Unless you’ve (as an indie book reader/writer) been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you probably have heard of Kindle Vella. It’s Amazon’s attempt to break into the serialized fiction space to compete with paid services like Radish and—to a lesser extent–free services like Inkitt, Wattpad, and similar. And it seems like indie authors have been flocking to the platform in droves. The readers, however…
Well, that’s a different story.
That’s because there are major (and, dare I say, legitimate) concerns about the platform. I honestly didn’t see what the appeal would be as a reader right out the gate. Complaints range from incomplete stories and glacial episode release times to obfuscated costs and a chopped-up reading experience. And before my international friends pipe up, yes, the fact that it is only available in the U.S. right now is complete bullshit. I agree with you.
My friend (and rumored spouse) Eliza Black put together a killer FAQ for Vella, which I highly recommend you check out. She’s got a lot of great information in there about how Vella works and what features it adds to the reading experience. But as great as it is, it doesn’t include some really important information I was befuddled about as a reader—mainly, the dollars and cents of it all. That’s where this blog entry comes in.
Vella by the Numbers
If you want to know why all these authors are publishing their work on Vella first, you don’t have to look far. It’s money, plain and simple. By and large, the readers aren’t there. The per-episode royalties are shit. But Amazon pays hefty bonuses to incentivize authors to publish on the platform. It seems like the usual tech giant gambit–throw money at it and operate at a loss in order to draw in the users.
Well it’s working. For the authors at least.
At the beginning of March I published my first Vella story, Sticky Fingers. It’s short—12,000 words and 12 episodes long—but it was a great opportunity to feel out the platform and learn how the process worked. I haven’t gotten my first bonus yet, but from the numbers I’ve heard from other authors, it’s not trivial.
Let’s say the March bonus is an even $100. Sticky Fingers will most likely get priced at the $2.99 mark when it publishes to KDP in May (after the obligatory 30 day waiting period). At the 70% royalty rate, that’s approximately $2.09 gross and $2.03 net per unit (minus the approx. $.06 “delivery charge”). That means I’d have to sell 50 books at that price to exceed the $100 bonus. And from what I’ve gathered, $100 is WAY less than some of the bonus payouts I’ve been hearing about. Given that 90% of self-published books sell less than 100 copies in their lifetime, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
That’s what it comes down to. Not reader engagement, or the ability to publish as you write, or anything else someone might say. It’s money, plain and simple.
What’s In It for Readers?
Good question. I’m glad I asked it. One of the things I really didn’t like when I first heard about Vella was the fact that they obfuscate the money-to-value ratio by tokenizing your purchases. You buy some tokens and spend those to unlock episodes so that it takes a little basic arithmetic to figure out how just how much you’re spending on the content. But human beings by nature are lazy, and most people won’t bother to do the calculations, they’ll just spend the money to read the stuff they want to read.
But here’s the kicker. When you actually do the math, it’s really not that bad. In fact, it is often less expensive to read through Vella than to read a book published through KDP.
Surprised? So was I. All of this depends on the overall length of the book, of course, but I daresay it works out in the reader’s favor more often than not. Let’s use my book Sticky Fingers as our example again.
For our calculation let’s assume you buy tokens at the best value, which is 1700 for $15. New Vella readers get 200 tokens for free, but we’re not going to include that in our calculus because that will only come into play once. So we’re left with these factors:
- The cost to you breaks down to $.0088 per token.
- Episodes cost 1 token per 100 words.
- Sticky Fingers is 12 episodes long and approximately 12,000 words in total.
- The first 3 episodes are free, so readers are paying for the last 9,000 words at a cost of 90 tokens (or thereabout).
At the per-token cost mentioned before, that comes to a measly $.79 cents to read the whole story. So considering Sticky Fingers will likely retail for $2.99 as an ebook, that’s a 74% saving over reading it the traditional way. Hell, if I were to run a $.99 promo, it would STILL be cheaper to read on Vella (something to remember when that promo eventually hits).
Now for Novels
You can’t read it on Vella, but let’s use my first novel The Money Shot as our next example. It’s approximately 86,000 words. Assuming the same words-per-episode breakdown, that’s 830 tokens needed (less the first 3,000 words for free) to read the whole thing on Vella. It comes out to a total cost of $7.30. The novel retails for $4.99, which obviously is a good bit lower than $7.32.
