Kindle Unlimited is not here to Make Friends

From author  and TPV regular Gene Doucette:

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.

. . . .

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.)

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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 couldmean 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.

Link to the rest at Gene Doucette

21 thoughts on “Kindle Unlimited is not here to Make Friends”

  1. It has to be incredibly frustrating for Amazon. From their perspective authors must seem like a bunch of greedy,con men trying to steal from them at every opportunity. For the last several years every change they’ve made has been in response to authors (legit or otherwise) gaming the system. I can imagine if that is your only interaction with authors then you might get pretty jaded.

  2. Some people think KU helps get them new readers – and as a reader it’s great to be able to read a book before deciding if you wish to risk any money at all on a new (to them) writer.

    I do find it strange writers keep bemoaning the fact they can’t have an ebook in KU if it can be gotten in electronic form anywhere else. It strikes to much of the ‘have your cake and want to eat it too’ crowd. Pick one, eat it or have it later. But no, they seem to think they should have the right to do both …

    Next they’ll tell us they don’t understand why the publishers won’t let them sell the same book to several publishers at the same time. At least with KU you can change your mind and pull out of it – unlike those publishing contracts.

    Like everything/everyone else, Amazon has certain rules for using certain services. Don’t like them? Then don’t use them – How hard do we have to make this?

  3. As a Kindle Unlimited author, this is a very good summary of the KU program and the changes that Amazon has made. And I agree with him on the hypothetical rationales for the changes, too.

    I will note (as does someone else in the comments on the full article) that Kindle Unlimited enrollment requires only electronic exclusivity. Print books can still be sold wherever. On the other hand, 90 days (make sure to uncheck the auto-renew option in your marketing details after enrolling) is a really nice way to do a staged launch or to try out a new program. It sure beats the usual “70 years after I die” in my traditional contracts.

  4. Kindle Unlimited is not profitable, that’s why Amazon keeps throwing money in the pool)

    How do we know it isn’t profitable? Can anyone share the financials? Performance stats? Number of subscribers? Total KU revenue by month?

    Anyone know exactly how the pool of money divided among authors is funded? What are the sources? How much of each source goes into the pool?

    If one believes that all revenue from all KU subscriptions goes to the pool, then we have a program that can never generate a profit, and will always be subsidized for operating expenses, hardware, and personnel. So, exactly how is the pool funded?

    • These are good points. I would add that an unknown profit would be the Amazon general store purchases the KU subscriber makes before or after their visit to the KU library. It’s not unlike the guesstimate many writers who advertise try to ascribe to the sales following the sale from the ad and/or the page reads ascribed to that sale. Maybe Amazon has some methodology for attributing a useful metric in these situations, I don’t know.

  5. Just today I unsubscribed to KU as a reader. It’s 9,99 a month, and you can read up to 10 books enrolled in the prog, for free. It seemed like a good thing, but for us, it isnt. The books lay there unread for months; they are nonfiction, science etc. We’ ve gone back to hardcopy as for us, it works better for comprehension with writing instantly in margins.

    I keep thinking of the 9,99 amz takes in on each reader on KU and wonder how many readers of the en masse in nonfiction interest, are actually reading the ku books in depth. There is also the issue of many if not most of the non fic books we’d may have wanted to read, not being enrolled in the prog. Which is ok, author’s choice is fine.

    We’ve rec’d many invites from KU to join up, almost to the point of being aggrivating, as well as one of the publishing arms of amz to pub with them. So far, it seems we are better off not doing either. I think for people in genre reading and writing it might be different. There are many glitches in amz it seems; right now were dealing with amz lowering a price on a book of ours outside their usual rules. They said they’d look into it. The letter from amz was cheerful and genial. But no answer now for a week.

    So dont know. I just know that we watch amz and try to zig and zag with their many ways, including their declining audio ‘royalties’ as needed.

    • “We’ve rec’d many invites from KU to join up, almost to the point of being aggrivating”

      I’ve never subscribed to KU and have no interest in doing so. Yet when I look at books on which happen to be in KU, I frequently get pop-ups asking me to join KU. There is apparently no way to tell Amazon that I’m not interested and don’t want to keep getting asked. The only options these pop-ups give me amount to, “Yes, sign me up” and “No, not right now”. No “No forever, stop asking” option.

