Kindle Unlimited Is Not Here to Make Friends

I want to talk a little about an Amazon service called Kindle Unlimited, because it’s complicated and interesting, and is increasingly the primary discussion subject among authors (of the indie variety) and not for a lot of really good reasons.

Here’s the summary, from the reader’s perspective: Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a subscription plan whereby a subscriber can, for $9.99 a month, read as many books as they want. (This is sometimes described as ‘ten books a month’ but this is inaccurate. A subscriber can only rent as many as ten books at one time, but that just means when they have ten books in their kindle they have to return one before picking up another. There’s no limit on the number of times they do this.)

Here’s what KU means from the author’s perspective: in order to be available in KU, a book has to be enrolled in KDP Select. (I apologize for the acronyms, but it’s not really my fault. KDP is ‘kindle direct publishing’ and it’s the name of the program authors use to publish to Amazon. All of us use KDP.) Being enrolled in Select means having access to a few perks aside from KU, but I won’t get into them here, because they’re not relevant to this conversation. What is relevant is this: if your book is enrolled in KDP Select, it cannot be published elsewhere.

I’m going to repeat that, because it’s important.

If you are selling an ebook through Kindle Unlimited, you can’t also sell it—as an ebook—anywhere else. Amazon will certainly still sell it (so you can get sales as well as KU downloads) but the marketplaces at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Google Play, Overdrive and so on can’t carry it.

So the exclusivity clause is kind of a drawback, but that doesn’t mean KU is a terrible deal for an author. KU books tend to have a higher sales rank on Amazon (for their algorithm, a KU borrow = a sale, regardless of whether the borrower reads the book) and since it’s effectively a closed system, the only way to have access to the readers who are 100% KU is by being in Select. Not coincidentally, those readers are the most voracious ones around, which is why Unlimited appeals to them in the first place. And it’s a large pool of readers: in terms of available titles, KU is a larger marketplace than any of the non-Amazon ones mentioned above.

Authors Getting Paid

But how do authors get paid for their books?

Since KU is a subscription model, users aren’t buying a copy of an ebook. (Side note: nobody who ‘buys’ one really is, either, but we’re not going to go down this road today.) They’re renting it, reading some or all of it, and returning it, and they aren’t paying whatever the cover price is for that right. Instead, Amazon collects monthly fees, puts them into a pool, maybe throws a few million extra in to boost that pool (more on this later) and then distributes it to the authors who participate in the program.

This means all of the authors are sharing in the same pool every month, where the amount in that pool varies based on how many subscribers there are, plus the aforementioned funds Amazon tosses in to boost the total.

How these funds are doled out has changed over time. The first version Amazon tried counted up the number of titles in KU that were downloaded and read to at least the 10% mark, divided the cash pool by that number, and paid everyone using this calculation. So for instance, if the math resulted in every ‘read’ getting $1.43, and an author had 10 reads, the author got $14.30 that month.

This system ended up promoting short books. People who published short stories got paid just as much as people who wrote full novels, so why write full novels? Or, why publish full novels in single installments, when one book broken into five parts could be five times as profitable?

This created a marketplace that turned off a decent percentage of readers, and so Amazon changed the way they paid authors to a system that counted actual pages read.

You probably heard something about this, because a number of hysterical articles came out when it happened. Most of those articles failed to distinguish between KU authors and all other authors, so that it sounded like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King were getting money by-the-page from the largest bookseller in the country.

KU2 (as it was called) rewarded longer works, which had the immediate positive effect of altering the Unlimited marketplace in a way that made Amazon’s subscribers happy. (Side note: this is always Amazon’s first goal. More on this later as well.) It also meant a lot of short fiction writers suddenly lost a lot of money, which was terrible, but also a good case study in the problem of relying on a single marketplace. This will come up again.

This is more or less how things work in KU now. Amazon has a monthly pool (which they’re still adding to), and instead of dividing that pool up by downloaded titles, they’re dividing it by total pages read.

Caught Up

I went through all of that just to get to the thesis of this blog post, which is sort of horrifying given I’m already at 900 words.

There are some questions that should arise naturally from the above description.

1: What is a page?

This is a simple and yet remarkably complicated question, because we’re talking about electronic books delivered to a wide range of devices with different screen sizes to readers who have the ability to adjust font sizes.

There’s no such thing as a ‘page’ in an ebook, essentially, and so Amazon had to invent a standard. They did, and it’s called Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (or KENPC, and yay, a new acronym).

KENPC is enormously important, because the KENPC total for your book dictates how much you’re getting paid for a full read. It’s also calculated using a formula Amazon doesn’t share, which means there are now several hundred pages on Internet message boards consisting of writers trying to figure out that formula.

