Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Straight to Discount

A Question About a Comment I Made…

Most of you know that I flat out think that KU with its exclusive clause is the stupidest thing a writer can do in a career. (Outside of going to a traditional book publisher.)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, for a short time you can make some money. Good for you, but it is still stupid for an overall indie career. You are not gaining readers.

So I made this comment about how I wrote a couple of books for a straight-to-discount publisher and got a few questions about wanting me to explain that more. To put it simply, same as going to KU. Nobody outside of cheap and free readers saw them.

In the old traditional publishing (and still to this day) books are bought, printed, and published with the only intent of letting them be discount books for people to buy cheaply. Sometimes you know your book is going that way in traditional publishing, but more often these days you don’t. And honestly you might never know because of terms in the contract where you get no income at all for high-discounted books. They don’t even have to be tracked.

(In other words, they can print fifty thousand of your book, high-discount all of them out, and you won’t even know or make one penny of royalties. And don’t even get me started on escalators for royalty rates.)

There are bookstores all over the country in discount malls where discount books are sold. There are entire shelves of B&N (usually up front by the check-out) where discount books are sold. Used bookstores often buy large amounts of discount books.) There are still a couple of major conventions of discounter books and numbers of discount distributors. Few authors know of these or no author goes to them.

If you think a book gets to that discount shelf in the front of B&N by simply being marked down like a normal store, you are sadly mistaken. The books that don’t sell in a B&N are shipped back for credit. (They have tried a discount-in-place program with a few publishers, but the accounting of the publishers is so ancient, it can’t keep up in most instances.)

Realize that after a few months, your book is nothing more than a spoiled banana to a publisher. It’s called the produce model. So after a time, if a publisher has inventory left over in a warehouse, they will often sell off the inventory for pennies for those B&N front shelves, discount bookstores, and used bookstores. That will happen to about 20% of the books on those shelves and in those discount stores.

But most of those books up front at a B&N and in a discount bookstore are published just for those shelves. They were never intended to go anywhere else.

So let me say this clearly again. About 80% of all books in the discount bookstores and B&N discount shelves are published just for those stores.

(You wonder why I keep warning the new, dream-loaded writers to avoid traditional publishing? This is only one tiny part of it I almost never talk about. Like talking to a writer who is making money in KU. Go ahead, waste your breath.)

The two books I did for discounters I was hired to write. Both under pen names, both by B&N Press through a packager. (Bet you didn’t know that B&N has a publishing arm, did you? And please don’t ask me to explain packager.) I also had short stories regularly in those monster collections B&N used to print that went straight to the discount shelves.

So what seems new in publishing never really is. There are always readers who will not buy a book or pay much at all for a book and there will always be publishers who cater to those folks who do not believe books have much value. Luckily for all of us, most readers don’t mind paying fair price for a book (not traditional publisher prices, but fair prices).

But sadly, so many writers don’t understand the audience their work is getting to. The expectations thus are wrong. You focus your books to people who only get their books for free (and are trained that should be the price of a book) and you must depend on the publisher (Amazon KU) to pay the bills and get you your money.

I at least knew I was writing into the discount market. And I was paid before I wrote a word and knew I would never seen another dime.



  • Rose

    Wow, once again I find the perfect blog post on this site for the question I was going to seach. I already posted a couple of short stories and very short flash collections on KU and was wondering if I should do it with my novels because I have gotten reads and purchases. I was thinking of going wide with those instead recently and glad to see insight besides the usual “do KU until you gain a following then go wide” for newbies. Not proud of choice to be exclusive if this is how it comes off to readers and really reduces my readership that much despite the scale of Amazon. Glad it was only 99¢ or $2.99 works that can be set free as between works while working on novels in a couple months.

  • David

    So, our best bargains are ones we exclusively control. Limited loss-leaders. Such as worldwide free series openers and special bundles.

  • Philip

    Based on your explanation, it sounds like a KU author cannot “always go wide” after Amazon winds up screening them because the cheapo readers, by definition, won’t follow them to a paid model.

    In other words, going wide isn’t a backup plan, it’s the primary plan to build a longterm career.

    • dwsmith

      Well, sure, they can go wide at just about any time, but no readers will follow them and Amazon sure won’t like them for leaving the nest. But they have to realize it is starting over and building a customer base that will stay with them. No one on KU readers for authors, they read because it is free. In the large world, readers follow authors. So going wide is the only first step to building a longterm career.

      • Cathy

        Well, it’s not entirely true that no one reads for authors in KU, because I do. I may be a lone wolf in that way, but I have found authors I like in KU, then paid for their books that weren’t in KU. I personally have found a lot of books that don’t grab me in KU, so I view it the same way I used to view public libraries, back when I read paper: as a place to discover authors I like who I then follow, wherever they publish. Which of course is not what Amazon wants, but what authors hope for.

        • Stephanie

          We use KU as an alternative to a public library because the nearest public library is over twenty miles away.

          Although the local elementary/high school library does offer community hours, the selection is rather limited.

          Due to our KU subscription, we have discovered several authors and series as a family that we all enjoy. As the budget allows, we purchase the ebooks and sometimes even print books because the stories are just that entertaining. So for our family KU is a way to read all we can at a low cost. (Four very heavy readers of fiction counting me, spouse and oldest kiddos–two more on the way.)

          We are planning to purchase print copies of our favorite series and donate them to the local school library over the course of the next year because we know that not everyone in our small town is lucky enough to be able to afford the ten dollar subscription and the devices to read on…

          TL/DR: We follow (and eventually purchase all the ebooks and sometimes print books) specific authors we love (KU or not KU). KU is just another vehicle for discovery for us, same as a used bookstore or a library or one of those little free libraries.

