Read—the way Amazon determines payment under the Kindle Unlimited program) skyrocketed from 119 the previous week (less than half a book) to 1,265 during the promotion week. That is worth another approximately $6 (WHEE!) and is probably attributable to the promotional materials. Revised net loss $16.

Other: Best Amazon Bestseller ranking 6,375. Best sub-ranking: #14 Financial Crimes / #61 PIs / #72 Amateur Sleuths. No discernible effect in sales for other books in the series (which I wouldn't expect until people have a chance to read the one they bought).

Was it worth it?

I think so. The purpose was less to make money on this particular week’s sales than to introduce readers to the Seamus McCree series. For the same cost, I could mail only two paperback books to contest winners. With this promotion, I am 113 books ahead.

I’ll try it again in the autumn, but Bargain Booksy won’t be part of my ad buy.


~ Jim

* Figures updated to reflect final promotion results

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Second Edition - Chance for a do-over

This past Wednesday, all the rights to Bad Policy officially reverted from my publisher to me and the second edition went live using my publishing company, Wolf's Echo Press. I’ve already discussed the self-imposed angst I generated by reediting and reformatting the book. Today I want to talk about one of the things independent authors often say they most cherish, the ability to choose how to price and promote their books.

The print decisions were fairly easy to make because I’ve had practice when I developed the print edition of my Kindle Scout winner, Ant Farm. I use CreateSpace to prepare the print edition for sale on Amazon and IngramSpark for all other distribution. The reason for the two versions is the difference in royalties CreateSpace pays for Amazon and all others.

Here’s how royalty works at CreateSpace for Bad Policy:

The list price is $14.95, of which they take 40% off the top if the book is sold on Amazon or 60% if sold in “Expanded Distribution” (any Amazon competitor, whether online or bricks and mortar). That leaves $8.97 (Amazon) or $5.98 (Other). From that, CreateSpace deducts both a fixed charge per book ($0.85 for books with 110-828 pages) and a variable charge of $0.012/page (for Bad Policy this comes out to $3.19) for total per unit deductions of $4.04. My payment (combining my roles of publisher and author) is what remains, $4.93 if the book sells on Amazon and $1.94 elsewhere.

As an aside, note that even if we assume there is no profit for CreateSpace in the $4.04 fixed costs of producing a book, they and Amazon still make $5.98 (before shipping costs) per book sold on Amazon, compared to the publisher’s and author’s combined take of $4.93!

At IngramSpark, the royalty calculations are a bit different because the publisher determines the wholesale discount. I set mine at 40%. My thinking is that bookstores will be ordering this book because of customer request, not to stock their shelves. Therefore, the standard discount makes sense. Starting with the same $14.95 with 40% wholesale discount, leaves $8.97. Ingram has a higher charge to print the book ($4.84), leaving $4.13 for the publisher and author.

That’s eighty cents lower than what CreateSpace pays for Amazon sales (so I use CreateSpace for that sales channel), but a whopping $2.19 higher than CreateSpace when it comes to any other sales channel. Another reason for using IngramSpark for bookstore sales is I have had bookstore owners tell me they will not carry or order a book published by CreateSpace because it is owned by Amazon, who they see as an unfair competitor.

Figuring out what to do with print was the easy part. How to price the ebook and where to sell it required (and will require in the future) considerable thought.

The original ebook price for Bad Policy was $5.95. Cabin Fever’s ebook still has a $5.95 price tag. Kindle Press priced Ant Farm at $3.49. Amazon, gorilla of the ebook market with a roughly 70% share in the U.S., pays royalties at a 70% rate for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, provided the books comply with a few rules that are easy to follow. Prices outside that range qualify for a 35% royalty.

I like 70% better than 35%—about twice as much.

I did a scientific survey of 1 person (my life partner, Jan). She said to price it at $4.00. The marketer in me changed that to $3.99 and that is its price.

We now arrive at the decision point over which much ink has been spilled: go exclusive with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or sell across multiple platforms. There are excellent arguments for both sides. I looked at my past sales for guidance. Amazon has sold over 80% of the ebooks for Bad Policy and Cabin Fever even though the publisher made sure the books are available everywhere.