To further complicate matters, Amazon has changed the formula at least once or twice. When this happens, some authors see their KENPC totals drop.

This does not engender trust in Amazon. But as far as trusting Amazon goes, we’re just starting to heat up.

2: How does Amazon count pages read?

( Note: Amazon doesn’t discuss this very much, so most of what follows is a combination of known things and best guesses. Feel free to call me on any detail you’d like to in the comments.)

Before dealing with how Amazon counts pages read, let’s talk about one of those things Amazon provided to customers because—again, the customer experience is the biggest thing for them. There’s a feature on Kindles called Page Flip. It allows users to essentially go up a level and skim across several pages at a time. This is so readers can navigate from one part of a book to another quickly, in the same way they would if they were browsing a physical book. This will be important in a second.

There have been multiple iterations of page reads. At first, Amazon simply recorded the last page a reader reached on whatever device they’re using. (Variant: the last page when the device was last synced with Amazon via WiFi connection. Some believe if a reader reaches the last page and then goes back to the beginning and then syncs, the pages won’t count.) They decided to adjust this approach, about a year ago, and that adjustment resulted in a lot of authors losing a lot of pages read more or less overnight.

What did they change? Best-guess, they started counting ‘pages read’ as ‘pages reached outside of Page Flip’. So, for instance, if a reader only wants to read the sex scenes in a book and uses page flip to get to those scenes, the author is only getting paid for however many pages that sex scene took up, and not the ones between.

As I said, this is not a known thing, it’s a best guess, but it’s (in my opinion) a good one given what has happened since: authors are reporting that some customers are reading entire books in Page Flip mode, and therefore costing them reads.

Amazon has stated that Page Flip is meant as a navigational tool, not for regular book consumption, but on some large devices the pages look big enough in that mode to be readable. Amazon’s also said that pages reached in Page Flip do not count toward the pages-read total, and further that it’s not significant enough to impact the totals.

My take on this is that Amazon had two choices: either they could over-count pages read by including Page Flip pages, or they could under-count the pages read by excluding the Page Flip pages. Assuming that the population using Page Flip purely as a navigational tool is larger than the population actually reading books in that mode, what they did probably makes a lot of sense. They probably also have the numbers to back up the assumption, but naturally nobody’s sharing numbers.

Of course, it’s driving authors insane.

Loss of Trust

Everything about Kindle Unlimited is a black box from the author’s perspective. The way KENPC is figured is not known, the way pages read are calculated isn’t at all clear, and what authors are going to get paid per month for each page read is variable and has been going down for a while.

The fact that Amazon can make an adjustment and suddenly a 350 KENPC  book is 320 drives authors crazy.

The fact that someone can read an entire book in Page Flip mode and the author won’t get paid for any of it drives authors crazy.

The fact that Amazon—by putting money into the pool each month—is effectively driving the per-page payout (and not the market) means it’s low because that’s where Amazon wants it. And this drives authors crazy.

I appreciate the crazy, and the safe remove from which I can view it, since I’m not in KU. But I’d like to point out that any merchant/supplier relationship in which the product being sold is inexhaustible, is going to mean the supplier has to trust the merchant’s sales count to a certain extent.

This is impossible to avoid. I didn’t ship X copies of The Spaceship Next Door’s ebook to Amazon, so I don’t know when they’ve sold out, and because of that I don’t know how many they’ve sold. That’s true whether we’re talking about KU page reads or purchases, and it’s true whether we’re talking about Amazon or Apple or Kobo. It’s also true in other electronic media, like audiobooks, and in print-on-demand books, since the books aren’t pre-printed and warehoused. In short, for indie authors our entire supply chain relies on us trusting one thing: that the merchant selling our goods is telling us the truth about how many copies they’ve sold.

It’s a little unnerving. And, it means that any perceived violation of that trust—basically, everything I wrote about above—can create significant ripples of discontent among the suppliers.

I get this. I also get that it’s significantly worse when one is stuck with a single merchant because of an exclusivity clause. It means anyone in Kindle Unlimited could potentially become the next version of the short story writer who was making a nice living in the first version of KU. That’s terrifying.

It also means a potential for overreaction.

A Plea for Cooler Heads

While I think the fact that a reader can consume an entire book in Page Flip is an issue, I also think Amazon perhaps chose the best of two unsavory choices when they decided to exclude all Page Flip pages instead of including them, for the reasons stated above. I also think that getting rid of Page Flip completely isn’t on the table, because their customers like the product, and that’s the most important thing for Amazon.

