The Demise of Kindle Worlds and Why Diversification Is So Damn Important (or, Amazon Isn't Your Best Friend)

Wednesday afternoon I received an e-mail from Amazon notifying me they were shutting down their Kindle Worlds brand. For those that may be unaware, Kindle Worlds is essentially a property that Amazon has licensed from the respective creators for other authors to write in. I don't believe any of those stories were considered canon, and the Kindle Worlds stories fell somewhere between media tie-in fiction and fan fiction that bore (to some degree) a staple of authenticity due to the vetting of submitted stories by Amazon and the license holder(s). I had heard rumblings that the cancellation of Kindle Worlds was coming within the indie author community over the last few weeks, and had been waiting for Amazon to confirm. 

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Now that I have that confirmation, it's safe to say I'm pretty disappointed. In 2016, Amazon established a Kindle Worlds domain for Nicholas Sansbury Smith's best-selling Extinction Cycle series. Nicholas invited me and a number of authors to write the line's debut stories to help launch the Kindle Worlds branch of his Extinction Cycle, and Amazon paid us a nice advance to help us recoup cover art and editing costs, in addition to our monthly earnings generated by the sales of our titles. I'd been a reader and fan of Nick's work for a while, and we'd grown to be friends online over the years. Having the opportunity to put my own little mark on this particular series of his was both an honor and a hell of a lot of fun. I'm really proud of how From the Ashes turned out, and it's been one of my most consistent selling titles, bringing me in some revenue each and every month since it was released in October 2016. 

From the Ashes will be going out of print effective July 16, per Amazon. It's only May right now, so the book is still on sale and rather reasonably priced at only $1.99. I encourage you to check it out, particularly since the clock is ticking. You'll want to buy it as soon as you can and keep it on your Kindle for prosperity's sake! 

I'd also like to remind you, particularly if you're an independent author, author-publisher, small press publisher, or even just an Amazon customer, of something we sometimes overlook. Yes, Amazon provides us (usually) wonderful service, a bevy of wonderful shows and movies on its Prime video service, great discounts on products, and they opened up the door for indie authors such as myself to distribute their work for real cash money and find and build a readership. But, it's important to remember one simple fact.

Amazon is not your friend.

Amazon is a business, and a very competitive one at that. They're a book-selling powerhouse, one that has ground the vast majority of its serious competitors into the ground. Do you remember Walden Books, B. Dalton Booksellers, or Borders? Do you know where they are now? They're all gone, dead and buried. Barnes & Noble is the last of the big chain brick-and-mortar booksellers, and they're in serious, serious trouble. While their faults are numerous and they have certainly proven stubborn in their failure to improve over the years, they're just about on their way out of this world forever from the looks of it. Once they're gone, Amazon's only competition are the small independent bookstores, used booksellers, and mom and pop shops. I guess Books-A-Million is out there, but I think there's one or two in my whole state and I have no idea how they are nationally. They're certainly easy for me to overlook anyway.

Amazon has certainly done a lot of good for its customers, and it holds the top retailer spot for a reason (of course, earning a profit of more than $5 billion and paying zero in federal taxes helps mightily...). But let's not ever forget that Amazon is also strangely draconian, some might say tyrannical, as well as wildly uneven, in the application of its policies, which oftentimes sees innocents caught in the crossfire. Amazon recently changed its policies on who can leave reviews and certain criteria they must meet (such as spending $50 before they're allowed to review) before those customers can write a review. The aim here was to crack down on fake or paid reviews, a noble goal to be sure, particularly since virtually anybody could leave a one-star review on any product regardless of whether or not they've bought the item in question or ever even used that product or read that book. For instance, groups who fancy themselves Star Wars "fans" have attempted to wage war against Del Ray and its Star Wars authors by posting one-star reviews of this publisher's new books, typically following a script to hit on particular bullet points that they believe are destroying their childhood and any chance whatsoever at a happy, successful life. Amazon even kicked off 2018 by deleting fake and trolling reviews for Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House after Hillary Clinton's What Happened was bombarded with fake reviews the previous September. Fake reviews are an epidemic on Amazon, and some unsavory indie author types have been scamming the system by bribing reviewers with gift cards in exchange for glowing five-star reviews.

Obviously, shit like this needs to be stopped. But the end result, more often than not, is that legitimate reviewers are the ones receiving punishment. While I haven't had reviews deleted, I have noticed that even though I've spent way more than $50 at Amazon this year, my reviews are almost constantly withheld from posting for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. A large amount of my reading time is devoted to ARCs, or advanced reading copies, that publishers send me either directly or that I request from NetGalley. When I review those books, it's as an unverified purchase on Amazon, which likely accounts for why my reviews are so routinely delayed for odd amounts of time. I'm fortunate, though, particularly since Amazon recently began shutting down customer's accounts, believing those customers were leaving fake reviews, banning them from shopping at the online store. The Kindle Unlimited service is plagued with scam artists, and rather than root out these evildoers, Amazon has instead stripped legitimate authors of their rankings, made their books invisible to potential buyers browsing the sales charts, and in some cases froze authors out of their publishing account. David Gaughran has been writing about this for years, and if you're unfamiliar with all the problems inherit to KU and Amazon's unresponsiveness, you'd do well to check out his blog.