The KDP exclusivity period runs for ninety days, when it can be renewed for the next ninety days or not. The biggest advantage for going exclusive with Amazon is to have the book available in Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL).

Thirty percent of Ant Farm ebook sales have come through the KU and KOLL programs. Yes, if a book is not available on KU and KOLL, some people will buy the books, but those folks have already had three years to purchase Bad Policy. Consequently, I decided to start Bad Policy’s rebirth by going exclusive and trumpeting to KU participants that for them the book was now free. Of course, they have to read the book before I see any royalties!

I’ll do the experiment for ninety days, evaluate it, and then decide what to do for the next ninety days. That’s life in the independent author lane. Oh, and here's the link to Amazon if you're interested in in the Seamus McCree novels.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 4/17/16.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Whither eBook Subscription Services

Last week marked the announcement that the eBook subscription service Oyster will be shutting down in early 2016. This summer, Entitle—one of the original three eBook subscription services—quietly closed its doors. Scribd, the third of the group, had to backpedal from its promise of “unlimited” books per month to throttle the usage of its romance readers. Since the original three commenced operations, Amazon entered the market with its Kindle Unlimited. Google has hired the folks from Oyster and so is presumably considering a subscription service as part of its Google Play.

So the field is changing and Amazon plays a big role. But, are subscription eBook services sustainable?

The Economics of a Subscription service

The basic business equation still holds: Revenues – Expenses = Profit

Revenue

In a standalone subscription service, revenue comes primarily from the monthly fees users pay to enjoy the service. Kindle Unlimited charges $9.99 a month. Oyster charges $9.95 and Scribd charges $8.99. Multiply the monthly fee by the number of subscribers and you have revenue. Unless you can sell ads along the way, or sell your subscription list, or monetize something else, that’s your revenue. To keep things simple, we’ll assume revenues consist solely of subscriber fees.

Expenses:

To operate, the business has to have a website designed to collect memberships, present a searchable catalog, record and deliver selections. While there are some variable costs involved in a subscription service, most of these operating expenses are fixed costs. One subscriber or a million they will occur, so it is important to grow your subscriber base quickly so the expenses decline as a percentage of revenue.

The second major expense are the acquisition costs. Publishers (and authors) want to be paid if someone reads their book.

Subscription services must negotiate with publishers, distributors and, in Amazon’s case, indie authors, concerning their compensation. Oyster and Scribd generally paid publishers something very close to what the publisher would earn by selling the book through an online retailer.

Under the Oyster/Scribd model these are variable costs. The more books lent out, the larger the expense. The more expensive book lent out, the larger the expense. We’ll discuss Amazon’s model in a bit.

Who would buy an eBook subscription?

For a reader the equation to calculate savings from a subscription service is:

Subscription Fee – [(Number of Books I think I’ll read in a month) X (average cost of book)]

Let’s say the average cost of eBooks purchased without the subscription is $2.99. The reader is a winner at 4 books a month (3 Scribd), loser at three (2 Scribd) or fewer. If the average cost drops to $1.99, then it takes six (five Scribd) eBooks to “win.” At $5.00 it only takes two books to be ahead.

Strategies Suggested by the Profit Equation

(1) Feature less expensive books. Free are best. $0.99 are very good. $1.99 good, $2.99 okay and anything more is pricey.

Look at the subscription catalogues and you’ll find they are crammed with “classics” that happen to be out of copyright (and therefore virtually free to the service)

You will see a very limited number of current, higher-priced books from the Big 5 Publishers. They are simply too expensive. I suspect those that are in their catalog provide the publisher with much lower royalty rates—the eBook equivalent to mass-marketing to Walmart or Costco.

(2) Pray people do not read too much.

Consider the profit formula and how it applies to fitness center memberships. In January in the flush of New Years’ promises, lots of people make the basic calculation that they will win by purchasing a yearly membership. And then by the end of January many stop going. These are gravy memberships. Revenue exists, but no variable expenses. That overestimating consumption phenomena may happen for book readers as well, but unlike the gym membership, they probably will not give up reading books entirely. Even if they have an off month or two, the only bar preventing them from restarting to read a lot again is finding time. For a gym membership there’s a psychological barrier of anticipating the physical pain necessary to get back in shape and the physical barrier once the individual actually restarts.

