Business Musings: Exclusivity in 2022 Part One
I’m doing a deep dive into a few companies that caught my eye in 2021. I want to see if I can expand my reach using their services. I’m also evaluating whether or not those services will take too much of my time.
I’m noticing something in almost all of them. Their service is scalable. Meaning, it has levels.
Let me see if I can put this clearly without revealing which services I’m looking at and using their language. Why am I not revealing which services? Because I don’t know enough about them yet to know if I should view them in a negative or positive light.
Rather than having any kind of misunderstanding, I’m going to avoid naming names and quoting FAQs.
So here, in general, is what I’m talking about.
Let’s say we’re using a book-to-reader service, with a lot of readers who expect a certain kind of product. To name one name, Kindle Unlimited is one of those services, maybe the granddaddy of them all. I’m not looking at that one, and to be honest, their service isn’t really scalable.
But I’m looking at streaming services and other products that are based on the K.U. model and, in many cases, improve upon it.
So book-to-reader services. They have a non-exclusive option. Writers can take reprints or books that are already out in various markets, and use this service with some of its tools. Not as many tools, mind you, but enough tools to get the writer interested.
There’s a book-exclusive option. With this option, the book only appears on this service, but every other book the writer produces can be distributed through other means. This book-exclusive option might be for a certain type of book or maybe a book that’s being serialized. But for the moment, no reader can find that book anywhere except the service.
K.U. does use this model. It’s up to the writer how many books are on K.U., but once the book is put on the service, it must stay there for 90 days…or at least, that’s what it was the few times I tried K.U.
There’s the get-more option. With a certain number of books and a certain commitment, the writer can get more promotion, more opportunities, and more ways to put the book in front of the service’s readers. That’s a key point. It’s not all readers. It’s just the one in this service.
That’s not anything to sneeze at. A lot of these services have millions of readers. No real delineation as to whether those readers signed up five years ago and haven’t touched the service in three years or whether those readers read everything they can find as fast as they can read.
But millions of eyeballs count for something. And some writers want that, especially with the extra goodies that the service provides if the writer signs up for the get-more option.
Then there’s the exclusive option. That’s different from the book-exclusive option. The exclusive option is usually by invitation. The service contacts one of its better-selling writers and offers all kinds of perks for that writer to put everything into the service, and pull out of all the other services and distributors.
Finally, there’s the superstar option. I wasn’t able to dig deep enough to see what the superstar option is for many of these services. On at least one, the superstar option is truly for Big Name writers with a huge following. There’s even an implication on one of the services that if the superstar agrees to put their latest book on the service exclusively for x amount of time, then the superstar does not have to make their other books exclusive.
Why does this work for the book-to-reader service? It brings in the superstar’s fanbase. The superstar has to agree that their latest novels for the duration of the contract (and believe me, there will be a contract) must be exclusive to the service first, before the book goes wide.
I have no idea if that will be worthwhile for a true superstar writer, but it’s certainly a better deal than the exclusive option. And in the superstar deal, both sides get something. The superstar gets access to the millions of readers that they might not receive otherwise, and the service grows its core number of readers.
Win-win…for a while at least.
But let’s talk about exclusive and exclusivity for a moment.
Exclusivity is a great tool for your business toolbox. It allows you to learn about some services. Once you peer under the hood, so to speak, you can see if the hype has any reality to it.
Sometimes the hype is just that—hype. Often the hype can be boiled down to a certain level of work. If you put in the time, you’ll get this kind of return from it. And sometimes the hype is truth: you, as a writer, will gain something if you actually use this service.
Before we go much farther, let me be clear about what I’m going to say next.
For those of you with fewer than ten books to your name, going exclusive on any service is a dumb idea. Build your audience across as many platforms as you can find. Learn how to write, how to publish, and gain a following. Protect your career and your income, as you will see in the next post.
Ten books is a minimum, not a maximum.
You need to get to the point, as a writer, where your published books are widgets. They’re something you can experiment with, something you can use to sample a service, something you can try a brand-new shiny thing with.
I have over 400 products-widgets-books of one form or another. Some are great for experimenting. Others will never ever ever be part of an exclusive experiment. I’m aware which of those they are.
You want to have a lot of published books, so that they’re not your babies, and you’re willing to damage them—if only for 90 days—just to see how well a service or a new product will work for you.
Assuming you have ten books…
…then exclusivity is a major tool in your toolbox. You can use it yourself—offering a brand new book in your ongoing series exclusively to backers of your Kickstarter, for example, for a few months before the actual publication date. Or for your Patreon followers. Or for some other service that you’re working in or on.
Superfans love exclusive content, things that go to them only. They either want to be the first to see it or the only ones who have it. That’s a great use of exclusivity.
You’ve seen me use it on my Kickstarters, at least when the book is finished. Backers get the book early.
