Amazon wade back into serialized content with Kindle Vella

Vague on content and program details, Amazon need to bridge this gap before authors jump on board.

A new addition to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Vella is an online writing platform where readers can purchase tokens to read serialized content. Initially Vella will be offered only on the Kindle iOS app and Amazon.com, not on Kindle devices or the Kindle Android, Mac, or PC apps, suggesting this may be aimed at stealing some iPhone users away from Apple Books, or may be a means of beating Apple to the punch.

Serialization of paid digital content first became popular in Asia (particularly China, Korea, and Japan), and initially focused on comics called “webtoons”. One of the largest sites, Radish, is based in South Korea and is partially funded by Korean internet giant Kakao, which also backed San Francisco-based Tapas Media. Both sites soon branched out into prose fiction, serializing long-form stories from indie writers. However, in 2017 Radish launched Radish Originals, hiring professional writing rooms to produce episodic prose similar in style and structure to a television series (many of the writers had worked on soap operas); Radish then owned the copyright. Radish is popular in the genres of romance, mystery and thriller, paranormal, sci-fi, horror, queer fiction, and young adult, and the audience is now predominantly female and based in the U.S. despite Radish’s home base in Seoul.

Meanwhile Tapas, which also publishes predominantly English-language works, have been offering a translation service to their Korean-language writers in the hope of replicating in America the success of Korean hits. But in 2017 Tapas made a major misstep when they added a right of first refusal to their terms of service, whereby Tapas authors had to offer their work first to Tapas Media (for adaptation to movies and TV) before the author could contract with anyone else. Backlash resulted in the removal of the right of first refusal one month later, but it was indicative of what these companies desire to be: multimedia giants built on the streaming model. Which brings us back to Amazon and Vella.

Kindle Vella appears to be Amazon’s attempt to kill three birds with one stone: break deeper into the Asian markets where serialization is already well established; test the appetite of their consumer base for paid serialized product; and find popular, already market tested, English-language content that can be acquired for Amazon Studios.

But exactly what Amazon are looking for in Vella content is confusing. Amazon tell authors that “to provide the best experience for readers, Kindle Vella stories should be written specifically to be released in a serial format, one 600–5,000 word episode at a time.” From this I infer that Amazon don’t want serialized novels but rather the literary equivalent of a television series, where each episode functions as an independent story but with recurring characters. This would certainly be in line with Amazon Studios’ foray into series production, which has struggled to produce hits (only Bosch and Transparent made it past four seasons, though The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems poised to do the same).

But then Amazon state, “To give readers a chance to check out a story, they can read the first three episodes of every story without redeeming Tokens.” The use of the phrase “first three episodes of every story” implies that episodes function as chapters. And considering that many famous novels were first serialized (think Charles Dickens, for example), and that you can write the sequel to your novel in Vella, are we to infer that serialized novels are accepted, even though most novels are not written specifically to be released in a serialized format? Such novels would be suited for adaptation into movies.

And what of standalone short stories that do not feature recurring characters? What about non-fiction programs, the literary equivalent of a podcast or radio show that has a particular theme — science, religion, true crime, for example — but which does not have recurring characters? Amazon Studios have produced unscripted docuseries and reality TV in multiple languages, so one would think Kindle Vella would welcome at least the non-fiction content. But Amazon are vague on details, a deficiency Amazon need to address, and the sooner the better as they are already soliciting Vella content.

Where Amazon are also uncomfortably vague is on the terms and conditions, which have yet to be posted.

However, what they have posted aims to prevent writers from using the platform solely as advertising or to republish older works that have gone stagnant, and to prevent readers from using Vella as a way to read the first three chapters of your book then buying the Kindle version instead:

Kindle Vella is a serial reading experience. To protect readers from purchasing Kindle Vella content they have already read in a different format, you cannot:

        • Incorporate your Kindle Vella content into other long-form content (e.g., a book) in any language. If you wish to incorporate an episode or story into other content, you must unpublish all episodes of that story from Kindle Vella.
        • Publish in Kindle Vella content that is in the public domain or freely available on the web.
        • Break down your previously published book or long-form content into Episodes and republish in Kindle Vella, even if that book or long-form content is no longer available or is written in another language. If your Episode or Story is derived from another work you have authored (e.g., it continues the story from a book), you may include up to 5,000 words of content from the other work in the first Episode to bridge the story, provided you control the rights to do so.

While you cannot offer repurposed long-form content, “if you have a story in this [serialized] format that is available elsewhere, you can also publish it with Kindle Vella.” But remember the caveat is that it cannot be free elsewhere. This seems to be the incentive for authors to leave the highly successful but poorly monetized site Wattpad. No demand for exclusivity may be a strategy to lure successful authors working with the smaller, less powerful companies like Radish or Tapas to simultaneously publish their hits on Vella, earn more from Amazon’s reach, then leave the other sites to give Vella exclusivity. Except that a great deal of the content on these sites is serialized novels; would such content qualify as episodic content or as previously published long-form content? How Amazon ultimately define “published, long-form content” may decide the number of authors who can publish across sites or defect to Vella.