Also, from a large-scale view, it doesn’t affect the payouts in any system where the number of pages read is one of the numbers used to calculate how much each page is worth. Lower the number of pages read and the value of each page increases. I grant that if you think you are an author whose books are read in Page Flip more often than another author’s books are, you have a beef, but I have no idea how that could be provably true.

What I think is that this is one really good example (KENPC count is another) of the kind of problems that can arise from being exclusive to a single marketplace with a partner you don’t trust. You might be prepared to blame Amazon for what is essentially a changing marketplace.

I’m surely going to get called an apologist for Amazon here, but look: I’ve been a part of the self-publishing marketplace since 2014, and it has not looked the same for more than six months at any point. It is constantly evolving. I can absolutely appreciate everyone upset that the money they’re getting paid per page has settled down to around $0.004 when it was $0.005 not so long ago, but this doesn’t mean Amazon is stealing money from you. It could mean they have a lower limit to how unprofitable they are okay with KU being (note: Kindle Unlimited is not profitable, that’s why Amazon keeps throwing money in the pool) and are holding it there. It could mean sales across Amazon are down, or across the entire industry are down. It could mean a whole lot of things.

As long as the only source of your income is Amazon, and as long as Amazon’s figuring out your pages using a formula you don’t have access to, in order to figure out the number of your pages that have been read using a counting system you don’t have control over, to pay you an amount per page from a pool whose size is entirely based on calculations you aren’t privy to, you’re going to have doubts when that income goes down. It’s unavoidable.

But—again, this is my opinion, so just shout at me in the comments if you want—I don’t think Page Flip is robbing authors of income, and I don’t think the lowering of per-page payments is anything more than a settling market. I do think these fears are inevitable byproducts of exclusivity, and I also think the solution to that is to get out of that market, if possible.

Maybe it’s not possible. I know my share of authors who of the opinion that the money they make in KU is still going to be more than they could make out of KU but published in the other markets. I believe them, because I am sure they know their business better than I do, and I’m not here to try and convince people to go wide if it’s against their current best interests.

What I am saying is that working exclusively with a single merchant carries more risks than working with several. Especially when that one merchant drives you crazy.

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  1. Donna on September 27, 2017 at 9:29 am

    The KU Unlimited exclusivity sounds a bit like the old publishing model: We publish your book but you sign over all the rights to us and nobody else can do anything with your book without our permission. And yes, sometimes that even included screen rights. How odd that they spend years creating the “new” publishing world only to try recreating the old model in one sector. Using an alternate delivery system but following the same author-relationship may not be as “new” as it sounds. And even the delivery system mimics the older serial-publication in newspapers method. Like Uber trying to pretend it’s not really a taxi service, if it looks like a duck …

    • Martin Lake on November 6, 2017 at 5:30 am

      The difference is that an author has to be exclusive for only 90 days. I’ve left and returned in the past but for now, I’m content to stay.

  2. Sue on September 27, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Thanks for the insight into the publishing business. I always find these discussions fascinating.

  3. TheSFReader on September 27, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Donna, One MAJOR difference between KDP (Select) and old publishing model is duration of the exclusivity/engagement : with Old Publishing, you sold your rights away for the duration of copyright (70 years after your death). With KDP, its for 3 months only.

    Additionally, contrary to what you write, you don’t sell all rights to Kindle. the exclusivity is restricted to the ebook format. (and NO, it doesn’t include scrren rights).

    Now, where I agree is that since Amazon is “THE” major player on the ebooks field, alternatives are quite not on par commercially, and if they decide to change the rules, you could end up with no re-seller. But you’ll have kept your rights.

  4. Scott on September 27, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    Good write-up on a complicated program. At this point I think I’ve mostly come to terms with KU, however I do wish that they’d drop the exclusivity requirement. It’s a unique option for Amazon readers, but they’re just throwing their weight around by preventing authors from using other sales channels in order to participate.

    • Gene Doucette on September 27, 2017 at 5:32 pm

      I do too. I wouldn’t mind trying it.

      • Roark on October 8, 2017 at 9:50 am

        I stayed out of KU for years, now after a few months all the way ‘in’ I make much more than when I was wide. Likely due to my genre. I like the exclusivity because it keeps out the competition from Steven King, JK Rowling, etc. Besides, it’s only for 90 days at a time.

        I don’t like the ‘non transparency’ as to what counts as a ‘page’, but if that was known the cheaters would game the system, again.

        Lastly, I have several dozen titles and I sell more at $4.99 than I used to at $3.99 since going into the KU system. Seems as if non-KU buyers aren’t as price conscious, and the added visibility from a borrow=sale helps even more.

