author life,  ramble

A few words about Kindle Unlimited

If you’ve read my books, there’s a big chance that you are, or have been, a subscriber of Kindle Unlimited, amazon’s ebook flatrate program. I just checked my stats: I’m making 2.4x as much in KU as from direct sales, and I know that some of you love my books so much that you’ve bought them after borrowing them in KU, so the balance might be closer to 3x. And I’m mostly very happy about that! (I’m always ecstatic about a sale after a borrow, that’s out of the question. That means I get paid twice. So if you have a KU subscription and you want to help out a poor, struggling Indie author, borrow and read first, then buy!)

For those not in the know, or who would love a look behind the curtain, this is how KU works:

  1. Unlike with a book that is “for sale,” you don’t get to set the price. In KU, you get paid per “pages” read, although a “page” is less than a normal ebook or paperback page. The value of a page read is determined by how much money is in the KU pot (calculated from the fees you pay for the subscription, and sometimes something extra amazon ads to it), divided by how many pages were read in that month. It’s usually between $0.0040 – $0.0055. Yes, you read that right. I get less or about half a cent per page that you read.
  2. Now, amazon encourages us to price our books between $2.99 and $5.99 or something like that, and for most of my books, on a full read-through in KU I get about as much royalties as for a book that’s for sale at 3-4 bucks. If you check my amazon page, all my books are priced in that range. So, technically, I don’t miss out on money, provided I write a book that’s long enough, and you devour it until the very last page.
  3. KU has a huge advantage, and it’s exactly that where I see the program’s strength: no risk for the reader. You borrow a book for free, you either like it and read it, or you don’t so you hand it back after 5 pages. The author gets a whooping 2 cents for your trouble, and you haven’t lost anything except 5 minutes of your time, if that. It’s great to be discovered as a new author, and it’s a valid option for books you like to read but not necessarily keep or read again, or if your budget only allows for three books but you like to read 20 each month.

This all sounds good, doesn’t it? So why are some authors very anti-KU to the point of calling everyone who is in it a hack and only in it for the short run, not as a writer for life?

  1. You have to be exclusive with amazon for your ebooks, so no can do for iBooks / iTunes, kobo, nook, and all the other vendors. That’s the real downside that the few perks we get really don’t make up for. It’s also a no-go for many well-established authors that already have readers across all platforms.
  2. As I said, you don’t set the price. If you write shorter books, KU payouts will be less than the $2.99 that are very reasonable for a 300 page book. With short stories, it’s even worse. When KU started, it used to be that if 10% of a book were read, you’d get a fixed share of about $1.30. For short fiction, that was amazing as the alternative was a price at $0.99, which gets us 35 cents in royalties. 1.30 vs 0.35? You bet that a lot of short story authors were furious when KU changed to the page read system. Us long novel authors? We finally felt treated fairly, or as fairly as a system like that can be.
  3. The payout varies from month to month, and it used to be higher than it is right now. I was lucky; after the release of GF#7: Affliction, I had two of my strongest months in September and October, and the payout was higher than it used to be over the summer. The payout has dropped by about 20% since they changed to the page read system, and for some authors, that’s not acceptable. To me, it seems like amazon simply needed time and data to set the payout right, and I’d rather take a 20% cut on a system that is calibrated now and is sustainable for the future without amazon having to heavily support it, rather than no cut but KU will be history as of next year. Call me jaded, but for my 140k book that is for sale at $3.99 I still get the same cut from KU, so what’s the problem? Do I want to make more money? Always!! But it’s fair, and I’m happy with it.
  4. KU conditions have changed from one moment to the next in the past. They can, and will, change again in the future. It’s a bit of a gamble, and as a risk-averse being I’m not always happy about that aspect.
  5. Some people generally don’t like amazon as it’s the biggest player in the market.
  6. Some people think their books deserve more than three bucks in royalties, and they won’t get that in KU.
  7. It works much better for fiction than non-fiction, also because non-fiction tends to sell at a higher price for shorter page counts. Then again, I like reading how-to books in KU first to test them, then buy them, maybe even in paperback, to keep them.

The biggest gripe most non-KU authors have with KU is that you’re technically not independent, and that you’re exclusive. I agree with both points, but it’s getting really old that whenever I listen to an Indie publishing podcast, I get called an idiot for being in KU with every single of my books. No, I don’t like not having extra readers outside of the amazon ecosystem, damnit! And no, I don’t plan this to be my business strategy for the next 30 years, but I’m sure that if amazon ruins KU, all the other distributors will welcome us former KU authors with open arms and sweet deals. Why? Money!

Also: because the reader wants it. 2.4x, remember? I’d piss off over 2/3 of my readers if I dropped out of KU tomorrow.

