KindleScout: Worthwhile?

Sounds like the fantasied meritocracy indie authors dream about. Is it, and will it work?

Amazon has been building up to KindleScout since it got into the publishing business in 2007. KindleScout wields Amazon’s massive customer base to create a mostly crowd-sourced publishing imprint, Kindle Press.

Full disclosure: I used to work at Amazon, with authors.

Here’s KindleScout in a nutshell: you submit your manuscript, lobby your tribe to become Scouts and vote for it based on the excerpt Amazon shows, and wait 30 days to see if Amazon bites. Best case scenario, you walk away with a Kindle Press publishing contract, a $1,500 advance, 50% ebook royalties, and a spot in Amazon’s fiefdom for five years.

Pros and cons for indie authors:

  • $1,500 is a windfall for authors who trade blood and tears for every cent they make, and if you’re selected you get this advance up front. It looks like you don’t even have to pay it back if you don’t make enough royalties*
  • Granting Amazon ebook exclusivity means, duh, you can’t publish on other platforms like Apple’s iBooks.
  • 50% ebook royalties are less than Amazon KDP’s usual 70%, and more than traditional publishing’s ~25%. (Subjective opinion: I’d be willing to trade 20% royalties for the possibility of juggernaut marketing. Other authors may not.)
  • That’s right, the possibility. Amazon will market your book as it sees fit, and doesn’t guarantee anything specific.
  • KindleScout votes only narrow the field. Amazon makes the final call on accepted manuscripts.
  • Amazon reserves the right to change your manuscript.
  • You do NOT grant Amazon exclusive print rights. You can publish your print edition with anyone.

Is It Good for Authors?

When Amazon launches a new program every other day, it’s easy to miss KindleScout’s historic significance. How many authors have wished that all it took to gain fame was to write an incredible book? KindleScout is the first largescale attempt to make that dream come true. While it’s not a perfect meritocracy, it’s the closest thing that exists in the universe.

We authors are a skittish bunch, however, and when behemoth Amazon makes the machinery of success so black-boxy, we get nervous about tying up our rights for 5 years. Early blogs I’ve read from indie authors all seem to be trying to find a catch.

Personally, I don’t think authors have anything to fear from KindleScout. On the contrary, $1,500 is a vote of confidence. Once Amazon shells out, they need to make their money back and then some, and they’ll invest marketing resources to make that happen, even if they don’t tell you exactly how. Their cryptic terms simply give them maneuvering room to decide how best to market each book they sign.

If you think you’ll make more money publishing through multiple channels and continuing to shoulder all of the marketing yourself, don’t enroll. The only thing you really have to lose by trying it out is the 45 day period while they consider you, during which you can’t publish elsewhere. If I had a manuscript ready to go, I’d do it.

Will it Work?

The challenge to KindleScout’s long term success is its ability to attract real readers (not just author devotees who vote up manuscripts by authors in their social network). Otherwise, KindleScout will be a dead end indie circle jerk that can’t produce enough viable bestsellers to power a virtuous cycle.

First, there’s some unappetizing crap on KindleScout’s page. Most of us don’t have the funds for professional cover design, and it shows. I skipped excerpts with bad covers. Don’t judge a book by its cover is an adage from a time when all books were dark blue clothbound ten-pounders. My adage: Unprofessional writers are happy with unprofessional covers.

As a reader, I’d be more likely to give an excerpt a chance if Amazon de-emphasized the cover to a thumbnail, and put more emphasis on the teaser text, many of which are really intriguing. OR, had a stringent set of hard requirements for book covers. Stringent. Like, certain fonts from 80s television show credits are not allowed. In my James Lipton interview fantasy, when he asks me what my turn-offs are, I say, Hands down, crappy book covers. And snot rockets.

Second, without careful curation, all KindleScout does is aim KDP’s fire hose of bilge at poor volunteers. Put manuscripts through a machine learning algorithm for quality. I’ve worked with machine learning teams and I know this is possible. Shaving off the bottom 10% of bad writing will go a long way toward not exhausting volunteer readers. Perhaps they do this already, but I hope Amazon will invest resources into quality identification in the long term. Prose style may be subjective, but is quality?

Is there a readability bar, a complexity bar, a set of standard plot shapes that represent 99% of popular fiction, that writers must  meet to be considered readable and compelling? My friend Alexis wrote a great post on how our brains are wired for story; that certain plot shapes and literary devices are more effective than others in engaging readers. I’ve learned that if we can identify patterns manually, it’s only a matter of time until we can automate that identification.  Among all of its other tools and programs designed to help authors, I think KindleScout is really important, and if Amazon takes a first stab and releases it into the ether without looking back, it won’t just affect Amazon; it will negatively impact all future efforts at the meritocratization of writing. It’s a great start, Amazon. I hope you iterate.

In that vein, I’d like to see Amazon expand the category offerings. Genre is popular, so it made sense to start with it, but because Sci Fi/Fantasy/Romance are so popular to read and write, they also attract more poor attempts. Go the extra mile to enroll nonfiction, for example. Maude is a KDP rising star Kindle Press could have snatched up.

Now I see that KindleScout’s Author FAQs say they only accept genre whereas their submission checklist says they include most major categories. I’ll amend this post once amateur hour is finished over there. (Aprill 22 update: yay, fixed! Most major genres are accepted now, strike my previous comment. Perhaps this is an encouraging sign that Amazon is indeed iterating.)

In a true meritocracy, I hope to see big data play a bigger role in identifying quality text. KindleScout is the closest thing to a publishing democracy and I’m all for it, but democracy also leads to 50 Shades of Grey, The Fast and the Furious, and Michele Bachmann. No disrespect if you’re a fan of any of those, bibliogony needs both. As an obsessive reader of not-50-shades, I’ll be waiting for Amazon to publish the next Pride & Prejudice. Accidents don’t count.

*From the Submission & Publishing Agreement:

6.3 Any reversion under this Section 6 will be subject to (a) any limited term third party sublicenses granted prior to the date of the reversion for (i) purposes of sale of foreign language editions of your Work, (ii) distribution of your Work to members of book clubs, or (iii) any other purpose you approve, and (b) the right of each party to receive a share of proceeds from those sublicenses. If you are not in breach of this Agreement and your rights are reverted pursuant to this Section 6, you may keep your Advance.

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