Well, well, well. The proverbial hammer has finally come down on a subject that has divided indie authors and readers for a long time now. The new rule states that bonus content should not exceed 10% of the total length of the book. In other words, book stuffing, as it has existed for years now, is against the rules.
Before I dive a little deeper, let me give some background on what book stuffing is, if you're not familiar. Once I've cleared that up, I want to look at this from an angle you might not have seen yet if you've been following the news: I'll explain why this could change the landscape of romance publishing and how.
What is book stuffing?
Most indie romance authors have been including at LEAST one bonus book for free in the back of their ebooks now for about two years. Some may have been doing this earlier, but it became almost the default practice about two years ago except for some of the biggest names.
In the last year or so, the number of books that was considered normal started to change. Authors went from stuffing one or two to stuffing seven or eight. Basically, they decided to cap out the limit of pages that the Kindle Unlimited program considers valid when it calculates an author's earnings for pages read.
How do people feel about book stuffing?
It's honestly hard to get a very clear measurement on this. If you listen to the most vocal voices, it seems like everyone hates book stuffing. Other authors who don't stuff absolutely hate it, because it's seen as a scam tactic to steal money from the communal pool used to pay all authors in Kindle Unlimited. Readers who don't like book stuffing argue that it's confusing, messy, and lowers their impression of an author's overall quality or value. After all, why would you pay $3.99 or even $0.99 for a back catalog book when you know half of the author's entire catalogue is going to be stuffed into the newest book?
The other end of the argument is that book stuffing isn't stealing anything, because authors only get rewarded for the bonus content if readers choose to read it. Readers who do like book stuffing are happy to get free content included with their purchase.
Anyway, I could dive deeper into this topic - and I have in a separate blog post - but that isn't the main purpose of this post, so I'm going to move on to the new policy and what it means.
What does Amazon's new book stuffing policy mean for indie romance authors?
This is where it gets interesting, because I think one of two main outcomes are possible here.
Outcome A: Everybody who still wants to stuff bonus books is going to slap some form of "A romance collection" on their title and cover. Life will move on as usual.
Outcome B: Either Amazon will enforce their policy strictly enough to mean that a simple title and cover alteration isn't going to be enough, or readers will start to notice the issue and police it themselves.
I hate to say it, but I think outcome A is the most likely. Readers have had years to get up in arms about book stuffing and simply stop buying authors who stuff bonus books in the back. After all, there's no more powerful tool in your arsenal as a reader than your credit card. If you really dislike the way an author is conducting business, the strongest message you can send is not buying their book.
So far? That hasn't happened. If anything, the authors who are stuffing 7+ books in the back have taken over in the past six months. They used to be the minority and now you'll find the practice more or less dominating the top 50 on the Amazon store.
Why are stuffers king?
Let me preface what I'm about to say, because I am going to generalize here. There are absolutely exceptions to what I'm about to say; however, those exceptions are outweighed heavily by the people I'm going to talk about.
The mega stuffers are king because indie romance is ruled by advertising power. There's a simple concept in advertising that mega stuffers are taking advantage of to get a leg up on everyone else.
The more money you earn from each sale of your product, the more you can invest in advertising.
Simply put, a 3000 page mega-stuffed book is worth about $13 if somebody actually reads every page after they borrow it through Kindle Unlimited. A non-stuffed new release might be 250 pages, which is worth about $1.13.
See the problem? If I release my next book and don't plug any bonus content into the back, I need to set up my advertising budget in a way that I'm very careful not to spend much more than $1 per purchase of my book. Unfortunately, when the average cost of a click--not a purchase--on an add is about $0.30 on Facebook and as much as $0.40 to $0.70 on Amazon, depending how competitive you want to be, you can probably see where this is going.
In advertising terms, a "conversion" is when someone clicks on your ad and then buys your product. Facebook ads used to average something like a 10-15% conversion rate. That meant you needed about 10 clicks to get one purchase, or about 7 clicks if the book was a really great seller.
More recently, I've seen conversion rates dip more into the 6-8% territory, pushing the number of clicks needed for a purchase up to about 14.
So what does this all mean?
It means even at the older, better conversion rates, we were paying roughly $3 to sell books that either got us $0.33 if it was a $0.99 cent book purchased directly, or $1.13 if it was a non-stuffed book borrowed and read to completion.
Meanwhile, mega-book stuffers were spending the same $3 to sell a book that earned them $13 (though let's be fair, only a percentage of readers are going to read all 3000 pages, so let's just say the average is $4). On one end, we're losing about $2 per sale, but it's still sustainable because the point of initial advertising is to generate enough sales to build natural momentum and start showing up on also-boughts and things like that for readers to discover you on their own.
That was partly why authors like myself stuff one or two books. It's kind of a gray moral middle-ground between mega-stuffing and not stuffing at all, but it was a middle ground I've always personally felt okay with. Stuffing two books means if someone reads all three of my books, I'd earn about $2. Of course, not everyone reads all the bonus content, so the real gain is probably a quarter or two.
Where did it all go downhill?
The answer is in the numbers above. If mega stuffers had been content to keep earning more than everyone else and keep putting the same money into advertising as everyone else, nothing would've really changed. But remember that drop in conversion % I mentioned from 10-15% to 6-8%? That was a symptom of something much larger happening.
