What the Media is getting wrong about Kindle Unlimited

Amazon is one of those love em or hate em kind of companies, or so the media would have us believe. The truth for most writers is, I think, a lot more nuanced than that. A lot of indie writers have made careers thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing. And yet at the same time, they know that having all your eggs in one basket is a dangerous mistake. Other writers have made careers in traditional publishing, and when Amazon and Hachette had their dispute it was hard not to wonder how it was going to affect them. Still, at the end of the day we all understand that Amazon is a business with it’s own business interests. It’s an enormously successful business and it’s decision affect every writer, so we pay attention to anything it does.

That said, I am growing tired of how every Amazon related piece of news is spun to either show how much we love or hate the retailer. Kindle Unlimited has become the latest victim to this spin, even when that’s not what the very authors are saying.

According to the spin the Kindle Unlimited program has opened a huge riff with the indie community. We are being treated like second class citizens. Big name authors like H. M. Ward and even Joe Konrath are up in rebellion, leaving the program in droves.

There is some truth to all this. A select few authors have been allowed in the Kindle Unlimited program without exclusivity but most of us have to choose, enroll in select and have our books become Amazon exclusives or opt out. A few publishers have been offered their full cut on each borrow, the average indie gets paid out of a pot.

There are just a couple of problems with the spin. The first is that while many authors are disappointed with the way this program is working out, they don’t hate Amazon because of it. Even those pulling their books from the program aren’t pulling their books from Amazon. Even those praising the program are cognizant that it hasn’t been good for everyone.

The bigger problem with the spin is that it’s missing the central idea, the program isn’t working. It’s not an Amazon-is-a-terrible-company sort of problem. It’s not that indies are being mistreated. The program should be a good tool for indies wanting to get discovered, but it’s not working out that way.

Why isn’t it working? If we screw the spin and go straight to the source we see the problem. H. M. Ward pulled her books for two reasons, borrows weren’t paying enough and her sales were dropping. In fact, her sales plus her borrows were dropping.

I am nowhere near as popular as H. M. Ward, but I can see her point. The first couple of months I saw a lot of borrows and I got paid enough on each borrow that it was close to what my royalties were. Then borrows started to drop. Now, I can’t say that it’s worth it to stay in the program.

This combination of dropping pay out and dropping borrows points to a more specific problem then how Amazon treats indies. I think the issue has to do with the ratio of readers to writers. Most of the bloggers so far have focused on the huge number of indie authors jumping into the program, and the giant pile of books available. Not only is this disingenuous, since none of those writers is going to stop putting their books into the program, it misses the other side of the equation. How many readers have opted into the subscription service? I am guessing the pace adoption on the consumer side simply hasn’t kept up with the number of authors. That would explain the dropping payouts.

And it points to the real issue with a reader subscription service. I am not just a writer, but an avid reader as well. I opted in with the Kindle Unlimited early on. I loved it for about a month. I read a half dozen or more of the big names they recruited into the program, books I’d wanted to read for sometime because of the hype around them (like the Hunger Games books) but hadn’t wanted to buy. Then I started sampling from the large library of available books, many of them by indie authors. I got passed the ten percent mark, where the author gets paid, on many of them. But I didn’t fall in love with any of them either.

A couple months later I realized that I had stopped borrowing books and gone back to buying them. I just got tired of sorting through hundreds of titles that I might possible want to read and returned to picking out, and paying for, the ones I knew I wanted to read. I got tired of passing by books that I wanted to read, because they weren’t free. Just using KU, I could save money. But having some KU books and some bought books, I was losing money. In the end it wasn’t worth it. I cancelled my subscription.

And that is the problem with a reader subscription service. Books are a huge investment of time, even if they are free. That’s why libraries never destroyed bookstores. Readers don’t seem to care that there are thousands of books available for free at the local library. They only care about the few books that they want right now. The bookstore does a better job of providing those titles. So readers go there and fork over cash.

Libraries stay open because they are publically funded. Do you think it’s possible to have a subscription based library with monthly fees? It hasn’t worked so far. I think Amazon will discover the same thing with KU.

I know, Pandora, Spotify, changing the music industry, blah, blah, blah. Maybe Amazon will eventually pull this one off, maybe they will get around consumer reluctance and author concerns and make Kindle Unlimited work.

As a reader, I’ve ditched Kindle Unlimited. I’m not sure what would bring me back. As an author, I’m leaving some of my YA books in the program, and I will continue to monitor how it works. But I am not intending to put any of my new books in.

Contrary to what the media might say, it doesn’t mean I hate Amazon.

 

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