Amazon turned a lot of heads back in 2014 when it unveiled the Kindle Scout program, effectively giving writers a third choice in the decision to either query or self-publish. I had forgotten all about it, but the recent decision by Valve Software to do away with its user-curated Steam Greenlight program made me wonder how Kindle Scout was faring.
For those unfamiliar with Kindle Scout, the program allows authors to submit their unpublished novels (50,000 word minimum) for user vetting. Anyone with an Amazon account can log in and nominate three books. Books that get the most nominations over the course of the 30 days spent on the Kindle Scout site are then passed along to the team of editors at Kindle Press. Some — not most — will be chosen for publication. Amazon then offers the writer a $1,500 advance in exchange for all e-book, audiobook, and translation rights for 5 years. Writers can opt out of renewing the contract should the book fail to make $25,000 in royalties over the term of the contract. Rights also revert to the author if the book fails to generate $500 in royalties over any 12-month period after the initial two-year period. Authors are free to self-publish the print version as they see fit.
Readers, in addition to helping support and uncover rising talent, are given free downloads of the books they nominate, provided those books are awarded a Kindle Press publishing contract. To make the whole thing even more enticing — after all, the Internet has a lot of flaws, but a lack of free reading material is not one of them — Amazon has gamified the Scouting experience, awarding people with points for nominating books, leaving reviews, and such. There’s even a leaderboard for those who care. Achievement unlocked!
Let’s Talk Money
First things first. A $1,500 advance for a book that was going to otherwise be self-published is very nice. And seeing that a book would have to fail to earn $25,000 in royalties over five years (~2,850 copies sold annually) to break the contract (or $500 in 12 months) shows that Amazon has little intention of slapping their Kindle Press label on books that won’t sell. Or so it seems at first.
But in acquiring all of the digital rights, Amazon gains control over pricing. I spent some time looking up the books that had been published through the Kindle Scout program over the past year and did not see a single one priced above $3.49. Granted, many were under 250 pages, but one that weighed in at 373 pages, with a four-star average and 155 reviews, was still only priced at $3.49.
Amazon pays a flat 50% royalty to Kindle Press authors. Those who self-publish, as I did with One Lousy Pirate, earn a 35% royalty on e-books priced below $2.98 and a 70% royalty on those priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Thinking ahead to my own WIP, if I were to self-publish, I’d likely set the e-book price at $6.99 or higher.
At $3.49 and a 50% royalty, an author would have to sell 857 copies to earn-out. Only then would they begin to see any additional income. But taking matters into your own hands, at an e-book price of $6.99 and 70% royalty, you’d only have to sell 306 copies to make up that $1,500. Those other 551 copies sold would net you an extra $2700.
But What About the Marketing?
More than the $1,500, a lot of authors are tempted by the promise of Amazon’s marketing muscle. Not only having Kindle Press marketing your book, but also the dream of being picked up by one of Amazon’s in-house imprints. I hate to say it, but this is probably wishful thinking.
Spend any time looking at the books currently up for nomination and those that were selected recently and you’ll notice that the cover means (almost) everything. Each of the books that have been published by Kindle Press, with one or two exceptions, had a professional cover. This is the author’s responsibility and must be provided in order to make your book eligible for the Scout program. I’m not saying they were chosen because of the cover. But I am saying that the professional covers got the Scout’s attention (and Kindle Press’s) and is indicative of a book that likely also had professional editing and an author who cared. In other words, the things we authors should be doing on our own anyway.
The other thing I noticed is that Kindle Scout is not a surefire way to gain the might of Amazon’s marketing muscle. Many of the books recently published by Kindle Press had just a smattering of reviews and paltry sales ranks. Not only does this show that the books aren’t being pushed by Amazon (or their author), but that the people who nominated the book and received a free copy, did not take the time to leave a review.