      Not sure why they’re doing this, but it’s one of those small things which, combined with enough other small things, will make me go elsewhere for at least some portion of the book-buying I’d been heretofore doing on Amazon.

    • As a single KU subscriber, my experience may or may not be similar to others.

      I subscribe to KU, but I never look for KU books. I don’t even know how. I suppose I could learn, but have never been so inclined.

      I use KU when I go to a book page intending to buy the book. I am then surprised to find it is a KU book. So I get it from KU.

      So, I am unaware of all the problems reported here. The only KU books I see are books I want. On average, I figure I save a few dollars per month.

    • I’ve been a member of KU (borrowing books, not selling them) for a year, and this discussion prompted me to go back and try to find out how many books I’ve borrowed through KU. I looked on my Amazon account and found I’ve borrowed 96 KU books over the course of the year (including the ones I currently have). I generally read around 200 books a year (according to my goodreads account), so it seems I’m making good use of KU, and saving money as well. I do deliberately go into the KU section of Amazon’s website to find books, and I have found a number of authors that way that I might not otherwise have read. Generally I read and return the books, but I have found authors through KU that I greatly enjoyed and have bought their books to own (as much as you can own ebooks, anyway). And I have also borrowed and read some books in KU more than once (I hope that counts as another read for the author? Another question to ask). I will try to be more careful now about syncing the book again after I’ve read it so people get paid for the whole book.

  6. The article states, with some certainty, that KU is unprofitable for Amazon:

    “…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.”

    This is a false conclusion. We don’t know whether KU is profitable or not profitable for Amazon. For example, they could distribute 40% of their KU subscriptions take out to authors and then tack on a few million bucks to give the impression of generosity/investment.

  7. Look at the category “Classics” in the Amazon store. Instead of Dickens and Twain, it’s been taken over by contemporary bad-boy romances.

    Amazon has unintentionally created a situation where lit-porn has taken over every fiction category.

    I hope KU subscribers are complaining. They should be, unless the KU market now consists entirely of readers of bad-boy porn…we know that’s a big market, alas.

    • Oh. My. Goodness. I had to check this for myself. You’re not kidding. Instead of Jane Austen you get books about billionaire baby daddies. As an experiment I reported one for reasons of “Other” so I could explain that it’s in the wrong damn category. Don’t know if that will help.

      But oh good Lord.

      English majors aren’t too expensive, are they? Amazon could offer internships for students to sort this out.

    • The science fiction category in KU had the same problem, and still may for all I know, since I’ve discontinued my KU membership. This bizarre classification issue was part of the reason I dropped out of the program. I simply couldn’t find anything I wanted to read.

  8. There will have to eventually be some kind of policing by someone. Maybe they can come up with something such as comment streams have – the moderator must approve your first comment, or your first n books, or you pay for a service which guarantees you’re not a scammer.

    Here is where the traditional gatekeepers might be better. They put out some really bad books, but have a reputation to protect. Some of them, anyway.

    Free-for-all only leads to summary judgment – and complete removal – shoot first, ask questions (if ever) later.

    It is too easy to put up a ‘book’ on Amazon right now, and, as many places have found out when comment streams degrade to complete garbage within days, it only takes a few to muck it up for the rest of us.

    I’d happily pay a reasonable fee per book to not have Classics occupied by bad-boy garbage. I don’t see why they can’t just have a ‘bad-boy garbage’ classification for any well-written appropriate books in that category, well-written to be determined by their readers (and not include repeating chapter 3 twenty times, typos galore, etc.).

    You don’t let any and all comers, buyers and trashers, into your physical store (it tends to keep away paying customers), so why are they allowed to clog up the best-seller lists?

    • There will have to eventually be some kind of policing by someone.

      That will depend on consumers. Most of the complaints I see about the Amazon book business come from authors, publishers, and boolsellers, not consumers. (Yes, I know authors also buy books.)

      Authors don’t like sharing digital commercial space with other producers they disapprove of. It’s competition, and like most producers, they prefer it would go away. They think the space should be reshaped to favor them.

      But what do consumers think, and how is their buying experience affected? Consumers express their satisfaction with dollars. Follow the money.

