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Sep132017

Have you noticed there's a lot more collaboration going on these days? Why?

 

Thanks to zero marginal cost digital production methods, we're seeing content markets—for the first time—develop in conditions free from supply and price constraints.

In the process we've learned something: consumers have an unquenchable thirst for new content; content creators are willing to oblige with an equally prodigious stream of new content; platforms that best control access to the customer are the biggest winners; the reward for content creators varies drastically by medium and platform.

For consumers, life is now a streaming fixed priced buffet of unending variety and diversion.

For producers, the changes have been terrifying. Old modes have crumbled, leaving everyone scrambling to figure out what, if anything, comes next.

To adapt, content creators are learning to exploit capture loops, bundling, and collaboration to extract money from a digital economy that has collectively decided it rarely wants to pay artists directly for their content anymore.

The most highly evolved form of digital content platform strategies can be found in the book market. Why? Because Amazon.

Kindle Unlimited is the Clear Platform Winner

Kindle Unlimited (KU), Amazon's subscription book service, allows readers to read an unlimited number of books from the KU library, for a fixed price of $9.99 per month.

I used to work at an all you can eat buffet. I observed when people had the chance to eat as much as they wanted for a fixed price, most took advantage of the opportunity.

That's also true of KU. People read...a lot.

KU is Good for Authors

Kindle Unlimited wasn't the big bad for authors as so many feared. KU unleashed a force nobody knew existed. It turns out, in the past, readers were supply and price constrained. It turns out, people want to read a lot more than anyone thought. Given the chance to self-pace their own consumption, free from cost concerns, readers just keep on reading, page after page after page.

Who can read a hundred books a month when each book costs $20? No one, but customers can for $10 a month on KU.

Unyoked from traditional publishing, indie authors are flourishing. Writers are now finding a market, building an audience, and making a living on KU. People you've never heard of make comfortable incomes in small little niches traditional publishing would never touch.

Traditional publishing is hit driven. They need best sellers to survive. It's the same sort of business model movie studios rely on. Niche authors aren't worth the effort.

That's not true on KU because there is no effort. Computers don't sleep. The computer doesn't care who you are, how big you are, how small you are, it doesn't care about your writing at all. All the computer cares about is finding a buyer who likes what you're selling. That frees authors and buyers to be who they really are.

The business model on KU is completely different than traditional publishing. Niche microtargeting on KU works. Selling 5,000 or 10,000 books on KU is great. That's good money for an indie author. For a big publisher it would be a failure.

Authors can earn a lot on KU. More than a few report earning in the six-figures per month. That's per month. Some even earn seven-figures per year. Unheralded by the hype machine, you've likely never heard of them, but that doesn't matter, what matters is their audience loves them.

For an author on KU the initial payout is just the start. There are many ways to generate follow on sales. That doesn't happen in traditional publishing. Every book is its own unique event. On KU authors constantly build their back catalogue by adding new content. That catalogue can be monetized for a long time.

The game has changed...forever.

KU Demands Exclusivity

Every deal with the devil comes with a compromise. For authors, the deal is exclusivity. To be part of KU authors must agree to exclusively publish a title on KU and nowhere else.

When an author publishes their book on more than one platform (Barnes & Noble, CreateSpace, Google, Apple, Kobo, etc.), it's called going wide. That authors coined a term specifically meaning "not exclusively publishing on KU," shows you the power of KU and how much the industry has changed.

Why would any author limit their options by agreeing to be exclusive with KU? Simple. Amazon controls access to millions of paying, voracious readers. Controlling access to customers is the kingmaker position in a digital economy and Amazon is the king of the hill.

It's not that selling books through other platforms is impossible. It's not. It's just that Amazon makes it so dang convenient to sell books and make money on KU. Convenience, becoming the default choice, is how Amazon continues to conquer the world.

How are authors paid on KU?

By page reads. Authors are paid for each page read from the KDP Global Fund. The KDP Global Fund is a pot of money Amazon allocates each month to pay KU authors.

In 2014 the fund was $2.5 million; in January of 2017 it was $17.6 million. The amount authors are paid per page varies. In March 2017 the payout was $0.0046 per page, which means about 3.84 billion pages were read that month. In July 2015 the payout was $0.0057. Amazon can change the payout at anytime. 

Clearly, Amazon holds the power of life and death here. They make the market. How is the fund price set? I couldn't find out. Presumably it's related to the number of people who have signed up for KU, minus some slice for Amazon, but who knows?

What is the key to making money on KU? Keep readers reading!

Give a human a game and they'll figure out how to exploit it. Authors have been hard at work figuring out how to hack the KU game.

The secret: KU is not about selling books. Shocked? Books are a product of old materials, old production methods, and old business models.

KU is about getting readers to relentlessly keep reading the next page. The page read is key. As an author you're rewarded for each page read; you're not rewarded for selling a book.

