The Stepping Stone Cycle

The Experiment, or Why The Stepping Stone Cycle is an Amazon Exclusive

For those not in the know, Amazon has been offering the authors who use their self-publishing platform Kindle Desktop Publishing (or KDP) a new sales channel known as KDP Select for the last few years. It sounds like a great deal for struggling authors like myself – more promotion on the Amazon platform, the ability to control promotional opportunities like free promotions, or countdowns, as well as inclusion in the Kindle Unlimited program (which is a subscription-service like Netflix for Kindle books). The royalty structure is a bit weird however – rather than a set royalty rate, Amazon awards each author a portion of a total (and variable) Global fund. The only thing Amazon asks in return (and believe me, it’s a big ask) is that you can only sell digital versions of that book on Amazon platforms.

In software/digital content parlance, this is what’s known as a “walled garden.” It’s a phrase that has been used to describe the Apple Store and Google’s Android Store for both their phone and tablet platforms, and it equally applies to things like the Kindle Store on your Kindle devices, or Amazon’s Fire TV devices, or the Playstation and Xbox game consoles. This simply means that customers are limited in the place they can purchase and use said content. It’s great for the vendor, as they can be reasonably assured that selling their hardware platform, maybe even at a loss, will be more profitable in the long run by the amount of content their customers will buy over the life cycle of the platform.

For content makers, however, it may be a bit of a mixed bag. For large game or book publishers, it may be worth it due to a sort of “captive audience” of potential customers – especially if the platform provides marketing opportunities that put the producer’s product front and center to a that captive audience. For smaller content producers, such as yours truly, who is already having to compete for eyeballs in a marketplace with thousands of potential competitors (more on competition among authors in a moment), any slight advantage could be worth taking. It could also be argued that limiting oneself to an exclusive arrangement may actually be detrimental for someone who relies on every single sale, not to mention the potential resentment from owners of a non-Kindle platform who can no longer purchase their books.

I’m left in a unique position then. Do I risk alienating non-Kindle readers for what may or may not be any particular uptick in sales? Like any business, it helps to take a cost/benefit analytical approach. The only explicit cost for me to go full-on KDP Select (and thus Amazon exclusive) is the time it takes to unpublish the books from other vendors and to tell my potential readers about it. The potential cost of “lost readers” is something that can only be extrapolated based on previous sales.

The impetus for this was a conversation with an online friend who wanted to read my entire Stepping Stone Cycle series through Kindle Unlimited, and his remarks about the exploding market on Unlimited for pulp-style fiction (as well as other successful genres like dinosaur erotica – no, I won’t like it, if that piques your interest, it’s only a search away). The cost/benefit analysis for myself was pretty easy.

The Stepping Stone Cycle has never sold that well. I don’t have exact numbers but they aren’t high. It doesn’t seem to matter what the platform, and in some cases like Barnes & Noble’s platform, sales can be counted on one hand. All the reviews on the books are positive, what few there have been, which would lead me to believe the problem with sales isn’t the series’ quality (not that I would think it would be). With that in mind, locking out readers from platforms where total royalties couldn’t pay for a cup of coffee doesn’t seem like it’s that large a cost. The benefits? Well, we’ll see. As of today, October 17, 2020, I’ve removed my books from sale on the Smashwords platform (and all it’s expanded distribution partners) and Barnes & Noble. Customers who have already bought the books should still be able to read them on the platforms, but no new sales will happen there. KDP Select requires at least a 90-day commitment, so if I decide it’s not worth it, I can always republish the books in 90 days.

I’m hoping this puts a little fire underneath this series – I think it’s good enough to deserve a look from a wider audience, which seems such a contradiction when talking about restricting the access of readers to the books. As an author, though, I have to face facts – Amazon, for all their negative practices, are the giant monster that must be fed with product, the 300-pound gorilla in the ever-growing room of digital book sales. To my fans who may be disappointed by this experiment, I do apologize. I’ve resisted putting my books on KDP Select for years and depending on how this trial period goes, I may regret it enough that I don’t renew it after 90-days. I remain skeptical and suspicious of that much market consolidation in the hands of one powerful player. Amazon really has become a monopolistic monolith in the book industry and I hope that at some point, there is a reckoning that allows for a more open market.

That open market just isn’t paying out these days. And that’s a goddamn shame, but it’s reality.

I’ll update you guys on the experiment as it goes. See you in 90 days!