Amazon

Half-formed thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

To add onto SgL’s last post — I have been wondering if Amazon’s latest program, Kindle Unlimited, the subscription service released back in July to compete with Scribd and Oyster, is part of their ongoing experiment with non-traditional models. (And if Kindle Serials, which functioned much like a subscription service, has become obsolete and will ultimately be phased out.) A lot has been said already about KU from a reader’s perspective, as well as a lot of ongoing chatter/controversy at various writer boards, so I’m wary of adding much more to the conversation.

But. A few things that have been on my mind:

1. The rise of paid serials outside of existing programs (in particular Kindle Serials)

– I think this started roughly in 2013 with H.M. Ward and her (still ongoing) “Arrangement” serial. Each installment is short novella length (~20k?) and published for $2.99.  She’s been wildly successful, obviously. This led to a surge of serialization in various romance subgenres.

– To be precise, there was stuff going on with the form as early as 2011, and 2012 is probably where it first started hitting its stride on Amazon, especially in the erotica/romance realm (H.M Ward among them). I remember this being the impetus (or one of them) for the Kindle Serials program (unleashed late 2012). I wasn’t paying as much attention at the time though, so please do correct me if I’m mistaken. (2013 is only when it seemed to me serials started becoming “mainstream” due to a variety of factors.)

– 2014 in particular saw the rise of serialization in paranormal romance, with several writers finding great success there, all without relying on Kindle Serials

– I believe SF was the other genre that saw an indie serialization boom thanks in part to Hugh Howey (but I did not watch this as closely)

2. Ye Olde Pricing Dilemma

– H.M. Ward prices each installment at $2.99, as mentioned above. A fair number of serializers follow this model too. But there are also a lot of 99c per installment serializers, who then price higher for “bundled” versions of the story. Installment lengths vary (especially depending on genre), but are generally in the 10k-30k range.

– There was a lot of vocal reader complaint about these pricing models, especially since way back at the start of the Kindle/self-publishing movement the fad had been full novels priced at 99c (with $2.99 being the other common option). There’s been a definite shift in pricing models over the years, but it’s also undeniable that the math can be harsh for the serial reader: last I checked “The Arrangement” is now on part 17, for example, with several offshoots. That’s $50+ in all for maybe 3-5 novels’ worth (if we count strictly by words and assume a base of 20k)… which actually isn’t that outrageous compared to equivalent print pricing*.

Of course, either way it hasn’t really stopped these installments from selling like hotcakes. Despite complaints, there has clearly also been a large contingent of readers who are perfectly happy paying for what they love (or who complain about it but pay up anyway).

* sure, apples and oranges, but probably just as much so as comparing serials with novels in the first place

– 99c may be a friendlier price for readers (from what I observed there were complaints even at that price point though), but disadvantages authors due to the lower royalty rate

– This was an issue Kindle Serials faced as well. The program seemed to approach the matter essentially as if serials were novels: a reasonable one time payment per serial with all subsequent episodes free. Great deal for the reader and fair for the author, but potentially not as profitable as independent releases as above, and also not good for writers with really lengthy serials.

3. Enter Kindle Unlimited

– For $9.99 a month, a reader can read anything they want in the program. Authors are paid per read out of a fixed pool (which may just be there for show, considering the fact that Amazon has manipulated the size of said pool every month of the program’s existence thus far to ensure [or so it seems to me] deliberately calculated payout rates). For the serializing community, this is a win-win for both sides… assuming, of course, that the reader is voracious (i.e. reads other writers’ material in the program too) and/or there are enough installments published and/or the writer publishes frequently. Reading either three to four $2.99 installments or ten 99c installments in a month is enough to make that fee worth it.

– But the program’s exclusivity requirement (anything in KU cannot be published anywhere else) may or may not be to its detriment, as well as the fuzzy payment pool issue. H.M. Ward (who was allowed to experiment with KU without being bound by the exclusivity requirement) recently claimed to have seen a drastic loss in revenue due to the program and has since pulled her work out. Whether or not the loss of revenue for her is true, it’s certainly true that readership will be limited to the Amazon customer base (which is nothing to sneeze at, mind).

(NOT, however, limited to KU subscribers. Those who don’t subscribe can still purchase, as before.)

– Also, KU was not designed specifically with serials in mind. Whether or not it has succeeded for novels is kind of a touchy issue among writers. But the impact of the program has definitely been far broader than Kindle Serials. And even half a year in, it’s really tough to gauge the full implications — in particular the question of “who is really using/will continue to subscribe to KU in the long run?”

