Short Stories & Kindle Unlimited: The good, the bad, and the whacko

Short

INTRODUCTION

I will make two points in this article:

  1. Don’t sweat the myth that Kindle Unlimited promotes shorter works. It doesn’t.
  2. There is an opportunity to market shorter works through Kindle Unlimited. But it won’t be easy.

If you have short stories that you want to market on Kindle, the second point will present ideas for how to do this effectively.

However, as the first point will stress, Kindle Unlimited won’t open the door for the get-rich-quickly-through-short-works bandwagon.

I’ll explain why I believe that Kindle Unlimited doesn’t actually favor short fiction, while at the same time showing that it is possible to market short stories.

It’s not really contradictory: The key is that selling shorter works is neither easy, automatic, nor obvious. This explains why most short pieces won’t take off, even though it will be possible to market them effectively.

SHORTER BOOKS, BIGGER PROBLEMS

A big myth going around presently is that Kindle Unlimited favors shorter books.

The underlying idea seems to be that it’s easier for customers to reach 10% of shorter books, and 10% is the critical number for getting paid for Kindle Unlimited downloads. (Need an introduction to Kindle Unlimited? Click here.)

Customers could easily get 30% through a short story before realizing that they don’t actually want to finish it, but for a 200,000-word book, they must read 20,000 words before the author will get paid.

But here’s the thing: All books aren’t created equal. There isn’t equal likelihood of customers downloading shorter books and longer ones. This is where most short books are greatly disadvantaged.

Here are several hurdles that authors must overcome in order to succeed in the short reads market with Kindle Unlimited customers:

  • Kindle Unlimited customers tend to be avid readers. It costs $9.99 per month, which amounts to $120 per year, to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited. This will attract avid readers, who will easily get their money’s worth. Spending $10 per month to read short stories won’t seem like a good value to many customers.
  • Avid readers tend to be smart book shoppers. They aren’t likely to be fooled by authors trying to game the system. They are likely to consider the value of books when they shop. Page count will be a factor. So will price.
  • Kindle Unlimited customers may prefer to download higher-priced e-books. It takes ten 99-cent e-books just to get your $9.99’s worth for the month, but if you download five $6.99 e-books, you get a $35 value. Short books are likely to be priced at 99 cents. Simply raising the price of a short story to $5.99 won’t work: Customers will see a large price on little content… and… remember, avid readers are smart book shoppers.
  • Shorter books require even better writing. A few mistakes in a 300-page novel: no problem. One mistake in a 20-page short story: ouch! It’s not just the mistakes, but the mechanics of the writing, the flow of the story, the characterization, the plot, a satisfying ending… the idea has to be fantastic. When you write 100,000 words, you can have a few weaknesses provided that your strengths make the bulk of the book intriguing and enjoyable. In a short work, mistakes of any sort really stand out. The challenge of writing an effective blurb shows how much harder it can be to write much less and do it very well.
  • Writing that works for short stories is different from the kind of writing that works for novels. So if you simply produce a very short version of novels that you’re familiar with, it probably won’t work. You have to research which kinds of short works sell and come to understand how they are effective. (Now the devil’s advocate will say that all writers should try writing short stories—despite the fact that they might be much harder to sell, in general—because learning how to write a short piece well can be highly instructive for writers. Write a short story for what you can gain from it in the long run.)
  • Although readers could take a chance on a short story since little commitment and investment is involved, it’s also true that readers may be pickier when choosing which short stories to read. There certainly are enough short stories out there to choose from. One story doesn’t satisfy a reader for long. What’s the reward for liking the short story? Will there be another 200,000 words worth of writing to enjoy by the same author? You see, when you find a novel that you like, if the author has a few other novels, the reward is a lot more where that came from. If you just have a dozen short stories out, a reader could blitz through the whole collection in a day; you aren’t offering a huge supply of reading material as a potential reward if the reader likes your style.
  • There is much competition from free and low-priced stories. Why should people read your short stories when they can get the entire Sherlock Holmes collection for 99 cents or free? There are many classic short story collections out there at great prices. This comes back to my last point: If you like Sherlock Holmes, or any other classic short work, there is a ton of similar material to satiate your craving for it. If you like a short story by a modern author, often there are just a few more short stories—not enough to satisfy a reader for long.
  • Visibility is a huge issue. Suppose, for example, you want to write a short romance story, hoping to take advantage of the huge romance market. Do you think Amazon wants your short story to show up among hundreds of popular novels when customers search for romance? That could create confusion. So instead your short story should be listed among Short Reads or short story collections. 99% of romance readers will instead be browsing the romance category, looking for novels. There is a marketing challenge here: You’re not just selling a book to romance customers, you’re selling a short story specifically to the very few romance readers who want to read a short story. There is a market for that, just not nearly as wide as the romance novel market.
  • Another marketing challenge is the Look Inside. The shorter your ‘book’ (if you can call it that in this case), the shorter the Look Inside. The Look Inside is a valuable sales tool. A short story has a very short Look Inside. There may easily not be enough there to catch the reader’s interest. You could just give the title, author name, and start the story, moving the copyright notice to the end, but you still need the Look Inside (10%) to be long enough to sell the book.
  • Effective marketing is more costly and time-consuming for a series of short works. It’s fairly affordable to hire out quality cover design and editing for a full-length novel, but can be quite expensive to buy several covers for short pieces or have several short works edited.
  • For those hoping to game the system with short works, customer reviews will be an equalizer. Especially, if they are hoping to benefit from Kindle Unlimited, as avid readers tend to be smart book shoppers.
  • Another equalizer is experience. Customers don’t have to get ‘burned’ too many times to become wiser shoppers. Time favors quality and good value.
  • Even if short works do gain traction, as soon as it becomes popular and fashionable, the market will be flooded with short works. (This really doesn’t affect other authors, as the cream rises to the top. It’s always easy to find books that have achieved success; the not-so-good stuff really isn’t in the way—it falls to the bottom, out of the way.) The thing is, the flood will make it ineffective for authors hoping to generate high rewards with little effort, which means the flood won’t last. Those who succeed through quality writing, satisfying a niche audience, will continue to thrive—hard work, good ideas, and effective marketing will always help such authors thrive.

