A lot of authors have asked me this question, so I thought I would do a post about what I think Kindle Unlimited means to both authors and readers. It’s important to see things from both sides, because this program has or will eventually affect everyone who writes for a living and who reads for pleasure.
Starting with the basics.
What is Kindle Unlimited?
Kindle Unlimited is Amazon’s response to Oyster. And if you don’t know what Oyster is, it’s pretty much a Netflix for books. Readers pay a small fee of $9.99 per month to have access to over 600,000 books on Amazon that they can read until they’re heart is content. This also gives them access to certain audiobooks, which makes it a really great deal. If I was an avid reader (I’m surprisingly not), I would jump on this. It only makes sense. Whether authors like it or not, this IS the future of ebooks. I think we all saw it coming from miles away, but everyone (authors) hoped it would never happen, because it will likely lead to the inevitable devaluing of books (in dollar terms), and thus, cut into our bank accounts.
The thing that differs between Amazon as an ebook retailer and every other ebook retailer out there is that they’re big on the idea of monopolizing and snuffing out their competition. I am not one to bite the hand that feeds me. Amazon has done amazing things for me, but this is the truth of the company. What readers don’t see behind the scenes is that Amazon is trying to get authors to go exclusive with them at every turn. First, they introduced Select, where authors could get all of these free advertising perks IF they went exclusive with Amazon. Kindle Unlimited is part of Select, which means that (most)authors can only have their books available to Kindle Unlimited subscribers if they’re enrolled in Select. And Select requires the authors to be on a 90 day contract with Amazon where their book can ONLY be available for sale on the Amazon publishing platform.
Select isn’t anything new. Amazon is constantly sweetening the pot to try to get authors to go all in with them, and the vast majority of mid-list authors (like myself), and a lot of big list authors as well, are staying out of it because they want their books widely available. While Amazon holds the market share on ebooks, not everyone owns a Kindle. As an example, if I make $20,000 in a month, $15,000 of it will come from Amazon, and $5,000 of it will come from other retailers.
There are three main reasons why authors don’t want to be exclusive to Amazon:
1.) You alienate yourself from the other retailers, and thus give up the income you could be making from them and the readerbase. To this day, I think that pulling my books out of Select was one of the smartest career moves I made. iTunes and Google Play are steadily growing as ebook retailers.
2.) You cannot hit New York Times or USA Today with Amazon alone. This is the main reason why I want to stay out of Select. Both companies take sales from multiple ebook retailers to compile their lists.
3.) Putting your eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster. I have watched Amazon destroy authors’ careers overnight because they suddenly decide something is no longer acceptable. The best example of this was the big pseudo-incest stink a while back. Authors who didn’t adapt had to start all over, and a lot of them never recovered.
Having said that, let’s get back to Kindle Unlimited and how it’s shaking things up. So, much like Amazon Prime (where you get a free book a month, also only by authors who are enrolled in Select), when the program was first introduced, Amazon allowed a lot of the big list authors (people who are regularly on the New York Times best-seller list) into the program for a promotional 30-day period without having to be exclusive to Amazon. They did this because, well, who wants to sign up for a subscription service that has absolutely nothing they want to read.
Month one wasn’t too bad. Not a whole lot of people knew about Unlimited yet. It didn’t really affect the income of most mid-list authors. For short story writers, it has been a goldmine. It still is. You see, the way that Select and Unlimited work is that if a reader reads 10% of a book, the author gets paid for it. The clincher is that they have no idea how much they’re getting paid until the following month when Amazon releases their Select funding report. Lately, it’s been pretty decent. I believe last month it was around $1.50 per book. So, if you can pop out a short story every other day and people borrow the hell out of it, that’s a lot money for a little effort. It’s not so good for novel writers who charge $2.99 – $4.99 for a novel. They’re taking a loss on royalties, which is one reason why so many of your favorite novel writing authors are not enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. It does not make business sense for them to take the loss in royalties.
But anyway, getting back on track. Somewhere along the way, the 30-day trial got extended. Probably because there was a lot of readers complaining about how Kindle Unlimited doesn’t have a whole lot of books that people want to read. You would think that 600,000 books is a lot, but I like to compare it to when I used to go to the library about 5 years ago and borrow audiobooks. They had tons of them, but none were by the authors I usually read. So I had this giant selection of books that I had zero interest in reading.
