Narrow or wide? How to decide?

by | July 21, 2020 | General | 10 comments

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Self-publishing offers an author a lot of freedom. You’re no longer bound to the schedule of a publisher; you can release your books whenever they’re ready, or according to a strategy related to your personal future plans. A self-published book does not need to fit neatly into genre-based pigeonholes. You can write and publish work that reflects your creativity and vision, rather than the often rigid categories that supposedly define “the market”. Furthermore, self-publishing can spare you sometimes painful fights with house editors about words, phrases or content that violate the house style rules. You, the author, are in the driver’s seat, and your book is 100% your own.

On the other hand, you become responsible for many critical decisions. What should the cover look like? What categories and keywords should you use? How should you position the book, with respect to your other work as well as the competition? What price should you set? How should you promote the book? All of a sudden you’re not just the author, but also the publishing executive and the marketing manager.

One thorny issue facing any self-publishing author at the moment is whether to go narrow or wide. Everyone knows that Amazon commands the largest share of the ebook market. “Going wide” involves publishing and selling on other platforms as well as Amazon, for instance Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Google Books. If you want to go wide, there are a variety of sites that will publish and distribute your books to a range of online vendors, including Smashwords and Draft2Digital. In return, they take a cut of the royalties (but a smaller percentage than a regular publisher). As an alternative, you can upload your book independently to different sales sites, which takes more effort but can result in somewhat higher returns as well as better control over format.

“Going narrow” means publishing exclusively on Amazon, enrolling your book in KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited (KU). You may publish and sell a print version of your book, but the ebook version must not be sold anywhere else.

KU is a subscription-based model for reading ebooks. Rather than paying for books individually, KU members pay a monthly fee (currently about $10) in order to download and read an “unlimited” number of books. (In fact, I believe there are some restrictions on how many books you can be reading concurrently, but I have not been able to find the details on the Amazon help pages.)

Since readers don’t purchase books under the KU scheme, Amazon pays authors according to the number of pages of their books that KU members read. The actual unit is called KENP (Kindle Edition Normalized Pages), a quantity which is calculated based on a (secret) algorithm. Authors receive a certain amount of money per KENP; the amount is also a secret and varies over time, but is some fraction of a cent. Note, by the way, that Amazon systems must periodically access individual readers’ Kindle devices or apps in order to compute KENP.

Many authors swear by KU as a way of making more money. It does seem that KU reads do not reduce the number of outright purchases by much. KU subscribers are a different population from purchasers. On the other hand, by going narrow, an author risks losing sales from readers who prefer to buy from other sources. This includes a segment of the reading public who actively avoid Amazon for various reasons including the company’s monopolistic tendencies, their intrusiveness and their indie-author-unfriendly policies. In the interests of full disclosure, I will personally confess that I fall into that segment.

My personal experience with going narrow is very limited. I have one book, a boxed set, available in KU. Since I released that book, in February 2020, it has logged 22,217 KENP. The payment for this has been $54.22. So I’m getting about 0.0025 cents per KENP. The book is about 600 pages, so the page reads translate to roughly 37 sales. The purchase price is $4.99 and the royalty percentage is 70%, so if I’d actually sold these copies, I would have received $3.49 per copy, or $129.13.

Of course, it’s not likely I would have sold all those additional copies. As noted above, KU subscribers wouldn’t necessarily purchase the books they download as part of the program. Like all “unlimited” subscriptions, Kindle Unlimited encourages readers to take a chance on merchandise they’re not sure they want, because there’s no penalty to downloading a book but not finishing it. In addition, KU subscribers have an incentive to consume as many books as possible in order to “get their money’s worth”.

It is clear though, that Amazon itself saves money when authors go narrow. Given the current KENP formula, for a complete KU read of Vegas Babes, they only have to pay me about $1.50, which amounts to a royalty rate of 30% – rather than the 70% I get for an outright purchase.

Still, there’s a segment of the reading community that loves to see the words “Free on Kindle Unlimited” splashed across a book banner. It’s not really free, of course, but once a reader has paid the monthly fee, they will tend to forget that.