Subscription services try to limit reading by not providing all the books the subscriber would normally like to read. New best sellers are rarely offered because they will cost the subscription service too much. If people spend time reading those in paper form instead, it saves the service money and cuts down on the total books read on the subscription.

When people read a lot, the subscription service loses money. Scribd found itself in that situation this summer regarding their romance readers. Since they could not limit the number of books selected by romance readers, and they were not willing to increase the subscription price, they cut the number of romance novels available in the service. Drastically cut. They kept the freebies and eliminated the expensive books. Some of those in between remained. Smashwords estimates Scribd cut 80-90% of Smashwords romance titles.

(3) Pay publishers and authors smaller fees. With limited exceptions, Kindle Unlimited (KU) does not offer Big 5 Publisher books. Its offering is largely populated by its own imprints and indie author publications.

For indie authors, Amazon creates a pool of money—it determines the size—and allocates that pool to authors based on the number of pages read. Their previous practice had been to allocate the pool based on number of “downloads.” They found this encouraged gaming of the system whereby authors would split a book into four parts, so a 200-page book becomes four 50-page books, earning four times the income for the author.

Note that Amazon determines the pool size, which from an author’s perspective means Amazon determines the per page revenue. The indie author’s choice is to join the program or not. For the first month of this new payment system’s operation, July 2015, KU paid $0.005779 per page. For a 300-page novel that means $1.73. For August the payment per page dropped 11% to $0.00514, and the same fully read 300-page book would earn the author only $1.54.

Notice that if that 300-page book were priced at the low end of Amazon’s preferred range of $2.99 to $9.99, the royalty for a book purchased would be about $2.09.

Amazon has structured a model where the author subsidizes the subscription service. I’m sure Amazon will argue that the author will make it up in volume, but how can you know, and what is to prevent Amazon from settling on a much lower rate in the future, say $0.001 per page so our 300-page book now earns the author a paltry $0.30?

Alternatives

The Scribd model as currently constructed does not hold economic water. It is too easy for subscribers to determine if they are saving money or not on the service. There will be a small percentage of subscribers who are losing money by participating and are insufficiently motivated to stop their subscription, but they can’t make up for the costs of heavy users.

Amazon can control its costs by defining how much it reimburses indie authors, a large percentage of the KU offerings.

But consider Amazon’s approach to the Audible subscription service. It has a fixed monthly fee, but for that price you get one “free” audio book. The rest of the catalog is discounted. As long as the consumer was going to purchase at least one audio book a month, the customer is “ahead.” Amazon’s costs for additional downloads are offset by additional revenues. Although the audio books are discounted, I’m betting those lowered costs cover the royalty payments plus profit.

Scribd could move to a similar model for books. Say, you get four a month for free. The rest you can have for a discounted fee.

If Google Play (or Apple for that matter) decides to enter the business, they will bring deep pockets. They don’t yet have the indie author network as Amazon does. But what would happen if they offered better royalties than Amazon? It could prove interesting, yes indeed.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Effect of Amazon’s Subscription Service

Kindle Unlimited (KU) has interesting features for readers and authors. To summarize the basics of their subscription service:

As a reader you have unlimited access to download and read (but not keep) any of their listed books (~700,000 available) for $9.99 per month.

Amazon pays authors an unspecified amount each time a KU subscriber selects (and at least partially reads) one of their books.

Which Readers Will Choose KU?

Which readers will utilize this service? After the thirty-day free trial, only readers who expect to obtain greater value by purchasing the KU service than the $9.99 cost will continue in the program. That only makes sense. If the average Kindle book available for KU retails for $2.99, it only takes four books a month to be ahead of the game. Of course, if you select books listed for $0.99, it requires ten per month to be worthwhile.

Ah, but national bestsellers often cost more than $10.00. Just a single one would make it a valuable program. Problem: the big five publishers have chosen (correctly, from their standpoint) to withhold most of their titles from KU.

Regardless, let’s assume Ms. Reader pays Amazon her $9.99; how is her behavior likely to change?

(1) Any book not in KU has an added cost; any book in KU is free for the month. All other things equal, Ms. Reader chooses books in KU.

Author implication: Those who choose KU are less likely to buy books not part of KU.

