Amazon Exclusivity: An Honest Appraisal for First-Time Authors

by Savannah Cordova
published in Community

If you’ve spent any time with self-published authors, you’ll know that one of the community’s real hot-button issues is Amazon exclusivity: the decision to either sell your book only on Amazon, or to “go wide” with other retailers like Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Google Play, etc.

This debate has been flourishing since Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing in the late-aughts, and if you’re not too familiar with KDP, you might be surprised by the nuance involved. Many indie authors have praised Amazon for its easy-to-use platform, promotional opportunities, and more. Yet at the same time, the inner workings of Amazon remain murky, its book market is highly competitive, and—needless to say—going Amazon-exclusive means missing out on what other retailers have to offer.

To help first-time authors make this crucial choice, this post will candidly unpack the pros and cons of Amazon exclusivity and how it functions. We’ll start with the pros before moving onto the cons. And whatever your experience or opinions of Amazon, I’d encourage every author to read all the way through before committing to either path.

Pros of Amazon exclusivity

1. Kindle Unlimited enrollment

We can’t discuss Amazon exclusivity without first mentioning KDP Select, the program that requires it in the first place. To clarify, anyone can publish a book with KDP (the platform) and still have the freedom to sell on other retailers. However, those enrolled in KDP Select must sell their ebook only on Amazon—at least for each 90-day KDP Select period (which automatically re-ups unless you opt out). As a result, much of the exclusivity decision boils down to the benefits of KDP Select.

First and foremost is the inclusion of your ebook in Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s reading subscription service. When enrolled in KDP Select, your book becomes available to over three million KU subscribers, and you earn royalties based on pages read. This means if your ebook blows up on Kindle Unlimited, you could earn a lot more than you would otherwise—especially if you’ve written a romance, which is by far the most popular genre on KU.

Basically imagine if you got paid every time someone read your blurb, or previewed your book’s first few pages on Amazon. It’d be pretty sweet, right? Because KU royalties aren’t dependent on readers committing to your book, as regular sales royalties are, you’ll likely receive more of them over time—so long as your book remains part of KDP Select. And don’t worry, it will still be kept up for sale; Kindle Unlimited is just another channel for people to access it.

2. The ability to run price promotions

The other key feature of KDP Select is the ability to run price promotions on your book. These promotions come in two flavors: Kindle Countdown Deals and Kindle Free Promotions. The former allows you to discount your book to under $2.99 for one week each 90-day period and still receive 70% royalties on the sales. The latter is what it says on the tin, allowing readers to download your ebook for free, though just for five days rather than seven.

You’re only permitted a single price promotion per enrollment period—i.e. you couldn’t make your book free for the first five days, then $1.99 the next week, without cutting yourself down to 35% royalties—but price promotions can be very useful, especially for authors launching their first books. Running a limited-time promotion on your ebook not only makes it more enticing to readers, but also gives you a shot at the Kindle Daily Deals page and the Kindle Store Best Sellers page (which, as you’ll see, has a whole section just for free books!).

The only downside of price promotions is how infrequently you can run them. However, for those in the know, these promo days can absolutely be optimized for exposure. If you do go Amazon-exclusive and take advantage of price promotions, make sure you’re simultaneously plugging them on social media, to your mailing list, and wherever else you can think of.

3. It’s less effort than going wide

As Rob Eager touches on in this episode of DIY MFA Radio, one of the few silver linings of Amazon’s near-monopoly is that authors who wish to reach the majority of readers (at least in the US and UK) don’t need to expend their energy elsewhere. Amazon is so dominant, especially when it comes to ebooks—controlling an estimated 75% of the US ebook market—that for many indie authors, the additional effort required to “go wide” may not be worth it.

There are exceptions, of course. If you’re willing to pay for an aggregator like Draft2Digital, you can sit back and relax as the aggregator uploads your info and centralizes your data for all the different retailers (though it’ll cost you either a flat fee or a ~10% royalty cut). And if your target audience is outside the US or UK, or if you want to expand your reach in other countries, going wide can be very fruitful indeed.