Testing, testing, testing
I mentioned above that I tested K.U. to see if it would work for me. I tested it in a variety of ways. Back in the day, when K.U. was primarily romance, I put one of my romance novels up before it went wide. Got some traction, but I made less money than I would have if I had put it on Amazon without the exclusive.
Then I tried it with another type of book. Same problem.
And finally, I used three books from one of my pen names, which was, at the time, unknown, to see if K.U. could build a base before going wide on Amazon.
Yeah, maybe, kinda, but the base was only on Amazon. Turns out that the pen name sells well on all platforms. Those early attempts at K.U. might have hurt it.
Being exclusive on K.U. helped me, the blogger, though. I learned that the K.U. ecosystem is dangerous. It does not help me grow my own business. The readers on K.U. do not cross over to purchasing books. Writers have listed that as their experience for a long time now, and it’s true.
What happens in the K.U. ecosystem stays in the K.U. ecosystem.
Other streaming services that provide content to readers who pay a monthly price are not exclusive. The writer can put a book in a non-exclusive option and reap a lot of benefits from the streaming service, while continuing to sell the book elsewhere.
What happens then is something Dean and I talk about all the time. The streaming service income becomes another source of income. It’s a way to make money different from standard book sales. It’s also a way to attract readers who would never buy a book, but nonetheless want to read it.
Short-term exclusivity in those services is nice as well. It works like that Kickstarter example I gave above. Certain readers get the product first, and maybe the writer gets some perks that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
I use limited exclusivity in a variety of ways.
First, I use it to test new services, as I mentioned above. A one-book exclusive allows me to see the inner workings of whatever service it is, and sample the ecosystem. Sometimes the ecosystem is for me; often it’s something that doesn’t work in my business model.
Second, I use it to reward the regular readers of my work. I love offering a new book exclusively to the loyal readers for a short period of time. These are the folks who’ve followed my career or a book series for a long time; they deserve some respect in return.
Third, I use it to draw in new readers. Later this year, I will have a serialized novel in Asimov’s. That novel will be exclusive to Asimov’s readership for a few months, before I can make the book go wide. I have a decades-long following in Asimov’s, so in some ways, that’s appealing to my regular readers. But Asimov’s also brings in new readers all the time, and so I’m hoping that those new readers will like what they’re reading and will then pick up more of my work.
I do this with short fiction constantly. I write a short story and sell it to a traditional market (with a good contract), and hope that the readers of that story will want to buy something else of mine. It’s a nice little trade-off.
Used to be that magazines and anthologies were the only way to do this. Now there are streaming services, bundling of short stories into online markets, and a whole bunch of other ways for short stories to enter the world and gain new readers.
Same with novels.
Years ago, I did not join a nascent streaming service because I did the math. I couldn’t figure out how I would make money from that service. It would take hours of my time every week to gain readers, but I would receive no payment (not even in pages read). No one knew back then if reading a book on the service would lead to purchases down the road.
I certainly couldn’t ask an employee or a contractor to handle the service for me, because the service didn’t pay. So, if I had someone else do the work, I would be losing money every month.
That’s an easy and definite no.
It’s harder when the service pays small amounts of money. Even if the service is non-exclusive, it still must be cost-effective.
What is cost effective?
I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but it’s worth reiterating here. You need to put an hourly value on your time. Make it the amount you got per hour from your last day job. Make it what you actually get per hour from your writing (if your writing is paying well). Make it the amount of money your attorney brother-in-law makes per hour.
It doesn’t matter what your hourly rate is. That’s up to you. (And watch, most of you will undervalue your time.) But that hourly rate is a good tool and guide.
Let’s use $100 per hour, which is more than you all will probably decide to use, but I’m doing it for the sake of easy math.
You try the new service, realize that it takes 8 hours per week of your time to fiddle with it. That’s an $800 fiddle—per week.
After a few months (which is a good test), you’re making $500 per month on the service, but you’re still doing that 8-hour per week fiddle. The fiddle is costing you $3200 per month, and you’re only making $500.
That’s a loss of $2700 in time. Because your time has value.
That’s not necessarily a no to the service though. If you think the service has the potential to grow past your $3200 per month, maybe earning $4000 per month, then stick with it until you make that.
Or, once you’ve learned all the automation tools the service provides and you can cut your time down to an hour per week—well then, that’s $400 per month, and you’re earning $500. You’re making $100…and maybe, just maybe, gaining readers.
If you think you can grow that $500 with a minimum of effort, stick with the service. If you don’t mind the hour per week, stick with the service. If you hate fiddling with the service, even for that hour, drop the service immediately.
See how that works?