      • But what do consumers think, and how is their buying experience affected? Consumers express their satisfaction with dollars. Follow the money.

        Here is what consumers think, as shown by retailers (including Amazon themselves) following the money for many years. From Shawna Canon’s comment below:

        Categories exist to help customers find what they’re looking for more easily, so it’s in the best interest of the bookstore to keep them reasonably accurate.

        It should be obvious that spamming every category with ‘bad-boy romance’ or any other irrelevant matter is neither helpful to the customers, nor in the best interest of the bookseller. The fact that it is happening does not prove that Amazon approves, let alone that Amazon is choosing category spamming as a business strategy. It only shows that they have not yet discovered both the need and the means to prevent it.

        • It only shows that they have not yet discovered both the need and the means to prevent it.

          Sure. There is no need if consumers don’t care. We don’t know how consumers use Amazon to buy books. Amazon does. But, we do know they keep buying more and more.

          Someone may create categories to help consumers, but what if those consumers aren’t using categories as the designers thought they would, or as authors think they should?

          Authors want things changed. But since Amazon doesn’t care what authors want, authors tell us consumers want the same thing authors want.

          Amazon will change. They have been changing ever since they started. But, they will change when consumers speak for consumers, not when authors speak for consumers.

  9. >>Authors don’t like sharing digital commercial space with other producers they disapprove of.

    That’s not what anyone is saying at all. What we complain about are categories that are filled with anything and everything that some author decides to put there. Amazon spends little to no effort in cleaning any of this up, as with the other issues that are going on.

    I personally don’t care if Amazon is making or losing money on KU. It’s their baby, they have to take the risk. What I do care about is their apparent inability to do any kind of enforcement of the program in any way, shape or form. It appears that badly programmed bots are the preferred method of action, and I’m starting to think all these stories of innocent authors being hit by sanctions are more along the lines of an effort to shut us up.

    Yeah, I’m getting really jaded about the whole thing. It’s not that hard to fix the problems, but it will require human beings to vet the blasted books going into Select. It should have happened from the get-go. It’s not like many of us said from the beginning that KU was just a scam waiting to happen. I’m not happy about being right, but FFS, I told you so, Amazon.

    • It makes me think of b&m bookstores. Assuming reasonably competent employees (a big assumption, I know), a bad-boy romance wouldn’t get shelved in ‘classics’ just because the cover has ‘classics’ listed in that little genre hint area. There’d be some degree of human decision-making going on that would help keep the categories clean. Because if the categories aren’t at least mostly correct, they become useless. Categories exist to help customers find what they’re looking for more easily, so it’s in the best interest of the bookstore to keep them reasonably accurate.

      I was in a Goodwill (or similar) one time and found … I forget exactly, but I think it was Heart of Darkness, shelved in the children’s sections. Having recently read that book, I was like, “Oh… that’s not a children’s book,” and I think I stuck it with the adult books, for what little good that did. I think they shelved it there because it’s short. I know Goodwill isn’t a bookstore, just a store with a books section, but that’s an example (and there were many others, just in that one store at that one time) of books getting horribly mis-shelved even by an actual real-life human.

      I don’t know. It’s just weird. As a reader, I don’t really browse on Amazon because of these kinds of issues. I mostly find new books by recs and newsletters/sales these days. (And by following my favorite authors/narrators.)

    • Authors have been complaining about the content of KU since it started. Now they want a cadre of humans to examine the commercial subspaces where they want to sell. They want the subspaces cleared out so they don’t have to compete with books they don’t consider worthy of being in the same space with them.

      In all such things, I follow the money. Consumers keep spending more and more on Amazon books. For years authors have told us how consumers will rebel if Amazon doesn’t do one thing or another, and for years authors have been wrong.

      Digital bookselling will not be curated by humans. Foot traffic in curated, categorized bookstores is declining, and people are buying on Amazon. And they keep doing it, even with all the problems authors highlight.

  10. My personal experience with KU is that I found little there I wanted to read. With Scribd it has been completely different, offering a lot of worthwhile books. I can get 3 per month plus an audiobook, and carry over some credits. My only problem with Scribd is that I cannot read their books on an e-ink Kindle (or other e-ink reader) which is my preference for reading.

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