This has caused a switch away from writers emphasizing producing a single book, to writers creating an ecosystem of content so enticing readers never want to leave. It's author as drug dealer.

There are a number of different strategies authors have created to increase page reads.

The Capture Loop

When a reader gets through with a book they'll immediately want another book to read. Remember what we said earlier, readers are voracious. As soon as they're done with one book they want another. It's like reaching for one M&M after another. You know what I mean, I know you do.

For the author, that moment in time, between books, is both a threat and an opportunity.

If a reader finishes a book by another author, that's opportunity. Can you convince them to read your book? This is where advertising and other techniques come in. I won't cover any of that here.

If a reader is already reading one of your books the threat is they might choose to read a book by another author. The opportunity is if they like your writing they'll really want to read another one of your books. Reading one of your books is the easiest action for a reader to take. It's the most convenient path. That's what readers naturally want to do. Your job is to have something of yours for them to read.

This is the Capture Loop. You want to capture a reader. You want to keep a reader wandering around your content ecosystem and never let them go. Once a reader is gone they may never come back. So when a reader is done with one of your books you want to funnel them as quickly as possible to another one of your properties. The next choice for a book should always be you.

The reason is page reads. If you can keep a reader in your content ecosystem, reading page after page of your content, you'll make money on KU. One way or another, all the techniques we'll be talking about are a way to build a capture loop.

Write More Books Faster

This is perhaps the biggest change in the KU world. Do you still have the romantic image of a lone author slaving away for years to write the great American novel? Erase that image from your mind.

The goal on KU is to write as many books as fast as you possibly can. You want to keep a constant train of new releases chugging down the tracks. 

The reason is having a lot of books is a capture loop. When a reader is done with one book you can move them immediately on to the next. The challenge, is of course, to write fast enough that readers aren't tempted to exit your content ecosystem. So you always have to have something new, or a big back list for readers to explore.

A common recommendation is to hold back on publishing your first book until you have two or three books in the can. That allows you to release a new book each month, which keeps readers engaged inside your capture loop.

Write a Series

From our previous discussion it should be obvious writing a standalone book is the worst thing you can possibly do. Where is a reader supposed to go after they finish your book? They'll exit your poorly formed capture loop and move on to another author. Maybe they'll come back when you release a new book. Maybe they won't.

So what you want to do is write a book series. Preferably a series that can last forever and ever. If you are a good enough writer, your readers will hop from book to book like a frog crossing a pond on a lily pad bridge.

If you can't write one long series then write several different series of books. Then you can get readers to hop from one series to another.

Write to Market

Writing to market means writing to an established niche that readers are already deeply passionate about. Write a romance book, a mystery, military scifi, a space opera, a vampire and werewolf book, or a zombie book. Something readers want to read over and over again.

If you write about a romance between a vampire and a sergeant in a mercenary outfit that has been sent to put down a rebellion in the outer rim, it might be hard to find an audience.

Co-Writing

Co-writing is where a group of authors get together and agree to collaborate on writing a single book or a series of books. The authors agree to split revenues according to some formula.

The advantages are many. 

There's making money from the book of course. As a direct result of sales there's also an increase in author rank, which helps generate further sales.

Then there's exposure to each others fan bases. A fan of one author might learn they like another author and start reading their books too. If you can tempt someone into reading the first book of a series it can very profitable, as readers tend to convert and read every book in the series. This is called read through. Read through generates lots of page reads.

Exposure also helps authors build their email lists. Email lists are crucial to successfully launching a new book for an indie author. 

And it's a way for authors to leverage the work of others to build a capture loop. What if you can't write really fast and can't publish ten full sized novels a year? Your ecosystem will be bare. By authors collaborating they collectively generate more content than they could possibly generate themselves, which helps lift all boats.

Bundling

Ebook formats have made it easy to bundle a largish number of short stories, or even complete novels, together into one huge value packed book. What once was difficult to do in the dead tree era, is almost trivial using today's tools.

There are many kinds of bundles:

  • Single author. An author can bundle a number of their works together and offer it a low promotional price. This generates revenue off your back list and hopefully encourages readers to read some of your other books too.
  • Series bundle. Once a series has completed an author can bundle them all together. It's a good way to make money on content you've already written.
  • First in a series. If you've written a few different series you can bundle the first book in each series together and market them as bundle. The hope here is readers will be interested enough to read the rest of all those series, that generates income from read through.
  • Anthology. Authors cooperate together and issue a bundle of stories from each of the authors. This has the same advantages as co-authoring.
  • Random. Really anything can be bundled for any reason. An author can try all kinds of different bundles as a way to generate revenue from their back list.  

Book bundles are popular with both readers and writers.

Readers get value because they get a lot of reading material for a pittance. They also get to read authors they might not have picked on their own.

Writers get value because bundles generate more content than they could create for themselves, which builds a better capture loop, especially if you can be included in anthology with authors more popular than yourself.