The program’s length of contract is also worrying. On the one hand you are told that “you can also unpublish a story in Live status to remove it from the Kindle Vella store,” but “stories that have been Live in your Library can’t be deleted.” So you can remove your content from sale, but you cannot remove it from Amazon’s system. This may be yet another way for Amazon to amass a massive catalogue of content for sale once the author’s copyright expires (anyone who believes Amazon don’t think that far ahead are kidding themselves). It may also be the preamble to a similar rights grab that Tapas tried but failed to execute.

As for content length, each episode in your series must be between 600 and 5000 words, for which readers pay 1 token per 100 words, rounded DOWN to the nearest hundred.

So if your episode has 638 words, the customer pays 6 tokens. The first three episodes must be free as an enticement. Readers only pay if they want to continue with the series. Currently — and subject to change prior to the actual launch of the program — the cost of tokens will be:

Authors are paid 50% of royalties AFTER fees are paid to the mobile payment platform Amazon intend to contract with.

And, as usual, Amazon obscure this information: Authors are firstly told that Amazon “plan to make Tokens available through mobile channels that charge a fee. In this case, the fee will be deducted from the revenue that is shared”; however, when providing an example of the royalty share, Amazon state “in this example, we are assuming no taxes or fees.” And then they provide an example of the purchase of a 3025-word episode:

    • Episode purchased with 200 Tokens bundle: 30 Tokens * ($1.99/200 Tokens – 0) * 50% = $0.1493
    • Episode purchased with 1,100 Tokens bundle: 30 Tokens * ($9.99/1100 Tokens – 0) * 50% = $0.1362

Assuming the reader buys the 1700-token package — which I think is more realistic than buying the 200-token package, at least once the program becomes popular — the author actually grosses 50% of $.0088 per token, or $.0044. In the above example of a 3025-word episode, that’s $0.1322. Average financing charges — for which the author pays 100% of the costs — range from 1.29% + $.05 per transaction for VISA to 1.58% + $.10 per transaction for American Express. These fees are averages, and a company the size of Amazon may get a better rate, but when in doubt, calculate the worst-case scenario. Whether payment by Apple Pay, PayPal, or others will be offered isn’t yet clear.

So what can an author expect to earn on Vella? As a real-world example, let’s use my first novel, Baby Jane, as an example. The first three chapters are free; rounding down the remaining chapters, a reader would have to use 903 tokens to read the whole book, netting me:

Purchased with 1700-token bundle: 903 tokens * ($14.99/1700 tokens) * 50% = $3.98 gross royalty

But remember those pesky fees. Assuming a one-time average fee of 1.43% + $0.075 for those 1700 tokens, that’s $0.29 in fees, of which I would be responsible for $0.154 (903 tokens out of 1700 = 53.12% of $0.29), assuming the fees are shared on a pro rata basis, something Amazon haven’t provided details on. So the royalty is closer to $3.83. Compare that to $2.69 through the Kindle program when it’s paying 70% (Baby Jane costs $3.99 and the delivery fee is $0.10). Better for me, the author, but…

What does it cost the reader? They are paying $7.96 for an ebook that would cost them $3.99 through the regular Kindle program. How long before readers figure that out?

And Amazon earn $3.98 for an ebook they would otherwise only earn $1.30 minus the payment fees, which Amazon do not charge to the author in the Kindle program. Once again Amazon is the big winner.

While the payout to authors seems to be better with Vella, Kindle authors need to weigh the pros and cons before jumping in. Successful Kindle authors may find that separating their work between programs fragments their audience and angers those who don’t want to use a streaming service to read their favourite authors. On the other hand, authors can use Vella as a platform to gauge reader reaction to a work in progress (because you can remove it from Vella later and republish as a single long-form work). Some may simply feel they can make more money from serialization than through ebooks. Obscure or new Kindle authors may find Vella offers another way to find an audience, who may cross over into content from KDP. This will be particularly true in the early days of the program before mass adoption: early adopters tend to do better than later adopters.

In that last respect, by the time Vella is opened to non-U.S. authors, the catalogue may be so bloated that finding your Vella audience may be just as hard as finding your Amazon audience. Currently there are more advertising avenues available for promoting your Kindle and print books, so you may find that staying put is best.

Bear in mind, too, that Vella — that all serialization — may fundamentally change the way authors must structure their stories. A slow start that quietly builds to the climax, or character studies that rely less on action, won’t work; instead, the hook must be swift — in the first episode — and the action continuous. A reader who buys a whole book has already made an investment and is more willing to continue reading something they find a bit boring in the hope of an eventual payoff; a reader who buys serial content has paid only pennies to start reading and will abandon works that don’t immediately grab their attention. Serialization, then, may further the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction.

Where Vella may be of greatest interest is to those trying to break into Hollywood. Successful television writers and producers will always get a meeting with Amazon Studios, but if you’re an unknown commodity, Vella may be a shortcut to getting the attention you need to break through.

Regardless of whether you like the idea of joining Kindle Vella, I advise you not to do so until Amazon publish the whole of the Terms and Conditions. Remember that if you post anything to the site then decide you don’t like the terms and conditions, you can unpublish your work but not remove it from Amazon’s system. How that may affect your rights later, or the interest of a traditional publisher or film/TV producer in your work, will remain to be seen.

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