Wide vs. Exclusive: A Tale of Two Marketing Systems

Lots of people right now are asking themselves whether they should leave Kindle Unlimited.

I’m generally agnostic on it, and I think writers should do what is best for them and their books, but there’s no doubt this is the big question of the moment.

That’s partly down to falling pay rates, Amazon’s inability to deal with scammers and cheaters, or the increasing concern about having all your eggs in one basket when something like this (or this, or this) regularly happens. But I think authors are asking themselves the wrong question.

The real issue, I suggest, should surround how you are going to find readers on these retailers (or on Amazon, if you have decided to swim in the other direction). Because I often see people taking the wrong approach – using the wrong tools for the job.

I gave a talk at NINC earlier this month which was titled Wide or Exclusive? How to Effectively Promote a Series. I had been invited to speak after meeting one of the programming co-chairs at another conference in Austin earlier this year, and we hashed out a few ideas for workshops by email.

If I was a faster writer, I would have given her a more apt title for the talk – A Tale of Two Marketing Systems – because one thing becomes clear as soon as you contrast the authors who have been successful in KU with those who have been successful wide: they are two very different approaches.

Aside from my own efforts, and that of authors I regularly stalk, I was also able to draw on the fascinating experience of managing marketing for another author over the last six months – one with a considerably larger audience and backlist. And he has been killing it in KU, getting a Kindle All Star every month since March.

I have much less direct experience with wide, but lots of my friends have been doing very well on Apple, Kobo, and Nook for some time now, and many authors (including Deanna Chase, Sarah Woodbury, Monique Martin, and Ernie Dempsey) were kind enough to share their numbers and experiences. And, conveniently enough for my purposes, they all told a similar story.

The KU Effect

Back in August, I wrote something called The Visibility Gambit which detailed how KU has changed the Kindle marketplace and what kind of approach is needed there now, so I won’t rehash all that (but do read that post if you missed it). Suffice to say that the Kindle Store now has more churn than before – everything from #100,000 right to the top seems to move around a lot more.

Success in KU – to reach the very top levels – requires aggression, patience, and a willingness to forgo today’s income for tomorrow’s page reads. And it also necessitates a much more complex marketing plan than before. A few years ago, this basic template could take you very far indeed:

Whereas in 2017, some variation of the following (with the accompanying investment) is often required to hit the upper reaches of the charts.

This KU-marketing arms-race has obviously made it much tougher on Amazon for books that are wide – they don’t have borrows to boost their rank, they don’t get reads to help with marketing ROI, and they are getting leaped over and pushed down by thousands of KU-powered salmon every hour.

And it’s not like things are much easier on Apple or Kobo. Bootstrapping yourself to success is harder there than on Amazon, and momentum is tougher to recover when it starts slipping.

Some people are succeeding though – both those who are in KU, and those who are wide, and what I’m seeing is that it’s usually people who are all in with whatever distribution model they have decided upon. And that makes sense. We all know that the more titles you have the easier it is to market and the easier it is for readers to discover you. So the more titles you have on Apple, or the more you have available to borrow in KU, the more likely that mode of distribution is going to work for you.

But, honestly, it won’t work at all without a marketing strategy to reach those readers – whether they are KU subscribers, or owners of that fancy waterproof Kobo reader. How do you reach them?

The Bifurcation of Success

Studying the two kinds of people that are successful wide and successful in KU, it’s clear that the marketing approaches are completely different. And I mean completely different. The guys are killing it wide often aren’t doing as well – in relative terms – on Amazon anymore. Which makes sense when you consider the disadvantage they are at when trying to appeal to a KU subscriber who can essentially get a comparable book for free.

I’ve seen authors post insane numbers for Apple and Nook and Google Play and their Amazon rankings aren’t necessarily in line with that. While their income is stable overall, or even increasing, the Amazon proportion has dropped considerably – in some cases it is now less than 50%. Which is astonishing compared to Amazon’s relative market share.

What’s going on here?

The KU Hare v The Wide Tortoise

Essentially two separate marketing systems are emerging – the big monthly blast approach (as detailed in the slides above) seems to suit the KU Hares much better. Whereas our Wide Tortoises seem to get more joy from a slow and steady, drip approach. They may not have the same eye-catching rankings on Amazon but they have lots of little income streams coming in from retailers and territories all over the world – and they can all add up to a mighty river rivaling the income from some of the top KU superstars.

The reason why the drip approach is better paired with wide and the blast approach works better with KU is down to the structural nature of the stores themselves. While each store has its own quirks, and there are a variety of unique things you can do to boost sales at, say, Kobo or Apple, you can more general divide these stores into Amazon v The Rest.

The Kindle Store is very much algo-driven – a weird form of meritocracy where any book can appear in the most visible spots in the store, given the right circumstances. Whereas at The Rest, these spots are often curated, hand-picked – or human-driven if you prefer. Amazon’s recommendation engine can be coaxed into doing the selling for you, whereas with the competing stores, you are often going to have to find the customers yourself and bring them there.

I could go on at length here but I think the point is fairly clear: there are profound differences between Amazon and its competitors, which means that readers discover books on those platforms in different ways, which means you need a different approach to reach them.

A key mistake that people often make when going wide is trying to apply a blast approach, when a drip approach would probably serve them better. But what does that involve?

Drip, Drip, Drip

The blast approach is pretty well covered above and in August’s post on KU, but what are the general markers of these successful wide authors?

