Self-publishing was once a punch line. Now all the cool kids are doing it. Much ink virtual and real has spilled on the topic with even The New York Times declaring it almost respectable.

For the small minority of people reading this who haven’t actually written a book and put it on Kindle themselves, it’s so easy a chimp could do it. And yes I actually expect to see an ad someday where one of our well-mannered primate-cousins will be shown finishing a manuscript and following the prompts to upload it onto Amazon’s Digital Platform. Or maybe that will be a competitor’s ad, Steve Jobs taking a swipe at the deluge of titles on Amazon, priced between 99 cents and $2.99, written by everyone from formerly mid-list authors to high school students to retirees with too much time on their hands.

Meantime in the present, Jeff Bezos’ plan for world domination and beating the Big Five Publishers who are fighting his desire to cap e-book prices moves forward. He’s using the self-uploaders or “indies” as they prefer to be known for his own purposes.

I should know. I’m one of his two-bit whores, hawking my wares on the Amazon “community” forums, like some worn-out chippy.

“Mr. I was published once, legit. I got me one of them degrees. I was a Sarah Lawrence, girl. And my prose is clean, Mr. C’mon take a chance. Give a girl a break. It’s only 99 cents!”

As Bogey said in Casablanca, patter like this is usually accompanied by the sound of tinny piano playing in the parlor.

And now it’s time for the screen to go fuzzy while we go to flashback.

What led me to make the plunge? The usual frustration over not selling my novel, plus meeting up with enough other frustrated writers to become convinced that we weren’t all hacks, and maybe there was a real problem. In fact, some of the best novels I’ve read in the past couple of years have been self-published or as-yet-unpublished, books agents balked at for reasons of perceived marketability. One involving heroin addiction in 1960’s London was deemed too difficult for Americans. Another had a plot revolving around a woman who physically abuses her husband. It didn’t end in love conquers all, as it wouldn’t, but editors wanted a happy ending which the writer couldn’t provide.

My own unpublished opus is hardly worth discussing here. Let’s just say it’s not beach reading or chic-lit. Nobody buys expensive shoes, though there is one scene where a teenage stripper steals a pair of Doc Martens from a dead girl whose chopped-up body is being rendered into soup.

But as usual I’ve meandered far from the tale I’m trying to tell.

In the beginning there was Createspace and Createspace begot The Kindle Store and Jeff Bezos said it was good.

For those people living in a cave who still remember the old tombstone ads for Vantage Press — “ye olde timey vanity press” — you’ve got some catching up to do. Through the use of print-on-demand technology, people can now publish themselves “independently” without giving thousands to some gonif who promises to make them famous. The costs of using Amazon’s Createspace to produce and publish a book are negligible, unless you buy extras like help with formatting or cover design or editing or proofreading services. What you don’t pay for is warehouse fees or printing costs. People can order the books online at Amazon or Createspace and they print to order. The reality is, however, most of these books are bought by the people who wrote them or their friends. The books cost more to produce then offset books, and are often priced higher than books by known writers. There is little chance of these books ever being sold in “real stores.” After Amazon’s cut, the writers may make very little in royalties.

Kindle, which doesn’t charge for uploading books, is an even less pricey way for writers to get their work out. Amazon offers a hefty 35% in royalties for books priced under $2.99 and a fat 70% for those at or above $2.99. You can actually make money having your book on the Kindle, though most people who do, spend a lot of time “promoting” their work, and would probably do better working part-time at Wal-Mart. Promotion consists of cajoling people on the Amazon forums to buy your e-book. I’ve got two books up. One is a novella, going for 99 cents, which took me very little time to write. The other is the novel described earlier that took years and is priced at $2.39 (reduced by Amazon). Guess which one sells more? The novella, I’ll admit is probably more accessible, but my guess is it’s the price that draws them in.

Now, here’s where things get really strange. At the beginning of October, for some never fully explained reason, Amazon went and reduced the price of several of its 99-cent “indies” to FREE. There was no special notice given to the writers. No permission sought. They apparently have the right to do this. What I didn’t realize immediately is that they were still paying the royalties as if the price hadn’t changed. This is something that they are apparently obliged to do if the royalty is set at 35%. The book took off and almost made the top 100 in “free” books. If you click to see the “bestseller” list for Kindle, you’ll see two lists side by side. One is “paid” and the other is “free.” There are also various genre and subgenre list. For a while, my little novella was the number one “medical technical thriller” in “free.”

Within a few days, just as mysteriously, the book was back at 99 cents. Suddenly, it was listed in the “paid” content, but the way the numbers were cooking it was still benefitting from all those “sales” back when it was free. Plus because it was now showing up on so many “people who bought this, also bought that” lists, it kept selling and is still doing well.

Did it make me rich? Hardly. Because here’s another dirty little secret of The Kindle Store — it’s one store, a sub-section of a very large retail outlet, but still just one store, selling e-books primarily for one device. The title could have a sales rank of 200,000, but one sale could bring it up to under 50,000, and several over a few hours might put it into the top 1,000.

