Kindle Unlimited and the fast moving train of subscription-based media, what it means for Authors

When I first became an author, I asked what Kindle Unlimited was. The question was met by a lot of huffs and sighs and, eventually, proclamations that it was no good for authors. It was even referred to as the devil once or twice. The general consensus was that no author is lesbific ever made money in KU. In fact, I was more than once quoted that authors made “pennies” in the Amazon subscription system.

As a marketer, I wanted to check this out for myself so I’ve spent the last month talking to a lot of people and conducting a lot of research on the matter.

But, what is Kindle Unlimited?

Kindle Unlimited is a subscription based service offered by Amazon which offers access to over a million eBooks and thousands of audiobooks.

In short, readers pay a subscription of around £7.99/$9.99 a month and in return, they get access to a vast library of reading material and audiobooks with the option to cancel the monthly fee whenever they choose.

KU also offers members access to a number of newspapers and magazines.

How do authors make any money?

While a lot of people will use the phrase “read x book for free on KU” the books aren’t actually free.

Authors get paid by Amazon based upon the number of pages read. Every month KDP, Amazon’s publishing company, will announce the KDP Select (KDP’s name of KU) Global Fund. They will also announce how many pages have been read by the membership that month. Through the magic of mathematics, a price per page is announced, or KENP (Kindle Edition Normalized Pages). In case you hadn’t noticed, Amazon loves to name things in the most complicated manner possible.

KENP is quite low at the moment and currently (June ’17) stands at $0.0038 per KENP read. But, and it’s critical to remember that KENP is not the same as print pages or even eBook pages. A print book with 312 pages could come in at 440 KENP pages.

$0.0038 per page, isn’t that kinda terrible?

Yes and no. Because authors are paid per page read, they are paid for books that aren’t finished. And books cannot be returned so authors don’t have to worry about readers returning books.

But the absolute best thing about KU is the ability reach new readers. While a reader may not be willing to pay $5-10 for an author they don’t know, they are more than happy to pick them up at no additional cost on KU.

This means that KU books receive vastly more traffic than non-KU books and almost always dominate the top charts. Because of this visibility in the charts, books are “bought” more often and authors can make more money through KU than they do through normal sales.

When I put Huntress into Kindle Unlimited last month, I expected a drop in sales. I was pleasantly surprised to see that profit made remained broadly the same. In the chart below you will see an example of this with the red area of the chart representing usual sales and the blue part representing KU pages read. The chart shows overall profit made and, as you can, there’s not a lot of difference between before KU and after KU.

Obviously this is a small test and I would recommend you conduct your own tests in order to establish if things are the same for you and your audience before making any major decisions regarding KU.

Kindle Unlimited, some things to know

Enrolling a book into Kindle Unlimited requires selling that book exclusively through Amazon. This means that you are not allowed to sell your book through any other distributor while your book is enrolled in KU. When you enrol in KU you are signing up for a minimum of three months.

Although in KU, your book is still available to buy as a normal eBook through Amazon, and as a paperback.

You will not know what money your book has made until the KDP Select Global Fund has been announced. This happens on the 15th of the month. For example, the June amount was announced on the 15th July.

KU is an unknown quantity but can provide huge rewards. I’ve spoken to many lesfic authors who claim that they make more money since putting their books into KU than ever before. Other lesfic authors say that KU has given the access to new audiences who they wouldn’t have reached before. And KU books dominate charts, to get your book into the Top 10 of any lesfic category for a prolonged period without being in KU is a very tall ask.

The change in media consumption and the subscription model

For every one person who says that KU is devaluing books, there are twenty people signing up and enjoying cheaper access to books. I’m not going to debate the devaluing of books and whether that is right or wrong, I am going to talk about the subscription business model.

Subscription is the in thing right now. Take Netflix, pay under $10 a month and you can have access to all the movies and box sets you like. Do you have a dog? Sign up to a dogbox service for $10 a month and every month they will mail you a box filled with treats and toys. Do you or your children identify as geeks? Then sign up to Loot Crate and have crates of unknown, often exclusive merch sent to you.

Society is getting used to paying a small monthly fee to have wider access to products. It’s becoming the way we shop, or, in many cases, don’t shop, for things. People enjoy gifts being sent to them. A Loot Crate appearing in the mail with all kinds of goodies feels like a present, one you bought yourself without even realising it. Signing up to KU means you get notifications about all kinds of books and audiobooks just waiting for you to download.

There’s a psychological satisfaction in having paid up front and feeling that you are getting products for free… even if you know you’re not really getting it for free.

KU membership is growing and it’s a model that is going to be pushed and incentivised, by Amazon. As more, younger, shoppers start to sign up it will start to become the norm.

Soon authors who aren’t in KU will start to suffer. Especially those charging a premium for their books. If readers have a choice between accessing books in their “free” library or paying $5-10 for a book outside of their library, which do you think they will choose?

As a genre, we need to catch up to this trend and be aware that it is happening. We can’t sit on the fence and complain that KU is devaluing our books, well, you can… but I wouldn’t recommend it.

It wasn’t long ago when publishers could say that no big author is in KU and it’s only real benefit was to unknown authors. Not anymore. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter and Suzanne Collins of Hunger Games are both now in KU, though, presumably, they have different deals regarding exclusivity. Mainstream publishers are catching onto the subscriber trend and they don’t want to be left behind. They are having to re-work their royalty structure to encompass the confusing world of KU and exclusive deals, but it’s worth it because… like it or loathe it… subscription-based models are the future of book buying.

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