Kindle Unlimited: Good or Bad for Authors?

Kindle Unlimited: Good or Bad for Authors?

kindle-unlimited (1)By Buck Flogging

I’ve noticed several of the articles on Amazon’s bold decision to offer a subscription for unlimited eBook downloads seem to claim that this move is “bad for authors.” That’s probably because these articles were written by people who aren’t authors or publishers and certainly not indie authors. We’ve published 40 books here in the last 70 days, and I’ve been active in the publishing industry since before there was such a thing as an eBook. I can assure you my predictions about how this will affect authors and the publishing industry in general is much better informed.

In short, don’t worry authors. Bezos hasn’t suddenly declared war on you. In fact, Bezos is continuing to take bold steps to declare with no ambiguity that indies are his friends, and publishing companies are his bitter rivals–at least until they change their business model and start publishing exclusively on Amazon instead of trying to sell books on every retailer imaginable. And no, Archangel Ink is not necessarily a “publishing company” so we’re not threatened either. We’re more like a steroid dealer for indie authors. Do you even lift Poe?

Let’s get into the meat and analysis of how this will likely affect indie authors and those who publish with new school publishing entities like Archangel Ink and TCK Publishing

In the past, eBooks that were published exclusively with Amazon (through the KDP Select program) could be borrowed as part of the Kindle Owner Lending Library (KOLL). A fund with an undisclosed amount was set aside, and that pool fund was divided by the total number of borrows in any given month. If the fund was $1 million, and 500,000 books were borrowed in a month, the average borrow would be worth a $2 payout to authors. Most authors will agree that $2 is about the current average payout per borrowed book, and book borrows have typically resulted in 5-10% of total book revenue depending on the price of the book (the higher the price, the more likely someone is to borrow it for free).

The Kindle Unlimited program will work the same way basically, with a few caveats.

First off, what the hell is it? It’s a new subscription that allows readers to pay $9.99 monthly and download as many books as they want. The books that are available in the program are only those that are exclusively published with Amazon (mostly indie published books). Most of the traditionally-published books are not published exclusively, and will continue to remain expensive, but now there’s another even stronger deterrent to buying them: Why pay $10 for a traditionally-grilled steak when you’ve got 600,000 burgers that you’ve already paid for? I mean, steak is great and all, but it costs quite a bit more and takes a lot longer to chew.

What it boils down to is that more readers will be downloading and reading indie-published books. I also believe and hope, although I can’t confirm this quite yet, that each KU download will count as a “sale” in Amazon’s ranking system. If so, you’ll also see all the indie titles appearing at the top of every category, because the number of KU downloads is going to be staggering. How staggering? I’ve seen an 670% increase in 48 hours. Keep in mind the following graph was taken with 3 hours and 18 minutes remaining in the day, and presumably another 5-10 KU/KOLL units will come in by then.


That’s 4 KU/KOLL units on the 16th (average has been 6-7 this month) going up to 44 on the 19th with over 3 hours to go. Let’s conservatively say from 6.5 to 50–and call it a 670% increase. Ignore the paid units which seem to be slipping along with it–those were elevated sales due to a 99-cent promotion. Sales today are on par with the rest of the month before KU hit.

Although I’d be lying if I was to say I’m not at least a little bit fearful that this will hurt the number of paid sales. This graph on one of our top-selling books is the only thing that gives me pause about this whole KU thing. Yikes!

KU Lean Life

Speaking of 99-cent promotions, our platform launched a book all the way to #4 in the Kindle store on Wednesday, with three more in the top #100. Just thought I’d mention that.

If that’s where it is after a couple days, where’s this thing going to be in several months? A year? Will an Amazon exclusive eBook that used to get five sales and one KOLL borrow per day be getting five sales and ten KU downloads daily? Twenty? I think it could be even higher, and I also think that these KU units will improve sales rank in proportion to the number of KU downloads, making Indie-published titles that are published through KDP Select top all the bestseller lists. My only real fear with this move is that it is so aggressive that traditional publishers will finally submit to Amazon’s might, join the indies, and start publishing exclusively through Amazon.