(2) All things equal, we all like a bargain. That suggests Ms. Reader will choose more expensive books. She’ll “save” more. Free books are no longer as attractive—all KU books are the same “free.”
Author implication: The cachet of “free books,” already diminished in value by the sheer volume of available books and the large percentage of free books that are not worth reading because of inadequate editing and poor formatting, will further decrease. Why read a free book when I can read one that costs $2.99? Why try a new author when I can read all the backlist of an author I know and like?

Authors will need to evaluate whether maintaining the first in their series as a “perma-free” book is still the best strategy. Will it be better to price that book at (say) $2.99, but periodically have advertised promotions to provide free books to those not participating in KU?

Amazon’s Author Payment Mechanism

Amazon pays authors for loans from KU from a pool it sets up. What is the size of the pool? Here’s a quote from Amazon’s Q&A: 

We review the size of the KDP Select Global Fund each month, in order to make it compelling for authors to enroll their books in KDP Select.

I read this statement as “We’ll find the lowest possible payment that keeps authors in the program.” Each author receives a proportionate share of the fund based on loans of their books once the reader has completed 10% of the book (first time only). I know Amazon supporters will consider that a jaded statement. The proof will ultimately be in what happens to the level of per loan payment after Amazon has fully marketed the KU program.

Author implication: The Amazon formula does not consider book price; therefore, on relatively high-priced books the author will lose money compared to an equivalent sale. For lower-priced books the opposite is true. Of course, that assumes a book loaned through KU has reduced books sold one-for-one. Early anecdotal evidence was that more books were loaned than were lost in sales. More recent anecdotal evidence is that total author income has decreased.

Bonuses for Top-selling Authors

Amazon also pays top-selling KU authors a bonus. Whether Amazon pays the bonus out of a separate fund or the same “global fund” is immaterial. Money is fungible and Amazon is the only one who decides the size of the global fund, so it is only a question of pulling the money from their right pocket or left pocket.

In business a useful rule of thumb is the “80/20” rule. For example, many businesses find that 80% of profits arise from 20% of their customers. I am guessing Amazon finds that roughly 20% of its authors account for roughly 80% of revenue. Keeping these 20% happy is much more important than keeping the folks who sell a few books a month.

The bonus program is a way to entice those authors into the program.
Author implication: Two major decisions an author must make are traditional publishing or indie publishing, and if indie publishing, whether or not to go exclusive with Amazon for ebooks. (I can see no compelling reason to be exclusive with any other retailer; Amazon has approximately 70% ebook market share.)

Since the bonus program is determined monthly, the group of “hot” authors will rotate. However, it will always favor those with large lists in the KU program over newer authors with a small number of titles.

Writing more and faster is a winning strategy for authors if they can keep the quality of their product high.

Other Predicted Effects on the Publishing Market

Assuming Amazon can retain popular indie authors for KU, I anticipate more readers will decide $120 a year is a good deal even if books by the major publishers are not available. The three most popular genres for ebooks are Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, and Science fiction/Fantasy.
Younger adults are accustomed to subscription services for audio and video, and also more accepting of new technologies. This combination makes them receptive to subscription services for ebooks. I expect people who heavily read indie published authors will rapidly gravitate to the subscription service.

Readers will join a subscription service for only three reasons: (1) it is the only way to receive the goods (not applicable for books) or (2) it saves them money or (3) the convenience is worth the extra cost. Amazon has made it so easy to download an ebook onto a Kindle or app, there is very little additional convenience to be had. Therefore, Amazon’s subscription service will survive because it saves customers money.

If readers are saving money, it means authors will earn less.

This may not happen immediately; Amazon has shown that it is willing to invest to gain market share before reaping profits. But Amazon did not introduce KU to lose money long term. By the end of 2015, I predict those who exclusively rely upon Amazon will earn less than they would have before the introduction to KU.

That said, it does not mean those authors will be economically better off leaving Amazon’s exclusive products in order to sell across multiple platforms. Remaining solely under Amazon’s banner with its additional benefits may still be the best decision, but by the end of 2015 significantly more of the publication profits will flow to Amazon than to the author.

~ Jim

[This blog originally published on Writers Who Kill 1/2/2015]