Should More Authors Take Advantage of Kindle Unlimited?

By Nicole Dieker August 7th, 2014

When Amazon announced its Kindle Unlimited program on July 18, the feedback was, shall we say, not entirely positive.

The Huffington Post took the lead with “Amazon Wants You To Pay $120 For a Glorified Library Card,” which garnered more than 15,000 Facebook likes. Other Kindle Unlimited detractors quickly noted that the so-called Big Five publishers—HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette (still in the midst of its negotiations with Amazon about e-book pricing)—appeared to be absent from Kindle Unlimited’s collection, meaning your glorified library card didn’t even give you access to many of the books you might want to read.

In the interest of full disclosure, I signed up for Kindle Unlimited’s free trial but elected not to pay for the $9.99 monthly subscription. Testing the system left me with questions: How do authors feel about Kindle Unlimited? Are they getting paid when readers like me check out their books on our Kindles? Is it like streaming music systems, where they earn fractions of pennies every time a user interacts with their work, or are they getting better deals?

So I decided to find out by talking to a few authors about their Kindle Unlimited experiences. Since the service is so new, we also talked about Kindle Direct Publishing Select, the program that lets authors enter their books into the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. (All books in KDP Select are automatically part of Kindle Unlimited.)

Here are the most significant takeaways from my interviews:

– Authors do get paid when readers read their books on Kindle, both through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and through Kindle Unlimited.

– Authors get paid more than fractions of pennies, but I was asked not to share the rates publicly.

– The biggest drawback to KDP Select is authors cannot sell e-books with any other online service. Although they can sell print books with other services and vendors.

– When authors choose not to enroll in KDP Select, they’re often doing so because they want to distribute their e-books through additional platforms such as Nook and Kobo, not because KDP Select is not offering them enough money.

Author Megan Chance elected not to add her self-published titles to KDP Select, but she also has three books published by Skyscape and Lake Union Publishing, which are imprints of Amazon Publishing and therefore part of Kindle Unlimited. Since Kindle Unlimited treats reads as sales, Chance receives a standard royalty whenever someone read her books.

Author RJ Blain is happy with her KDP Select experiences but won’t renew her contract when it ends. “Fans kept asking if I would have titles available elsewhere. That was my number one motivation,” she said. “Different platforms reach more people; not everyone likes Amazon for a variety of reasons. Since I am investing into promotions for my upcoming novel (Witch and Wolf #2 in November), I figured if I was going to expand my reach, I needed to do so then.”

Catherine Ryan Hyde, known for her bestselling novel Pay It Forwardwhich was made into a film starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, and Kevin Spacey, took a more statistical approach when weighing the pros and cons of the service: “The day KU was announced, I began to notice the difference in the numbers … which I check every morning. Everything was significantly up except the three backlist novels, one story collection, and an essay collection. It wasn’t hard to see that the books that were up were the KDP Select titles, and so were now being read on KU. The ones that were in wider distribution and so not eligible for KU stayed the same, or dropped slightly.”

Hyde compared the changes to her sales on other platforms, and since she realized most of her readers use a Kindle, she asked her agency to move her backlist books to Kindle Direct Publishing.

“Their numbers jumped immediately,” she added. “To give you an idea of what I mean by significant, the two older novels that had been running in the #14,000 to #18,000-range jumped up to about #4,000. … The one that had been running at about #5,000 went up inside #1,200, and it’s still there.”

I also spoke to Jennifer Foehner Wells, whose debut novel Fluency was published just one month before Kindle Unlimited launched. She elected to join KDP Select for 90 days because, “Amazon has 50 percent of the market share, so it makes sense to get a presence there to start with.” After that initial period, she plans to promote Fluency over other platforms.

While sites like HuffPo are fueling the debate of Kindle versus libraries, the authors told me it’s actually Kindle versus other e-readers. They want everyone with an e-reader to be able to read their books, not just Amazon Kindle owners, and that issue is more important to some writers than the benefits of KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited.

But it’s also clear Kindle Unlimited does benefit writers. And that should be enough to alleviate any guilt anyone might have about signing up to check out unlimited Kindle books instead of buying them.

Image by Angela Accarrino
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