While I don’t have the October final figures yet, and can’t tell you the greatest sales day, I can tell you that it had around 2,300 “sales” in the four days or so when it was free. This is about 10 times the amount it had gotten on Kindle at 99 cents in the previous ten months. Given the one-click buying and the “free” part, it’s no wonder so many people downloaded it. How many will actually read it is another matter, and the number is not impressive when compared to the sales of “real” bestsellers. Nor at 35 cents a pop is it very lucrative. It also does not appear that the sales on the novella had much impact on the sales of the novel.

I did very little to influence any of this. Amazon didn’t publicize it beyond having the free titles show up on automated lists. There are boards and blogs started and ready by Kindle users and someone had posted a listing of the “newly” free books on one of the more popular ones which brought a lot of readers in quickly.

The question: What is Amazon’s strategy in reducing the price to nothing especially when they still pay author royalties? Amazon might protest that there’s less here than meets the eye. The prices may simply be reduced automatically when it’s found that the book or e-book is available somewhere else for less. The novella had been listed in other e-book formats through a different distributor for free. It’s possible this showed up, and Amazon reduced the price with no human intervention. It was even suggested on a link somewhere that they might not in the end pay the resulting royalties because having it up for less could be a violation of the contract, though so far, the money is still listed in my reports.

But it makes more sense to believe that Jeff Bezos knows what he’s doing. Amazon is developing it’s own cheap content for Kindle. Unlike expensive to produce Createspace titles, cheap Kindle “indies” sell. Tons of books recognized in “customer” reviews and a few blogs that look at “indies” are creating a unique bestseller list in the Kindle store and even bleeding onto Amazon itself. Take a look and you’ll see titles you’ll never see in a bookstore — straight to Kindle specials that may or may not even exist in print-on-demand.

This is not to suggest that Bezos doesn’t want to sell “real” books. Amazon probably earns more in a day on sales of the Millennium Trilogy than it will in a year on any of it’s 99 cent titles, yet they are able to use the “indies” to offer frustrated Kindle buyers loads of cheap content that’s oh so easy to buy with the one-click button. Unlike a publisher, they spend nothing on vetting, editing, proofreading, or even promotion. Amazon makes money whether a consumer buys one authentic bestseller or loads up on 5 bogus Kindle ones. By having all those titles show up in their store, they dilute the sales of the “real” books, weakening the hand of the publishers.

Next Time: Funny Business in the Kindle Store: Part II: The “making” of a Kindle Mega-Seller or How One Author Stole from Jackie Susann’s Playbook.

(Pssst, if you liked this post, think you could maybe check out my books here?)

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8 Comments on Jeffrey’s Game — Funny Business in the Kindle Store

  1. Brian Talgo says:

    Great post. I’m as confused as ever, but I think that is the nature of publishing today. I think we are at the beginning of a total meltdown and seriously doubt if anyone can guess which way it’s going to go. Say what you want, but mastering the typewriter was a bottleneck that by its very nature limited the number of writers in the field to a more ‘manageable’ amount. It also accounted for certain amount of ‘seriousness’ or earnestness on the part of the writer. The advent of the PC (and the fact that everybody has one) has facilitated the rise of the new writing class – the high school students to retirees with too much time on their hands. Combine this with e-books, Kindle, Amazon, P.O.D and the fact that we are encountering a new illiteracy amongst youth in the western world and you have all the ingredients for total chaos. I wonder if we are heading towards a tipping point where there will finally be more writers than readers (with the writers being too busy to be readers). What then?

  2. Very interesting. WOnder how the iPad will shake things out.

  3. Marion, this is a great post. I think I am now going to describe myself as an Amazon Kindle whore. Promotion does feel that way doesn’t it?

    “Mr. I was published once, legit. I got me one of them degrees. I was a Sarah Lawrence, girl. And my prose is clean, Mr. C’mon take a chance. Give a girl a break. It’s only 99 cents!”

    It almost screams out those Vietnam movie cliches – “You buy book, you love it long time….”

    I’ve literally just read the bit of Louisaida where the girl goes to check out the shoes of the woman who has been turned into soup. Great book by the way, I think it’s stunning so far. How did you manage to write so many characters with utterly convincing, and utterly different, voices?

  4. Marion says:

    Neil — Thanks for the shout out on Loisaida. Couldya write a review when you’re done? Seriously, it is a brave new world, though the post above is outdated. In a later one, I mention that there will be no more of Amazon paying author’s for freebies if those books were available free elsewhere on the web including via author website promotions or through Smashwords.

  5. Marion, of course I will. That’s been my intention with reading indie work this year. I’m probably about 30% through it (still finding the switch from page numbers to percentages weird) so it’s likely to be in a few days. I have a funny feeling it’s gonna be a positive review because I really like it. You’re right though, I probably am the personification of your reading demographic :o)

  6. Marion says:

    Sorry, Neil. When I read your initial comment I didn’t connect it to your Amazon Avatar. Took me a minute to realize who you were. You may have inspired me to do a blog post on writing voices.

  7. Yes, you’re right, I should really change my username to my actual name. Who knows, I might even get more sales that way…

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