Last post, I looked at how to run big giveaways in order to build up your floor as an author. As long as you’re comfortable giving away thousands of copies of your books, it’s a fast, low-effort way to grab your first real visibility. Along the way, you’re gaining fans, which will help you sell your next book, as well as reviews and likes and tags and all that, which will help you sell this book the next time you promote it.

This whole strategy is based on KDP Select, however. Which requires selling exclusively through Amazon. Which continues to be a contentious and divisive topic within the indie publishing world.

The pro-Select crowd more or less believes this: “Select is a tool, nothing more. I’ve gotten better results through it than I ever have when my book was available at all the other stories. Until that changes, I’m going to stick with what’s working for me–Select, and Amazon exclusivity.”

The anti-Select argument has a few facets to it. Some people have a philosophical problem with exclusivity; they want readers to be able to buy their books through whatever store and on whatever format they prefer. Others just think Select is a bad business decision: it’s not sustainable, the gains from free giveaways are temporary, and you aren’t factoring in the opportunity cost of exclusivity: you don’t know what your books could be selling in the other stores. “I want steady, organic growth. A long-term career. The best way to achieve this is to make my books available in as many stores and formats as I possibly can.”

This perspective is perhaps most visibly argued by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. These two are long-term pros with all kinds of great advice about protecting your rights as an author and running your business wisely. I’ve met them once, and found them smart, approachable, and downright excited to share what they know with new authors. (Hi, Kris! RadCon 2010–I was the young dude in the Bukowski shirt. Got flustered when you told me he was one of Dean’s favorites.)

But I also think they’re full of crap.

To me, the business plan of pushing your work out to every stores is a strategy of hope. As in, “I’m going to sell my work in every store, and hope the readers there magically find it.” It’s the power of prayer, in other words–and we all know God helps those who help themselves.

So you can hope. Or, you can enroll in Select. At the cost of hoping you might sell at the other markets, you now have a powerful tool to create visibility for yourself in what remains the majority share of the ebook market.

That said? I’m growing skeptical of Select. I don’t think it is necessarily a long-term part of an indie author’s career.

Boy, this is going to be a long post. Here’s the thing. The benefits of Select depend on giving away a lot of books. You can only give away a lot of books if a lot of people know you have a book to give away. The way most books give away thousands of copies is through being listed by the big three freebie blogs: ENT, POI, and FKBT. In other words, your success as a self-published author depends on a new set of gatekeepers.

These gatekeepers have their own sets of standards as to which books they’ll choose to promote. These standards may or may not be public. If you’ve got a book that doesn’t meet their standards–whether because of your cover, your genre, your number or average rating of reviews, or you gave their dog a dirty look nine years back–Select may not be of any use to you. Note that I surely don’t blame these blogs for having standards–they’ve built their own readership by curating titles and offering up what appear to be the good ones; if they had no standards, no one would follow them–I’m just saying that your success in Select depends on factors outside of your control.

Speaking of factors outside of your control: Amazon is not reliable. Not 100%. Using Select, you’ll run into glitches all the time. Your free day may not start as scheduled, or at all. Your book may not go free on time or go back to paid on time. You may not be displayed on the free ranks for hours or days at a time, curtailing the effectiveness of your promo. And you know how much immediate customer support Amazon offers for these problems? Zero. There’s no phone number for you to call. If you email KDP support, you’ll be lucky to get a response by the next day, and it will probably be several days after that before they’ll address your issue. Too late to matter, in other words.

Amazon’s algorithms that help translate free promotions into paid sales aren’t reliable, either. They’ve already changed twice this year: once in March, once in May. They could change again at any time. Could be better, could be worse. There’s no way to know until it happens.

Then there’s the matter of sustainability. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to pick up sales by giving away thousands of free copies on a regular basis. No one knows this. The Select program hasn’t even been out a year yet. If we’re talking about a career, we’re talking about decades of time. Can you get effective results by giving away a book month after month and year after year?

Common sense says you’ll see diminishing returns, but in a business as chaotic as the current ebook world, common sense needs to sit down and shut up. I can relate that, anecdotally, I have seen a handful of people who have been able to run highly successful monthly or semi-monthly giveaways of a title and pick up some real sales afterwards. The May changes to Amazon’s algorithms have made this harder to do, but people are still doing it. (And this mostly depends on POI picking you up every time you go free.)

But they’re not common. There is a larger pool of people who can regularly give away a decent number of copies on a regular basis, but their post-free sales aren’t that inspirational. I’m talking a few dozen extra sales following a giveaway. Probably no more than a couple hundred bucks in income. And then there is an even larger pool of authors who get very inconsistent results. Sometimes, they may give away thousands of copies during a promotion, but other times, they aren’t picked up anywhere and they’re lucky to give away a few hundred.

And there is an opportunity cost. This cost is totally unknown, of course; you can’t know how your book would do in the other stores until it is in the other stores. This is what I’ve seen, though. A book that does well in Select tends to sell in the other stores, too. Probably not like gangbusters. Usually not enough to make up the difference. But it will sell some. And I’ve had some books that gained nothing from Select wind up selling more in the other stores than they have on Amazon. Again, not sales by the truckload. But a few here and there. Furthermore, all the things you’ll learn about selling books by being in Select–covers and categories and all the rest–largely apply to the other stores as well. After seasoning yourself in Select, it should be easier to take what you’ve learned and apply it to Apple and B&N and Kobo as well.

Then there’s the issue of trying to become a big fish in a small pond. Of trying to stay ahead of the curve rather than blindly following what dummies like me are trying to pass along as fresh news.

In order to make Select work, then, you have to rely on the gatekeepers of blogs. You have to rely on Amazon to actually run your promo as scheduled and to not change the program’s effectiveness three weeks from now. And you have to rely on the Select concept being one that will work for years and years down the road. Meanwhile, you can’t know where you’d be at in the other stores if you’d never tried Select in the first place.

All that said? I still recommend Select as a starting point. Right here, right now, Select still works very well for a great many people. Even for seasoned indies, the other stores can be a struggle. Select remains well-understood and easy to leverage. It’s particularly useful for a series and for getting new books off the ground before you have a fanbase to do that for you.

But for all these reasons, I think a longer-term strategy involves more than Select. I, for one, am trying to make a career out of this. I don’t like the idea of my success being dependent on a handful of blogs, a single store, a single program, and a single trick. I still have a couple books enrolled in Select, but I’m trying to make it one of my tools rather than my only tool.

Okay, this post is approaching Konrathian lengths. I’m going to explore medium-term strategies in a followup post instead. But I thought it was necessary to lay out all my thoughts about Select before delving into where you might go with your career after you’re, say, 6-12 months into your career, have 2-6 titles out there, and have run multiple giveaways. That way, you’ll know where I’m coming from, and can adjust your own strategies accordingly.

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