As I mentioned above, Select and Kindle Unlimited do not make sense for novel writers. For one, you’re taking a hit to your income. And for two, you’re murdering your chance of getting New York Times or USA Today, and that also murders your income. Because when you make one of those two lists, you can pretty much fill a bathtub with money and roll in it. The exposure is off the charts, which naturally leads to a higher income level.
If all of these big time authors got out of Select and none of the mid-list authors enrolled, then the program would pretty much fail. There would still a be a lot of authors that are grandfathered in (classic books) and a slew of short stories, because again, short story authors are benefiting from this program the most financially, but the lion’s share of the authors that people want to read are going to pull out, because it just makes sense. So, Amazon extended their trial. It was a smart move on their part.
We’re in month two, I believe. More people know about Kindle Unlimited. A friend of mine did a poll among readers, and it seems that about 30% are enrolled. That number is only going to grow over time, I’m sure. The biggies got their extension, and the rest of us are starting to feel the heat. I talk to a lot of other mid-list and bigger name authors, and it seems that everyone across the board has taken a hit on income this month. Below are my thoughts on why.
I like to assume that most people are like me. I am a subscription service junkie. I have both Netflix and Spotify. So, I am definitely not cursing Oyster or Kindle Unlimited. In this shitty economy, I can totally see the need for services like these. I can really take either one these companies for an example in my psychological evaluation, though it would probably be more accurate for me to single out Spotify. I have millions of songs at my fingertips that I pay a low monthly fee for. However, they do not have some of my favorite artists. For instance, Spotify does not have Tool. I don’t go out of my way to buy songs by Tool just so I can listen to them. The point is that a lot of people who are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited are not going to go out of their way to spend extra money on books that aren’t enrolled in the program. Sure, there are going to be exceptions to the rule. I have Netflix, but I still go to the movies to see new movies. But I’m inclined to believe that the majority would either pick up something else to read while they wait in hope for their favorite authors to join Kindle Unlimited. Readers, please feel free to comment on your thoughts about this below.
So, what happens now? Well, trying to get USA Today and New York Times seems out of the question while the big list authors are enjoying their non-exclusive run with Kindle Unlimited(yes, I’m jelly. lol). Amazon still holds the biggest share of what it takes to make those lists, and if some authors are getting an advantage from them, then authors like me don’t have a snowballs chance in hell. I’m sure there’s an exception or two to the rule, but for the most part, that puts a lot of authors at a stalemate for hitting lists.
On top of that, following my theory above about Kindle Unlimited subscribers not wanting to read books outside of the program, a lot of authors are taking a hit in income. I’ve heard reports everywhere from a 10% loss to a 50% loss in income this month. 30% – 50% seems to be more the norm. Mind you, that 30% – 50% is a loss of Amazon income, NOT the other retailers. Many authors have reported that sales are up on the other retailers.
So, what do authors do? They wait. This isn’t something you can win by choosing one or the other. If you go into Select, you lose income from the other retailers. And if you don’t go into Select, you lose income because of Kindle Unlimited. From what I can tell, there isn’t a way around this. Blasting ads, even doing BookBub isn’t fixing this for anyone.
What This Means for Readers
A lot of authors are fighting the exclusivity tooth and nail. Amazon is not the enemy here. Their exclusivity clause for the Kindle Unlimited program is. As it continues to affect authors, readers will likely experience a fluctuation in pricing from their favorite authors outside of the program. Readers who do not have a Kindle might lose access to the books of their favorite authors completely as they feel forced to opt in to the program.
I’ve already considered putting my latest series into the program since there’s no hope that it will hit New York Times. If I do that, I will still have to raise prices to make up for the loss of income from the other retailers.
I’m really not sure what will happen with the future of Kindle Unlimited. It’s definitely here to stay though. I’m not ever sure that Amazon is sure what to do about it. This past week, new and updated books have automatically been enrolled in the program without exclusivity. Many authors believe that this is a glitch, but I think that Amazon is doing some testing. There aren’t enough books in the program to make people want to stay, and they’re still having a hard time coaxing authors in.
Ideally, I’d love to see Kindle Unlimited removed from Select’s exclusivity. If all books could be enrolled in it without exclusivity, then everyone would win. As it is now, most people aren’t happy about it (both readers who aren’t getting the books they want to read with the program and authors who are having their income and opportunities sliced into). I just hope that changes in the future.