If the so-called Scouts can’t be bothered to leave reviews, and evidence doesn’t suggest any active marketing by Kindle Press, then what are you getting, other than that $1500 and an extra set (or three) of eyes providing feedback before you publish?
Nominating with Extreme Prejudice
I perused dozens of titles in the Literature & Fiction category on Kindle Scout last night and I have to say that the bulk of it was easily forgettable. I know this is harsh. I’m sorry, but that was my impression. Upon submission, authors must provide a professional cover, a short headline, a description, and the book’s interior. Scouts browse books by category and are shown a grid of covers, the title and headline, and the description. Clicking on a book lets you begin to read the first 5,000 words or so.
Of the 41 books currently in the Literature & Fiction category, the bulk of them either had an unappealing headline, an amateurish cover, or some other issue. I struggled to find three worth nominating. One I clicked on featured a beautiful cover, an enticing headline and intriguing description. Yet the writing could have benefited from a robust critique. I couldn’t get past the second flick of my mouse wheel.
Others seemed intent on using the service to market the absurd. And by intention. One, Time Burrito, was impossible to ignore. It was ridiculous. The cover was… well, just look at it. And that description! But I really enjoyed the honesty of the author’s Q&A:
“For this story, I decided to lock up the internal critic that told me, ‘No, don’t write that, that’s stupid.’ I wanted to write the most ridiculous story that I possibly could. A time travel burrito story with a cat pretty much covered the stupid quota. The rest of the story just fell into place.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have nominated it. Maybe it’s hypocritical of me to do so, when I’m about to say that I think as readers and writers it us up to us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. I like the idea of a gatekeeper. Valve’s Greenlight program provided a small hurdle for independent developers to clear before their software and games were placed on the Steam storefront. Without it, the store is swamped, forcing customers to swim through an ocean of low-quality, shovelware in hope of finding the game for them.
I applaud Amazon for using Scout to enlist its readers (or the author’s respective friends and family) to at least attempt to stem the tide. I may go the Scout route myself, especially if the terms of the agreement change. And that’s why I want to see great books on there. I want to see the books that “win” (after all, it is a bit of a popularity contest) do well, attract hundreds of reviews. Some are. One is even ranked #5,506 as I write this, out of all e-books. There are well over a million books on the Paid Kindle Store. But the bulk of the recent winners that I clicked on seemed to have little going. The author of one hadn’t even bothered to upload a profile photo for his Author Page.
I suppose I could have nominated that one with the great cover and description and hoped Kindle Press’s editors brought the writing up to speed, but what if they don’t? That only increases the chance of readers associating the Kindle Scout system — and its winning books — with lower quality offerings. That doesn’t benefit anyone except the author cashing a check for a book that likely wouldn’t have earned $1,500 otherwise. And for that reason I fear the Kindle Scout boat may have already sailed. After all, when was the last time you heard mention of it?
That Silver Lining Might Sting a Bit
Perhaps more important than the advance or being eligible “for targeted email campaigns and promotions” through Amazon is the fact that even those authors who don’t get published by Kindle Press can still email the people who nominated them to alert them to the book being available independently. That’s certainly something. You won’t necessarily gain those email addresses, but being able to alert the hundreds or thousands who voted for you just might kickstart your sales.
Or it might not, as author H.D. Knightley said: My emphasis.
Either I just marketed my arse off for an entire month to get KindleScout 1300 new customers, with no plus side for me. Or, I just marketed like crazy for my next book, contacting every friend, fan, stranger, and person within a 3 mile radius, and then after a whole month of working my arse off, KindleScout told all of those people, 1300 according to their dashboard, that my book wasn’t good enough to be published. Thanks KindleScout, glad I could help. I think if I were you, this last one is a huge negative. A screaming pile of stay away.
He’s right you know. I nominated some books back in 2014 when Kindle Scout first went live. A month later I received emails letting me know that none of them had gotten published. Did I go search the store months later and look for them on my own? No. No, I did not.