Bringing books into the TikTok era: Amazon’s Kindle Vella and the rise of the new ‘story platforms’

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon’s Kindle Vella spotlights the growing market for episodic stories, designed for mobile devices, unfolding as larger narratives over time.
  • It’s the latest example of Amazon moving into a new area of publishing. Vella faces tough competition from Wattpad, Radish Fiction, and many others.
  • Some early Kindle Vella authors say the overall audience hasn’t met their expectations. Amazon says it’s just getting started. It’s supplementing royalties with bonuses in the meantime to help keep authors engaged.

Best-selling romance novelist Audrey Carlan‘s formula for success as an author on Amazon’s Kindle Vella sounds almost like relationship advice: it takes commitment, communication, and an ability to spice things up with some suspense.

Carlan’s series The Marriage Auction is one of the most popular on Kindle Vella, Amazon’s new mobile platform for episodic stories. Her experience is a window into the tech giant’s latest effort to rethink how people publish, buy, and read stories.

Romance novelist Audrey Carlan, author of the Kindle Vella series, The Marriage Auction.

She’s learned, for example, that it’s critical to post new episodes at least once a week. Carlan uses the classic writer’s tools of cliffhangers and teasers to help keep readers engaged. She also communicates directly with Vella readers in an author’s note on each episode, and posts regularly on a dedicated Facebook group, gauging the reaction as the story unfolds.

All of this boosts the chances of becoming a top readers’ pick, known as a “fave” on Kindle Vella. These top stories are featured prominently, creating a virtuous cycle.

Publishing on Vella “is absolutely a commitment,” Carlan said. “And it’s a challenge, because you have to have ready content, or you have to be writing it as you go.”

“It’s a lot more real-time than I expected, which is part of the fun challenge, too,” Carlan said. “I just don’t know if that’s going to work long-term for most authors, because that is highly challenging, highly stressful.”

“But once you get the hang of it,” she added, “it’s kind of exciting.”

Amazon launched Kindle Vella in July on the web and in the Kindle app for iOS, after working with authors since April to build up an initial catalog of content. Stories are told in episodes ranging from 600 to 5,000 words each. Readers get the first three episodes for free, and purchase tokens to unlock further episodes as they go.

It’s part of the company’s long history of pushing the boundaries of publishing, including its original online bookstore; its expansion into Kindle e-books and devices; and its acquisitions of the CreateSpace self-publishing platform, Audible audiobook service and Goodreads reading community. Vella is an extension of the Kindle Direct Publishing platform for independent authors.

Customers told Amazon that they wanted shorter reading experiences that would fit into breaks in their days, as part of larger stories that unfold over many weeks, months or more, said Virginia Milner, the Amazon principal product manager who leads the Vella product, business, and marketing teams.

Virginia Milner, Amazon principal product manager, leads the Kindle Vella team.

“We’re hopeful even that some of these stories get told over years — that you’re following these characters, and checking in with them really becomes a daily part of your life,” Milner said.

It’s not yet clear if Kindle Vella can rival Amazon’s past hits. Some early Vella authors have been underwhelmed by the audience so far. Amazon is filling the initial gap on royalties with a monthly bonus system to keep authors engaged.

But the company says Vella is just getting started. And given Amazon’s influence in publishing, controlling 50% of U.S. book distribution or more, people across the industry are paying close attention.

Vella is part of the broader emergence of digital storytelling platforms geared for smartphones and tablets. In some cases, stories published on these platforms are already playing a role in the larger media landscape by providing the basis for full books, television shows, movies, and other forms of entertainment.

The growth of these apps reflects the larger rise of short-form, user-generated content, supported by active communities. The approach has been popularized by the likes of TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and others.

Compared to those other “creator economy” apps, the market for story platforms is tiny, but it’s growing quickly. As one measure, in-app purchasing on the top seven story platform apps grew 50% over the past year, topping $12 million per month in May and July, according to Apptopia, a real-time competitive intelligence platform.

The growth potential no doubt played into Amazon’s decision to enter the market, said Adam Blacker, vice president of insights at Apptopia. Amazon already has a foothold in the creator economy based on its acquisition of streaming service Twitch for $970 million in 2014. Story platforms represent another promising niche.

Amazon faces tough competition

For all its publishing prowess, Amazon is a relative newcomer to this part of the market. Authors have been releasing their work and connecting with readers for years in similar ways on platforms such as Radish Fiction, Scribble Hub, Tapas, GoodNovel, Fiction Press, Dreame, Ko-fi, Webnovel, Royal Road, Inkitt and others.

Scribd, known for its document publishing platform, launched its Scribd Originals program for subscribers in 2019, featuring short works by best-selling authors such as Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Jess Walter, and others.

Wattpad’s website and mobile app. (Wattpad Images)

One of the standouts is Wattpad, a Toronto-based company that bills itself as the world’s largest social storytelling platform, with more than 90 million monthly users. Founded in 2006, Wattpad was acquired for more than $600 million in May by Naver, a South Korean company that also owns online comics portal Webtoon.

Jeanne “Jenny” Lam, Wattpad’s president.

Wattpad’s active community of readers is one of its biggest strengths, said Jeanne “Jenny” Lam, Wattpad’s president. The company puts an emphasis on providing a safe space for marginalized individuals.

Many readers gravitate toward stories that reflect their own lives, Lam said, and then connect with other readers who are facing similar challenges and situations. Writers can take suggestions, feedback, and inspiration from readers.

“I like to say that people come for the content, but they stay for the community,” Lam said, calling it “a very different experience than traditional publishing.”

Wattpad’s Paid Stories program lets authors sell their stories directly on its platform. The company helps authors leverage their stories for television, film and book publishing deals. The recent combination with Naver creates new possibilities for adapting Wattpad stories into Webtoon comics.

Romance writer Tamara Lush has published 10 stories through Wattpad’s Paid Stories program, including Drive, which is scheduled to be published as a paperback and e-book through Wattpad Books in March 2022.

A journalist for 30 years, including nearly 13 years as an Associated Press reporter in Florida, Lush was able to leave that job recently to focus full-time on fiction.

Earlier in her career as a romance writer, she published books via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, but she has since taken those books off Amazon and put them on Wattpad. She needed to spend time and money marketing her books to find an audience on Amazon, but she said that isn’t the case on Wattpad.

On Wattpad, “the readership is engaged, whereas I didn’t feel that as much with the Kindle Unlimited readership,” Lush said. “I found that I would publish on Kindle Unlimited, and it would just kind of go into a void.”

‘A perfect format for what I’d been doing’

The experiences of other authors demonstrate Amazon’s potential to popularize new forms of publishing and reading stories.

Fred Moody, author of the Kindle Vella series, Barfly on the Wall: A meteoric misadventure into Seattle bartending.

Retired journalist and author Fred Moody, the former managing editor of Seattle Weekly, has followed Amazon since its early days as an online bookseller, interviewing Jeff Bezos for an article when the company was based in a modest office south of downtown Seattle. The company was so small at the time that Bezos personally followed up with Moody to explain how the journalist’s out-of-print book about the Seattle Seahawks had ended up in Amazon’s online catalog.

“He was talking about why he was located in Seattle, and what his plans were, to be the world’s biggest bookstore and all that, but there was no sense that they were headed where they were headed, at least not to my benighted eyes,” Moody recalled this week. “You could tell he was really onto something, but nobody could have imagined what that something was.”

In 2004, as the tech economy was taking off in the city, Moody wrote about Seattle’s “struggle for its soul” in his book, Seattle and the Demons of Ambition. That book was inspired in part by his experience encountering protesters during the World Trade Organization riots, which opened his eyes to Seattle’s evolution into a “massive establishment symbol with all this corporate power,” as he puts it.

More than a decade later, in 2015, his eyes were opened to yet another side of the city when he came out of retirement to work as a day-shift bartender at the Shanghai Room in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, which his daughter Caitlin and son-in-law Tony took over when they opened the adjacent North Star Diner. (They stepped down as owner/operators earlier this year.)

Moody started taking notes about the characters at the bar, the people he worked with, and his experiences with the late Anthony Bourdain and his crew when the famed chef and television host visited Seattle.

When the pandemic hit, Moody found himself with the time to write.

“I wanted to experiment with a different kind of narrative, where I’m telling these short little pieces, sometimes anecdotes, sometimes conversations, or little pieces from people’s lives, then just kind of jumping from one to the other,” he explained, describing it as “a mosaic” that builds into a larger narrative.

Then he heard about Vella.

“It was almost like a perfect format for what I’d been doing,” he said. “I could just take these bite-sized, little things, and make these episodes.”

Vella also matched the trends he had witnessed from behind the bar.

“I was really taken with the idea that it would be so phone-friendly, because the audience I was thinking about for this book were people that read exclusively on their phones, which I noticed in my bartending was the case with almost everybody under 40 years old,” he said.

The result was Moody’s Kindle Vella series Barfly on the Wall: A meteoric misadventure into Seattle bartending. It’s a rare example of narrative non-fiction on Vella, which is so far primarily populated by fiction.

[On the GeekWire Podcast, Fred Moody and I discuss his career, Seattle’s evolution, his work as a bartender, his experience on Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” and writing for Kindle Vella. Listen above or subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app.]

Authors watching economics and audience closely

Vella’s potential to create a stronger connection with readers is what drew the attention of Michael An’gileo, the pen name for the Los Angeles-area author who born as Michael Vanoff. He specializes in “prophetic fiction,” as an outgrowth of his Christian faith. He has published two series on Vella, The Bluelite Chronicles and The Bluelite Lovers.

He said he was drawn to Vella by the “intimacy of the connection between the author and the readers — this idea that someone who does not know me can board a subway tomorrow morning, and en route to school turn on their iPhone, and before you know it they’re reading my story … and they’re hooked.”

It’s not yet clear if Amazon will deliver on that vision. Authors say they’ve been having a tough time finding engaged readers on the platform. Author threads about Vella on the Kindle Direct Publishing forums raise recurring concerns about the user interface and the discoverability of content.

Authors say Kindle Vella’s initial readership numbers alone are not generating enough in royalties to make a living on the platform.