When Good Services Go Bad
In my year-in-review, I pointed out two different services that were bought out by other companies in the past year. One of them, Open Road Media, had changed from its original mission years ago. If you signed with them to market your ebooks exclusively (as some writers did), you signed with a company that uploaded and promoted ebooks. Eventually, though, it became a digital advertising service, that helps other companies sell their wares. It’s not the company it was ten years ago, and not the one that most writers joined.
Most of those writers have no idea that the business changed.
I’m not saying that’s bad, but it is different. And the writer needs to stay abreast of whatever is going on with that company.
That means reading the contract every single year.
I used to submit a novella every year to an incredible contest sponsored by a European government. No fee for entry, and incredible prizes and prize money. Lots of exposure. And yes, the novella had to be exclusive for a certain period of time. Not a big deal, particularly for the winning novella, because of the amount of money involved.
Then, the recession hit. And the government hit an austerity mindset. It cut funding for projects like that. The contest went away for a few years, and when it came back, it paid less. It also bought more. In fact, you couldn’t even submit the novella without giving up a piece of the copyright. It had gone from great to crappy in the space of five years.
And the only way to know that was to read the terms before submission.
Dean and I have a practice that we also instilled in the employees at WMG Publishing. We print out the Terms of Service for any company that we use. We date that TOS, so that we know what the TOS was when we first signed up. We keep track of the changes, and print those as well.
But we’re solid about what the agreement was when we started with the service, and we slowly learn how (or if) that service changed.
I didn’t use Patreon for the longest time because its TOS gave it copyright ownership, even though the FAQs said they didn’t want ownership. That contradiction was the type that could only be settled in a fairly ugly lawsuit. The TOS would probably govern, particularly if Patreon had sold at that point. (The new owners would have had the option to enforce the copyright rule, something I was unwilling to risk.)
People complained. They mentioned the contradiction. And Patreon, to their credit, changed their TOS so that it matched the FAQ (not the other way around). That’s when I joined up—but with my nonfiction, not my fiction.
I was willing to experiment with licensing the nonfiction in ways that I was not willing to do with my fiction. (There are other reasons I don’t put fiction there, most of them having to do with my somewhat cranky muse. That’s a creative decision, not a business one.)
Again, I have so much product that I can experiment with it. And so far, I’m enjoying the Patreon experiment.
There are a lot more tools in the writer’s business toolbox these days. Many of those tools allow non-exclusive testing or book-exclusive testing, which is just grand.
As you can tell, I love that kind of experimentation.
It’s the completely exclusive, you can’t put your work anywhere else, type of exclusive that drives me crazy.
And in the next blog, I’ll tell you why.
Ironically, as this blog appears, my first Fey work in 20 years or so finally went wide. I had written it with the help of the readers who backed a Kickstarter with a deadline to literally kick start me on the project. I’m still working on the project, but the novella is finished and no longer exclusive! Yay. Thanks again, backers!
And, for those of you who like online writing workshops, we are having a half-off sale that lasts until the 24th. Lots of new workshops to choose from, including a Study-Along for my in-person(!) mystery-caper workshop in May. Yes, in-person. And we still have one slot or so for that. This workshop will be a lot of fun. The reading list is out now, so you’ll need to get on it as soon as you can if you’re interested.
If you’d like to order workshops in the half-off sale, go to Teachable.com, look through the workshops, and put in the code MidWinter at checkout. That’ll take half off the price.
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“Business Musings: Exclusivity in 2022 Part One,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / iqoncept
I agree with you and Dean that KU is not a good place to stay, but I’ve heard several indie authors say that they might use it for just the minimum period when they put a book out because there’s a higher readership and it’s easier to get reviews – and then you come straight out and those reviews help you when you go wide.
I wondered what you thought about that? I’m thinking of experimenting.
I’ve tried that a few times. It has never worked that way for me under several pen names. But give it a shot.
Thanks, Kris. It will be interesting to see what happens.
That’s an interesting thought but beyond my range of experience so I say I DUNNO!
Hi Kristine, we met years ago. I’m reimagining some books. I’d like to know are you still looking at submissions, queries, etc?
We haven’t taken open submissions for anything we edit or do for nearly 30 years. Sorry, Donald.
Hi Kris and all,
I’m going to name a service because I noticed something and it might make you go “OMG” if you happen to be a subscriber as well as an author: Kobo+!
In Italy Kobo uses Mondadori as local main distributor (although ebooks reach Feltrinelli – also a brick-and-mortar chain selling Kobo ereaders – first). I helped a friend publish his book on Amazon and Kobo, and he noticed that on Mondadori his book was free (he has a Kobo+ subscription). Then I uploaded my own Italian title and enrolled it in Kobo+… Yes, there was the big red thing “free with Kobo+!” but also in small blue print the cost of the ebook.
So, if you are a Kobo+ subscriber and author, and check your distribution channels and see Mondadori shows your book free, don’t panic, Amazon won’t price-match! ?