4. Differing paths of evolution…

Over the past few years it’s started to appear to me that “webfiction” and “serials” have been evolving along different (but not necessarily contradictory) paths — one with a free/community-based model (Wattpad et al), and another, more aggressive commercial model. KU feels like a gamechanger, and yet it’s hard to say how things will develop from now on. The market is in constant flux. I’m not convinced the dust has settled, and even when it does (if it does), I’m sure there will be more changes waiting ahead of us.

Either way, as 2014 comes to a close, there are a lot more options now to consider, especially for a new writer interested in serializing. Having experimented with a few options myself by now (some under another, secret name), I’m not convinced any path is easier/superior to the others.

But that freedom of choice is what makes this all really so exciting.

On Becoming Part of the Collective

I should probably start by introducing myself. I’m Jim Zoetewey, and I’ve been writing a web serial called The Legion of Nothing for the past 7(!) years that I’m turning into a series of ebooks. About a month ago now I announced that I’d become part of a group of superhero prose fiction writers.

PenAndCapeSociety_logo_smallSo before I do anything else, I should make it clear that this wasn’t my idea. It was Drew’s. In fact, I wasn’t even in the initial group of people emailed about it because Drew couldn’t find contact information for me.

Nonetheless, I was invited, and joined. Why? Because it’s an incredibly good idea.

In fact, it’s an idea that I proposed a couple years ago, but didn’t actually put into practice. The moral to that? If you have a good idea, sometimes if you wait a while, someone else will put it into practice and save you the work.

That said, I suppose I should explain what the idea is, and why it matters.

The idea is that people who write prose superhero fiction should join up, create a group, and promote each other’s work. The Pen and Cape Society includes people who write web fiction, posting only on their website. It also includes people who are focused solely on writing ebooks as well as a number of us who are doing both.

In my mind, that’s where the strength of the idea lies. It could only become stronger in my opinion if we also managed to connect with similar groups who are cross promoting each other’s superhero web comics.

The web has a long history of groups getting together and doing this exact same thing–cross linking sites in a webring, listing the comics or blogs you like on your own blogroll.

We could theoretically have gone with an “only webserials” group or an “only ebooks” group, but going with an “all of the above” group connects more people.

It assumes what I think is a fairly basic insight: websites and ebooks are distribution methods, and only writers care about the distribution method. Readers just care about a good story.

Web fiction writers have often fallen into the trap of promoting themselves only to people who already read web fiction. This is done in various ways, ranging from only promoting one’s work on Web Fiction Guide to only contacting other web fiction writers about crosslinking.

What this group does is make people aware that they can find the same thing in different forms in more than one place–not only ebooks, but also for free online as a serial.

In short, forget the distribution method, we’ve got the same kind of product in two different places. This has the side effect of introducing people who read ebooks to the idea that web serials can be good. It also has the side effect of introducing people who read serials to the current small, but noticeable boom in the availability of superhero fiction.

It’s funny. When I was working as a freelance computer consultant, creating websites and small businesses computer networks, I became part of a business networking group. It connected me to clients I would never have met on my own. More than four years later, I still do work for some of these people.

Similarly, this has been the best month for The Legion of Nothing’s first ebook since its launch. Plus, when the Pen and Cape Society’s website went live I received at least one hundred new visitors to my web serial in the first week. Not all of them stayed, but some definitely did. My stats have been up since then.

I can’t speak to the effect of the organization’s existence on everybody. Drew Hayes (Superpowered), Vaal (The Descendants) and Jeffrey Allen (Portal) report that their websites received a noticeable number of new visitors. Drew, Ian Healy (Just Cause Universe), and R.J. Ross (Cape High series) all report that their ebook sales are up. That said, they’ve all got other reasons that their sales might be up (like releasing new books), so they’re not completely sure of the cause.

Cheyanne Young (Powered series) only has one superhero book out, and feels like she’s got nothing to compare it to.

Aside from the group website, we haven’t done much cross-promotion as yet, so getting some effect from what we have done is a good sign. Hopefully this will grow with the release of an anthology we’re working on, and other projects we’re talking about.

If nothing else, we’re all now in each other’s “people who bought this also bought…” section on Amazon, something that can only help us.

It’s said that word of mouth is the best form of advertising. Creating a group of people who mutually benefit from promoting each other’s work expands your word of mouth whether it’s for a computer business or selling ebooks. In the end, that’s why groups like this matter.

Semiweekly News Roundup, Ending 4/14/2013

From royalty to fugitive

In this showbiz article from Asia comes news of a live action adaptation of a successful online novel from China.  Again, no surprise here. As has been discussed on Pandamian and in other blogs, the serial prose/online novel format works quite well overseas.

Paywalls are Scary Growth Killers

In these two pieces, the authors reflect on paywalls. In general, there’s a great deal of uneasiness about paywalls and whether anyone truly is going to be able to monetize off a largely closed content system.