There are different kinds of short books. Let’s do authors a favor and not generalize them. Some authors slap something short together quickly, hoping to get rich. Other writers craft short pieces with masterful storytelling. These are the two extremes, then there is much in the middle. We would do a great disservice to masterful storytellers who specialize in short fiction by saying bad things about all short works.

A few of my points above specifically address the gamers, but the rest are hurdles that all short works authors must overcome in order to thrive in the short reads market.

BOOK CHOPPING

Okay, there is another extreme that I should address: book chopping. Again, I can’t imagine this being effective, and I will explain why.

Here is what I mean by book chopping: An author takes a regular-length novel and divides it up into smaller chunks (as short as a chapter, perhaps, or it could just be a few parts).

The idea behind this ‘strategy’ is that Kindle Unlimited customers can download several books without paying an extra penny, while the author earns a royalty every time a customer reads 10% of one of his or her books.

So, you could sell a novel and earn $1.80 or so for one download, or you could split that same novel into 5 parts, earning $9 from every customer who finishes the novel. Why stop there? Split it into 20 parts and you make $36 for that single book, right?

Except… Kindle Unlimited customers aren’t likely to reward this behavior, for the many reasons listed above.

On top of that, you have several ‘chapters’ cluttering up your Kindle, and you can only store 10 Kindle Unlimited downloads at a time. Suppose you’re reading Chapter 32 and would like to go back to Chapter 4 to refresh your memory of something that happened earlier. INCONVENIENCE doesn’t sell books!

Sure, some unscrupulous authors might find a way to abuse the system in the short run with this, but (A) they won’t find substantial or long-term success by chopping books and (B) Amazon tends to learn how to prevent authors from taking advantage or catch and provide a fit punishment for those who game the system. It’s not going to work to achieve anything significant, and even for those who are so unscrupulous, the benefits definitely don’t outweigh the risk.

Series are an exception. When each volume of a work reaches a natural division, and where each volume provides a complete, satisfying reading experience, then it’s not a chopped book—it’s a series. Many customers appreciate series, and series authors often do well. You can be a successful series authors, and marketing a series has many advantages. It’s even possible to develop and market a series of short pieces, but this won’t be a chopped novel—each piece will be effective by itself.

MARKETING SHORT WORKS

It is possible to succeed with short fiction or nonfiction pieces.

It’s not easy. You have to overcome the many challenges that I’ve outlined above.

It will take hard work and effective marketing. Find ways to use hard work and brain power to overcome these challenges, and you can stand out from the crowd and succeed with short pieces.

Following are some ideas to help you with this.

