Kindle Vella: What we know
Amazon enters the mobile fiction arena.
This week Amazon announced a new publishing platform: Kindle Vella. Details are still emerging, but the gist is that Kindle Vella is a platform for publishing serialized or episodic stories.
Vella is not currently available for readers. However, Amazon is seeking authors to start posting episodes in anticipation of the release day. They’re priming the pump: When Vella goes live to the world (“in the next few months”), Amazon wants their Vella Store stocked with a wide selection of stories for readers to choose from.
So: What is Kindle Vella, and how is different than other platforms?
The 10,000-foot tl;dr is, Kindle Vella is a new pay-as-you-go platform for serialized fiction.
Let’s break that down. Vella is structured for publishing stories one “episode” at a time. Amazon doesn’t use the word “chapter”—I’ll discuss this below—but, for now, that’s a handy way to think of Vella’s episodes.
Each episode is 600 to 5,000 words. (Amazon’s numbers are so specific, I assume this range is enforced by their software.) Readers can read the first three episodes of a story for free.
If they want to continue reading, readers purchase Vella tokens to unlock additional episodes. The tokens are priced depending on the number purchased at one time. A sample image in Amazon’s help system has 200 tokens costing $2, 525 tokens for $5, 1100 tokens for $10, and so on. (The documentation makes is clear that the final prices when the system goes live may be different.)
The number of tokens needed to unlock an episode depends on its word count. Each episode is priced at one token per 100 words, rounded down. So, a 638-word episode costs six tokens, a 2,115 word episode costs 21 tokens, and so forth.
This is important: The reader exchanges tokens for episodes, not the entire story. If they wanna keep readin’, they gotta pump more coins in the machine.
How much compensation does the author receive? Amazon reports the split is 50-50 with the author. That seems pretty fair, although it’s twenty-points shy of Amazon’s 70% royalty rate when you enroll your e-book in Kindle Select.
The 50% rate is a touch more complicated than it sounds. Recall that readers can purchase tokens at different price levels. Amazon is offering authors 50% of the readers’ token purchase price. If a lot of your readers are buying tokens in high bulk, you’ll earn a little less than if your readers bought smaller numbers of them at a time.
Amazon has some math on their help pages. In their example, the difference in author royalties for a user purchasing a 3,000-word episode is between 13¢ and 15¢. So, while it’s important to know how royalties are calculated, the absolute dollar values are not large at the per-episode level. It may add up if you build a loyal readership, though.
It’s also a telling example of the economics of Vella. Kindle authors accustomed to $1, $2, or even $3-plus royalties on the sale of a single e-book will need to adjust their expectations. With Vella, readers are buying chapters on-demand, with the author earning a nickel here and a dime there.
Kindle Vella partially locks your work into the platform. It also locks out certain kinds of work. You can’t simply take a novel you’ve published—even if it’s no longer available for purchase—and publish it on Vella a chapter at a time. (I have no idea how Amazon will enforce this rule if the book is no longer available, but that’s their stance.)
However, you may publish a serialized work for sale on another platform (like Wattpad or Radish) on Vella. They don’t want content “freely available on the Web” though—commercial serializations only, apparently.
There’s also the side question about what happens when the serialized story is completed. Can authors gather all these episodes and sell them as a single book or collection? Again, no. If you do that, Amazon will require you to take down your serialized Vella story. It’s one or the other.
Vella is designed to engage readers more directly than with regular Kindle publishing. Authors may include notes for readers at the end of each episode. Readers can mark stories as “following” and be notified when new episodes are ready. They’re also encouraged to vote for episodes, both a weekly “Fave” and a more generic thumbs-up. Amazon uses Faves to run a leaderboard of trending work.
Amazon doesn’t appear to demand new episodes be published at any particular frequency, but a successful Vella author will publish regularly. One commenter on the KDP community message board suggests daily updates if the episodes are short (1,000 words or so), while stories with longer episodes could be released twice a week.
