Kindle Vella opens up a whole new world

Exploring the possibilities of publishing serial fiction on the Amazon platform

Welcome to Story Cauldron, where I investigate what constitutes a story, where stories can be found, what makes a good story, and why we, as human beings, seem to crave “Story” and constantly find new ways to bring it into our lives.

Sometime soon—perhaps tomorrow, or perhaps a few months from now—Amazon will launch a new reading experience for serial fiction called Kindle Vella. (We don’t have a specific date, and I’m going to place my wager on the company waiting for Jeff Bezos to return safely from outer space.) 

Kindle Vella harkens back to the 19th century when novels like The Count of Monte Cristo, The War of the Worlds, The Woman in White, and A Tale of Two Cities were published in newspapers, literary magazines, or other publications as episodic, or serialized, stories. Readers would get one chapter of a full (and often quite lengthy) novel, doled out at regular intervals rather than printed up in a single volume. 

With Amazon’s version, of course, there is no “print,” but the idea’s the same. 

In this week’s Story Caudron, I’m going to explore not what a story is but this new opportunity to tell—or find—brand new stories by all kinds of authors. I’m taking this slight detour because of conversations I’ve had with some of my writing friends in Stop Writing Alone. As writers, we’re all excited to learn about a new platform to tell our stories, and this seems like a really great opportunity. And if you’re a reader, it might be worth considering whether or not Kindle Vella is something you might want to check out.

I also wanted to use this opportunity to examine the platform a bit more closely for my own purposes, as I am strongly considering publishing my in-progress Favor Faeries series on Kindle Vella.

So with no further ado, let’s dive in.

What to expect on Kindle Vella?

First of all, the Kindle Vella program was announced back in April, and it hasn’t launched yet for readers [edit: see update at end of article], although authors can now upload their stories for future publication. Sadly, in this pre-launch phase, Amazon’s own pages are a bit light on details on some points, but these are some of the things I’ve been able to glean across the web.

First off, from Amazon’s site, here is a screenshot of a sample Kindle Vella story page:

The first three episodes of all Kindle Vella books will be free, and then readers will spend tokens (purchased in various sized bundles in advance) to read further. If they like what they read, they can also give it a thumbs up and/or make it a favorite. (For preliminary information on how the tokens will work, and how much an author might earn, check out this article by The Passive Voice.)

Episodes can range from 500 to 5000 words. In one Kindle Vella Facebook group, the consensus was that 1500-3000 words will be the sweet spot.

All stories must be new and previously unpublished. Amazon notes that if a book was published at any point in time, it will be ineligible for Kindle Vella—even if it is no longer available. However, once a story has appeared in Vella, it can be unpublished from that platform and published elsewhere at any time.

It sounds like the best plan for authors is to either have a book fully drafted and ready to upload as episodes, or have a tight outline and prepare to write to keep up with a designated publication schedule. 

How can Vella help authors?

From my position on it, it seems that getting on the Kindle Vella train early on can have some important advantages.

  1. It’s brand new. There are no established authors yet. So if you start a series soon, you can get in on the ground floor. You’d have far less competition than on Amazon proper or in Kindle Unlimited. Put another way: wouldn’t you rather take your chances as a small fish in a tiny pond than a tiny fish in the Pacific Ocean?

  2. The risk/commitment for a reader is much lower. Because the first three episodes of everyone’s story are free, that means people won’t have to rely as much on reviews and will instead choose stories based, at least in part, on their experience reading the risk-free trial episodes. To me, that seems to level the playing field (at least for a while). Sure, the big names will have more thumbs-up ratings, but there is nowhere to give a bad review, so people might be willing to take a chance with you. And a new author might be able to make some headway if they can grab people with their first three episodes.

  3. It removes some of the hard work and expense that typically comes from publishing books. You don’t need a fancy cover or layout. You don’t need to worry about ISBNs or audiobook versions or print copies. In fact, because of the episodic nature, you don’t even need a finished book (assuming you’re willing to keep writing and producing). And from the sound of it, a lot of authors intend to write and publish pretty rapidly, avoiding the write-revise-edit process that is the standard for book publishing. In other words, it may pay off to not overthink your stories.

  4. It may help new authors be discovered and establish an audience. Because people don’t have to commit to an entire book, they may be more willing to try out a few episodes first to see if they like your work. And who knows, maybe agents and others scouting for new talent (or the next Netflix show!) will stumble across your Vella story. I mean, why not?

  5. You will be a paid author. Admittedly, the payout per token is low, but it looks like it could accumulate pretty quickly if you have a large number of episodes and even have a small but dedicated following. And again, because you get paid per episode, it’s not a single payment as someone buys your book. If you publish a new episode every week for a year, that’s 52 episodes (minus the first three freebies) that you could be earning on, week after week, as new people find your story. I don’t know about you, but I would happily take 7-15 cents per episode x 52 rather than a single $3 payout from a book purchase. Plus if someone sticks with you that long, they’re not likely to stop when you start a new series. 