  • You need to cultivate a culture for your series of short works. You need to play an angle that gives your short reads an edge. You need to find a concise way to announce this clear and up front, e.g. in a subtitle, through a strap line, as a cover byline, in your blurb, with a slogan, on all of your marketing materials, etc. It’s the card you have to play. Take full advantage of it. Sometimes, it’s not enough to fill a need: You have to show people that they have a need, and you have what they didn’t know they needed. See my next bullet for some specific suggestions. But, whatever angle you play, focus on fostering a culture. This is the key to long-term success.
  • Here are some possible angles. Commuter fiction—read on a plane, subway, or train: Market to commuters, show how your series is tailored for this. Lunchtime reading—have some free time at lunch, but can’t really go anywhere to enjoy it. Morning inspiration—short motivating reads to help people get their days started on the right foot. Bedtime reading—a leisurely way to wind down for a good night’s sleep. People aren’t going to think of the angle for you. You need to find the angle that suits your short works best, and make this point abundantly clear. Don’t sell the book: Sell the benefit.
  • You can get good visibility through wise choices for your categories and keywords. The problem is that you only get to choose 2 categories and 7 keywords, so you must do some research and choose wisely. Find short works similar to yours selling well on Amazon and see which categories they are listed under, and see which keyword searches they show up in. The most relevant category may be Kindle Short Reads (click here) at Amazon.com, but this category is not available through the publisher’s choice (see here); yet there are 700,000 Kindle e-books in this category (with 250,000 in KDP Select), so although it’s said to be ‘restricted,’ evidently it’s easy (or automatic) to get in just by having your book the proper length.
  • Check out the Kindle Short Reads page, as it provides a useful guide for how long it takes to read how many pages. You need to know this. If you’re selling your book as commuter fiction or lunchtime fiction, for example, you need a reliable estimate for how long it will take to read your book. This number is valuable. “Have 30 minutes to read on your lunch or on a train ride? This 15-page book will hit the spot.”
  • Research a couple of specific keywords that may be relevant for your short work. Start typing in the search field at Amazon and it will show you popular matches. You want matches that are both popular and specific to your book; that helps you gain visibility (it doesn’t help to be the last book in a search with many results). Note that popularity varies whether you search in all departments, books, Kindle, Short Reads, or a specific category: So test them all out. Note that “commuter fiction,” for example, doesn’t even pull up a match presently, so don’t waste your keyword with things like this that are never searched for. “Short reads,” on the other hand, is a popular search (with 1250 results, though, so you need to be high up on that list).
  • You want to create a series of short works that stand out and are easy to find. You could put “commuter fiction,” “lunchtime fiction,” “Lisa’s shorts,” “inspirational stories,” or something in a subtitle or series title (though you have to number series with Kindle) or in parentheses, making it easy to find your brand—while also declaring it a short work. If the subtitle or parenthetical note, which will be visible in search results, also emphasizes the advantage of your book’s length (e.g. Commuter Fiction), even better.
  • The covers of your series need to send a clear, unique brand. Have a dozen short stories? You want them all to look uniform. You want them all to be very easy to find. A customer sees any of your short books and immediately recognizes the series. Branding is vital. You want new customers to see that you have a wealth of similar books, i.e. the reward for trying you out and liking your writing is much more where that came from. You want old customers to easily find your other pieces. An appealing (to your target audience) visual brand that creates a unique signature, that’s what you want.
  • Write several similar short books. You’re not likely to sell a ton of short books if you only write one or a few; one-hit wonders aren’t likely in short fiction. If you succeed in hooking some customers on the benefits of your short works, where you really stand to benefit is when you get customers to buy several of your books. It also shows new customers that you’re a serious author, and that there is plenty of reading material similar to any of the short pieces that you offer.
  • Once you succeed in growing a fan base, you want timely releases. They’re short, so you can write, say, one a month. (Say, you spend a month writing. You pass it onto your editor, getting it back weeks later. You also wait for your cover designer. It might take a few months before it’s publish-ready. But once the train gets started, you can have one to publish every month.) You want to publish regularly, so fans start to look forward to the 15th of every month (or whenever, but they know when to expect it). An advantage of releasing a short piece in 30-day intervals is that you always have a book in the Last 30 Days new release category.
  • Amazon tends to help authors who (scrupulously) help themselves. Effective premarketing and marketing can pay big dividends, not just in immediate sales. Another factor on your side is word-of-mouth. Learn the craft and produce quality short reads, and it can lead to long-term success.
  • Look for marketing groups, e.g. in Facebook or at Goodreads. Some groups will correspond to your genre, e.g. fantasy or romance. Also look for groups dedicated to short reads (heck, you could start a group). If you’re using Kindle Unlimited, look for groups associated with this, too.
  • Make one short read free. You should plan to publish dozens of similar books, so, really, why can’t you afford to make one good one permanently free? The freebie won’t be in KDP Select. Publish it on Kobo, Smashwords, etc. At Kobo and Smashwords, you can make it free, and then you (or customers) can notify Amazon of the lower price, politely requesting a price match. The hope is that your freebie will encourage many readers to try out your other stories. Remember, your work has to be good enough to make readers want more of the same. Making junk free isn’t helping anybody.
  • Educate your audience. Show them the benefits of Kindle Unlimited, e.g. how for $9.99 per month they can read your series of dozens of books without paying an extra penny. Show them how to find short reads (include the link to the Kindle Short Reads category). Explain how they might benefit from short reads, e.g. during commutes or lunchtime. Of course, you mention your series at the end of your marketing endeavor. If you’re promoting commuter or lunch fiction, remind your readers to stock up on the weekends, so they don’t waste precious time during their commutes or lunch breaks just searching for the next read.