But even if they do, I still think they’ll be losing out, because price and book length will be irrelevant to KU shoppers. The author that writes 30, 25-page, 99-cent books per year will completely obliterate authors writing 500-page beasts in total sales. A KU download is a KU download, and each one pays the same whether your book is 10 pages or 1,000. The cheaper the book, the higher the sales rank, the more visible it is to KU browsers, and the more downloads it’s going to get.

I think this is yet another powerful incentive to follow the “write, publish, repeat” model of book publishing.

Keep ’em short. Publish often.

Yet another incentive for short books is that you only get credit for a KU download if the person who purchased the book makes it to the 10% point of the book. Readers are a lot more likely to make it to the 10% point on a 50-page book (page 5) than a 500-page book (page 50).

The other remaining question is: How much will authors get paid per KU download?

No one knows yet, but I bet it’s going to be pretty decent considering Bezos’s primary motive, which is to make publishing on Amazon exclusively as attractive as possible. Up until this point, the KOLL units typically contributed no more than a buck or two per day per book for most authors, so I can’t help but assume that it can only get better. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll be worth $1 or more and amount to several downloads daily for most moderate-ranking books, and an extra $100 monthly or more plus extra paid sales due to improvement in sales rank. Even if they pay 2 cents, if each download counts as a sale in the ranking system, and traditionally-published titles start to suck wind because of the glut of KU subscribers avoiding the titles that cost extra to read, that will far outweigh any direct payment an author receives from KU downloads.

If they don’t count as sales, well then, this could be kinda grim. It’s hard to tell right now and I can’t seem to locate an answer to that question. If anyone knows for sure, please enlighten me in the comments.

We shall see. I for one am eager to see what’s coming around the next corner on the crazy Kindle rollercoaster ride. Everything that’s happened in the publishing world over the last decade has been extremely beneficial to authors thus far, and I don’t see any reason to suspect that this bold move is going to derail that trend any time soon–especially for indies.

The last remaining question I have is how the audiobook market will be affected by this, as Kindle Unlimited allows you full access to audiobooks as part of the dilly as well. As a producer of 70 audiobooks and narrator of 44 and counting, I’m certainly curious, but I have no clue. Personally, roughly 20% of my book revenue comes from Audible Listener Member bounties, which is far above what a typical author averages. It certainly seems that will be negatively impacted by this new membership with presumably no bounty payment. No freaking idea, but as I study the changes I see in the coming months, I”ll be sure to report back.

16 thoughts on “Kindle Unlimited: Good or Bad for Authors?

  1. Thanks, Buck. I was, indeed, curious. I received the emails from Amazon yesterday, and saw there is a $1 million fund for KU at the moment, which seemed small. Your article here had a lot of “words”, which was scary at first. But then I saw a graph which was easy to understand. That set my concerns to rest. $1 million small? Pshaw. Apparently I’m going to be making bank in a few months all thanks to KU. Rock on!

  2. Very interesting read. I can see where you are coming from when you say about publishing shorts compared to long books, especially where the 10% mark comes in. But surely if there’s more for a reader to read then there’s more chance for that reader to get hooked on the story. 50 pages equates to the first one and a half chapters in my book, so that reader now knows one of my main characters and is well into getting to know the second. But one thing I was wondering, and I don’t think you addressed it here. What if you have a copyright and disclaimer page and an acknowledgements page etc. Do these count in the 10%? If they do then they won’t be doing the short story writer any good.


    Kindle Unlimited Sucks! Yes Kindle Unlimited Sucks, plain and simple, and there is now question about this .. At first I just thought it Sucks from an authors standpoint. A authors whose books wear selling pretty well in 20014 … Selling well until Amazon had the bright idea of this thing called Kindle Unlimited, a sort of Netflix for Books .. Well Kindle Books anyway. Kindle Unlimited is a monthly subscription service, whereby a subscriber can get unlimited downloads of Kindle Books on Amazon, 10 books at a time for the cost of $9.99 a month … If you’re an avid reader, this might sound good to you, good if you can get and read numerous books a month for $9.99 … Yes, good if you can get books, or more like, good if there was a good selection of books for you to get (Download) and read … But guess what my friends? The selection of books Sucks “Big Time.” There practically is none. The selection is “Pitiful” scandalous actually. Anyone who has signed up for the free month of Kindle Unlimited no-doubt already knows this. I don’t know what the figures are, but I’d wager to say that percentage wise the number of books available on Kindle Unlimited against the Total Number of Books sold on Amazon is far less than 1 % .. That’s dismal, to say the least .. Think I’ll see if I can find out the figure somewhere, and if one of you dear readers happens to know, please let me know by leaving a comment in the comment box. Thanks for that!

