The Season of Kindle Unlimited Discontent

Kindle Unlimited discontentI believe there are three possible scenarios that can take place when you release a book. Firstly, (and I hope this happens to you), you do very little to promote your book yet based on the phenomenal content – and readers spreading the word – your book hits the upper plateaus of the bestseller rankings. And, it stays there for a considerable amount of time. Yes, this does happen. Consider Andy Weir’s (originally self-published) The Martian, Hugh Howey’s Wool, etc.

The second scenario is that you release your book; it takes an initial sales spike to those same envied upper plateaus and then settles into the 8,000 to 20,000 overall (using Amazon’s charts for this example) rankings. And again, it stays there. This happens occasionally.

My books fall into the third scenario. When I release a new book I have a following of readers who purchase my work, but from that point on I have to find ways to connect with new readers. Every month I run some sort of promotion. Fortunately, because of the promotional opportunities KDP Select provides, I always manage to sell some books.

Those of you who have read my articles know I’m a proponent of Select. I was on the initial Select train at the beginning of 2012 and took advantage of the program that helped many of us sell books faster than we ever thought possible. When Amazon added the benefits of Kindle Unlimited (KU) borrows to Select I got excited, and I hoped that a little bit of that initial magic might be duplicated.

When KU was introduced I predicted that Amazon would ensure they had enough dollars in the kitty to pay out at least $2.50 per book for the first two or three months. In fact I thought they’d even surpass that as they attempted to sign up new authors to Select. And, I thought that some of those same KU borrowers might purchase some of my other books. This has not happened. Amazon does not break down whether we’re earning borrows or Kindle Unlimited units in our statements; they’re all lumped together, so it’s difficult to tell which we’re receiving. My borrows (KU units and borrows from Prime), have increased by 250%. Unfortunately, those heady days when borrows were paying $2.50 have passed. In October the rate was $1.33. November went up marginally to $1.39. That’s still a substantial decrease from pre-KU numbers. Previously, I’d never looked at borrows as a loss. I was just happy to have that additional source of revenue. Plus, I considered it an honor when a reader chose my book as their one monthly pick as part of their Prime membership, or now as one of their reads through KU. With the decrease in the amount paid out per borrow, and the increase in the amount of borrows I’ve earned a slight increase in terms of net dollars, but, there has been a downside. Since KU came along my sales have taken a hit – a considerable hit.

In my previous life when I trained retail salespeople, I could quote month by month where their sales numbers should be based on the previous year’s figures. We established targets and often achieved them. Not so in the world of self-publishing. I still consider myself a new author. I hope to continue releasing books and hopefully become a better writer. And, I’m pretty adept at connecting and engaging with readers. So, the amount of followers I have should increase too. In theory, the sales of my books should go up from year to year. Of course there are always going to be other factors. I have a long-delayed third book of a trilogy that readers are beginning to get impatient for, Dino-Porn really could be what the majority of readers want to read, and, the lower price of books released by traditionally published, popular authors is definitely thinning out the playing field. Even allowing for those percentages, I believe my sales should still be increasing annually. Last year they did not. And, the sales lag happened at the same time KU came along.

I’ve often disagreed with authors who claim this is a turtle race. To reach where we want to be is dependent on growth, and growth takes time, but it doesn’t have to be slow. Everything we do is contingent on having a book that readers want to read. If we’ve done that, and presented it in a professional manner, then there’s no reason why our sales can’t increase from year to year as new readers take the eReader plunge. Because of the increased number of borrows of my books I’m potentially reaching more readers. Have those borrowers become buyers and purchased my other work? At this point it looks like they have not.

There are a number of high-profile, self-published authors who have pulled their books from Select because KU is infringing on their sales. This makes sense for them, and they can run their business any way they like. There are two things we need to keep in mind through this season of Kindle Unlimited discontent. Firstly, Amazon will be led where their customers lead them. And although they’ve said authors are their customers too, their priorities are to their consumers not their suppliers. So, if Kindle Unlimited is indeed where buyers want to spend their money, and Amazon are finding a way to make it profitable, they will continue to utilize it. They may tweak it to make it more attractive to authors but remember, there is no shortage of quality material out there. New authors publish very good books every day. My instincts (the same ones that incorrectly predicted the royalty rates for KU payouts) tell me that KU, in some form, is here to stay. It may be modified to ensure that authors providing quality content of a suitable length (yes, there are some who are manipulating the system) will be rewarded, but if Netflix can make it work then Amazon can too.

