Kindle Scout in Memoriam

Originally published at Hidden Gems Books.

At the end of May Amazon’s e-publishing venture Kindle Scout was put to rest after a run of three-plus years. Amazon announced the winding down in an email sent to all of Kindle Scout’s registered users (“Scouts” in their parlance) on April 2. The email was cool and understated considering the subject matter: “[W]e wanted to let you know of some upcoming changes being made to the Kindle Scout program” followed by businesslike details of the program’s orderly shutdown. Amazon’s Kindle Scout was an innovative approach to publishing never before tried, yet it died with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the clearing of a throat.

Reader-powered publishing

Let’s rewind and look at what made Kindle Scout so different in the publishing world. Rather than the traditional process of publishing—unknown authors cold-submitting into a mountainous slush-pile while well-known authors are courted by editors—Kindle Scout tacked a direction both democratic and meritocratic in nature, a process it dubbed “reader-powered publishing.”

It worked like this: Writers submitted their novels to Kindle Scout for consideration. Kindle Scout posted the first three chapters on their Amazon.com web site along with the book’s cover, author’s bio, and so forth. Readers perused these novels much like bookstore patrons sample paperbacks from a rotating wire rack. Readers—”Scouts”—could then vote on which novels they wanted to see published. (Scouts were rewarded for participating by receiving free ebooks of accepted work, which in turn drove reviews and ratings on Amazon.) Each books’ nomination campaign lasted thirty days, giving authors ample motivation to promote their work via the social networks, word-of-mouth, message boards—some even purchased online click-through advertising for their campaigns.

If an author earned enough attention from Scouts (and the approval of the Amazon editors) they could secure a contract with Kindle Press, the e-publishing arm of Amazon that administered Kindle Scout. The contract included publication in Kindle format (sorry, no paperback), a $1,500 advance, fifty-fifty ebook royalties, and marketing backed by Amazon’s muscle power. Not shabby for any struggling writer attempting to break into the publishing world.

Kindle Scout’s first round of winners were announced on November 27, 2014. Over the next three and half years, Kindle Scout would select for publication nearly 300 titles of all genres and styles. Books ranged from the straightforward to the bizarre, from romance to science-fiction to historical dramas to novels of literary intent. Kindle Press was not a publisher of genre fiction—it published everything.

Royal Date by Sariah Wison is one of Kindle Scout’s biggest success stories.

Kindle Scout’s semi-open approach to publication was bolder than it sounds. An unspoken belief in the traditional publishing world is that book editors have reached their position because they’re fit to judge a novel on its artistic merits and profit possibilities—editors are the professionals, the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the adults in the room. Granting Scouts that responsibility and power sounds absurd on the face of it. After all, anyone with an Amazon account could sign-up and start voting—who do you know without an Amazon account? And yet—it worked.

In addition to the manuscript itself, Kindle Scout expected writers to provide a submission package: a 45-character tag line (harder than it sounds!), a book description, a thank-you note for Scouts, and even the book’s cover. Off-loading these tasks on the author meant the writer was wearing shoes normally reserved for book agents and front-line editors. Kindle Press sometimes released the author’s submission package as-is with no editorial or artistic revisions. (Unfortunately, this led to an early reputation of publishing “trash” novels fostered in part by a snarky write-up in Slate magazine.) Later on, editorial services were offered to accepted writers. Some books received new covers after publication gratis Kindle Press.

Kindle Scout was one-part bold experiment, one-part do-it-yourself publishing, and one-part partnering with Amazon’s marketing might. Another way to put it: Kindle Scout was turn-key independent publishing for the small-time author ready to step up their game.

My experience

When I submitted my novel Bridge Daughter to Kindle Scout, that’s pretty much how I viewed the program: An experiment in independent publishing with potential big returns. I’d shopped my book around to a handful of agents with the usual discouraging results and form-letter responses. Curious, I studied Kindle Scout’s FAQ and legal boilerplate and thought it was worth a go. If nothing else, I knew I’d kick myself later if I didn’t at least try.

My attraction to Kindle Scout was not merely its web-savvy nomination process. Kindle Scout’s winners list boasted publisher-friendly genres like romance and epic fantasy as well as quiet and quirky work. I found myself drawn to novels like Katie O’Rourke’s family drama Finding Charlie, Erik Therme’s chilling Resthaven, and Bradley Wind’s wonderfully personal A Whole Lot.

With my novel prepped and submission package assembled, I filled in Kindle Scout’s online form, clicked a mouse button, and sent my book into the aether. Four days later, my book was on the Kindle Scout web site and accepting votes. If you’ve submitted work to agents or literary magazines and waited months for a response, four days probably sounds like sheer fantasy. It was another example of Kindle Scout ignoring accepted norms in the publishing world.

Plenty of people (including myself) pondered the skeleton key leading to acceptance by Kindle Scout. Was it page views of your book’s Scout page? Reader nominations? Kindle Scout’s secret sauce was its mysterious “Hot & Trending” badge which signified growing interest in your book. The speculation was so rampant, disreputable “services” arose on the Internet purporting to guarantee thirty days of Hot & Trending for a modest nonrefundable fee.

It may sound naive, but I suspect Kindle Press editors tended to accept selections based on content and marketability—in other words, using criteria much like their traditional publishing counterparts. The number of nominations a book received was never revealed to a winner so far as I know. (There’s a reason Scouts “nominated” books rather than “voted” for them. It was not a purely democratic process.) It seems to me the coveted Hot & Trending badge kept authors busy promoting their book during the 30-day campaign, doing the legwork a tech-shrewd publicist would normally perform.

And perhaps that was the best reason for an independent author to try Kindle Scout: Promotion. Putting sample chapters of your latest book on amazon.com before tens of thousands of potential readers is a fine way to generate prerelease buzz. The Kindle Scout platform was custom-built to kick-start ebook sales.

Alas, the good times hit a road bump in the first quarter of 2017. A change in editorial staff was announced via private channels to Kindle Press authors. Although not obvious at first, as the months wore on the pace of accepted manuscripts slowed to a trickle. The diversity I’d so admired also narrowed. A Kindle Press editor admitted to me earlier this year they were seeking work for the “Kindle Reader:” accessible fiction for an adult readership. Nothing wrong with that, merely unfortunate that Kindle Press couldn’t keep the door open for writers striking out on a different trail.

What’s next?

With Kindle Scout’s funky little experiment shuttered for good, I find myself strangely nostalgic. There really was something exhilarating about joining the experiment and seeing where it would take me. It strikes me that Amazon charted a map showing a new way of doing business in the publishing world. Kindle Scout’s formula could be replicated by an ambitious and web-savvy small publisher, or even an established house’s imprint seeking to shake things up. Yes, the book closes on Kindle Scout with the clearing of a throat. Let’s see if there’s a sequel.

Bridge Daughter on Kindle Scout: Week Three

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonNow entering the home stretch, Bridge Daughter‘s campaign on Kindle Scout has five days left before the nomination process ends.

Week Three had a noticeable drop in energy over the prior two weeks. Out of the gate, Bridge Daughter was in the Hot & Trending list for over 20 hours a day for twelve days straight. That was a huge rush to see and, of course, invigorated my optimism.

That didn’t sustain, unfortunately, but I’m not certain that’s a liability for my chances of Bridge Daughter being accepted by Amazon. I’ve been following the Amazon Kindle Scout message list on kboards.com’s Writers’ Cafe (which I encourage all Kindle authors to join and follow) as well as reading blog posts from authors who’ve been published—and not published—via Kindle Scout. I don’t have any pearls of wisdom for guaranteed success with Kindle Scout, but I feel more positive than ever that it’s a mistake to view the program as a popularity contest.

What’s the magic formula?

Looking through the backlog of messages on kboards.com, one recurring question is What’s the magic formula for getting published on Kindle Scout? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve learned quite a bit over the past month. (And remember: I’m still in the middle of my first Kindle Scout campaign. Five days from now I might be changing my tune.)

Most of my information is second-hand, although a fair amount came from the authors themselves. (Martin Crosbie’s series on his Kindle Scout experience is a good read for anyone considering publishing this way.) It seems the following is true:

  • Some writers with books in the Hot & Trending list for 30 days straight were not selected.
  • Some writers who performed so-so in Hot & Trending were selected.
  • Writers who published multiple books through Kindle Scout in the past have been rejected even though their latest campaign performed reasonably well.