  5. David Bowman on September 28, 2017 at 11:50 am

    I use KU. But I also will buy ebooks from authors I love regardless if they are apart of KU. To me KU allows me to discover new books quickly. Since I read 1-2 books a week as it is KU is well worth it for my casual reading experience. And the $10-30 a month I spend on non KU books keeps my reading experience budget manageable all around. I do think the exclusivity is kinda bs for authors and very anti-competitive, but when you have the market share majority, you can basically dictate terms and everyone either follows or they are left out.

  6. Patricia E. Gitt on October 1, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Thank you for this clear explanation. It does help me navigate the Amazon KDP universe.

  7. Jeff H on November 3, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    I’d like to point out that Apple had the very same plan. An exclusive market for books using iAuthor. The only reason they didn’t go through with it was they got caught price fixing and trying to screw authors and readers over. Since then they could care less about the book market. The bottom line is, a business will always do what is best for the business. Just like any person will always do what is best for themselves.

    Love the blog, Gene, I agree with everything you said. Now go say it on Kboards and watch how they flame the crap out of you.

    • Gene Doucette on November 3, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      Ha! I think it got a pass on KBoards. I posted it there a little while ago.

  8. Terri Reid on November 3, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful and cool-headed article. 🙂 I’ve enjoyed being part of KU since it’s inception and now it brings in about 50% of my income. I actually use it as a marketing tool. I’ve been exclusive with Amazon for years because the other options really didn’t promote my books as well as Amazon – and didn’t seem to give indie authors a fighting chance on their websites. I’ve felt KU was like a Netflix for books – and if you look at the success of Netflix, you realize that it’s a good model to follow.

  9. Mike Faricy on November 3, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    I publish solely on Amazon. I write 3 different series and have 48 books published. I, and every author I have been in touch with took an extremely hard hit in 2017. Amazon’s adjustment to KU was part of the cause. I am not a happy camper.

  10. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on November 3, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    No one else has been able to make a subscription model work – so if Amazon is basically willing to subsidize reading for the people who read a lot, customers who are kept happy by that, I’m all for it.

    Also, as a writer of big fat novels with a lot of content priced right under the limit, KU makes borrow look like a bargain for my readers – which in principle works well for me.

    I like Amazon in general, so maybe I’m not an unbiased author, but I keep comparing – and haven’t found something I like better. And you have to admire them for making it possible for an author to put a book into the required Select – for only 90 days.

    Final point: traditional publishers are far worse – authors have to rely on the publisher’s accounting, and the contracts allow them to short the authors out of royalties in all kinds of situations. Few authors have dared to enforce their contractual ability to request, at their own expense, an audit – for fear of being seen as uncooperative, and dropped.

  11. acflory on November 3, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    I really enjoyed this article as I’ve only just gone ‘wide’, and KU was a small, but significant part in that decision.
    I did have some of my books on KU, for one 90 day stint, but it didn’t work for me so I withdrew them. Now, I’m ready to see what going wide will do, if anything.

  12. Val Tobin on November 4, 2017 at 8:44 am

    I put my books into KU for the first 90 days and then go wide. I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to go exclusive. Amazon moves the goal posts frequently. What makes you money one day might disappear the next.

  13. Ki Brightly on April 14, 2018 at 11:57 am

    Personally, I make way more money in KU than I ever did with a publisher, and that includes eating production costs before I “profit”.

  14. Julieanne on May 18, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    I have enjoyed reading this article and learning how KU works. I’m not an author, but I am an “fussy” avid reader. I have been a member of KU for about two years and have enjoyed the fact that I am able to read the book before deciding to purchase it. I have read books from various authors that (please forgive) I was just not able to finish for whatever reason, though they are far and few between. Because of KU, I did not pay for a book, which I truly disliked, and got stuck with (I know refund, however I bought that book and I need to stick with that decision and not have that author lose money). Those books which I enjoyed however, I happily purchased and are now in my library. Also because of KU, I discovered new authors whose work I fell in love with.

    I know there is something now going on with Amazon regarding some KU authors, who were being accused of being in violation of KU terms, by supposedly contracting with third parties and where click farming their books. Sadly one of my favorite authors was accused of doing this (and I don’t believe it for a minute) and they have removed themselves from KU rather then go through this hassle. Luckily I love this persons books so it has always been a no brainer for me to purchase the book after reading it from KU. However with other authors (some I have never had a chance to experience) will more then likely also leave KU rather then being accused of this practice.

    I hope this gets figured out before more great authors leave that platform, and before I get a chance to experience their work.

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