Amazon Discusses Kindle Unlimited & Kindle Select Participation: Digital Book World, Day 2

Digital Book World 2015 Grandinetti

If you’ve been watching publishing news over the last 24 hours, then you may have seen a flurry of articles summarizing the Digital Book World session featuring a conversation with Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.

These were some of the most memorable takeaways for me:

  • In describing (with complete sincerity and seriousness) the indie author community: “They’re awesome. It’s an incredibly vibrant community. They like caps locks sometimes—we view that as a feature not a bug. … [Authors are] among the biggest sources of input in how we build and evolve.”
  • Regarding Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s ebook subscription service: He was reserved on the matter, and said that Amazon didn’t have any particularly strong “answers” or insights about ebook subscription services, or their long-term effect on “a la carte sales” since it just launched in August 2014. However, he said that if you look at a customer’s buying patterns 60 days before KU and 60 days after, these customers are spending more money on books after enrolling—25% more on average.
  • Regarding digital subscription services in general: He emphasized that in every single digital media category, subscriptions are playing an important role—you can’t find that it doesn’t succeed at some level. (Think: Netflix, Spotify, etc.) “Books will not be immune to this.” He mused, “How can it grow the business and be incremental?” He also added, “A la carte sales of books is so healthy in digital,” but that it’s not the case for other media, such as music. However, of course, it’s early—it’s only 6 months in. One thing Amazon measures: Can they get people to read more? They watch how often people read, how many times per week, and the amount of time they spend reading. He noted that subscription will be a choice that a publisher considers at some point in a book’s lifecycle. It might start a la carte then go to subscription, or maybe the first in a series goes to subscription. Publishers will have to make the same kind of strategic business decisions that are made for movies and TV.
  • Related to indie authors’ reports of dwindling sales as a result of Kindle Unlimited (KU)—and therefore abandoning KDP Select: He emphasized KDP Select is a very short term of exclusivity (3 months). “We look every month at the titles that come up for renewal.” He shared some stats I had not heard: Authors enrolled in KDP Select renew in excess of 95%. Also, the total number of titles enrolled in KDP Select has grown by 35% since KU launched. He said that a la carte book sales through KDP Select are growing faster than titles not in Select, and that if you add in the money that authors earn from KU/KOLL, earnings over the August 2014–December 2014 period are more than double what they were during the same period in 2013.
  • On Amazon Publishing: He said they are focused on happy authors, and it’s a primary way they judge success. They “rigorously survey” their authors and ask how they’re doing. (When I tweeted this, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware questioned it, since she’s been an Amazon author for a while now, but has never been asked for feedback.)

You can find good recaps of the discussion here:

More on Ebook Subscription Services

Later in the day, an entire panel was devoted to ebook subscription services, focusing more on what’s happening with Scribd and Oyster, who debuted their services before Amazon’s. Both Scribd and Oyster carry Big Five publisher titles, unlike Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Some interesting stats were shared.

  • According to Nielsen, people who use ebook subscription services are buying adult nonfiction and kids’ books. It’s a very small percentage of the market, though: 10% (and only 4% if you exclude Amazon).
  • Subscribers spend more on books than non-subscribers (meaning they still buy books, more books than others). Perhaps cannibalization concerns will wane.
  • Romance, new adult and some deep backlist have done well in subscription for Simon & Schuster. Their Scribd business tends to be more genre fiction, while Oyster tends to be nonfiction. 
  • The long tail shines on Oyster; more sales come from backlist. 80% of books read are based on recommendations/discovery within the system, not search. However, keep in mind that these services don’t typically get access to current bestsellers or new titles—there’s usually a one-year delay (and that’s still a very broad generalization).
  • Subscription sales can represent a very high percentage of an ebook’s sales—in some instances, 35%-75% of ebook sales.
  • Guy Gonzalez commented on Twitter, aptly, that the panel hit well on discoverability, but there wasn’t a single mention of libraries, or any discussion of revenues.
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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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