As you can see, the value isn’t quite there.
There are other benefits, though. For instance, if you get bored halfway through it, you don’t have to spend your money (or tokens, rather) on the rest of the book. However, that’s not that persuasive for me personally. I’m a completionist, and once I start a book, I rarely leave it unfinished.
To each their own, I guess.
The Breakeven Point
In order to determine a breakeven point, we have to make a number of assumptions about ebook pricing and word length. Pricing will also depend heavily upon genre, so your mileage may vary. The most accurate calculus will always be determined on a book-by-book basis, but in my particular genre (erotica), here’s what I’ve noticed for indie book pricing:
- Short Stories (3k – 8k words) – $.99
- Novelettes (8k – 20k words) – $2.99
- Novellas (20k – 50k words) – $3.99
- Novels (50k – ???) – $4.99
Given our prior calculation for the per-token cost of reading stories on Vella, here’s what you get when you plot it all out. The chart below does not include anything less than 10,000 words because Vella requires you to have 10 episodes at minimum. It’s possible you could have less than 10,000 in a Vella, but it’s unlikely and not valuable for the current comparison.
This graph is weird because there are technically two breakeven points, once around the 50,000 word mark and again around 60,000 words. But suffice it to say that somewhere in the 50-60k mark is where typical KDP pricing and Vella are about on par cost-wise. Shorter on Vella is the better value, while longer ebooks tend to work out in the reader’s favor.
- This analysis assumes the most beneficial cost basis (buying the largest amount of tokens you can at the same time). If you buy in smaller increments, the cost per token will be higher, but marginally so. The same general trends are still in place at lower cost points as well.
- This analysis assumes all things being equal and only takes into account Amazon products, so pricing and trends may be different on different publishing platforms. It’s also one genre, so it is by no means true everywhere. However, it can still be a valuable comparison.
- It also bears saying again, to determine if it’s more cost-effective to read on Vella or KDP, you’ll have to do the calculation yourself. But with the previous numbers at your disposal, doing the math yourself is pretty easy.
- A lot of times you can’t tell how long a Vella story is going to be. I write my stories in full ahead of time and will tell you how long they are upfront, but not all authors do. Many write and post as they go, so for those it will be harder to determine a price comparison between Vella and KDP, since the exact length might not be known at the time. However, from what I’ve seen, novella-length stories are the most common.
- Similar to #3, a lot of Vella stories are incomplete and there is no KDP version to compare it to. The terms for authors require that a story must be completed on Vella for 30 days before it can be published on KDP. So you can only make this cost-benefit analysis if the Vella story is complete AND there’s a version of it on KDP or another retailer. To tell if a story is complete, just look at the metadata under the title when you go to the story’s main page.
Despite all these caveats, having this information has made it easier for me as a reader to see that there really is value in Kindle Vella. I see the value because I’m an author, sure. But there are great things about it from a reader’s perspective too. Hopefully it will help you as well.
Other Pearls of Wisdom
There are also a couple of other things that I’ve picked up along the way to supplement Ms. Black’s FAQ.
DO NOT BUY TOKENS THROUGH THE KINDLE APP – I made this mistake myself, so I learned the hard way. The dollar-to-token ratio is vastly different on the Kindle app vs. purchasing through the Amazon website. This is because—per Amazon—purchases through the app go through your phone’s app store (either Google or Apple), and they get their cut of the in-app purchases. Therefore, you get less tokens for your money. If you accidentally purchase through the Kindle app, don’t bother contacting Amazon about it. They won’t help you and won’t give you any additional tokens to make up the difference (I know, I tried).
Favorites – Once you buy your first batch of tokens, you earn the ability to favorite a story once a week. This is what gives a story the little crown you see when browsing Vella. For strictly readers, this feature doesn’t have much value; however, for authors, it allegedly has some bearing on the bonus that gets paid out. So if you really enjoyed a story you read (Sticky Fingers, perhaps?) you can do your favorite author a solid by selecting as your favorite of the week.
So that’s all I’ve got. It was a lot, I know, and if you hung with me till the end, I thank you. I hope I’ve explained this Vella phenomenon a little better and you can see that Vella holds a lot of promise for authors and readers alike.
And if I didn’t convince you, well that’s OK too. It isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. Use the comments below to let me know your thoughts about Vella. Or if you think I suck or I got something wrong, you can tell me that too. The more the merrier.