One of Amazon’s more controversial and potentially profitable programs for self publishers is Kindle Select. The controversial part of Select which prevents many self publishers from participating is that the eBooks in the program must be exclusive to Amazon during each 90 day term of participation. This means that eBooks sold through Barnes&Noble, Apple, or direct through the publisher’s website do not qualify. The second controversial point for self publishers is that eBooks in the Select program are made available through the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) which allows Amazon Prime members to borrow one free eBook per month – though some restriction apply. In return, self publishers receive a payment based on their share of a fixed pot of money, currently $600,000, available to self publishers each month. The graph below shows the history of this payment since the program’s inception.
Self publishers have three reasons to consider signing up for Kindle Select. The most compelling reason is that Select allows the self publisher to offer the book free to all Kindle users for five days out of each 90 day period. In my experience, a five day free promotion results in hundreds of downloads for the typical nonfiction book and thousands of downloads for a novel that is included in one of the popular promotion lists. How many of the people who download these free books actually read them is debatable, but for an author with limited promotional options, it’s a lot better than sitting around and just hoping to find readers.
Another reason to sign up with Select is the potential for increased sales, since the Amazon Prime members who get a free borrow have a limited number of titles to choose from, at least in comparison to the full Amazon catalog. Currently, and through most of the history of the program, the payment to publishers has been above $2.00 per borrow, which makes it a very attractive way for publishers whose titles are priced at $2.99 to increase their volume with no downside risk. And the ability of Prime members to borrow the eBook for free is another form of promotion, potentially attracting readers who weren’t sufficiently committed to spend cash on an eBook, but are willing to use up their free book credit for the month.
However, there is a growing downside risk to participating in Kindle Select, one that came as a complete surprise to me. It turns out that not all Amazon Prime members are created equal, and those less equal Prime members don’t get to borrow a book for free. There are multiple threads about this in various Amazon forums, but I haven’t been able to get an official explanation from Amazon, so either they believe it’s fully explained in their membership rules or they are pulling a Google and telling us all to talk to the hand. The official Amazon eligibility rules are:
Eligible Prime members — paid Amazon Prime, paid Amazon student, one-month free trial, and customers receiving a free month of Prime benefits with a Kindle Fire — must own a Kindle device that is registered to the same Amazon.com account as the eligible Prime account in order to access this benefit. Note that Prime membership benefits such as Prime instant video and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library can’t be shared.
The risk for self publishers is that frustrated non-eligible Prime members take it out on the author when they can’t borrow an eBook that Amazon promotes as free for Prime Members. This means writing a 1 star review and complaining about it, a phenomena I pointed out in an earlier post. And 1 star reviews have a way of snowballing into multiple flames, sort of an online mob mentality effect. Here’s an example of a 1 star review from a Prime Member, one of three my titles have received in the last two months.
If I had a thinner skin or was trying to launch a career as a self publisher, I would have to think long and hard about the risk of including a title in Kindle Select and drawing a 1 star review from a frustrated Prime Member which will not only directly impact sales, but can also result in a barrage of copy cat flames that can absolutely destroy the chances of a new title on Amazon. Here’s an example of a review where the Prime Member vents his way to doing real damage:
In the end, the fault lies with Amazon. Either they need to do a better job educating the less equal Prime Members of their status as second rate citizens, or they need to enforce their review guidelines that advise against posting reviews of the Amazon catalog or store functions on product pages. But for the time being, Amazon is deep in denial mode. The Kindle Select support for publishers forwards any questions on the subject to Amazon customer support, who refuse to even discuss the issue and state that further e-mails on the subject will be ignored. I understand that they want to “protect” their review system, one their perceived crown jewels, from editorial tampering. But if nothing changes, they risk alienating publishers from participating in Kindle Select, as well as continuing to provide a bad customer experience for second class Prime members.