The second fact we need to remember is that Amazon is our distributor and we are the publisher. And, as a publisher it’s important for us to increase our following. Those faithful followers who purchase our releases and then spread the word are our lifeline. It’s those readers who will get us to the next level and it always has been. If you’re like me, you just need more of them. Perhaps the lesson learned from Kindle Unlimited is that we need to concentrate on spreading our wings wider rather than just taking those quick trips up the bestseller rankings. After all, amongst all the authors complaining about KU hurting their sales there are still self-published authors out there whose books are being purchased by the truckload every day.

The harsh realities of being a writer and running a small business are settling in. We helped create this world, now we have to learn to live with it and find ways to make it grow. Right now, I don’t intend to pull my books from Select and test the waters by uploading to other platforms. I have a new book that I’m hoping to release in April and another at the end of 2015. My plan is to sit tight and see what happens when those books are released. As always, I’ll continue to monitor the situation outside of the Amazon compound but for now I’ll take the hit, hope that the dollar amount per borrow increases, and oh, keep working on those next books and finding ways to connect and engage with new readers. That’s probably the best thing I can do.

Author: Martin Crosbie

Martin Crosbie is the author of five bestselling books whose newest release is a Kindle Scout winner. His self-publishing journey has been mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes Online Magazine, and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Learn more about Martin at his website or his Amazon author page

44 thoughts on “The Season of Kindle Unlimited Discontent”

    1. Yes, different genres certainly yield different results don’t they. The tried and true promo sites (Bookbub, Kindle Books and Tips, ENT etc.) still seem to be pretty consistent in terms of what they give us though. Thanks for commenting Yvonne.

  1. I agree with you on a lot of this, Martin. I suspect Amazon is going to spend the next few months playing with the per-borrow payout until it can find the balance between what will keep indies in Select and what the Zon is willing to fund over the long haul.

    My version of not-all-the-eggs-in-one-basket is to have some books at Select and others free-range. I’m planning to let that strategy ride and see where things go.

    1. This article took me so long to complete because I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. It was one way of making a decision and sticking with it.
      You’re probably right Lynne, and if it’s working for you that’s great. Interestingly enough, after beginning every other post KU month with a boatload of borrows my borrows are way down this month. I guess if I want consistency I should flip burgers.
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. I wish Amazon would report to authors/publishers how many KU readers have queued their book. This is why:

    Readers can load your book in their KU queue, but you won’t know it until they pass the 10% threshold and it appears on your sales report. Since they can have up to ten books in their queue, it can take a significant amount of time for them to reach your book. Meanwhile, as my renewal time in Select approaches, I don’t have a good sense of how well I actually performed in KU. I could theoretically have much more KU activity than I currently see on my sales report, but I’ll never know it. So, I drop Select (and KU) based on sales data, and then weeks later start to see all the residual KU activity come through.

    It doesn’t have to be a detailed report. Just a total queued. Or maybe Amazon is worried about us seeing this information?

    1. That’s very true. I’d like to have the information too. It might help Amazon too though. If we knew that there was a glut of readers who potentially had queued our book it might sway us to stay with the program. You just never know, it might happen.

  3. Good points, Martin. I think you’re right in that individual authors have to figure out what’s right for them and what’s not right for them. I think KU works for some authors, particularly those who are unknown and doesn’t work for others (those who were selling boatloads of books before KU came along). Finding the right normal is going to be what’s important. I think the new author who starts in KU today and starts getting a lot of borrows and a few sales, is going to have a very different opinion about KU than the author who was already getting sales and sees sales decline while borrows rise.

    Hopefully KU will deal with the 99 cent issue. I think if they could offer a better split, so 99 cent books got a smaller payout than 2.99+ books, it would help those authors who are losing sales to borrows feel better about the process. It would also help people feel like some authors aren’t gaming the system (putting out fairly short works so readers get to the 10 percent payout rate quickly).

    1. Yes, no question it needs to be tweaked and it only makes sense that they will. Knowing that Amazon typically come at these things from a direction we could never have anticipated it’ll be interesting to see what happens next. I’ve never seen the playing field and the results it yields change so quickly in any industry. And, it’s not finished yet.
      Thanks RJ.

  4. Thank you for this encouragement, a quiet word of sanity and determination in the midst of anti-Amazon clamor! I’m in Select with all my books and would rather spend my time producing new books than testing other platforms. I’ll take your good advice and, besides writing, continue to connect with my readers.

        1. The big authors benefit from getting their books published to the wide readership that Amazon dominates. That’s not to say they’re in bed with them. Far from it; They criticized the methods used by them on Hachette for example and because of the number of books they sell they can ignore Amazon’s attempts at getting them to go exclusive. Indies don’t have that power. Amazon may have said writers are their customers, though I have not seen that comment myself. The reality however is that we are suppliers. