I participated in the Amazon Kindle Scout program as a writer. The campaign ended around January of this year, so this isn’t a shill for a current one, merely some observations on how the process worked (I reserve the right to shill for a campaign if I do it again, though. In fact, I reserve the right to shill anything in any way.)
First thing’s first, the terms:
Some folks think they’re onerous but, for an unpublished author, they don’t seem too bad. You start with giving them 45-days of exclusivity to consider it (during your campaign), and, assuming it gets picked, you give exclusive worldwide eBook and audio format rights, in all languages. The terms begin from the date they pick you and go for 5 years, auto-renewing for five year chunks at a time. There are various circumstances that let you cancel auto-renew, but the big one is that if you don’t make at least 25k during a term, you can terminate the agreement. The terms are slightly different than what I recollect, but that they changed slightly isn’t a big deal as they figure out their model, and the basics are there; I didn’t archive them at the time. You get a $1,500 advance and net royalties at a rate of 50% for ebooks, 25% for audio books, and 20% for translations. It’s never really made super clear what “net” would be, given that for ebooks at least, their only cost is hosting and use of the same checkout used across the site. You’ll note you don’t lose print rights.
In order to be considered, you have to have a “professionally copyedited” manuscript. I figured they meant “one that has been copyedited in a professional manner”, and not “one that you hired someone to copyedit”, becuase I wasn’t putting out the money for that.
The big thing about Kindle Scout is that it’s a vote-based system. Get folks to vote for your manuscript, they claim, and you’ll be picked! Obviously, they put some caveats on that, to give themselves wiggle-room, but it seems like a good way to get a foot in the door. Other publishers have tried these sorts of things in the past, and there’s always an element of exploitation, but the reason the exploitation is there is because it’s pretty hard to get a manuscript considered, unless of course your parents publish it for you and help you go on a book tour. Slush piles are where books go to die.
So, once you’ve accepted the terms, which boil down to “we get lots of rights, you get at least some money, and you win if enough people nominate your book”, you move on to the submission itself. On the plus side, you don’t have to format to Kindle. You just upload a Word document. Not .rtf, or .odt, but .docx. Okay, I did that. It wasn’t difficult; my word processor let me “save as” without needing to correct too many formatting errors.
But as I read the submission guidelines, I noticed something. It lists the accepted genres (Romance, Mystery & Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Literature & Fiction. Action & Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, and Historical Fiction will be accepted within the Literature & Fiction category), and says to submit a “manuscript” but what it doesn’t say is what kind of “manuscript” they’re looking for. I had a collection of short stories burning a hole in my pocket, so, being a reasonable bloke, I sent a message to customer care. I outlined that I had, in fact, read the page on submission guidelines, but that it didn’t answer my specific question on short story collections. A collection is, after all, still a “manuscript”. But if their intention was for actual novels, then I knew I’d be excluded right out the gate, and it wouldn’t be worth submitting. First, despite using the Kindle Scout contact form, I was sent a message from regular customer care, giving me a link to the help section (that I’d used) and telling me they’d forward my question to the Scout Team. The only response I ever got from them was a thanks for my interest, and a copy/paste of the genres. So, screw it, I figured. I’ll submit and see how it goes.
In addition to having to have your manuscript professionally copyedited, you have to make your own cover. Amy Scissors made me a cover that I thought was pretty sweet:
So, I provided my own copyediting, and my own cover, and sent it on its merry way. I was asked to provide a “thank you” letter to anyone that nominated me. I’ll confess I had no idea what to put in it. I think I put something about VectorWest Industries because I’d bought the domain already. For reasons that’ll be obvious later (if not already), the letter wound up making no sense when it was ultimately sent.
As part of the campaign, they set up a campaign page for me. I had to send them an image of me taken by Amy Scissors. I thought it was a good picture, but there was an issue with rotation–the site didn’t recognize EXIF rotation data, which isn’t super surprising, since a lot of sites and programs have an issue with it. Now, I could have taken another picture in “true” rotation and just cropped appropriately, but they said that the picture had to be approved by their “team” and, given that it was obviously rotated, I thought it would be obvious to them. Yet, it wasn’t, and there was no way to fix it, so on my campaign that was supposed to sell folks on my book, not only was there a picture of me, which is enough of a handicap, but it was also sideways.
But the page went up! Score!
And I reached out to everybody I knew to start nominating me. People at work, who didn’t even read it because they didn’t read books but were willing to do it, people I knew through DDO, family and friends. And for the overwhelming majority of my 30-day campaign, I was on the “hot and trending” page.
Throughout the campaign, I got exactly zero information from the program about how I was doing. So I refreshed the page obsessively. Every day I spent on the “hot and trending” I assumed was a day I had a lot of nominations, and that I was doing pretty well. I was on the “hot and trending” until the very end, and then my campaign ended. I got a notification email telling me to wait for their ruling. And I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long. 24-ish hours later I got my answer: No thank you.
Now, it’s not entirely the rejection that stung. I can deal with rejection and, really, if you ever want to be published you’ll have to deal with rejection until and unless you’re famous enough that they don’t care what you write (see, for example, Stephen King, or Chuck Palahniuk, or even Nicholas Sparks). What frustrated me was that I never got any kind of sense of why I was rejected. I mean, if I’d never been in the “hot and trending”, it would have been as obvious as it could be. The “hot and trending” has about ten books in it at a time, out of all the books that are currently still under consideration. If you never make it in there, it would seem to be pretty obvious you didn’t get enough nominations to be “hot” or “trending”, so it’s relatively self-explanatory why you weren’t picked.
But did they only select, say, one from the time period I was in the program, and thus I just didn’t make the grade? Or were collections of short stories a no-go from the beginning? Or did they read it and go “We don’t care how many people like it, this is garbage and we’re not publishing it, we’re sticking with quality work like Pitbulls vs. Aliens?
So, if you’re an aspiring writer, like I am (and hoo boy, will I chuckle when I read this years from now if I ever do become a “real” writer), should you go for the Scout Program?
I honestly don’t know. The terms aren’t great, but they aren’t terrible. You could always just self-publish, either through a vanity press or through something like Kindle Direct Publishing, which has a better royalty rate, and less restrictive terms? It’s entirely up to you. Some folks have argued persuasively that it’s a bad deal, or that the books that are picked are bad books. While I don’t have experience with the parts that they object to, I agree that the whole process is relatively sketchy. Still, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be a feather in your cap and a foot in the door if you got yourself picked by the Scout program. Another publisher would be considerably more willing, I imagine, to give you an advance and publish your work knowing that you’ve already been published by a “real” publisher. Of course, how seriously they take it given what it is is entirely out of my bailiwick, but I can’t imagine it counts against you. And it’s obviously easier to get an agent if you’re already making money. I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again, myself, when one of the projects I’m working on is (hopefully, eventually) finished. If I do, you can be sure I’ll be pimping the heck out of it here, and crossing my fingers that the opaque-process-gods favor me.