But if you’re looking for a single US-based platform on which to go “all in,” Amazon is the one—as daunting (or disillusioning, if you’re not an Amazon fan) as that might sound. 

Still, it’s not without its drawbacks, which is exactly what we’ll talk about next. Having covered the major pros of Amazon exclusivity for first-time authors, here are the potential cons.

Cons of Amazon exclusivity

1. You can’t make your book permafree

Somewhat ironically given the price promotions touted by KDP Select, you cannot make your ebook permanently free, or “permafree,” on Amazon without also publishing it elsewhere. This is because Amazon doesn’t allow you to set your book’s price to free for more than five days at a time—unless, that is, you’re leveraging its price-matching feature.

As spelled out on Amazon’s Digital Pricing Page, the retailer has the authority to price-match your book to its lowest price online, presumably to give Amazon a competitive advantage. The trick, if you want your book to be permafree— as many authors do, when they care less about royalties and more about exposure—is to set your book’s price to free on another retailer, then notify KDP Support (select “Pricing” → “Price matching” in the sidebar).

Making a book permafree, especially if it’s the first in a series, is a popular and often successful tactic for indie authors; however, it’s simply not an option if you want to stay Amazon-exclusive. If you’ve run your allotted Free Promotion and are impatiently waiting out the remaining 90 days of this KDP Select period so you can do another one, consider just going wide instead.

2. The algorithms can do a lot of damage

Again, Amazon’s inner workings are less-than-transparent, but we do know a few things about its algorithms—the complex formulas that control everything from the Best Sellers lists to the top search results for buyers. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to game these as an author: calibrating your keywords to hit as many relevant terms as possible, writing a compelling book description, and so on.

The not-so-good news is that there’s still a great deal you can’t control—elements that, if compromised even slightly, can tank your book. For example, you might think you should go all-out for your book launch… but what you might not realize is that a big sales spike on your first day, then low sales in the days to follow, indicates to Amazon that your book should not be promoted consistently. The algorithms will take the spike as an anomaly and advertise your book less than if you had steady sales for several days.

Another notorious example of the algorithms’ fickleness is what can happen with your book’s “also boughts.” If you make the mistake of doing an external group promo (like on BookFunnel) with other books that aren’t very similar to yours, Amazon will map connections between your book and those books. The algorithms will then continue recommending your book to disparate readers who won’t buy it outside that promo, because it won’t seem like it’s for them. The result? Amazon clocks your book as a dud and stops recommending it at all.

This is how, for some authors, the supposedly foolproof algorithms become a nightmare to wrangle. Yes, if you do your research and play it safe, you’ll likely be okay. But if you’d rather avoid the possibility altogether—or if you want to support retailers that still have some good old-fashioned human curation, like Barnes & Noble—you should go wide.

3. You’ll lose out on Amazon-boycotting readers

Speaking of human curation, let’s address the elephant in the room: the fact that, despite Amazon’s ubiquity, more and more readers have begun striving to avoid it. Though poor worker conditions and the decimation of independent bookstores can hardly be blamed on Amazon’s self-publishing division, the company’s shortcomings may be enough for you, too, to steer clear—especially if you run in close circles of anti-Amazon consumers.

These are the main pros and cons for any first-time self-publisher, though you’ll probably want to look into other ebook distribution channels before making the final call. And if you decide to enroll in KDP Select and commit to Amazon exclusivity for 90 days or more, make sure to check out Helen J. Darling’s post on the long-term effects of Amazon exclusivity—with additional factors to consider like how many books you have and the diversity of your products.

With all this information at hand, you should end up on the right path! But even if you don’t, remember you can always switch from Amazon-exclusive to wide, or vice-versa; as your life changes, your publishing goals might too, and it’s never too late to re-route.

Savannah Cordova is a writer and content creator at Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the best editors, designers, and marketers in the business. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and low fantasy, as well as writing the occasional short story. She’s here to pull back the curtain on publishing so that every author can have the greatest possible chance at success.

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