Mostly, I’ve gone wide, because I want anyone who is interested to be able to buy my book. As noted above, I personally don’t have a Kindle or buy ebooks from Amazon. I read 5-10 books per month. Knowing how important this is to authors, I try to review almost everything I read. Since I’m active on Goodreads and host a lot of authors on my blog, I frequently encounter books that sound interesting. If the book is available on Smashwords or Kobo, I’ll consider buying it. However, if it’s exclusive to Amazon, that immediately kills the notion. Hence, my fellow authors are losing out on reviews from me because they’ve chosen to go narrow.

I don’t want my own potential readers to have the frustrating experience of wanting to acquire my books but finding that Amazon is the only source.

I know I’m not neutral on this topic. I recognize that many of you have made a good deal of money by going narrow. It’s your decision – and it’s not irrevocable, since you have the option to remove your book from KU after ninety days.

I’d like to finish by presenting some interesting data. I just ran a contest for members of my email list. To enter, they were required to send me a message answering three questions:

1) Approximately how many books do you read per month?

2) Where do you get your books? (Amazon? Other online sites? Bookstores? Garage sales? The library?)

3) Do you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription now or are you considering one?

I received 26 entries. (I have about 300 people on my list.) They read an average of 11 books a month, with a lot of difference between readers (minimum 1, maximum 30).

The majority of respondents (16 or 62%) get books from many sources including Amazon. Other sources mentioned included BN, Kobo, Google, ARCs from authors or publishers, BookFunnel,, yard sales, brick and mortar book stores, and libraries. Seven respondents (26%) mentioned only Amazon. Three people (12%) did not mention Amazon at all.

Only six people (23%) said they had or were considering a KU subscription. One or two said they really loved it, since they read so many books. One person said she was considering dropping it, because she didn’t read enough to make it worthwhile.

Finally, I got a couple of comments that, I have to admit, mirror my own feelings about Amazon. One person, in response to the third question, said: “No, I like to keep my books and hate to think they’re tracking me.”

Another reader said: “No, I do not have Kindle Unlimited nor do I plan to get it because a couple of years ago Amazon banned me from leaving any type of reviews, so why should I pay to read on there?”

So: narrow or wide? It’s not a straightforward decision. By choosing to go narrow, you’re probably gaining some new readers, but you may be losing others.

I will leave you with this thought: Amazon wants you to go narrow, not only to freeze out the competition, but because they can pay you less per book than they’d have to if you went wide.

That’s enough to clinch the decision for me. Your mileage may vary.


Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. larry archer

    I have been dragged kicking and screaming to Kindle Unlimited and have become a convert. My current page read of the last 30 days is 18,000 pages of my KU stories, which is on the low side for me. My page reads will top 30,000 pages/month on a good month as your page reads will follow the release dates of your latest stories.

    I agree the ROI is poor on KU but what it does is give you a base of readers who browse stories and will read your story in their Kindle when they wouldn’t have bought it outright. I consider KU as an advertising expense as I troll for new readers. Typically hardcore readers will buy everything published from an author they like so they have a permanent copy. In order to gain a new reader is to make it easy for them and assuming they cough up $10/mo they are the wounded gazelle to the hungry lion.

    From my experience, as I’m an avid reader of porn myself, every writer generates different stories and when you read a story that turns your crank, you want to read all that he/she puts out. You would think that when you write about fucking and sucking, all porn would be the same. After all how many ways can you put Tab A into Slot B? But the personality of the writer and their opinions about sexual situations will shine through. KU gives the author the possibility that a reader will try a story because if they don’t like it, just delete it.

    I agree with everything you say but think of KU as an advertising expense. I would not totally go narrow as that would kill all of your sales to Apple iBooks, B&N, Kogo, etc. But you have to strike a balance.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Well, you’re in a different category than I am, Larry. I don’t have the volume or publishing frequency you do, and my books aren’t all that consistent in their tone or genre.

      I know it’s working for you. I find that tempting. Then I find an author I want to read who is only on KU and I think, no way.