Here’s an important catch: All indications are that Kindle Vella will only be available on iOS at first. This page shows only screenshots of Vella as an iPhone app. The page states “Readers will find your story in the Kindle Vella store on Amazon.com and in the Kindle app on iOS.” I’m guessing readers can only read Vella serials on iOS, but may buy episodes from both places (the web store and the iOS app).
Will Amazon eventually port Vella to Android phones? Perhaps. Will Vella be available for tablets, like the iPad and Kindle Fire? Maybe. Will users with e-Ink Kindle readers be able to read Vella at some point? Who knows.
This is the murkiest aspect of Vella. Any author curious about writing for Vella should seriously consider that their work may only be read on an iPhone. For some authors, that’s no problem. For others…that might give them pause. Let’s face it: Some stories simply are not easily enjoyed on tiny screens.
The big picture
Stepping back, what to make of all this? I have a few big-picture thoughts about Kindle Vella:
Publishers like Radish, Goodnovel, and others have carved out niches with episodic, pay-as-you-go models. Importantly, their reading experiences are not merely available on smartphones, they’re designed for smartphones. These new breed of mobile e-publishers have caught Amazon’s attention, and it’s reacting.
Amazon has a spotty history when it comes to following through. Kindle Worlds, Kindle Scout, and Kindle Publishing for Blogs are all examples of off-shoots which withered on the vine. Be wary. Amazon could abandon Vella if it does not generate sufficient interest (and profits), much like they abandoned Scout and Worlds.
I’ve learned to parse Amazon’s language carefully. As I mentioned in my eulogy to Kindle Scout, readers of that service didn’t vote for books, they nominated them—meaning, the editors had the final say, not the readers. Likewise, with Vella organized as “episodes,” Amazon is encouraging writers to think less like novelists and more like television writers. (Radish uses the “episode” term as well, even going so far as to organize stories into “seasons.”)
Amazon loves exclusive deals with authors, as their 70% royalty rate for Kindle Select demonstrates. It surprises me to see Amazon allowing authors to publish on Vella work from other episodic platforms, as that implies vice-versa is also acceptable. I suspect Amazon realized Vella had a better chance of getting off the ground if existing serial authors could “port” their work to and from another episodic publisher. In essence, Amazon is playing catch-up for once in the e-publishing business. If Vella is a success, expect to see a Kindle Select-style opt-in program to lock authors into the platform.
Although Amazon is pitching Vella’s reader engagement, don’t expect them to go too far down this path. Amazon is notorious for maintaining barriers between their customers and authors. For example, readers may “follow” an author on Amazon, but Amazon is highly particular about how authors may, in turn, communicate with their followers. Expect this brick wall to extend to Vella.
Although I’ve seen mention in the Vella guidelines about nonfiction, the tools for adding episodes only lists fiction categories. More about this here.
It’s worth mentioning Radish one more time. Vella looks very much like Radish in terms of payment and episodic publishing. In terms of content, Radish focuses squarely on a certain kind of story: Young, sexy, hip, flashy. Their success stems from producing quick and thrilling reads. Bluntly, Radish looks to me like a romance publisher open to wide genre variations: horror romance, dystopian romance, and so on. They’re branching beyond romance, but the steamy stuff remains their bread and butter.
Amazon most likely desires similar flashy content for Vella, although they’re not communicating it that way. The author marketing material for Vella tip-toes around what Amazon would like authors to publish. That may be an opportunity for writers who think they can attract a following without relying on bedroom scenes.
When it comes to Kindle, Amazon has been more democratic than almost any other publisher in history. Radish and other mobile publishers still require editorial approval. Vella is available to anyone with an Amazon KDP account. This democracy is probably due to Amazon’s reluctance to hire an army of editors, but the fact remains: Vella is open to all comers (at least, for now).
Man in the Middle is my latest release, a modern novel of conspiracy and suspense.
During the first week of the pandemic, a security guard begins to see things he’s not supposed to see: Men working underground in the dead of night on Internet lines. Neighborhood police patrols enforcing more than the shelter-in-place order. And, a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars in BitCoin. The deeper he looks, the more he wonders if he’s uncovered reality…or is detaching from it.
Man in the Middle is available in Kindle and paperback editions.