  6. Authors can leave notes at the end of each installment. This is an interesting option that provides a way to engage readers in new ways. You might tease the next episode, or ask questions. It’s unclear if you can add ways to contact you, but from comments I read in a FB group, it does seem like clickable links, at least, will not be allowed.

  7. It’s perfect for genre fiction. The Reedsy blog points out that existing serialized fiction platforms like Wattpad and Radish have done exceptionally well with younger readers. They expect people writing Young Adult, paranormal, science fiction, romance, LGBTQ, horror, mystery, and thriller stories will be most likely to succeed on Vella. For someone like me who is writing YA and isn’t sure how to find my audience, this may be the most exciting news of all. 

There’s got to be a downside, right?

From what I can find about Kindle Vella, there don’t seem to be any huge cons to be worried about—at least for now. Once it launches for readers and we hear feedback from authors, things could change.

For now, I only see two potential concerns.

First, because of its serialized nature, your story will need to have sufficient suspense or mystery built into the structure, with episodes ending with some sort of teaser or cliffhanger to get people excited to read the next one. Slow-starters may be non-starters on this platform. So if you have an unpublished story you want to put on Vella, you might need to spend some time working on restructuring your chapters and how you transition between them.

Second, to be successful, both in terms of building a readership and making money, you’ll have to make a long-term commitment to your story. You can’t just publish the first few episodes and walk away like you can with a book series. Vella will become the new digital pet that you have to feed and take for walks on a regular basis. If you don’t get the next episode cued up for your readers, they will abandon you for someone who is regularly putting out new content. (The good news is that you can upload numerous episodes at once so you don’t have to constantly tend the fire.)

This is an important point, I think. A regular commitment can be very difficult to sustain if you’re only earning pennies, which will be likely for a while after you launch your story. When no one knows you or your take, and you don’t have any thumbs-up ratings, you may be putting in hours of work every week without seeing any profits. Can you keep going through the early days of drought?

As I give Vella more thought and read about others’ approaches, it seems like it might work best if you approach it more like blogging or podcasting, where you craft individual, but related, content on a weekly/bi-weekly basis and put it out there without a lot of fiddling. Such a rapid-fire approach for new content means that as you keep going and run out of existing content, you’ll be forced to make things up as you go, with possibly little more than a vague outline or structure, and absolve your inner perfectionist of having to play a role in your publications.

Having said that, if you can make the commitment to your work, to your story, and most of all, to your readers, it seems that it could be worth the time.

How do you publish?

It’s important to point out that at least for now, Amazon notes that “Publishing Kindle Vella stories is available for U.S.-based KDP authors.” (Sorry Canada!) If you haven’t published on Amazon before, this means that the first thing you need to do is become a KDP author. To do this, you will want to create a KDP account (which allows you to get paid, yay!) as well as an Amazon Author Central account (which is your marketing/info page).

On Kindle Vella itself, it appears pretty easy to get started. You simply go to the  Kindle Vella Library and click, “Start a story.” From there, you fill in various information and then click publish and start Episode 1.

From what I can tell, to get started on the platform, you will need:

  • An Amazon KDP account

  • A title

  • Author name

  • Description

  • Story image (a square image in JPG or TIFF format, 1600x1600px, no more than 2MB—this is not a book cover image, as no words, logos, symbols are allowed)

  • Up to 2 story categories and up to 7 story tags

  • At least three episodes (and ideally more) to upload

That’s it! Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Can Amazon be trusted with something like this?

Honestly, given Amazon’s track record, this is a fair question. After all, this isn’t Amazon’s first attempt at providing a platform for serial fiction, nor is it the company’s first non-KDP effort to distribute independent fiction. As Monica Leonelle outlines on Medium, we’ve seen lots of ultimately failed experiments from Amazon in the past. 

What sets this apart from other Amazon ventures, in my mind, are two things:

  1. Previous attempts to make serial fiction were limited in scope and restricted to invited, experienced authors only. So the pool was tiny and it never caught on.

  2. Serialized fiction—both written and other forms—is HOT. As Leonelle notes, serialized stories are huge outside of the US market, especially in Asia. Wattpad and Radish show a huge audience for this kind of content in the US as well. And let’s not forget about TV, podcasts, and other new forms of episodic content on mobile, even within games. In some ways, Amazon isn’t so much innovating here but way behind the cultural curve.

Time will tell if it catches on or not. If there’s enough quality content at launch (or shortly thereafter), it should do well. After all, it took the whole ebook market a bit of time to catch on, and now look at it!

In the meantime, I hope to jump into the new land of serial fiction. Who knows where it might take me?

If you’re a writer, I’d love to know if Kindle Vella is something you’re considering—or not—and why. And if you’re a reader, what do you think? Does the idea of reading serial fiction sound like something you’d be interested in checking out? Let me know in the comments!

[Edit 6/15/21: Amazon has just announced that Kindle Vella will be available to readers in mid to late July. See screen capture below.]

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