“Right now? Absolutely not. It’s too new. It does not have enough readership at this time, at least in my opinion,” Carlan said a few weeks after Kindle Vella launched.

Amazon’s Kindle Vella token bundles.

However, Amazon has since announced a “launch bonus” totaling $200,000 for July and $450,000 for August, to be distributed among Kindle Vella authors “based on customer activity such as Faves, Follows, and Token redemption,” according to the company. That translates into monthly bonuses of hundreds of dollars or more for some authors.

Amazon also responded to feedback from Vella authors on a key financial issue, saying it will count the 200 free tokens given to new Vella users toward the launch bonus for authors, even though Amazon doesn’t make money on those tokens.

Episodes are unlocked at a rate of one token for every 100 words, as explained in the Kindle Vella documentation for authors. Tokens are sold in bundles starting at $1.99 for 200 tokens, or slightly less than one penny per token, with discounts on larger bundles.

The company distributes Kindle Vella royalties using a 50-50 split. Authors get half of what users spend on tokens to unlock episodes of their stories. Some authors on independent platforms are accustomed to keeping a larger share of revenue, in some cases by using third-party services to generate income.

Fifty percent is a “really large chunk of money” by comparison, said Luke Logan, an independent author who uses Patreon to monetize his series, Dragons Dilemma.

“If you compare it to what you’d get from traditional publisher, then it might seem reasonable,” Logan said. “But a traditional publisher is going to provide you with editors, they’re going to provide you with advertising. Fifty percent just for the use of the platform is a lot.”

He called it “scary, in a sense, because we have to go where readers go.” If Amazon becomes dominant in this part of the publishing market, he said, it would result in “a massive reduction in our income.”

Amazon’s Milner said the goal is to ensure that authors can make a “meaningful income” on Kindle Vella. An English major as an undergraduate, Milner grew up around publishing and media. Both of her parents are writers.

“Something that really struck me from watching them when I was growing up is how much time they spent sending out manuscripts and trying to get published,” she said. “And so the idea of Kindle Direct Publishing and self-publishing in general was really inspiring to me,” in the way that it allows writers to focus on their craft.

Kindle Vella in the Kindle app for iOS. (Amazon Images)

She said the Vella team has been operating as a startup inside the company, building the product from the ground up, describing it as “a super-rewarding experience.”

Amazon isn’t talking publicly about its roadmap for Vella. The company has no shortage of publishing assets to leverage to grow Vella’s audience. But it’s not clear, for example, if there are plans to integrate Vella directly into Kindle e-readers, or to create stronger ties with the Goodreads community to boost engagement.

“As we Amazonians like to say, it’s still Day One,” Milner said. “So we’re just getting started. There’s lots of opportunity for this format and program to move in lots of different directions. We’re excited to see where that goes, and where we can take it.”

An Amazon job listing for a Kindle Vella senior technical program manager role hints at the priorities: “multiple product and technical solutions involving author and reader customer experience across multiple devices, content discovery and marketing strategies, personalization and recommendation models, and more.”

‘With any technology, it’s going to take time’

Carlan, for one, is accustomed to the challenge of writing in this style.

She created and published her romantic saga Calendar Girl in 2015 in regular installments — spending two weeks writing each one, giving her editor a few days to turn it around, distributing it through Amazon’s Kindle platform, and repeating the process every month for a year.

Calendar Girl found a loyal audience, a traditional publishing house acquired the print rights, and the completed series quickly became a best-seller, drawing comparisons to the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey.

That experience helped to prepare her for publishing on Kindle Vella.

“So many authors are telling me, ‘Oh, I posted my book, and nothing’s happening.’ ” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, you’re not teasing them, you’re not expressing any excitement.’ And I’m giving my readers opportunities to tell me what they think about each episode.”

Carlan experienced one of the pitfalls when a deadline for her new book, Wild Spirit, kept her from posting a new Marriage Auction episode on Kindle Vella during one recent week. Readers who unlock episodes with purchased tokens can crown one story each week as their fave. Without new content, her ranking tumbled, and her series was briefly no longer among the top faves.

The Marriage Auction has since reclaimed a top ranking thanks to a regular cadence of episodes — telling the “secrets, desires, fiery couplings and drama” of four women who agree to marry the highest bidders in a covert auction. Still, one of Carlan’s early pieces of feedback for Amazon is to make the rankings less fleeting.

Carlan also hopes to see Amazon expand Vella’s availability to international markets, and bring Vella into the Kindle app for Android. Vella is currently available only in the Kindle app for iOS, and on the web. While it’s possible now to read Vella on the web on Android devices, the experience isn’t the same.

To the extent that Kindle Vella introduces new readers to her work, Carlan said the platform has the potential boost interest in her backlist, increasing sales of her previously published books.

She has committed personally to publishing episodes of The Marriage Auction for at least a year, giving Amazon time to grow Vella as platform and build the audience.

“This isn’t something that can just be perfect overnight,” she said. “With any technology, it’s going to take time. And it takes effort for people to get used to something new.”

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Amazon Audrey carlan Fred moody Kindle Kindle direct publishing Kindle vella Radish fiction Tamara lush Wattpad