More data and observations from Kindle Serials

In another interesting piece from PaidContent, author Laura Hazard Owen summarizes several pieces of information related to webcontent. Of note is her link to the WSJ which then links to another piece from April 11 on serial novels.  Catch this one before it goes behind the firewall. To summarize

* Their Kindle serial update frequency worked best for them on weekly basis
* Their best selling entry came in at 80,000 copies. Wow.

I think the comment on the bad reaction to the one story that sold episodes at 1.99 e ach was pretty insightful. I think the tolerance for the format largely is underwritten by the low price. The Kindle Serials model works more like a subscription and I think that while there may be room to experiment upwards with pricing… not by too much.  Serials are still very much a gamble for readers unless they know the author well and asking someone to invest beyond the common currency of the internet (which hovers around 0.99-2.99) is a lot to ask.

Waterstones founder to launch Spotify-like service for books in 2013

If you recall from a previous news post, Waterstones was experimenting with adding “in store/book only” copy to their in-store books.  This sounded like a measure to try to drive people back to their stores to buy books.  Now it appears they’re jumping into serials as well. 

All well and good, I wish them well. I’m fairly sure that Amazon’s success along with a lot of media profiling of serials end of 2012 and in early 2013 is going to mean more folks entering into the marketplace this year.   Hopefully this is good news for the rest of us independently serializers 🙂

Self Publishing Podcast talks Free Serials

Several of the podcast’s hosts are serializers on Kindle. They have done it both ways — releasing “episodes” of a season as different books as well as participating in the formal Kindle Serials program.  I mentioned their experiment in a previous post. In this podcast, they reflect on their free episodes experiment.

It sounds like the experiment has had some mixed results, including a disappointing lack of reviews.  This spurs a conversation about their readers and some pondering about what direction they should take for future episodes. I think this is a great podcast, but if you can’t spend the hour to listen or watch on Youtubetake a look at the show notes at the youtube channel.  Warning for moderate language :p.

I still wonder had this run as a donation model off their website if this might have resulted in folks simply providing money out of their good will as opposed to it becoming about reads for reviews or motivating other sales.

Admin notes / online-novel.com

So folks, the Blogger UI is kind of irritating me with its tendency to code clunky html.  So I will be experimenting with a WordPress version of this site.   I apologize for the confusion and encourage those of you using RSS feed trackers to use https://theonlinenovel.wordpress.com.

Two – as I said in the last post with Najela Cobb – if you are a serial writer with webfiction cred doing something new and are interested in being interviewed, please contact me with your name, URL (of your past or current work), and briefly describe what you think you have to share with other readers (current and future) of this blog.

The Terminology Debate Part 2 of ? – Amazon muddies the term "serial" (and what I’d be doing if I was in charge)

I’m sure by now most of you already heard about Amazon.com and the announcement that the company was launching serials for their Kindle user base. Or perhaps you saw media surrounding the Plympton Serial Kickstarter or heard about its partnership with Amazon in various media outlets.

If not, I suggest checking out the many articles on this already out there.

While I think it’s a rather interesting concept to attempt to float in front of readers who are largely accustomed to receiving whole books/products on their e-readers… what I thought was far more interesting was the debate that emerged over several sites as to whether Amazon was really publishing serials at all.

In some of the comments that surfaced in the blogosphere one chief quibble was whether the works Amazon was releasing were truly being written on the fly or were, to some degree, works that were really done (“in the can”) and  would sliced up for “this serialization model.”  Perhaps this clarification emerged more recently. It appeared at least one or two of Plympton’s announced works were “complete books” with no clarification on the other works by other publishers that are feeding into the serial program.

To echo the main point made in a blog from some time ago by Claudia Hall Christian at Tuesday Serial (see http://tuesdayserial.com/?p=2334 )  — it seems that the term “serial” has become a mix of things.

In essence she tried to draw a line in terminology, pointing out that there is a difference between

  • A book already completed, but broken for distribution into several pieces.
  • A book not completed and is being written nearly in the public eye, with the content being published close to time of writing, pieces at a time.  

And yet Amazon and Plympton seem to be invoking Charles Dickens (and Tolstoy and Hugo, etc.etc.) in describing both types. Yet – we know that Charles Dickens largely followed the second mode.

So here’s the part where I express some mild irritation.
 As a reader and buyer of ebooks, I admit feeling cheated by the idea that both types fit into this “categorization.”  The first type appears to be about making you buy the book in pieces (and holding a complete work back and possibly paying more for the pieces than the whole) .  I think this could become annoying since I don’t like spending more money on a “complete work” than I would have for the paper/dead-tree version.  Unless the book was the next Harry Potter and my excitement level remains high, I really DON’T want to be shelling out more money over the long-run for a work that I will later want compiled or will toss (if it’s not worth it).  I’d rather not see the first type entering into this space. At the best it misleads, at the worst it ruins the market for the second type.

