Kindle Unlimited, and What it Means for Authors

Yes, the hermit has left the cave.  I know I haven’t updated in a while.  Sorry about that.  My day job has demanded increasingly close to full-time hours, and the summer classes in addition to the married life have sucked up a lot of my time to where it’s all I can do to write.  So sadly, this has gotten pushed back.  Hopefully it won’t in the future.

But I’m back.  Because there’s a new development in progress in the book industry, and I feel obliged to weigh in on it.  As a a typical Amazon worshiper, I noticed when they instituted a new program: Kindle Unlimited.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s essentially Netflix for books.  You can read unlimited books and listen to unlimited audiobooks for only $9.99 per month.  Awesome, right?

Well, sort of.  It’s not quite all it appears to be, for both readers and writers.  Publishers have to agree to opt in to the program, and as of yet, some major players have not, with HarperCollins holding out on the program.  So the program has some big names in it, heavily advertising titles like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Life of Pi, and other popular works in their advertising, but are conveniently forgetting to mention that not every title is available.  Still, there’s a lot available, and that’s why I’ve spend the last half hour looking through the Fantasy and Science Fiction sections, not to mention getting books from some of my indie role models (namely Joanna Penn, J.A. Konrath, and Hugh Howey).  As a reader I love it. But what about as an author?

I’m an indie author because I’m a control freak.  I love Amazon because Amazon gives me control.  I can upload and edit my manuscripts whenever I want.  I can change the price of my books whenever I want.  I can edit the description whenever I want.  That’s what I love about independent publishing.  But Amazon’s taken some of that away.  If you’re in KDP Select (meaning you agree to only sell your e-books on Amazon, in return for some special features like free day promotions), which I am, then you don’t have a choice whether or not to be in this program.  Whereas Amazon has to ask traditional publishing houses if they want to opt in, KDP Select authors have no choice, nor were they given any notice whatsoever about the program or how it would work.

That’s strike number one.  That’s a really low blow, forcing their most dedicated authors to take part in something that may not be the best for them.  I don’t like that at all.  But is it really a bad thing?  Hugh Howey wrote a pretty interesting blog post on the subject, and he concluded by saying this:

“While I’ll be keeping a very close eye on what this does for author income, my main reaction to this is that reading is the best thing you can do with your free time, and it just got easier and more affordable. Will we be subsisting on crumbs in the future? Or will we see the entire pie just get bigger? Right now, I would bet on the latter.”

This is the first book subscription service on a massive scale, so it’s too early to know for sure, but I’m inclined to think that this is correct.  For Hugh Howey.  It’s going to allow readers to read a ton more for a fraction of what they would normally pay, which means as a whole that authors are going to get more exposure.  And more exposure is good.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean more sales, which means it doesn’t necessarily translate to a sustainable income, which is the ultimate goal of most every author, myself included.

Now the reason I say it’s good for Hugh Howey, but not necessarily for the rest of us who aren’t #1 bestsellers, is the way that the income is generated.  When someone downloads your book, you don’t get a set price the way you do when someone buys your book.  Instead of getting 35% or 70% of the royalties, you get a set percentage of the program’s funding, which according to the explanation in my Author Dashboard, could vary from month to month.  Your cut is based on how many times the book is downloaded, as well as the funding for that month.  Now, let’s say I do pretty well in a month’s time, and I sell 100 books.  That’s not too bad for an indie who still needs his day job.  Based on my current pricing of Finding Sage, I’d make roughly $300 from that, if we’re talking strictly e-books.  But under Kindle Unlimited, my income isn’t just based on the number of copies that are downloaded, but the percentage of all Kindle downloads that are my book.  So while 100 people download my book, millions are downloading other titles, and for every person that downloads Hugh Howey, J.K. Rowling, or Charles Dickens, my cut gets smaller and smaller.

Now, there’s a flipside to this, too.  Because that means that if you get more popular, your increases in income will come exponentially.  But only if you get more popular.  So what Kindle Unlimited has really done for authors is taken an already risky game and made a higher-risk, sweeter pot game for authors.  If you get more popular, and more people start downloading your stuff, then you’ve got the potential for even more income.  But if you stay about the same, your income is most likely going to drop.

But even as I whine and complain about what this means for authors, I’m still not willing as a reader to pass it up.  And I like having free promotion days too much to give up KDP Select.  So we’ll see what happens.  If it proves to be a bust for me, I might pull out of KDP Select, if for no other reason for the principle of the thing.  Or I might like the idea of contributing to something that’s, quite frankly, fantastic for readers.  Most of all, I’m just really irked that the reader in me and the writer in me are at odds.  I don’t like it when that happens, and I really don’t think it ever should.

Yes, I’m an idealist.  Why do you ask?

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