My Brief Experiment Going Off KDP Select: At Least I Got This Nifty Blog Piece Out Of It!


I lasted only a month off of KDP Select. It was an eye-opening experience. I knew that I would lose sales on Amazon without the borrows and KDP free days to keep my books visible on the historical mystery bestseller lists, but my hope was that I would be building enough sales on Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and the Smashwords affiliates, to make up for these lost sales. I even told myself I was willing to accept lower overall sales for 2-3 months in order to test the idea that having my book on multiple sites (even if the sales on those sites were lower, on average, than on Kindle) was a workable alternative to exclusivity on Amazon, which is what KDP Select requires.

But this was predicated on being able to figure out how to get my books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, discovered on these other sites, because my experience is that if readers find my books, they will buy them.

But I was not able to figure out how to do this for Barnes and Noble or Kobo and I didn’t see any evidence that this was something I would be able to solve in a short period of time.

As I have written about before, there are primarily two ways a person ends up buying a book (from a brick and mortar store or estore).

They either:

1) come to the store looking for that book (or books by a certain author) or

2) find the books in the store while browsing.

For authors who are independently published and who sell most of their books in on-line stores, social media (blogs, twitter, facebook, pinterest, etc) can play an important role in getting people to go looking for their books. When a potential reader discovers the title of a book through reading a review or an interview with an author on a blog, or reading a tweet or a facebook post from a friend, they may decide to go looking for this book. The more frequently they run across that author’s name or the title of the book, the more likely they are to do so. In addition, social media usually provides direct links to the product pages of estores so that the impulse to look for the book can lead immediately to the decision to buy the book, which increases the effectiveness of this form of marketing.

Social media also has the benefit of costing less money and requiring less clout than the methods traditionally used by authors to market (reviews in print media, book signings, talks at conventions, interviews on radio or tv, mass mailings, etc).

While I don’t believe that the majority of sales I have made have come through my social media activities, I did understand that I might have to work harder to drive people to look for my books in the Barnes and Noble and Kobo stores because they initially wouldn’t have much visibility in these stores. What I didn’t expect was to have difficulty finding places on the internet that specifically targeted Nook or Kobo owners. If an author wants to connect with Kindle owners there are the Kindle Boards, literally dozens of Kindle oriented facebook pages, book blogs and websites that target Kindle owners, providing free and paid methods of promoting your book. I couldn’t find any similar sites that focused on Kobo beyond their official facebook/websites, and the small number of sites that focused on Nook ebooks generally didn’t have many followers. So beyond tweeting using the #kobo or #nook hashtags, I discovered few ways of reaching out and alerting these specific readers that my books were available on their devices.

Which brings me to the other way people find books–browsing. Whether it was in the libraries of my youth, the bookstores of my middle years, or Amazon in my senior years, I discover new authors primarily by looking on the “shelves,” being intrigued by the cover picture and the title, looking at the short description of the book and blurbs, maybe scanning the first pages, and then deciding to take a chance. This is what I want to have happen with my books, and while Amazon’s browsing experience isn’t perfect, for my books, it turns out Amazon is much better than the other two major ebook stores at helping potential customers find my books on their shelves.

I had some hopes for Barnes and Noble because my books had been in this store before and had done moderately well. While I had been disappointed in the total number of my Nook sales, I thought that if I could figure out how to get my books visible in the right browsing categories I could increase these sales. I was particularly encouraged by the fact that Barnes and Noble gives you 5 categories to put your books in (Amazon now only gives you 2), and that they had some smaller sub-categories that Amazon didn’t have where I knew my historical mysteries would shine (like historical romances in the Victorian/Gilded Age, or American Cozy mysteries.) I also know a number of people who sell well on the Nook, although most of them have at least 5 books for sale, usually in a series, and they have been able to take advantage of either the NookFirst program or have used the first book in their series as their loss leader by making the book 99 cents or free (through price matching.) But they also seemed to have their books in the right categories.

However, my plan to make my books be more visible through better category placement in the Nook store failed completely when I couldn’t even figure out where my books were showing up after I uploaded them through ePubit, much less how to get them into the right categories.

Side note: all the Kindle/Nook/Kobo self-publishing systems have the same problem in that the categories you get to choose from when uploading your book aren’t identical to the categories that show up when browsing. See my discussion of this in my post on Categories.

Both the Amazon and Kobo product pages lists a book’s browsing categories, not so Barnes and Noble. When I went to the categories and subcategories I thought my books might be in and scrolled through, looking for my books, either my book would be missing or the pages would freeze before I got through the hundreds of pages, so I could never determine if they were there. Arggh. (And of course this means a potential customer wasn’t going to find them either.)

So, I did what I had done to get my books properly in the right categories on Amazon when I was first figuring out how browsing worked in that store, I wrote the Barnes and Noble/Nook support staff, first asking what 5 categories my books were in and next asking how I could get them into the 5 categories I wanted.

And got no reply. Not even an automated, “we have received your email and we are working on an answer.” Nothing. So I resent my request a week later (mentioning that this was the second request and that I would appreciate some response.) Nothing. So then I wrote the Director of Digital Content, asking if she could direct me to where I could find out the answers to my questions and asking if she could give me advice on how to better market my books for the Nook. No reply.

Bangs head.

I do believe that if I got my books into the right categories that I would begin to have decent sales on the Nook. I am assuming the books I did sell were primarily to those people who went into the bookstore looking for them (based on my tweets and facebook postings), but I don’t think it makes sense to go another month or two hoping I will finally get an answer, and that my books will finally start showing up where I want them to be. I am leaving my short stories up in this store, and maybe I will eventually get these stories into the right categories and begin to get more sales. If this happens and my sales of these stories increase enough on the Nook, I may try again with the full-length novels.

