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30 days ago, I launched sales for my book, The Tiny MBA.
On launch day, people could choose between pre-ordering the book in paperback or ebook, or via the Kindle store for instant delivery to their favorite Amazon reader.
Today – exactly 30 days later – I’m removing The Tiny MBA from the Kindle Store and Amazon completely, and for the foreseeable future. This article explains why.
Why sell on Amazon to begin with?
Amazon has one advantage, and it’s a big one: reach.
Amy and I have launched around a dozen digital products, always independently produced and distributed. We almost exclusively sell those products through our own platform - a combination of modern ecommerce tools and our email list.
This has served us quite well. We know how to reach and serve our core audience. But with The Tiny MBA, I thought there might be an opportunity to reach further. Between rankings and recommendation algorithms, Amazon’s platform seems like the most obvious way to get a book that people already like, in the hands of more people who might like it.
But these benefits come with tradeoffs.
The Tradeoff of Selling on Amazon
Most people think about the tradeoffs in terms of the financial side of selling books - especially ebooks - on Amazon. You might make less per book, but the potential to reach LOTS of customers…more overall reach and revenue.
Amazon makes it clear that this is their priority, too. While it’s common for independently published ebooks to be $20-$50 depending on the audience and the material inside, the Amazon ebook ecosystem is all about volume volume volume.
The Kindle platform heavily incentives authors to sell their ebooks for under $10, offering a 70% royalty if your book is $9.99 or less.
Sell your book for $10 or more? Take home a much smaller 30% royalty instead of 70%.
That is a BIG penalty for charging what your book may actually be “worth.” But if you want to play the Amazon game and reach a wider audience, pricing your ebook as an impulse buy is clearly the better option.
But the real issue isn’t the % of revenue you’re going to take home. It’s that you’re being paid a royalty.
Royalties vs Sales
When you sell your books through Amazon’s “Kindle Direct Publishing” (KDP) Platform, you aren’t really selling your books. Amazon is selling your books, and you are earning a royalty.
The key difference between earning a royalty and selling a book? The people who buy your book on Amazon’s platform are Amazon’s customers, not your customers.
This might seem like a matter of semantics, but it matters a lot, and you’ll see why in a second.
Climbing the Amazon Charts with a pre-sale
In the case of The Tiny MBA, we launched with a pre-sale. Amazon pre-sales are great because it gives you the ability to get your book “live” in the store, register sales (and recommendation data) in the Amazon system early, even before anybody has bought the book.
And in terms of using launch momentum, this can show the real power of Amazon.
By sending a single email, some % of our customers would choose to buy The Tiny MBA on Kindle. The reasons? The convenience of Amazon’s click checkout, and knowing that the ebook would show up on their favorite Kindle device on launch day.
The first few days were especially exciting. Within the first 24 hours, our first ~100 sales placed The Tiny MBA at the top of the Amazon “bestseller” and “featured new” charts for multiple categories.
Turns out that you don’t need that many sales to be an Amazon bestseller 🤔.
We ended up climbing to the top 10 of several categories, and held the number one spoit in a few others, including Small Business and Startup, putting The Tiny MBA next to popular titles like “The Lean Startup” and “The EMyth Revisited.” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t feel awesome.
But the sales numbers were less exciting than the vanity metrics.
In our first 30 days, barely 24% of our pre-orders were bought through Amazon.
Not nothing (though an even smaller % of the spread revenue wise) but…from the feedback I was receiving from many of those pre-sales customers via email and on Twitter, I felt pretty comfortable that a large portion of that 24% came from our list and marketing efforts and not from Amazon’s rankings.
But either way, I was looking forward to seeing people able to enjoy the book on their favorite ebook readers on launch day.
Across all platforms, 1600+ books sold before launch day. By almost every measure, a setup for a very successful independent book launch.
Then Launch Day Happened
I should start this section with the fact that this isn’t my first launch.
I expect things to go wrong on launch day, including things I can’t plan for. The best I can do is research and test to the best of my ability.
As such, leading up to launch day, I did about as much testing as I could figure out how to do. I’d generated test runs of our print books with our paperback fulfillment partner. I’d tested out our own digital fulfillment workflows with our customer portal.
Amazon’s KDP platform was the wildcard leading up to launch day, always leaving me feeling a little bit uncertain that I’d done things right. I did a lot of research, and as best as I could figure out from talking to multiple successful Kindle authors and publishers, everything seemed ready to go.
Everything looked good on the morning of August 26th. My birthday (yes, I launched my book on my birthday). People were posting images of The Tiny MBA on their iPhones and tablets, as well as their paperback copies.
But then the first message came in: “I tried to download The Tiny MBA to my Kindle Paperwhite, and it gave me an error. Do you know what’s up?”
Uh oh. After a bit of research, I found the problem.
You could’ve stopped this, Amazon
When I set up The Tiny MBA in Amazon, I used an official Amazon tool called “Kindle Create.” It’s promoted prominently right on the dashboard of the KDP portal.
Later, I would find out that using this official tool was a mistake.