    Anyway, I first starting hating Kindle Unlimited in the beginning of the month (August 2014). Anyway last Christmas Season my book sales spike to pretty good numbers for the first time. Nice! Yes it was. The first 4 months of 2014 sales were so-so … Then all of a sudden in May 2014, sales of my book Sunday Sauce started spiking in a big way. They went from about 20 a month to more than 600 … I was loving it .. In June and July I was selling close to 850 units a month with about 50 borrows from Kindle Prime subscribers that are worth 2 Bucks a Pop .. Sweet! Then came the dreaded month of August 2014 … Dreaded for me anyway .. All of a sudden, my sales dipped overnight, and “Drastically” !!! My sales went from around 33 a day, down to a meager 3 ! “What The Fu_k ???” I didn’t know what hit me. Seriously, I didn’t .. I didn’t ever know what the Hell Kindle Unlimited was … I soon found out .. I went on the Forum for Kindle Select Authors and soon found out. A number of authors had seen sales drop dramatically as soon as Kindle Unlimited came on line. They were in the same boat as me .. Others were not. They were the fortunate ones, their sales had soared. Soared upwards that is .. Well goody for them, but not me and others. Some authors said their sales went down but their “Borrows” were up dramatically. Up enough for them to be happy .. But how bout us other guys? Guys (and Girls) whose sales not only went down, but went down drastically, and overnight? And all because of Kindle Unlimited .. I posted on the KDP Forum, “I Think I Hate Kindle Select.” I wasn’t really sure cause as a number of authors stated and suggested for everyone (authors) to wait and see when the dust settles.

    OK, so I would. I didn’t have a choice … I was reading some articles and forums about this whole KU thing and how it was affecting authors, either badly, like me, and for some, it was good. Amongst all the talk, some were thinking that if your book was priced at a higher price-point it might tend to attract KU Subscribers to download it more than over titles that were cheaper, like mine at just .99 Cents … The subscribers would feel like they were getting a better deal by getting more expensive books free as opposed to getting a cheaper book free. Makes sense to me!
    So I started experimenting. I had to get my sales up after the KU bashing. So I raised the Price to $9.99 hoping to attract more KU Subscribers to download my now more expensive book. Nothing !!! I tried putting it to $5.99, Nothing! So I put it back to .99 Cents and figured I’d wait out the storm …
    Well it’s August 31 and the first dreadful month of Kindle Unlimited is over .. But Kindle Unlimited is till there, and new subscriber will be going for the Free Month of KU .. Hey, I did myself. Mainly as an author who saw his Kindle Sales Annihilated as a result of Kindle unlimited, I wanted to get it to see how it all worked and what was available. Boy I’m glad I did. I signed up for my Free Month of Kindle Unlimited, went on and started looking for books. Guess what? Well I think you already know? There’s hardly anything there. I couldn’t find any books I wanted to read. Well a couple. But I don’t think I’ll even find ten. Why? You know. The selections Sucks. There’s hardly anything there. The selection is quite pitiful and I’d have to think the majority would agree, especially those who might read 6 or more books a month and thought KU might be a great deal. Not !!!!!
    So, I’d have to say, it looks highly likely, that eventually this thing called Kindle Unlimited will one day in the near future go the way of the Dodo Bird, and off into extinction .. Time will tell. What do you think?

    1. I have mixed feelings about what books are included in the KU program. On the one hand, I do want better books in there so that people will stay subscribed. On the other hand, I absolutely love that it helps to promote indie authors but not authors who have published the traditional way. The only problem is that most indie books suck. We fix that problem, and more and more authors start self-publishing, and the KU program will be great. Agreed it’s not there yet.

      That is concerning to see your sales have dropped like that. I’ve noticed that books that were selling well are getting tons of KU downloads and selling even better, and books that weren’t selling all that great (say 5 copies per day or less) aren’t getting KU downloads and sales have gone down as well. It separates the wheat from the chaff from what I’ve seen, which, for the indie author community and the long-term success of the indie movement (as well as KU), is actually a good thing.