  2. Donna George Storey

    Thanks for sharing this information–it does help an author make a more informed decision!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Just one more thing to worry about …. sigh.

  3. Delores swallows

    Hi Lisabet

    Interesting article.

    I started off going wide (with Excessica), but last year started to put a few in KU. I had such an upturn that not only have I put all my new stories in KU, but I also requested the rights back to my back catalogue, updated the covers and self-pubbed, and now have them all in KU.

    When I was wide, Amazon made up 67% of my sales, with Smashwords 9%, B&N and Google both 5%, Apple 4%, and the others the remaining 10%.

    At the moment I’m happy in KU. My ‘Take My Wife’ series has done well – with the 700+ page omnibus selling 190 copies in the 12 months it’s been out, and it’s also had 244,000 KENP (works out at 343 books read). I guess when people stop reading them in KU, I will go wide and see if anyone who refuses to buy from Amazon is interested.

    The other thing I noticed about having books read in KU was that the sales of my other stories (not in KU) went up. As Larry said, it’s a good way of advertising.

    • Larry archer


      While I don’t know if KU did it or not but previously my SmashWords sales were two to three times Amazon. After putting some stories in KU, my SmashWords sales stayed roughly the same and my Amazon sales are now about twice SmashWords.

  4. Delores Swallows

    Wow – that’s a huge improvement, Larry.

    If I’m reading your figures right, you’ve more than doubled your sales – as well as now getting KENP royalties.

    If we call your original Amazon sales figures $1x – and Smashwords sales figures were two or three times that, then we’ll take the mean figure and call them $2.5x

    So your original average total was $3.5x.

    After putting some stories in KU, your Smashwords figures are still the same ($2.5x) and your Amazon figures are now twice your Smashword figures – which is $5x

    So you’ve gone from an average total of $3.5x to $7.5x – which is more than doubling your sales.

    I guess I should think about applying a rule where once a story stops getting a certain number of KENP reads per month, I take it out of KU and try going wide with it. The problem is that some are series, so while the individual books are not getting a lot of reads, the omnibus bundles are.

    It’s good to get other author’s views on these things…

    • Lisabet Sarai

      You’re both flying on KU, which is great. Each to his or her own…

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    After your comments, I’ve been feeling envious of you two, Larry & Del.

    But I just can’t bring myself to give in to the big monopoly. What happens when Amazon is the ONLY place people can buy books?

    When Amazon holds all the cards, I guarantee that royalty percentages and payment per KENP will go down.

    And don’t forget that as a condition for reading Amazon ebooks, a reader must give up his or her privacy. Amazon gets not only the readers’ money but also their data, to crunch and analyze and feed their money-making machine, so they can squeeze a little more from us authors.

    Yes, I know this is a rant. But that doesn’t stop it from being true. Amazon wants two things – money and data – and each of these bolsters the other.

  6. larry archer

    Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they are not out to get you! LOL

    Truer words were never spoken Lisabet but we have to play the hand we were dealt. While there are often times when I want to dig a foxhole in the backyard and assemble all of my weaponry around me to protect myself from the invisible enemy, I still must be practical.

    I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that trying to be invisible on the Internet is sort of like taking a leak when the wind is blowing. You always need to piss downwind.

    I am continually amazed at what Amazon and Google know about me. The other day Google asked me an identity confirmation question, “What is your grandfather’s middle name?” That floored me as he died before the Internet was one of Bill Gates’ wet dreams.

    I have resigned myself to the fact that there are certain things we cannot hide from the world. I do everything I can to maintain my anonymity but realize it is a losing battle. I took one of my older cell phones with a cracked screen but still worked and got a pay as you go SIM card. I use that for confirmation texts to my various smut sites and it cost about $60/year to sit in my desk powered off until needed.

    I know that you live somewhere in the Eastern part of the world and many places there are subject to more scrutiny than the US of A. Well except for Portland where Trump’s secret police roam the streets. Just like Fox Mulder, “I want to believe!” and hope that I always duck when there is incoming fire.

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