Further, I noticed an option in KDP to convert my beautifully designed PDF book files into a KPF file, one of the options that prepped the book for sale on the Kindle store.
I was a little skeptical, but with a bit of research, found that I could email the PDF files directly to my kindle device to make sure the PDF would display as expected. And it looked perfect!
So I continued setting up my book for pre-sale in the KDP portal. I uploaded my KPF file, generated by Kindle Create. I wrote my title, description, and other metadata. I set categories and pricing. I clicked “preview” and everything looked great.
I pressed “submit” and waited for my book to be reviewed. A few hours later, my book was approved. Ready for sale on the Amazon Kindle Store.
People bought (pre-ordered) books.
Fast forward to launch day, on August 26th.
I found out that the KPF file that was created by Amazon’s own Kindle Create software will only be available on Kindle Fire devices and the Kindle App.
The biggest and best selling Kindle devices - their standalone e-ink readers by the same “Kindle” name, would NOT download and display the KPF file. Even though the PDF embedded in the KPF works perfectly when manually sent to the exact same devices.
I’ve gone back to the Amazon Kindle Create app to see if this was avoidable.
See that green box? It probably should have been RED.
It also could have said “WARNING: This ebook will NOT be compatible with Kindle e-reader devices like the Kindle Paperwhite, etc.Choose this format wisely!” or something like that. Because when I read it, I see that it will work on Fire Tablets and Kindle Reading apps, maybe enabling certain special capabilities IF you are using a Fire tablet or the Kindle app.
I do NOT see that it will exclude a massive portion of the Kindle buyer market!
So yes, I made a mistake in this step. But Amazon could have easily helped prevent this mistake.
And worse, unlike most choices, it turns out this particular one was also permanent.
Quick, update the files!
My first thought is that this fancy KPF/PDF file is the problem. I called Amazon and confirmed, it is.
Thankfully, I had already invested in converting the book into a set of .mobi and .epub files. They don’t look nearly as nice as the carefully designed PDF, but part of the Kindle experience is being able to change your font and font size, so I’m okay with that.
But when I attempt to upload the .mobi files in the place of the KPF file, Amazon throws a new roadblock.
It turns out that when you upload the files to create a book for the first time, if you upload that KPF file, the book is stuck in what is known as a fixed layout or “print replica” format.
Basically, the thing that (apparently) their own e-readers can’t handle.
I called Amazon Kindle support again, who to their credit, were nice. At least the first few times I called. They explained that this is a known issue, and that once you create a book using a fixed layout file, you can’t just switch it to an epub to make it compatible with all of their devices.
Meanwhile, I get my first review, and it’s a 4 star review that’s just about their inability to read the book on their Kindle device!!
Now we have two problems
At the recommendation of Kindle support, I tried creating a brand new second book in the KDP dashboard. All of the same meta, descriptions, pricing, etc. The only difference is the first file I upload, which is the .mobi file.
After a short waiting period for approval. My book is approved. I buy a copy. I send it to my Kindle e-reader device. It works as expected, unlike the previous variation.
But now…I have two problems.
Yes, new Amazon customers can buy a version of the book that will work on all Kindle devices.
What about the 400+ people who bought the previous version, and the unknown % of them who were struggling and confused to download the book they purchased to the e-reader they expected to read it on?
Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos is famous for saying that Amazon is successful, not because of its monopolistic power or anti-competitive behavior, but because of its relentless focus on the customer experience.
Meanwhile, at this moment, they have a bunch of customers in a completely avoidable situation, who are unable to access a book they paid for USING THE KINDLE STORE to read on their favorite KINDLE DEVICE.
This is uniquely anti-customer, and in my opinion, further cements the idea that Amazon only acts in its own self interest.
I try to explain this entire experience to KDP support.
But instead of trying to understand the problem, I am met with a broken record of policies repeated by rude support agents who insist on talking over my concerns about the customer experience.
One support agent suggests that once I’ve published the new, widely compatible ebook, to unpublish the old one. This takes it out of the store to avoid further confusion.
Selfishly, it also means losing my Kindle category rankings earned from the pre-sales. But I can live with that. The real problem is that there are 400+ customers that I can’t reach to say “Hey, there’s a weird technical limitation on the Kindle store. If you’re getting an error downloading the book to your e-reader, your Kindle isn’t broken! Here’s what you can do to fix it.”
And even if I could message every one of those 400 customers (which I can’t because they aren’t my customers, they’re Amazon’s customers), many won’t have an option for resolution.
Because it turns out that people who bought early in the presale are ineligible to request a refund on their original purchase. LOL. Even though the book was only “available” today, on August 26th, their pre-sale started the refund clock, and prevented them from getting a refund on a book that they could not access as expected on launch day.
So even if I wanted to, and was able to, tell the 400+ Kindle customers_ “buy the new book at this link and cancel the old one”_ many would not be allowed to because of this refund policy.
- 400+ people bought a book through the Kindle store, but some % of them are unable to read that book on their official Kindle device because of a file format issue created by official Amazon Kindle Create software
- Amazon also does not allow for files to be updated from this incompatible format (KPF) to a format that will work on all devices, even if the file itself works perfectly.