Mega stuffers weren't content to earn more. They wanted a lot more. So they did what was natural. They took the excess money they were earning and pumped it into advertsing. After all, they could afford to essentially advertise as much as they wanted, because they were actually earning money for every sale made through advertising. That pushed the average daily spend of these mega stuffers into astronomical levels. I won't go into exact numbers of spending that is common for indie authors, but I will say that some of these mega stuffers could pay your rent every day with what they are spending on Facebook ads and Amazon AMS ads alone.
Spend levels prior to this were a fraction of that number.
Facebook and Amazon were flooded with huge advertising budgets, the mega-stuffers started to be the first thing you saw when you got on Amazon or Facebook, and viola, over the course of six months or so, almost everybody who was trying to do what they thought was the right thing and the moral thing gradually got pushed out of the top 100 and even out of profitability in a lot of cases.
What does this all mean?
Now, if authors are able to just slap "a romance collection" on their covers, then none of this means anything. It's just going to continue as it has been continuing, and the mega-stuffers are going to continue gaining more and more ground. Side note: many of the mega stuffers also tinker with the code of their ebooks, which allows them to make a single paragraph count as three times as much space, and thus three times as many pages, giving them falsely inflated page reads.
If Amazon actually does something about this, you might start to see a drastic increase in quality in the romance books you see coming your way. The quality books are still out there, but they are buried beneath literally tens of thousands of dollars a day being thrown into the advertising machine for these mega stuffed books. Every time you read one of these books, you're feeding the machine that is also burying everyone else.
Whether you agree with stuffing or not, I think it's at least fair to say that diversity is good for everyone. Right now, money is being fed into the hands of "authors" who are essentially budding publishing giants. They aren't individuals who are writing books for you. They are individuals who are creating empires. They buy ghostwritten material from real authors for pennies, they buy covers and have their pen names put on these books, and then they use a highly cultivated and pruned list of advanced reviewers to shower the book with enough five-star reviews to drown out any real reviews that might trickle in.
When these individuals get more money, they expand their business. They hire assistants to fragment their mailing list into 10 sections, each of which they sell mentions in for $50 a pop. They start new pen names and hire more assistants to handle acquiring ghostwritten content for them. They become financial giants with enough money to continue shoving content down your throat whether you like it or not.
Every time one of these individuals gains more ground and invests more in their empire, another honest author gets forced out of the business.
It sounds like dramatization, but I'm close with dozens and dozens of authors in the indie community, and have seen and heard first-hand just how some authors are conducting their business.
What will happen if Amazon doesn't stop them?
If Amazon doesn't stop book stuffing as it currently exists, 90% of authors who don't stuff 7+ books in the back and use tricks to inflate their pages read will be gone. They'll have no choice. I'm not just talking about other authors, either. I know I personally can afford to try maybe three or four more books. If I see the same financial results I've been seeing with dwindling ad results, reduced pages read for the same ranks, and lower earnings, I won't have any choice but to leave romance writing behind.
Of the twelve authors in my group when I first started writing romance two years ago, all but two others have had to leave contemporary romance behind because they just can't make it work anymore. There are definitely arguments to be made for any number of other factors that could be at play, but I'm convinced one of the biggest is the mega-stuffing epidemic.
Indie authors rely on advertising to survive. Amazon's store simply doesn't do a book any favors until it proves it can sell quickly and reliably. The only way to do that is to advertise. Once mega-stuffing inflated the cost of advertising to levels where only those who are stretching the rules can compete, everyone else suffered.
What can you do?
Spread the word. Check the table of contents before you buy a book. If it's loaded to the brim with free books in the back, consider skipping it. Read the look inside to make sure there isn't a suspiciously large amount of space between lines or paragraphs, because this could mean the author tweaked the code of their ebook to artificially inflate pages read.
Selectively subscribe to newsletters of authors you enjoy. Skip all the big giveaways that force you to give up your email for a chance at a giftcard, or create a throwaway email for those. Do a little legwork to make sure you're able to keep track of your favorite authors and when they are going to put out their next book. Leave them a review when you do read their book, because Amazon likes when verified purchases get reviews. When Amazon likes something, it helps it, meaning it does some advertising work for that author.
Unsubscribe from the newsletters of mega-stuffers. Many of these authors sell spots in their newsletters. That email you got from them advertising 5 books? Each of those 5 authors may have paid as much as $50 for that spot. Meanwhile, the mega-stuffer quietly segmented their mailing list into four or more separate lists so they can send 20 authors a day, charge them all $50 each, and sometimes imply they're all being sent to the same list.
Above all, just make sure you're supporting authors you care about. It may seem like a drop in the bucket at times, but trust me, it counts. Most indie romance authors I know are close to their last leg. A lot of us are struggling right now, meanwhile, the mega-stuffers are earning more than they know what to do with, so they are expanding their empires and shoving more and more authors out of the business every day.
One final note is that if you really enjoy an author and they happen to stuff a ton of books in the back, by all means, keep reading that author. If you're worried about the overall health of the indie romance community, just consider not flipping through their bonus content. You can still support them, but don't feed into the tactics that are giving them an unfair advantage.
That's all! Be strong, ladies! I hope this was interesting, and I hope you'll share it with a friend if you know they read romance. More readers need to know this stuff.
At $0.30 per click; however, we need to