When you examine them, they all are doing similar things. They often have slicker websites, whereas some of the KU All Stars don’t even have a website! They have bigger mailing lists. They focus more on micro-targeted campaigns. They have a bigger international presence. They invariably have a permafree book, or a very cheap series intro at least. And sales tend to be steadier for our Wide Tortoises, whereas our KU Hares experience more gut-clenching peaks and troughs.

Let’s break it down.

The reason why they tend to have bigger mailing lists is because they have less tools to play with than KU peeps. They have no Countdown deals – and, crucially, no 70% royalties on those 99c sales – meaning that marketing those discounts is twice as expensive (or they get half the return, if you want to be more accurate). They have no easy way of making things free. They can do it, but they can’t come off free with the same precision as those in Select and won’t get the same post-free bump. Each tool at a wide author’s disposal must work that little bit harder. Meaning their mailing list needs to shift more books.

This explains the slicker websites. Wide authors often have more aggressive mailing list strategies: Facebook leadgen ads, reader magnets, newsletter swaps, competitions, BookFunnel, group promos, InstaFreebie – if there is a semi-viable method of getting names they will be all over it. But most of these things cost money, meaning that these authors need to have slick websites so they don’t lose any people during the sign-up process (or at the very least, an optimized landing page on their site).

Because each subscriber is worth more to a wide author, and because they are invariably spending money to get those names, they need to treat them better too – and wide authors are more likely to get deeper into email marketing best practices: things like optimizing deliverability, automated sequences, and segmentation.

The nub of all this is that you don’t have this giant algo-driven recommendation engine at the other retailers – not on anything like the same scale. You don’t have Popularity Lists where you can aim for to drive borrows – it just doesn’t exist.

So you have to build something else instead.

It’s not just email, talking with retailers and getting on their radar is crucial – and events like NINC and RWA can be great for that. Sweet-talk them, fluff up your peacock feathers, present the books to readers the way they like (e.g. in terms of pricing and covers). And obviously sell as many books as possible without their help to make them wonder what you could do with their help.

BookBub is another huge weapon in the wide author’s arsenal. It’s getting increasingly tricky to get a Featured Deal when you are in KU. Even the very biggest KU authors can struggle with this. When you are wide, the chances of getting accepted are much greater, especially if you pimp the hell out of yourself and your books in that comment box. That’s what it’s there for…

And permafree is huge for wide authors, of course, one of the few proven, always available tools to get sales going when you are wide. There are less freebies wide – less new freebies from good authors at least, so you can really work that angle hard. It’s especially effective when paired with reader magnets to boost your list, and if you don’t want to give away yet another book as that magnet, then start thinking about what kind of exclusive content you could offer: perhaps you have a short story or novella that isn’t selling much on its own, perhaps you have some maps or deleted scenes or alternative endings that your hardcore readers will lap up. You can be quite creative here. And make sure to use those opportunities for visibility at places like Kobo and Apple for those free first-in-a-series books.

Retailer love, an aggressive mailing list building and retention strategy, BookBub features, and permafree. And on top of that you will be using Facebook very differently also.

Facebook ads are a high stakes game when you are in KU. When you are running a monthly blast campaign you might have a 5-day window on your freebie or a 7-day one on your 99c KCD to get your campaign up-and-running, serving properly, delivering clicks cheaply enough, to the right readers, and scaled up to a level which is a difference maker – oh and all that while returning a profit too. Not always easy, that’s for sure.

But when you are wide, you have one crucial advantage: time.

Your book isn’t free for five days, it’s free forever, so you can spend time optimizing the hell out of your ads and finessing your targeting and getting those CPCs down super-cheap. Tracking is often a problem with blast campaigns – you have so much going on that it’s hard to know what’s delivering sales and what isn’t – but with lower level drip campaigns you can often just eyeball your sales graph and see what’s doing the business for you. Switch one ad on and another ad off, and see what that does to your downloads, without fretting that you have wasted one of your five days.

Which is handy because you will be engaging in micro-targeted campaigns now, both on Facebook and on BookBub’s CPM platform. Instead of a big US-only campaign focusing exclusively on Kindle owners, you will be searching out cheaper-to-reach pockets of readers all over the world – like Kobo owners in Canada or iBooks users in Australia. And these guys are less saturated with deals too, meaning you can often flog them full price books! It’s a totally different ball game.

Ask The Right Question

The question people always ask themselves is should I go wide, or be exclusive. There isn’t one answer which works for everyone, and there never has been. You need to experiment and find out what is best for you and your books.

The problem is that most people don’t experiment properly. Maybe they take a drip approach when in KU, or aren’t aggressive enough with pricing and marketing. Perhaps they take a blast approach when wide, but are getting steamrollered by Countdown deals earning twice the royalties. Or worst of all, they enter KU, or roll the books out wide thinking their work will magically get discovered.

That never happens.

Whatever you decide to do with your books, try and execute some plan to find readers on that platform. And if you are considering going wide with books that have been in KU, it’s time to change your focus from big monthly campaigns to regular drip campaigns. It’s time to get more aggressive about getting people on to your list (and keeping them). It’s time to switch from short-term PPC campaigns focused on the US market, to ongoing lower-budget campaigns focusing on other retailers and territories.

And it’s time to start thinking about how you can woo those retailers.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.