But as an author, I do not want to see a culture of offering excessively up-front low prices on a serial that you do not know when it will end.   That means authors could commit to giving readers a 10 dollar book for 99 cents.

According to the conspiracy theorist (or analyst) within me, I realize the risks and benefits must balance out.  Inevitably, Amazon serials will end up mysteriously ending around a certain page number because the profit model is not very good except at that specific “sweet spot.”

It’ll be funny when the publishing world gurus run the numbers in a year or two on average length and sale price of serials.  I bet we’ll see the number of pages normalize into a very  narrow bell curve.  If so, you all owe me a no-prize.

Some other points to ponder.

If a book is not only being written in pieces, but takes user feedback is that somehow even better as a serial? 

I was thinking about the Amazon press release and am kind of in the camp that this is simply an attempt to make readers excited about serials, ignoring the fact that some were already complete books before they were subsumed into this grand experiment.

On the other hand, some authors seem quite perplexed by Amazon’s concept of “feedback” being used to inform work.

It seems some authors who are unfamiliar with serials think “feedback” is a scary thing.

However, I’m guessing that the current world of publishing produces books mostly in a vacuum. An author doesn’t get feedback until they’ve finished something and handed it over to an editor and then an audience.

This is where I find great amusement in discussions on “feedback.”   Those writing serials “in the wild” already know that we’re already writing with feedback in mind. We just don’t WRITE what we’re told.

Each week I read the comments of my readers.  Most of them know not to give me plot points, but most talk about what annoys them or bothers them.   Their feedback is a barometer. I try to balance subsequent installments with revelations or more detail if people express confusion.  Or I take a tangent to play with characters that the readers really enjoy.  None of these are changing the fact that I”m still writing a novel with the ending and major guideposts clearly marked on some map I keep hidden away in my files. It just fills the writing path with a few detours, or slows down the speed a bit in getting to a destination.


Should Amazon only serialize “novel” type stories?  

I hope not.  Several authors have already tried to write “tv shows” as serials already on Amazon.   (As usual, I refer to those not already reading David Gaughran to do go to his blog: https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/tag/serial-fiction/ ).

Serializing “novels” shouldn’t really differ from TV broadcasting “open ended shows.”    And those of us who have been reading or writing webfiction know quite well that both the online novel and online drama  already coexist within the webfiction realm.  One of the most arguably successful webfictions (in terms of reader traffic/unique visitors) is more or less a school drama set over the course of several years.

More or less, soap operas can be written with a meta-plot and many seasonal plots that work together to keep readers entertained.  The “seasons” can be compiled into volumes that become “ebooks.”

The problem is whether our audience here in North America can tolerate this relatively low frills experience.  Serial fiction will be lacking in certain things that make serialized tv dramas sexy for consumption — i.e., the attractive actors, cinematography, and musical scoring.    Whether our society who prefers video games to books would be okay with naked uadulterated text remains to be seen.

I think it might be difficult to capture the TV generation, but not impossible.

The term transmedia hasn’t really quite taken hold of the public’s imaginations, but transmedia — whereby an intellectual property exists in many media spheres (and interacts with others) is a buzz word amongst content creators these days.  Amazon (with a mind of developing a serial consumer) could work with Hollywood writers/famous authors and their guilds and come up with a very good serial fiction model that builds off TV shows format.   They could be experimenting with networks to integrate serial text stories into programming. Slap up an Amazon.com/BonusMaterial   url at the end of every show.   Push transmedia onto us until we consumers become primed to expect it.  Get a Neil Gaiman to write more Doctor Who novellas, and we’re ALL there with you reading.

In time, people in North America will understand the online novel(la) or webfiction for what it can be. Not just as an extension of a transmedia experience but an experience also in itself.

Monetizing this is not impossible. There are alternative formats that Amazon and others can explore.

Whether the content is standalone or “bonus,” somewhere in the various blogs made a really good suggestion for a hybrid subscription concept that Amazon could consider for long-running serials that don’t follow the novel format.  Amazon could build in a a renewable subscription element that can be altered at some time-interval. (This  would be no different from iTunes “season pass” for TV shows.)

Wonder if Amazon is already working on that idea. If not, Amazon, call me when you do.

Would gladly serve on your focus group 🙂 . For Free.

ETA:  As an addendum, while surfing the “Google Play” store, I noticed that their “Short Reads” series officially includes novellas and serials.  Oddly enough these were published in June 2012, well before Amazon’s “big news.”   If you do have a chance, surf through and look at the reviews for some of these multi-parters (as seen on Goodreads).  It would seem that readers are quite unhappy with a few things that have happened with length/quality of the installments.  Take note Amazon.