I also had high hopes for Kobo, after reading about their new self-publishing initiative, WritingLife. What was particularly attractive was that they are letting indies price their books at free, without an exclusivity requirement or time limit. But, despite the promise that they had been consulting with indie authors in beta testing, Kobo’s WritingLife is not yet ready for prime time when it comes to browsing categories or free promotions.

I was pleased with the ability to designate three categories on Kobo and my books actually showed up in the categories I put them in. The problem was that these categories are currently very limited. Most distressing from my perspective, there is no historical mystery category (which is the subgenre that is most aligned with my books). Also, if you put “historical mystery” in as a keyword search there were 51,000 books (many which didn’t appear to be historical mysteries), which says to me the search function isn’t very useful as an alternative way for readers to find this kind of book.

The categories my books do show up in the Kobo store (mystery-women sleuths, historical fiction and historical romance) contain a lot of books, with none of the sub-categories that the Nook has, which also makes it difficult for a book by a relative unknown such as myself to become visible in them. I was facing the old chicken and the egg problem (how do you get a book up high enough in a category for people to find it without sales, but how do you get sales if no one ever sees your book?) This is where I hoped Kobo’s free option would help––as it has helped so many authors who have used the KDP Select free promotion option.

However, when I put my short story, Dandy Detects,up as free on Kobo, I found that Kobo has a very ineffective method of making free books visible. While I don’t know how the Kobo ereader itself works, if you are using the Kobo ap there is no way to find free books because there is no way of finding out what books within a category or subcategory are free. This is true for the on-line Kobo bookstore as well.

For example, in Barnes and Noble’s Nook ebook store, if you click on the mystery-women sleuth category, you find 2338 books, and you can order these books by price, with the free books showing up first (15 of them). By the way, my short story Dandy Detect, which should be in this category as a 99 cent book, isn’t there (sigh).

For Kindle, if you look on the device at the best seller list under the “mysteries-women sleuths” you can look at the free list separately for this subcategory, and in the online store you can see the paid list to the left and the free list to the right in this category. Today the free list for this category is 53 books––so it is easy to have your book visible if it is in the midst of a free promotion. Visible not just to people who are looking for free books, but visible to people who are looking at books that are for sale––maybe the newest Anne Perry––and just glance over to the right and notice a free book that looks intriguing.

In the Kobo store, the mystery-women sleuth category (3303 books) can be sorted by price, but the lowest price is 99 cents, so no free books are visible. Instead, you have to click on the free books link on the home page of the estore, a link that is not available on the ap (I don’t know if it is on the Nook itself). Then there are two options. The most straightforward––on the surface––is a link to one of 6 categories, one that is called “Free Mysteries.” But when you click this link only 20 books show up, most of them public domain, and none of them Dandy Detects. Dead end, and frankly if I was a consumer I would try this category once, and never again.

The second option Kobo gives you is to follow these 3 Step instructions

Step 1: Perform a search using any keyword

Step 2: Filter your results by “Free Only” from the pull-down menu

Step 3: Select your download from the search results

This does work, and Dandy Detects did show up under key words like mystery, historical mystery, fiction historical, but the separation from paid books and the browsing categories means that this method isn’t going to produce the traffic that it would get in either the Kindle or Nook stores where there is a connection between the paid and the free listings. In addition, the Kobo method depends on the consumer to come up with the right key words.

I suspect that these problems (no way to find free books through the Nook ap, limited free books under the Free Mystery link, and the lack of connection between paid and free books) have meant that Kobo readers aren’t accustomed to looking for free promotions the way Kindle readers have become since the introduction of KDP Select.  Even more frustrating, when I downloaded a free copy of Dandy to my Nook ap I discovered that the dashboard for WritingLife doesn’t report free book downloads so I had no way of knowing if anyone is finding it.

The only evidence I have that a few people eventually found the story (probably because I have been tweeting about Dandy being free) is after a few days a small number of other books started to show up in the “You Might Like” listing on Dandy’s product page. But I don’t know how many copies have been downloaded, I don’t know when they were downloaded (so I can’t connect up with my marketing), and, so far, putting Dandy up for free hasn’t translated into anyone buying either of my full-length novels or even the other short story. I also haven’t seen any movement in the total ranking of Dandy in the categories––so I don’t know if I put it back to paid if it would show up any higher in these categories. In short, at this point the Kobo option of putting a book up for free doesn’t seem to help sell books.

While I imagine that the Kobo techs, who have responded to my questions (unlike Barnes and Noble), will try to solve some of these problems, until they do and Kobo readers get used to looking for free books, I don’t anticipate free promotions being as successful as they are currently on Kindle.

Again, as with the Nook, I will keep my short stories in the Kobo store, keep Dandy free, and see if over the next few months some of these problems are resolved. But I don’t want to continue to let my sales on Kindle stagnate on the promise that the conditions for selling in either the Barnes and Noble or the Kobo stores will improve dramatically in the short term.

So…Back I will go to KDP Select next week, when my books have been successfully unpublished in the other stores, and then I can get back to writing and doing an occasional KDP promotion.

Obviously, I would love to hear if any of you have tips on how to get books in the right categories for the Nook, or have had better success with selling on Kobo. But meanwhile, if any of you are Nook or Kobo owners, my novels will be available for these devices until Sunday, August 12, and my short stories will continue to be there indefinitely.


This is a reprint from M. Louisa Locke‘s blog.