Like many writers, I was excited when Amazon’s Kindle Vella debuted. I had been writing serial fiction, had tried the major platforms, and was disappointed with each of them. Amazon has smart people and tons of money, so I (along with others) hoped they’d get it right.
Vella For Readers
Sadly, what they released is in line with other serial writing platforms. They let readers read the first three installments for free, then they begin charging them tokens for each read after that. They’re generous with tokens, giving everyone 200 for free when they first sign up. More recently, they’ve been offering an additional 500 free tokens to Vella users and they had a free reading week in October.
All of this reeks of desperation to get readers onto their platform and, ultimately, have them pay by installment as they read a story.
This has worked in the past. Charles Dickens published many of his stories as serials, where readers would get the next section of his story as it was released. There are anecdotes about readers coming close to rioting when they were excited to find out what happened next. Stephen King has experimented a few times with serial releases of his books. Most of the many serial fiction sites have tried to figure out how to charge by installment and there are regularly new apps released that try to sell this model – a few free sections then you pay somehow to read more.
Ultimately, however it’s dressed up, this is a model that readers have repeatedly rejected. Readers want to pay once and get the entire story. They don’t want to pay small amounts on an ongoing basis. They don’t want to buy a membership. Readers will often get annoyed if a book ends on a cliffhanger. They don’t want to have to buy the next book to find out what happens.
Years ago programmers talked about software moving to a service model. This has happened, but the common objection when this was discussed in the past was that users wouldn’t want to pay a few cents every time they used their spell checker. This was the correct objection. Even if it had been a tiny fraction of a cent, humans evaluate purchasing decisions differently than they evaluate other activities. It puts a high cognitive load on us to decide whether or not to buy something, even if it’s for a tiny amount.
One of the biggest issues with Vella is discovery. This refers to matching readers with (new) writers and writing that they’ll enjoy. It’s a big problem for writers. When you first start writing, finding the tiny number of readers who would enjoy what you’re creating is tough. If you can find them, even a tiny readership can support a writer.
Vella hasn’t done anything to address this. They bribed some big-name writers to join the platform to give it legitimacy. When you post to Vella however, you’re completely ignored. The platform doesn’t do anything to show your story to readers who would like it.
What has evolved is that writers need to bring their own readers to the platform. They do this by either contacting their loyal fans through their website or newsletter and directing them to Vella or advertising their Vella story and trying to find new readers to come read it on Amazon’s platform.
Why any writers would do this work to establish Amazon’s platform is an excellent question. The payment for readers is minimal, so it would be a losing proposition to pay for advertising to get readers on their site. Amazon has been paying “bounties” for reads, which are 20 times what the author is being paid by readers.
On the one hand, this is a savvy business approach. Incentivize writers to provide the content, then find the customers. Amazon is just putting up a website and pouring money into it. Writers are doing EVERYTHING else for them.
My biggest objection to this is once Amazon turns off the massive bounties (which they must, they’re losing big money on every read), suddenly there are going to be writers with an investment in the platform and partially finished stories who are earning 5% of what they were before. I imagine it’ll become a ghost town once this happens.
Amazon can’t build a sustainable business selling $100 bills for $5.
Where It Stands
For a writer who is confident in being able to bring their readers to Vella, it might make sense. Someone like this would be better served by setting up a Patreon, Substack, or even their own blog with some sort of membership and having more control over their writing and platform.
Serial fiction was intensely popular in the past and many people love reading freely available serials. My current view of serials is that they’re a good promotional tool. Offer them somewhere free as a “try before you buy” to let readers see your writing, then hopefully they’ll buy your books.
No one seems to have figured out how to monetize serials in modern times, but micro-payments have been disproven repeatedly.