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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Commuter Fiction—Making a Case for Short Kindle e-books?

Short

When I want to shop for something to read on my Kindle, I visit Amazon’s homepage on my PC and click on the Kindle books link. It’s called ‘Kindle books,’ so intuitively what you might expect to see are ‘books,’ right?

After a half hour of searching, I may finally find one that suits my mood. Then I examine the product page closely to learn that it’s 36 pages long. Wait a minute. Is that a book?

Sometimes, I check out the Look Inside of a prospective book. I see the cover, title, copyright notice… where’s the rest? Wow! How short must a book be not to show anything from the first chapter?

A Kindle e-book can have just 12 pages. It can have 6 pages. Is there a lower limit? At 6 pages, I hope there isn’t a title page, copyright page, about the author section, and free sample of another book taking up space inside… I also hope the ‘book’ is self-contained. It would be awfully frustrating to learn that it was really one chapter in a series, where you don’t get any sense of closure until the series is complete.

Of course, despite the fact that all of these ‘books’ are listed under ‘Kindle books,’ they aren’t all books. These Kindle e-books include short stories, booklets, presentations, and novellas, too.

Until recently, I was troubled by the growing number of short e-books. I was thinking, “Don’t customers want good value for their money?” “Are customers getting tricked, buying what they expect to be a book only to discover it’s really a short story?” “Are more authors getting lazier, writing and publishing shorter pieces?”

I understood reasons for the short e-books, but I was still troubled by it.

Customers can easily return e-books if they are dissatisfied. (Many do.) They can also check the page count before purchasing, and read the description carefully. If the Look Inside is brief, that’s a big hint. If they’re getting fooled by short books, they can get their money back or leave a review about it. The customer is certainly protected.

Writers are posting short e-books for a variety of reasons. Some don’t want to commit too much into their self-publishing endeavors, so a short piece is a way to experiment. Some are hoping to see what sort of customer feedback may come for short writing samples before laying their hearts on the line for full-length novels. Some plan to compile short works into an omnibus later on, such that the omnibus will look like a good value. There are other reasons, too. Not all of the reasons may be justified.

It’s not easy to get discovered as a new writer, whether writing full-length novels or short stories. Even 99 cents is a lot of money to invest in for one short story from a relatively unknown author; the story will be over quickly, so just imagine what you’ll spend for several hours of reading buying individual short stories. On the other hand, a full-length novel is a long commitment to make for a reader with a new author.

Is it easier to get readers to try out your short story, enjoy your book, and give your full-length novel a shot? Or is it easier to get new readers to appreciate the value of your full-length novel and commit to that as the first thing they read by you? Neither is ‘easy’ for most authors.

Commuter Fiction

I recently discovered this phrase in the KDP community forum. I like the concept. It’s changing my view of short e-books.

The idea behind commuter fiction is to write a short work that travelers can enjoy at a single sitting on an airplane or bus, for example. If you have a three-hour flight, for example, wouldn’t it be perfect to buy an e-book that you could read in three hours?

Authors and publishers have discovered that there is a market for short fiction, and they’ve responded with a way to make short fiction marketable.

You can call your short story a short story. You can call your novella a novella. You can list the word count. Kindle will estimate the page count. But that might not be the way to market your short e-book.

Consider selling it as commuter fiction. Maybe it would be handy to know approximately how many hours it would take the average reader to finish your e-book. A commuter might be interested in that figure.

Truck drivers have been listening to audio books for years. They buy books by the hour. If a truck driver is going on an eight-hour drive, it would be ideal to have an audio book that lasts eight hours (or four audio books that last two hours each), for example.

The same concept applies to passengers of buses, airplanes, and trains who are reading e-books on Kindles, tablets, laptops, and cell phones. What they would really like to know is how long it will take to read the e-book. Of course, this varies from person to person because we all read at different rates. If they can deduce an average, though, that will help them judge this.

I’m not saying that you should write short e-books. It might be harder to sell than full-length books. (Who knows?) Personally, as a customer, I like to receive a good value for my money. However, there are many customers who behave differently than I do.

What I am saying is this: If you’re going to write a short book, maybe you can improve its marketability by selling it as commuter fiction.

Publishing Resources

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Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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