As I said in my first week’s post, I believe there’s a reason Amazon calls it “nominating” a book instead of “voting” for a book. It’s not a purely democratic process, where X nominations push a book across the finish line and Amazon will then (mechanically) start the publishing process.

I believe there to be a human component here, one or more Amazon editors who have some say over the approval process. How active they are in the editorial process after approval, I’m unsure. I’ve read blogs where authors were getting great edits before publication, and others where the book pretty much went to press as-is. We’re not even sure what algorithm Amazon uses to determine if a book is “Hot” at any moment in time (although it seems to be a combination of nominations and page views, i.e. clicks).

Part of me wonders if the Hot & Trending process is simply a baseline rather than the finish line—a way for Amazon to feel confident there’s sufficient interest in the book before using valuable editor time to read through it. Hot & Trending is also a gauge of how well the writer can spread the word and generate excitement (via social networks and the blogosphere), now considered by publishers a crucial part of author publicity, Amazon or otherwise.

I wish I could say Kindle Scout is a pure meritocracy, where great writing gets a publishing contract regardless of external factors. Then again, I wish I could say that about the traditional publishing world as well. I do feel I’ve received a tremendous positive reaction to Bridge Daughter thanks to Kindle Scout’s process, and that’s more valuable than I can describe.

Five days remaining to nominate Bridge Daughter for publication!

Bridge Daughter on Kindle Scout: Week One

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonAlthough the Bridge Daughter campaign officially started four days ago, it already feels like a week’s passed.

It’s been a hectic long weekend for me, posting on social media, emailing everyone I know, making phone calls…getting the word out on Bridge Daughter to everyone I know, and even a few complete strangers.

If you haven’t heard, Amazon’s Kindle Scout program is an interesting hybrid in the world of book publishing. Independent authors submit their completed manuscript to Amazon, along with a cover, book jacket blurb, and a tag line (“A young girl must bear her mother’s child”). If the package passes muster, Amazon posts it on the Kindle Scout site for 30 days.

At that point, readers have an opportunity to learn more about the book as well as read its opening chapters. If they like what they see, they can vote for it by pressing a “Nominate me” button.

After 30 days, if the stars are aligned, Jupiter rises in the house of Venus, and the book has received enough attention from readers, Amazon will publish it. They’ll also promote it across their web site. That’s what I’m hoping will happen. Fingers crossed!

So far, the response has been quite positive. People I’ve reached out to are excited I have a new novel ready for release. (Thanks for the kind words!) They’re also curious how this Kindle Scout program works. That’s something I’ll discuss in future blog posts throughout the month.

Hot & Trending

Kindle ScoutThe big news for me is that Bridge Daughter has been on Kindle Scout’s “Hot & Trending” radar screen for almost the full day on Friday (21 out of 24 hours). Unfortunately, that’s the last information I have, as the statistics page doesn’t appear to update over the weekend. I’m hoping to receive more information tomorrow morning.

But what does that mean, Hot & Trending? (On the Kindle Scout site, it’s simply indicated with a gold Hot emblem on the book description.) While Amazon is precise in what they expect from authors’ submissions to Kindle Scout, their decision-making process for publication is more opaque, as well as what constitutes “hot.”

From my research on other author’s blogs (Scout has been running for about a year now), it sounds like Amazon’s decisions are not entirely based on nominations, but that they are merely one factor among many. I suspect Hot & Trending is an internal metric they’ve devised to measure how much oomph the book has based on nominations and page views (and perhaps other criteria, like link count, or where the traffic originates from). My guess is Amazon wants to know if the book has legs, and Hot & Trending is the secret sauce to measure that.

This is why Amazon calls it nominating a book and not voting for a book. It’s not a purely democratic process. As someone who’s sat in an editorial chair for a couple of small magazines, I can understand that.

As I said, I’m still learning the insides of Kindle Scout, so I’ll report back when I know more. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll visit Bridge Daughter‘s page on Kindle Scout, and if it sounds like something you’d like to read, nominate it!