          • J.A. Marlow

            Sounds like KU is working out really well for you. And that’s great.

            But these are two personal anecdotes that do not prove a trend. The fact so many authors come out of KU to find that they have to start over building a decent following is a proven trend backed up by writer drop in incomes and the difficulty in going wide after exclusivity. It’s a fear that I’ve seen authors express that they can’t AFFORD to move out of KU because they know what will happen if they do. They feel they are trapped.

            Which I find heartbreaking, but they chose to go exclusive in the first place. Hopefully they’ll find a way out by saving some money,and doing it with a plan to increase a paying readership that follows them as an author instead of following a subscription plan all-you-can-eat-forget-the-authors system.

            I guess I’m opinionated on it, too. I went wide because I could see the traps in an inherently easily manipulated system for scammers and knowing what I do about the general mindset of most of the readers in KU. (Think about it. Limited pot of money that ALL the authors have to compete with each other to get their share. There is only so much KU money to earn per month. Period. Of COURSE there are going to be people wanting to game that system to get the most of that money for themselves). Talk about dodging a bullet.

            If a writer wants to survive longhaul, to keep writing, to keep selling, to keep supporting themselves so they can keep writing the stories they and their readers love, they need to go to where the paying readers are. KU, IN GENERAL, is not where an author finds them.

  • Tony DeCastro

    I published my first novel in October. I’m almost surprised at how much I struggled with the decision of Wide vs. Exclusive. In the end, I made the decision based on how I’ve tried to make all of the decisions…if I was the consumer, what would I want. All my life, I have hated hearing a company say, “sorry, we are only available in/on”…software, TV packages, etc. I hate it. And I hate even more, when said company says something like, “well there is a workaround, you could use emulation software…” OR, “you don’t have to have a Kindle, you can just download the free app onto your phone or iPad, and then you can read my book.” That type of thing.
    So, I’m wide…and I HAVE had a few people ask me, “Are you available outside of Amazon?” Not a lot, but every time I am relieved to be able to say, “Yes, you can find my eBook at just about any retailer of eBooks there is, and provide them links. Same goes for paperbacks…”
    Dean’s point on KU and bargain bin retailers, didn’t factor into my decision on Exclusive or not, because I didn’t really think about it in such a way. But as is often the case, this post enlightened me. Especially, because I am aware of the situation he speaks of… I kept my eBook out of the discount ghetto (on purchase price) for all the reasons he mentions in this post. I just didn’t make a KU connection…but it makes all the sense in the world NOW.

  • Chong Go

    >About 80% of all books in the discount bookstores and B&N discount shelves are published just for those stores.

    Wow! That’s interesting. I had no idea that was going on.
    So, if I understand this, B&N is running a “fake” discount section to pull people into the store? But there aren’t enough honestly remaindered books to fill the shelves, so they work with packagers to create a line of “discounted” books to fill out the shelves. And this is done because the discount section adds foot traffic and profits by a certain amount over strictly new books.

    And now, Amazon is running KU as their discount corner.

  • David Anthony Brown

    I never even knew about this aspect of trad publishing, but it makes sense. I have a long work history in retail, and often I’d just know when a product was truly designated for the discount bin. Put it on the shelf, mark it down within a month. Or in the case of a certain celebrity designer’s shoes and handbags, put it directly in the discount bin without the intermediate showcasing.

    I shudder to think about being like that celebrity designer and have whole lines of stuff being sold at discount simply to empty out a warehouse. Yet another reason to avoid trad publishing.

    • dwsmith

      David, the problem with books is that they are returnable, thus seldom go through the reduction in price routine. If they don’t sell, they are returned. If a store wants to get books that are for discount, they buy them that way. The publishers have tried to start programs called “discount in place” for stores, but it hasn’t worked well and is death to author’s sales due to escalator clauses in royalty rates being attached to discount levels. So stores mostly just return books, or in the case of mass market paperbacks, strip the covers.

  • Shannon

    I want people to pay for my books. Not an exorbitant amount but yes I want to be paid for my hard work. I dabbled with KU but it didn’t really work for me, so my books are released wide. Nobody sees them or buys them. I’ve been dealing with a family emergency so my last book has no purchases or reviews. Not even from people in my writing club. I’m trying to rectify it now, but I don’t know how. I am terrible at playing the games that everyone on the writing boards expects you to play. Of course with the family emergency I have almost no budget. Meanwhile every promotional opportunity seems to revolve around KU. Tell us your free days and we will promote…I don’t have free days. I wrote the book so people would want to read it and purchase it. I don’t yet have a huge series where I am willing to just let the first book be free as a loss leader. I’m not Costco. Plus I don’t write in the genre’s 99.9% of all authors online seem to be writing. I’m out of ideas promo wise, and I’ve barely started. In short, most people join KU because it seems to be tied in with all the promo opportunities. Book Bub, Book Baby, and the people on Fiverr who promise they will give your book link to their mailing list. I would love to know the promotional opportunities for us non-KU-ers.

    • dwsmith

      Write more books and don’t worry about it, Shannon. The sales will come if you have good covers and learn how to write book sales copy that isn’t dull or passive or give all the plot away. Also, you need to keep learning craft, how to get readers into your books and endings so readers will enjoy your books and buy the next one. But the key is to keep learning and keep writing books. A few books just won’t sell by themselves. Just no discoverability.