I already said so above, but I feel the need to stress this again: some people just don’t have the money to splurge on books, paying $9.99 or more for every book they pick up, $25 for hardcovers. Sure, we all have our absolute favorite writers that we want to keep on our shelf in the living room. But if you read a book a day, or even a book a week, that can get pricey quickly. We writers all want more money, sure, but I’m very happy that there’s a system in place that lets me get my books in front of readers without them having to decide, book or dinner?

And even if you aren’t short on cash, I love to write long series. At the moment, the complete Green Fields series will set you back something like $32 if you buy it. I get a lot of readers who binge that in a week or two, and it IS an investment, even if every single book is pretty cheap, also for their page count and the amount of time you spend reading them. When I’m done, it will be closer to $50. That’s several months of Netflix. That’s a blu-ray box set of your favorite show. That’s a nice dinner, or two IMAX movie tickets. One of the biggest gripes the publishing industry has at the moment is that people have so many other entertainment options. Well, maybe offering them all the content they want to consume for ten bucks a month might make your lame, old books suddenly very interesting and competitive?

Where does that leave me? At the moment, I’m pretty stoked to be in KU. People still discover my books and inhale them in one sitting. That’s one of the most amazing things for any author out there. Also, I get paid, which is nice, too. If I could change one thing, it would be the exclusivity clause. I don’t think anyone already getting their books from amazon would suddenly switch to iTunes or B&N, but it would be nice to tap into those audiences that steer clear of amazon for whatever reasons.
So next time you see another article on the web about how badly amazon treats us, and that KU is killing authors? Maybe read it with a grain, or entire sack, of salt. It’s not a perfect system but for some of us, it’s a fair, balanced alternative. Nobody is forced to be in KU, and it doesn’t work for every genre, every type of book, or every author. But if you, as a reader, like KU, don’t hesitate to use it! Borrow all the books you like, read them, recommend them to your friends! Never feel like you’re hurting us authors, because you’re not. If you really like a book and want to keep it, buy it after you’ve sampled it in KU, because it might not be in the program when you want to pick it up at a later date for a second go. Also, we only get paid once for you reading it, not for every time you borrow and re-read. The payout isn’t huge, but royalties for a 0.99 book aren’t, either, and you need to sell a shit load of $2.99 books to pay the rent every month as well.

I wrote a follow-up article here that you might want to read as well.


  • Suzanne Marinell

    I’ve always wondered how this works, so cool you broke it down for us. I have been a KU reader for over three years now, and it’s because I can read several ebooks a day. I’ve always looked at the page numbers when I buy. I need the quantity to make the value (on top of what author I’m reading). I won’t pay $1.99 for 90 pages, cause I’ll have that done in an hour or less. But there are times where that 1st KU comes in and the author sucks me in (love that feeling of desperation to get to the next book). I don’t mind that the next in the series is .99, 1.99, or possibly 3.99…. if I am getting my pages count, and have that pull regarding the author… I’ll buy it.

    Thanks though for saying an author makes more if the reader Jus first and then goes back to buy, I’ll do that from now on. Authors like yourself deserve to have that income and it doesn’t break my bank to do it. I will KU first and then buy.

    Question, how does the PREORDER part work for you. Even for KU those are always a fee… unless you wait until the day of publishing and then can find it KU. I’ve always wondered does that just tell you the hype for the book, the numbers of preorders.

    Should the world come to an end your books will be on my reader (don’t ask me about recharging yet, I’m working that out), right there beside my Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon collection.

    • Adrienne Lecter

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Wow, that’s quite the list of names to be next to!

      I think most of us are conscious of getting more bang for our buck. I don’t mind paying full price for a full-length novel, but hesitate when it’s obviously just a novella. KU def. did away with those considerations! Although payout for shorter works is abysmal, I get that many authors don’t have their short stories and novellas in KU – unless they bundle them, which is always a good idea.

      I’ll write a post about preorders soon, but the short answer is that preorders are only for sales as KU only works once the book is uploaded the amazon so they can assign the page numbers for KU. If you preorder, you automatically buy the book rather than borrow it, so to avoid that, you’ll have to wait until after the release, I’m afraid. Preorders work well for some authors because many readers who buy books like to have the option to already buy the next once they finish one, and get it delivered at midnight of release day. Most readers wait for release day, though, even for sales.

  • Kristina

    I, for one, have always been grateful that you’re on KU. And what you’re describing as the user experience here is the experience I’ve had with KU. I found your books, blew through them all at once, and now have an alert set for when you release new stuff. I’ve done this with a lot of authors and KU has vastly expanded the variety in what I read. It’s to the point where if I can’t read something on KU, I probably won’t read it at all unless I know the author (Like Jacqueline Carey and GRRM, for examples.). I’ve seen some authors who put the first couple of books or so on KU and then sell their newest ones, and I’ve bought books from them after reading the starter novels on KU. It’s mostly that I don’t want to pay a bunch of money and then hate the author’s work. It’s not a book store, I don’t have the physical object in my hands to flip through. So I’m always really glad when an author puts at least some of their work on KU.

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