Given all the various press associated with these issues from bloggers like Gaughran, and news outlets like The Washington Post, Amazon is very clearly aware of these fundamental flaws in their daily operations. And yet they're awfully quick to ban, giving customers and authors little in the way of a hearing to plead their cases. There is no innocent until proven guilty with Amazon policies, and Amazon has made one thing crystal clear over the years in their responses to such abuses and their hamfisted tackling of these issues: they do not care.

Amazon is not your friend.

True, though, that Amazon has given writers an incredible opportunity to self-publish, and they most certainly did revolutionize independent publishing, regardless of your thoughts on how granting literally anybody the opportunity to write and publish their work may or may not be a double-edged sword. The Kindle is an incredible device, and I use my tablet on a daily basis. But one must also recognize that what Amazon giveth, Amazon can taketh away. Case in point: Kindle Worlds.

Look, being invited to write a Kindle Worlds title was an amazing opportunity for me. I cannot stress that enough. To be invited into an author's sandbox and have the opportunity to be exposed to that author's built-in audience was incredible, and readers of From the Ashes have treated me very well. At the moment, From the Ashes has 25 reviews with a 4.3 average star rating (out of 5 stars). Readers have called it "Brutal apocalyptic fiction at its best" and that it was a book that kept them "on edge until the last sentence" and that "fans of military sci-fi/horror shouldn't hesitate in picking this up." I'd like to think I stayed true to Nick's style of storytelling in his Extinction Cycle books, and that I kept readers engaged with plenty of action and monster mayhem. It's certainly a book I'm proud of, and I'm a bit sad that it will be going extinct (pardon the pun).

Whatever reason Amazon has for shuttering Kindle Worlds is known only to Amazon. Maybe the line as a whole wasn't selling well enough for them, maybe licensing all the various Worlds got too expensive, or maybe they just didn't want to spend the time and money maintaining it. I'm sure there are sound, rational business decisions behind all this, but this move highlights another very important thing for authors and publishers to keep in mind when it comes to doing business with Amazon. Don't get complacent. Remember, there are still other retailers out there.

No doubt, Amazon is the biggest and most prominent retailer around. However, there are still a few other options, at least in terms of ebooks. iBooks, Kobo, Google Play, Nook (for now), and Smashwords are significantly smaller channels for authors and publishers to sell their books at, but they do represent markets of potentially untapped readers begging to be engaged. The loss of Kindle Worlds should remind people of the dangers of putting all their eggs in one basket. Any writer who was solely dependent on selling their Kindle Worlds titles on Amazon are going to be hurting. And if the day ever comes that Amazon decides to change, overhaul, or eliminate their Kindle Direct Publishing, a lot of authors who have bought in to Amazon exclusivity in order to gamble on Kindle Unlimited are going to have to adapt or die. What happens when Amazon decides KDP is no longer benefiting their bottom line? It could happen. It might even happen soon. Or maybe not at all. But one question you have to consider is, how badly do you want to risk your authorial career in order to stay in Amazon's good graces? Because, trust me, Amazon doesn't give a shit about being in your good graces at all. Amazon is going to do what's good for Amazon, everything and everyone else be damned.

 
 

We cannot continue to put all our eggs in one basket. We have to diversify in order to survive. This goes for readers as much as it does authors. You can buy all you want from Amazon, but it's important to support local business, too, to help your neighborhoods and your neighbors thrive. Personally, I don't want to imagine a world without bookstores, but we're getting shamefully close to such a view regardless. I buy plenty of ebooks from Amazon, but I also buy plenty of physical books from local shops, my local Barnes & Noble, and specialty presses like Thunderstorm Books and Cemetery Dance. We need a plurality of sellers, and it's important to support them with our dollars. Amazon is not the be-all, end-all of retail commerce, nor should it be. Authors, publishers - If we want to reach readers, we have to go to where those readers are. And yes, Amazon is the lion's share of the market, but there's absolutely no reason to be exclusive to them, especially given how potentially disastrously perilous Kindle Unlimited could be. Being exclusive to Amazon is little more than a case of diminishing returns in the long run. You're better off selling your work on all platforms in order to reach the maximum amount of readers possible. And if the worst comes to pass, you won't be caught flatfooted when Amazon bans you, closes out your account, prevents you from publishing, or decides to pull out of the indie publishing game to focus solely on their own publishing imprints.

As an author-publisher, you cannot rely on one single distributor, regardless of how much more money you make off that particular retail channel. Admittedly, the bulk of my sales come directly form Amazon, but I still move a few copies every month on every other channel, copies that obviously wouldn't have sold if I didn't have my books there. It seems like a no-brainer to me. I want to reach the most readers I can, so I have books for sale right here on this site, in addition to making them available on Amazon, B&N and Nook, Kobo, Google Play, iBooks and iTunes, Audible, in paperback, ebook, and audiobook. All simply because I don't want to be dependent on one retail outlet selling one format. I want to reach every reader I can, wherever they may be, in whatever format they prefer.

Kindle Worlds is closing, but I'll survive because I have other titles available in a variety of formats on all the retailers available to me. From the Ashes is going out of print, and yeah, that sucks, but that's the nature of publishing. Publishers close, imprints fail, books go out of print. It happens. The key is having enough of your toes in the water that you can keep on swimming, and remember that you don't have to stay in one stagnant little pond forever. 

Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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