Examining Kindle Unlimited
Ever since I announced that I was pulling most of my books from Kindle Unlimited (called KU hereafter because I am laaaaaazy), I’ve gotten e-mails and messages asking me why exactly I chose to do that. Some were from readers who use the service, but a fair bit were from writers who are trying to figure out if KU is a good deal or not. There’s a lot of talk about this on the internet already, but I find the majority of it to be very one sided, so today I want to talk about KU, the benefits and flaws that come with it, and why I decided it was no longer the right fit for me going forward.
What is Kindle Unlimited?
For those of you who don’t use Amazon much, or simply don’t care about Kindles, Kindle Unlimited was built to be the equivalent of a streaming service for books. You pay $10 per month, and in exchange you can read all these various books from the authors who sign up. It’s a lot of indie folks (we’ll go into why that is soon) but they also got some seriously big names on there. I think all of Harry Potter is available through KU, for example. As a reader, that’s a hell of a deal, and you can see why people started jumping at it.
From the author’s perspective, KU was an evolution of Kindle Select, a service that let Prime members borrow a book per month and paid authors from a collective fund. It also allowed for perks like doing free book days or getting better royalties in various non-US nations. It bears noting that authors in Kindle Select were put in Kindle Unlimited without being asked when the change occurred, prompting a bit of backlash and wariness about KU off the bat.
Okay, now that we all know what exactly KU is…
What Are the Benefits of Kindle Unlimited?
In a word: exposure. Now I know that’s something of a dirty word in the artistic community of late, but exposure is only bad when you’re being offered it on someone else’s terms. Lots of artists do work for exposure on their own and find it rewarding, as well as useful. Hell, save for the few who monetize with e-books or ads, almost all web-serials are done purely for exposure. Literally, all we ask is that you read, enjoy, and spread the word. Exposure is a powerful thing, especially in a world as full of as many competing entertainment sources as we deal with online, and KU offers a shitload of it.
Between the ability to set book deals for all customers, the willingness of KU members to pick up your book (hey, it’s free), and the alleged increased promotion Amazon does for KU books (this is cited as speculation and I haven’t seen data, so I’m not counting it as a pro without proof) it’s a way to get your books out there and seen by a lot more people. The KU fund also pays a little for each time someone reads past 10% in your book, but trust me that almost no one is going in to KU for the payout. Exposure is the currency this system brings to the table, and it is willing to make that shit rain.
What Are The Drawbacks of Kindle Unlimited?
Without trying to be melodramatic: pretty much everything other than exposure. I’ll try to break these into two simple categories to keep things contained, but bear in mind this system is less than a year old; there are going to be problems in any system’s first year. I’m not trying to say these are unfixable and mean the whole thing should be burned, rather pointing out the areas that make authors want to steer clear of it.
Payment: Yes, some of us (even me) do have to look at the financial side of things when it comes to our books. I give a lot away for free, but the things I charge for are done because I’ve got bills to pay and cheap liquor still costs something. KU’s system of having Amazon chunk in a shitload of money, then give an equal share for every time a book passed the 10% read point to the authors, seems really fair at first, but it overlooks two problems: standards is always needed when money is involved and people will game systems if given the chance.
Once people figured out how this worked, the KU market started getting flooded with 99 cent short stories, some people even trying to release single chapters at a time to get paid for each one. This not only spreads the fund out so much that it makes payments miniscule (roughly $1 per borrow as of last I checked) but it also disincentives anyone with a moderately sized and priced book from joining KU. It can be fixed, if Amazon is willing to set some standards to keep mini-books from watering down the fund, but as it stands it’s hard to fiscally justify putting a book in KU. Unless, of course, the tradeoff in exposure is worth the loss.
Exclusivity: Save for the big name publishers who were approached by KU, every author in it must give up the rights to sell, post, or publish their book anywhere outside Amazon during their time in Kindle Unlimited. Even pre-existing web-serials aren’t exempt, as I found out from some colleague’s close calls. Now if you sell only through Amazon, that’s doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but surrendering all of your rights to a single publisher who has put in none of the work aside from providing a platform to sell from can be a galling experience. Especially when weighed against the cost-loss issues I brought up earlier. Exposure is definitely good, but eventually a saturation point is reached in any market place. Cutting yourself off from the others can work against you after a certain point, and it’s hard to tell exactly where that is for a lot of us.
Should Authors Use Kindle Unlimited?
There is no right or wrong answer here. Even after deciding to pull my own books, I’ve had discussions with fellow-authors where it was obvious KU was the right choice for them. Ultimately, it all comes down to looking at things from an objective perspective, what you’re willing to give up in order to gain.
For new authors, ones just breaking in to the scene, KU is an awesome tool. Exposure is the most important thing they can be trying to accrue, well above money or ratings. Trading exclusivity and a chunk of the profit margin can be a real bargain in return for how many eyes will end up on their words. Yes, there is some loss of cash, but a new author shouldn’t be relying on their first book for real income anyway, unless they have a big advance from a publisher. All in all for new people it’s usually, though not always, a slam dunk.
For authors who’ve been at it a while, things are a case-by-case basis. Only they know if exposure is worth the cash hit and loss of other publishing platforms. And you can see this clearly in the fact that some authors, me included, will only have certain books on KU. These are the ones where the trade-off is worth it, while for others exposure might not quite hold as much luster.
For me, it was the exclusivity that finally pushed me past the point of it being worth the trade. Amazon could have pulled me out of it anyway if they’d objected to the SP books still being up as a web-serial, and there was no way I was taking them down. Even aside from that, I love trying out new things. New venues, new mediums, new ways to share and play with my creations. There was a point where I thought about having Year 3 run on Wattpad, only a week behind the site, to make it easier on folks to read. Then I thought I’d need to put up at least Year 1 as well, and realized I wasn’t allowed to do so. That moment, if I’m being honest, kind of pissed me off. These are my books, my characters, my years of work, and if I’m sacrificing any of my freedom in how I put them into the world then it had sure-as-shit better be worth it. The reason I was mad was that deep down, I knew it was a bad trade. So I canceled the auto-renewal, gave people warning, and that was it for me and KU.
Maybe I’ll go back one day, if they address the more glaring issues, but it’s going to be harder this time around. I’m not so quick to shut off myself off to other venues, or the potential of what’s to come. Either that exclusivity will have to be lifted or it will really have to be worth it for me. “For me” being the operative words there, because I still see value in it for lots of other authors.
Like with most things in life, it’s up to you as an author, or a reader, to decide the worth in. There is no right or wrong, only what’s best for you.