- And even if I create a new book and unpublish the original one it loses all metadata including rankings (and presumably reviews).
- Amazon also does not provide a way to communicate with customers about this problem to let them know that it’s not their fault.
- And Amazon also does not allow all pre-order customers to request a refund, even if they only “received” the on launch day to find out that it will not work on their expected device.
This situation sucks.
So what are my options?
The most frustrating part of this process at this point is KDP support, who (often rudely, talking over me) tells me that the problem is with my manuscript, which was generated using their official software.
They also tell me, in no uncertain terms, that there is literally nothing I can do.
If a customer can’t access the book on their device, they have the option to contact Kindle support and request a refund (which I repeat is not actually possible for everybody, and KDP support says that refund policy isn’t within their jurisdiction cuz of course it’s not.)
They repeat that there is NO way to update a fixed layout/print replica book into a reflowable, widely compatible book. This is apparently a technical limitation, no senior supervisor can override.
They repeat that I can unpublish my old book and new customers can buy the reflowable one, but “if a customer bought the old version, there is absolutely nothing we can do.”
Their words. Not mine.
At this point, I’m trying to understand my finite options. Based on my conversations, I narrow them down to the following three:
Option 1: Keep both versions, rename product titles, hope for the best.
This is basically KDP’s first suggestion, and it’s pretty terrible. This is only going to create confusion, almost certainly undermining any upside gained by having either book on Amazon.
This option quickly ruled itself out.
Option 2: Unpublish KPF version, Leave .mobi version, hope for the best
This was KDP’s second suggestion, it’s also pretty terrible.
Unpublishing the version that doesn’t work on all Kindle devices won’t impact people who bought already, as they’ll be able to access the book indefinitely (in theory). New customers just won’t be able to buy it.
And besides giving up the Kindle store rankings, this option still doesn’t solve for the reality that 400+ people bought the original book, can’t get a refund, and will need to buy it again to access it on their preferred device.
Option 3: Unpublish all versions of The Tiny MBA from the Kindle store, entirely
The nuclear option. I don’t like it, but at the end of the day, maybe the #1 reason to own your distribution platform is so you can tell marketplaces like Amazon “sorry bub, this just isn’t worth it.”
According to Amazon, if we choose to unpublish, existing customers will be able to access the files (insomuch as they already can/cannot), we just won’t get any new customers through the Amazon Kindle Store.
Which, at this point of the story, I think I’m okay with.
After careful consideration, we’re going with option 3
As of today, The Tiny MBA will no longer be available in the Amazon Kindle store.
We’re not willing to trade the potential of Amazon’s distribution, and having my book show up alongside books by other incredible authors, for an overall better customer experience where we have the power to help our customers when something goes wrong.
It’s not about the money or the royalty structure, it’s about the value of the customer relationship, which Amazon clearly does not value the same way we do.
Instead of wasting time fighting with Amazon for a refund, we’ll simply and quickly provide you with DRM free files that you can own forever and instructions on how to load onto your own favorite reading device.
Going forward, The Tiny MBA will continue to be available in file formats that work on all devices, including Kindle e-ink devices. We’ll include step-by-step instructions to make it as easy as possible to load the files onto your favorite device.
Maybe someday in the future The Tiny MBA will be available on an improved version of the Amazon Kindle store. I don’t know if I’d go back even if they changed. We’ll see.
In the meantime, I’m deeply sorry to the people who enthusiastically pre-ordered The Tiny MBA on Amazon and had a disappointing experience on launch day. I promise that we’re working to make this experience better for this and all future products, even though Amazon has made it clear that they won’t help resolve this totally avoidable issue.
The moral(s) of the story?
In spite of this particular mess, self publishing is an amazing experience in 2020. We’re sending thousands of books around the world within 30 days of opening sales. I highly recommend it.
Amazon claims to care about “relentless customer satisfaction” but the KDP store experience says otherwise. This should not surprise anybody, myself included.
If you’re considering publishing on KDP, consider the alternatives. Ebook distribution through the Kindle store is…a game. Bestseller rankings are much easier to score than you probably think. Either way, if you’re playing, know the rules, and understand that the house almost always wins. Consider an email list tool like ConvertKit plus a digital commerce tool like Podia.
Our paperback publishing of The Tiny MBA is being done on-demand by Lulu Express, directly integrated with Shopify. The experience has been wonderful, the book quality is exceptional, and Lulu’s customer support has been top notch. With Lulu, there are no big upfront book orders or shipping from your basement/garage, but also no reliance on Amazon’s KDP print-on-demand option (which is technically susceptible to the core issues I’ve encountered on the digital side, since on-demand fulfillment is also a royalty model not a sales model).
Something will always go wrong on launch day, but if you don’t have control over the part that goes wrong, your options for resolution are severely limited.
Always. Own. Your. Platform. If you don’t have a platform of your own yet (e.g. an email list where you can reach people who know your work and are interested in more), today is a great day to get started.