After 40 days in the Kindle Unlimited program, and after going through my first royalty statement that includes KU pagereads, I have a few observations.
First, a little background for the uninitiated: Over a year ago, Amazon launched an ebook subscription service known as Kindle Unlimited. For $9.95 a month, readers could enjoy unlimited access to over a million ebooks. For authors, the program was contentious, because it required making those titles exclusive with Amazon. You couldn’t sell them elsewhere. This was the price of admission.
To entice their bestselling authors to try the program, Amazon allowed several dozen indies to keep their titles in KU for a limited time without the exclusivity requirement. I was invited into the trial, and I could see the benefit of being in the program immediately, but it wasn’t clear whether my readership was best served by being in KU or not. When the time trial expired, I pulled my ebooks out of KU. Looking back, I can see that this was a huge mistake.
A month and a half ago, Amazon changed the way they pay authors in KU, moving to a per-page-read method rather than a flat fee (once 10% of an ebook was read). The idea was to reward reader engagement with longer works, rather than pay short story authors the same amount as novelists. As a data geek, I was dying to test this program out and see what difference it made for earnings, reader engagement, and sales rank. Entry to KU would require me being exclusive with Amazon for at least 90 days. With several of their competitors in disarray, and with KU free of competition from books by major publishers, I thought now was a good time to give it a go.
Even though the new KU seemed to reward novels over short stories, I immediately began publishing shorter works and making them available in KU. I wanted to see if short fiction — an area I’m fond of and have made a career exploring — was still viable in KU. After joining the program, I released several titles in the 7,000 – 12,000 word range. KU is no longer as generous when it comes to short fiction, but the pay-per-page estimates seemed fair to me. I went all-in with my backlist novels, and I published my new short stories.
I knew within a week that I’d made the right decision to join KU. My KU ebooks saw an immediate boost in ranking. Not only were the page-reads mounting, but the sales of those ebooks were also on the rise! My overall income doubled, even with the loss of the other retail outlets, and I’m reaching more readers. This is like advertising that I get paid for, and advertising that leads to more paid sales. The only cost is exclusivity.
I’ve written at length about exclusivity, but I’ll sum up here what might seem paradoxical at first: You can sometimes reach more readers by making your products available with fewer vendors. By concentrating sales in one location, sales rank gets a boost and more reader reviews are compiled in a single place. This means more visibility and more word-of-mouth sales. It can also mean more readers.
If you were an author and you had to choose between 1,000,000 sales to readers in the state of Illinois and 100,000 sales to readers all around the world, which would you take? Arbitrary designations of where readers come from are just that: arbitrary. The total number of readers is what should matter. This is especially true considering the fact that Kindle ebooks can be read on practically anything that has a screen. More and more readers are moving to cell phones for their consumption, and even Apple devices can read Kindle ebooks. What’s more, I don’t put DRM on my works, so they can be downloaded, converted, and read as epubs or PDFs. By concentrating my works in a single place, I’m not making them unavailable to anyone; I’m just amplifying the signal of all those purchases and reader reactions. It’s a funnel, not a sieve.
I’m doing something more important than this as well, something that the last 40 days highlighted for me. I’m ensuring the best possible reader experience with ebooks. I see people all the time bemoan what might happen if we put all our eggs in one basket. Not only does this ignore the fact that I own the eggs and can move them at any time, it ignores the damage we do by trusting our eggs to bad baskets.
What is the collapse of Nook doing for the adoption of ebooks? Barnes and Noble goes back and forth on whether or not they’re going to support their own device. That causes those who bought a Nook to become wary of committing to buying more digital books. And what about Apple’s refusal to make iTunes a web-based store rather than an application? This makes sharing links and buying ebooks more difficult across devices. And let’s not even start on B&N’s storefront. Or Google’s hubris when it comes to dealing with authors.
Indiscriminate business partnerships does not move the industry forward, and making my ebooks available at places that don’t provide the best reader experience does not help my career. When I saw that KU was going to help me reach more readers —and more than make up lost income from all other outlets combined — I was swayed. But it was when I blogged about unlimited access to ebooks with readers, and heard what kind of experience those readers were having with KU, that I saw why it was important for me to only make my works available at top-notch retailers.
The reason is this: I want greater and greater ebook adoption. I want more and more readers to move to ebooks. It is the artistic medium, the environmental medium, the democratic medium, the literary medium, and the indie medium. The best way to increase the adoption of this superior medium is to ensure that readers have a great experience. The Amazon storefront and their Kindle devices are the absolute best experience for readers. I know a prominent supporter of the big publishing houses who recently admitted that despite his rhetoric, he uses a Kindle and shops on Amazon, because both are so much better. What he can’t see is that being open about those advantages is the only way to get other retailers to raise their game. And it’s the best way to get consumers to jump in and partake in this form of entertainment as well.
Another way to think about it is this: When Guinness allows a bar to sell their beer, this comes with a commitment to excellence. Guinness’ reputation is at state. Barkeeps learn how to provide a proper pour, and Guinness reps will drop in to make sure things are going smoothly. A bad experience is not worth it to them to say, “Let’s sell our stuff everywhere, no matter what.” That’s how you lose control of and dilute a brand.
Major publishers messed up royally by not throwing their weight behind Amazon in order to sell as many books to as many readers as possible. Fear of upsetting existing retail accounts caused them to hurt their authors, their readers, and themselves. The battle for control — out of a fear of what might someday happen — moved those awful consequences from a hypothetical future to a very real present.
The same is happening with a lot of indie authors. Fear over what Amazon might do in the future is hurting growth of a better reading medium today. The smart (and selfish) thing upon realizing this would be for me to put my works in KU, not say a thing, and enjoy all the benefits of a large slice of earnings coming to me from a limited pool of funds. But that’s not something I care to do. I’m here to tell you today, that as an indie author, you might want to give KU 90 or 180 days to see for yourself. You might want to promote the heck out of Kindle devices and the Amazon storefront. This company knows how to pour a great ebook. When a company comes along that does it better, you can bet I’ll be jumping ship. They’re my eggs, and they’re going to go into the best basket(s).
How we promote reading is important as authors. The more people we get reading on the democratic medium, the medium that allows artistic freedom of expression, the medium that ships electrons and not fuel-costly paper, the better our tradecraft as writers and pastime as readers will be. Right now, the best experience for readers, and the way to reach more of them, is through Kindle Unlimited.
This isn’t a commercial for the service; this is professional advice from someone who has tried both routes with a keen eye on the data. Try it for yourself and see. If you ask me, KU is a KO. I just wish I hadn’t waited until the later rounds to realize this.