Revisiting Kindle Unlimited
As most of you know, I’ve recently been working within Kindle Unlimited (KU) again since I needed to be in the program to do promotion of the Super Powereds series for the Year 4 release. It’s been a while since I lasted talked about the system of KU, and its undergone some changes, so it seemed a good time to re-look at the program, assessing its strengths and weaknesses. KU probably won’t be the right fit for every person or project, but it is a useful tool in the correct situations, and one you should certainly consider when evaluating new releases.
From Borrows to Page Views
To start things off, the biggest change from the old KU is the way authors are paid for their work. In the original version, you were paid for each borrow of one of your works, and then at the end of the month the pot of cash was split up between the total number of borrowed books. So, say you had 1,000 books get borrowed in a month, the fund had a million dollars in it, and ten million books in total were borrowed across the whole program. That means each borrow is worth $0.10, netting you $100 in KU royalty for the month. Fair as that seems at the outset, not all books are of equal length, which caused friction, and there was an influx of scammers pumping out one page pamphlets that flooded the market and watered down the fund.
To combat this, Amazon changed the system. Now, the payout is determined by pages read. So, again, let’s say there’s a million dollars in the fund for a given month. A hundred million pages are read, and of those 10,000 were from your books. Same formula applies as above, meaning each page is worth substantially less than a full book, but longer works are now compensated proportionally so long as they can keep a reader’s attention. Of course, this system has issues as well, especially for works that lean heavily on illustration such as children’s books or comics. It does at least strive for a higher level of fairness though, and had the added benefit of turning the scam-pamphlets worthless. Those numbers are all theoretical, however. For actual payouts, we have to look back at recent history.
Does it Pay?
I always dislike leaning too hard on these parts of the blogs, I know most authors picked this career out of passion, because there are much easier ways to make rent. Still, when one goes full-time it’s a consideration that must be taken into account, so we need to dig in at least a little.
Because the amount of money in the fund is based on subscribers, and it is doled out by number of pages read, there’s never going to be a perfectly consistent rate-per-page on KU. That said, looking back through the years it tends to fall between $0.004 - $0.005 every month. Since we’re simplifying for the sake of brevity, let’s use $0.0045 as our number today. That means if you write a 300 page (roughly 100,000 words) book, every time someone reads it cover to cover you make $1.35. Depending on your price point, that’s probably less than you’d make from a normal sale, however there are two things to consider: 1) Amazon doesn’t take 30% from KU like they do royalties, meaning the two numbers are often closer than it seems, and 2) Not every KU read would have translated to a sale. We’ve talked about it before, but it is important to remember that some folks will take a risk on a “free” (KU costs $10 a month) book rather than one they have to pay for. It gives writers an in they may have otherwise missed, and has the potential to create new fans.
So, as I opened this section by asking… does it pay? Yes, to varying extents, especially if you write longer books. In fact, for some books it’s actually more profitable to have them read on KU, although you usually have to be either pricing them very low or producing books of my length to see that. Whether it will pay for you individually is of course a case-by-case basis, but hopefully now you’ve got enough information to run some estimations. Ah, but there is the catch, and it hasn’t gone anywhere.
They Still Demand Exclusivity
Honestly, if not for this, I think KU would be one of the greatest options available to writers. While sometimes the money doesn’t even out on a specific project, the gains to be had from being able to do promotions, getting visibility, and enticing new readers with a free option would still easily weigh hard in KU’s favor. But that damn exclusivity makes it all more complicated. It means going KU cuts off all other avenues, retail and free. You can’t be on Nook, can’t be on iTunes, and, as we all can see from the currently unavailable sections on this very site, can’t even post the content for free on your own venue.
The stints are only for 3 months at a time, at least, which does allow you to play with other venues and see if outside sales can off-set the loss of KU funds. I should also note that the exclusivity applies to ebook only, audio and print versions are free to be distributed through whatever avenue you like. Nevertheless, this bit is a real sticking point for a lot of people, self-included. Not just because it feels dangerous giving one platform that much power, which yeah holy shit trust me when I say authors are concerned about that, but also because I hate taking away any potential reader’s preferred method of delivery. I know a lot of people love their Nooks/Kobos/etc and don’t want to switch over, which is completely fair. And while it’s true that Kindle is an app available on virtually all smart devices, that’s still going to be limiting for some folks.
I’m not saying this one is an automatic deal-breaker; obviously there are times when the sacrifice is worth it. But it is a real knock against the program as a whole, and one that should absolutely be considered when deciding whether or not KU is the right fit for your project.
As with most publishing/advertising options, this isn’t a one-size fits all. For certain books, it will make sense to be in KU, for others it works better to go wide. You can even do what I’m having to do with the serials, which is jump in and out as promotional needs demand. Just make sure you do your research so you can feel confident in whichever direction you take. And keep abreast of changes, because KU is an ever-evolving beast, and what’s true in this blog may not be so forever.