Last summer, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, a program costing $10 per month but offering subscribers unlimited books for that $10. For voracious readers, it's a great deal. I thought I'd share my perspective as an author.
Before Kindle Unlimited
Before there was KU, owners of Kindle devices (not iPad apps) could download one free book a month. For the authors, each month, Amazon would declare a fund, and that fund would be shared amongst all authors whose books were downloaded. The formula was simple:
Share Per Download = Fund Total / Downloads That Month
My Share == Share Per Download * Number of Downloads of My Books
It worked out to something around $1.50 or so each month, and I would see a few downloads a day (under 10). It was a minor amount in sales, but I did received email from readers who said they found my first book because it was free, and then they started buying others.
I made more money from people who discovered me this way and then bought other books. But it was never a significant factor.
Kindle Unlimited Explained
Kindle Unlimited changes everything.
Amazon lets me track my sales. It used to be I had to go out diligently and retrieve my month to date numbers (daily) and then do fancy spreadsheet stuff to see my daily sales. I did this because, well, I'm obsessive. Last year, Amazon began tracking my sales daily for me, and I get really cool graphs I can look at. I spend hours looking at these graphs. :-)
The day KU came out (or perhaps the day after), my borrows went from under 10 per day to a spike well over 100. I didn't realize why at the time, but it was impressive.
But I promised to explain...
The way KU works is the same way a borrow used to work. There's a monthly fund, and the fund is divided based upon how many total borrows there were and how many of those borrows were of my books. They have the same calculations as listed previously. But now, there are two things that are dramatically different.
First, the fund is bigger. I don't know what percentage of that $10 goes into the fund. (But I bet Amazon keeps more of that than they do when I sell a book outright.) But the fund is bigger.
But the borrows are a LOT bigger. As I said, I went from a few a day to well over 100. The chart isn't even -- there are significant daily fluctuations as well as trends based upon how recently I publish something. I see a big upwards hump right after a new title comes out. For me, my borrows go to about 100 for several days after a book is released then drop to around 50 or so.
However, here's the part I don't like. Last summer, the price Amazon paid me per borrow was around $1.70. In October, it was $1.33.
Effects On My Earnings
I'll state first: I do not know if I am making more money now with KU than I would without it. More people are reading my work, but I don't know if that translates into more money.
The price per borrow is irrespective of the selling price of the book. My short stories, which I list for a buck, net me 35 cents a sale. But I still get that $1.33 when someone with KU reads it. You can imagine I love it when a 35 cent sale actually makes me $1.33. Woo hoo!
On the other hand, my longest novels are priced at $6, and I get $4.20 of that. That's really quite good, and I'm not complaining. But when someone with KU borrows the book, I only get $1.33.
I do know that when KU came out, I saw a corresponding dip in actual sales. And I do not see sales figures climb as high as they used to after a new book came out. That can be for a lot of reasons, so I can't complain that it's KU.
My total book earnings for 2014 are going to be very close to earnings for 2013, even though I have a lot more books out there. However, there were a few pretty bad things that happened for me professionally this year, too, including two long dry spells. So I don't have a good way of telling whether KU has helped me this year or not.
But there are implications from all this. As a publisher, I absolutely cannot ignore KU. This program is going to grow until it dominates sales. I already have more borrows than sales, and it's still a new program.
But KU rewards short fiction and punishes long fiction? Short fiction takes a LOT less time to write. That should be obvious. The amount of time a story requires involves a fairly fixed amount of time coming up with "the idea", and then the rest of the time is directly related to the length. A 5000-word short can be completed in a night or three. A 100,000-word novel is hundreds and hundreds of hours.
As a publisher, KU encourages me to produce shorter works. It encourages me to write shorts or to find ways to serialize my stories, packaging them as shorts. I haven't done that, but I have a few friends that have, and you can expect I'll do at least some of it in the future. You, the reader, may not pay a single dime more for the entire story (especially if you're on KU), but I'll get a bigger piece of that pie that Amazon divides.
KU definitely penalizes long novels. It definitely penalizes the authors publishing through Bella and Bold Strokes -- all those novels are listed at $10, but now they're only getting $1.33 per sale.
I also believe KU punishes quality. I believe when people think a book is free, they are less invested. They are less likely to leave reviews, good or bad. They are more accepting of lower quality work (hey, what do you expect? it was free).
But you can also look at this from a positive point. People are more willing to try something they wouldn't try. I am convinced I reach a wider audience because of KU, possibly significantly wider. Hey, if you're already paying your $10, clicking on an unknown author doesn't cost you anything but a few minutes to start reading to decide if you like it.
If I were Jeff Bezos, there are a few things I would consider.
First, I would review the way authors are paid. I wouldn't pay a $10 book more than a $6 book, but I wouldn't pay any books MORE for a borrow than they would make for a sale. I have a semi-complicated way I'd calculate the sales. I would determine the price point they way they already do, then I would assign prices to any books that would otherwise generate less money from a sale as getting only what they'd get for a sale. $1 book would get it's 35 cents. Then I would take the remaining funds and recalculate based on everything else. This would give $5 books a slightly bigger share. But I don't know what percentage of all those sales out there are for cheap books, so maybe the price difference would only be a few pennies. If so, ignore me.
Next, I would strive to ensure a bottom price per borrow. As an author, I do NOT like the trend of the royalty per borrow decreasing from $1.70 in July to $1.33 in October. Where is it going to be next October. This is chilling.
KU is here to stay. There are undoubtedly publishers out there who hate it. But there are publishers out there who hate Amazon. Amazon made this profession possible for me, and I'm not going to turn into an Amazon basher.
The people who are hurt by this will be the publishers whose books are NOT available for KU. As more and more people sign up for KU, those people will be less inclined to also buy books from publishers who aren't listed. Hey -- why buy a book when there are 100 other authors writing good books, but you get those books for free.
Authors who write long novels are being punished.
Short fiction authors are being rewarded.
What I worry about is that KU is turning book writing even more into the production of a commodity, and Amazon earns the lion's share of the profits.
For myself -- I will continue to write the stories I want to write. But... I can't ignore KU, not if my long term goal is to be a full time writer. So you can expect to see more short fiction from me. You can expect shorts and novellas. I don't know how many more novels like Amazon Chief I will write. I'll still write full length novels, but perhaps not quite as many as I currently do. We'll see.
I'll probably also produce work in other genres -- you won't see this, because if I depart from lesfic, I may not share the pen name I use.
Change is also here to stay. Ranting because something changed -- well,
change is going to happen. KU in some form or another was probably
All we can do is recognize the change, respond to it, but don't become so entrenched in the old way of doing things that we can't respond to the next change. It's there, right around the corner.