      What are your books? Post a link to your author page. I’d like to take a look at what books we’re talking about here, not only for my own information, but perhaps to help you fix the problem you’ve got going on right now.

  4. I’m all for it, it gets our work out there, but I have just 2 titles under KDP Select right now. I saw 149 borrows as opposed to 9 sales of those books in just one day. Before KU I was getting anywhere between 20-40 sales per day. If I get $2 or more for each of these borrows I’ll be OK with it, any less and I’ll be worried. I don’t necessarily agree with writing shorter books just to beat the system either – at the end of the day, people want quality. I should think eventually Amazon will stop uploads of shorter books to this library to ensure every book gets a fair shot.

    1. I don’t think book length is any reflection on quality. Yes of course the really crappy books on Amazon are usually the really short ones, but there are plenty of great books that are VERY short, particularly in nonfiction. As a fiction author yourself, I can see where you’re coming from.

      That’s amazing that you got 149 borrows in a single day. That’s unheard of!

  5. Thank you for the article. The only thing KOLL has done is helped my borrows/lendings increase and my sales DECREASE. I watched July and August in horror and finally took my one higher selling book OUT of KOLL and have since seen my sales INCREASE.
    If I wanted to make $2 a book I would have priced my book as such.
    I will gladly take increased sales over a higher rank anyday.
    Having borrows/lendings is not a great thing when it takes away from the higher sales.

    1. “Having borrows/lendings is not a great thing when it takes away from the higher sales.”

      That is absolutely true. But most authors are not seeing a decrease in sales or total revenue because of KU specifically, and most indie authors aren’t pricing their books above $2.99, so it’s not catabolizing a whole lot of higher priced sales for most even when this rare phenomenon is observed.

  6. Thanks for the detailed explanation. I am trying to understand Amazon’s sales reports for a writer friend and it is all very confusing, particularly the KOLL bit which seemed to be bringing in some money without any sales! But now I understand what is going on. It seems to me like a reasonable system for people who are paying a monthly subscription and for beginning authors who maybe otherwise wouldn’t get many readers, but I’m not sure how established indie authors view the scheme.

  7. I emailed Amazon support team and asked them if I had a few kU units, how much money will I get and they reported something like “by 500 k units…” Hell, if I had that many borrowings, I wouldn’t be exclusive. There is a nice article by Nick Stephenson “Why exclusivity is bad for Authors unless you are Amazon” something like that. It’s worth reading. Focus on the things you control and get results and ignore the rest.

  8. Anything to update after 9 or so months since this piece was written? Any change to the KU/KOLL program, pro or con? I’m a new author, seeing very good sales, but haven’t been in long enough to see what KU/KOLL will bring in, just the sales #’s. At launch, KU was much higher than direct sales. But after 2 weeks, sales are higher than KU, or about equal. My book is still priced at 7.99, and based on this, I’m not sure if lowering the price is a good idea or not. It’s a 450-page novel selling in the top 100 in its two categories. I don’t have any idea what the KU units will bring in yet.

    1. No big changes. Seems like the KU subscriber base is growing, but growing slowly. Payments are slightly less than they were at the beginning, but still decent. Each KU download counts as a sale. Fiction books seem to get a lot more KU downloads than nonfiction. The higher the rank goes, the more intense that KU download activity becomes. You might consider playing with your price point a little bit to see what yields the best overall combination of KU and paid sales. I suspect you’ll see 3 times as many sales and KU downloads at $2.99 than $7.99, getting the same or more revenue, but having a lot more people familiarize themselves with your book and your work. Plus, more downloads equals more reviews, and more reviews, down the line, leads to better promotional and marketing opportunities. Reviews help a book’s conversion rate a lot, especially with fiction. At least from what I’ve seen.

  9. What do you think about the program now? I personally think it totally stinks. Amazon has us over a barrel. If we want to offer our books for free in order to help our rankings in the SERPS…we have to stay in the program that now will be paying us per page that the person reads who is a monthly subscriber. What a joke, right?

    1. Yeah, I think the per page thing really sucks for nonfiction authors. Noticed a huge drop on every single book. Decided to pull them out.

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