Writing Syndicates

A writing syndicate is where authors get together to write separate books within the same universe. My favorite example is the Star Wars expanded universe. Sucker that I am, I read (and paid for) dozens of books in the expanded universe.

The way it worked is authors were hired to write a novel in the Star Wars universe. This was brilliant. Star Wars is a big complicated universe so many authors could be busy writing new novels at the same time without stepping on each other. Of course coordination was needed, but for the most part authors could write in parallel, generating a constant stream of new books.

After I got done with one book in the extendend universe, what did I do? Of course, I wanted to read another. 

A writing syndicate is the highest form of capture loop known to writerkind. It's a content generating machine. Far more than any author could generate on their own, or co-write, or create with anthologies. 

So a writing syndicate is not a new idea. What's new is how easy it is to create a syndicate using today's technology. Authors can coordinate with each other and it can all be done with very little overhead. A separate production company is no longer needed. The potential for profits is enormous and they all flow to the authors (minus Amazon's cut of course). Readers may never want to leave your universe. And that's the idea.

Kindle Worlds

Kindle Worlds is a writing syndicate created by Amazon. They never miss a trick. Amazon owns the master capture loop. Their goal is to keep everyone buying books on Amazon. The more you read the more they make.

In Kindle Worlds an author agrees to license their book universe. Then any author, as long as they follow the Content Guidelines, can write a book in that universe. The original licensor of the universe gets a cut of every sale. It's a brilliant way to create more content, and build out a capture loop, with little effort. You have the full market making capabilities of Amazon at your deposal. The tradeoff is control. You don't get to set prices. You don't get to set royalties. You don't control story arcs. It's not your baby anymore. But who doesn't enjoy a passive income stream or two?

Podcasters Embrace Cross Promotion

Podcasters don't have the same sort of market available to them as KU. Most podcasters make a living through advertising or perhaps Patreon.

I have noticed a lot of more cross promotion on podcasts. The creater of one podcast will be a guest on another podcast and vice versa. This sort of collaboration shares audiences in a way that strengthens all participants. 

Singers Sing on Each Others Songs

More singers seem to be singing on each others songs these days. Why might that be? For the same collaborative benefits we've been talking about. Collaboration multiplies the number of fan bases a work is exposed to, lifting all boats, but in the streaming world there's another benefit. Increased payouts.

Those who sing together on a song will list themselves as primary artists, which means on Spotify they'll be featured on each others channels, which increases the play count, which increases payouts. This is primitive compared to all the options content creators have on KU, but it's one way to hack the system. 

YouTube

I'm not exactly in the YouTube demographic, but I read YouTube stars also embrace collaboration as way to share audiences and gain channel subscribers. Stars of YouTube Share Secrets of Success

 

What's clear is KU works. Perhaps Spotify shouldn't haven't modeled themselves on the radio station model? Perhaps if Spotify was more like KU everybody would be happier? Is a song that different than a book? Is a podcast that different than a book? Maybe they just chose the wrong business model to start with?

Reader Comments (4)

Reminds me, a lot, of the App Store.
At the end, we are sold/offered zillions of more or less of the same soulfree games, each a somewhat less brillant copycat of the original (yes, I'm talking about Monument Valley).
Plus, I'm not that sure "People[developers/authors] you've never heard of make comfortable incomes in small little niches traditional publishing would never touch".

I'm afraid that, in the end, the only CLEAR winner, will be Amazon.
It will be harder for authors to get noticed,
it will be much harder for noticed writers to get well paid,
It will be harder for readers to find good books,
It will be way harder for readers to vote with their wallets.
But, hey!, Amazon will get 10 bucks a month.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOlivier

The App Store is a great example Olivier

September 15, 2017 | Registered CommenterTodd Hoff

How is Spotify different from KU? Spotify pays musicians based on how many times their songs have been listened to. KU pays authors based on how many pages their books have been read. Seems pretty similar to me.

September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

That's a question I was wondering too. Why does KU work so much better for content producers than Spotify? I think one major difference is the concept of a pool of money allocated to the creators. I don't know how Spotify sets their rates, but it doesn't seem to be near as lucrative as KU is for authors. That could be a consequence of Amazon having a larger user base. Or Amazon subsidizing the pool. I don't know.

Another difference I think is the historical consumption models differ. People are used to paying a lot for books, not so much for individual songs. So the streaming model really devalues each individual song compared to a book, shifting the power to spotify. But then again, books are longer so create a larger unit of entertainment. Perhaps if people bought songs like books, the situation would improve for singers. Then all the tricks authors use on KU could work on spotify. As it is there's very little a singer can do to improve their lot on spotify, and that's bad for business.

So, obviously I'm reaching here, I don't really know, there's something, but I just can't quite put my finger on it.

September 17, 2017 | Registered CommenterTodd Hoff

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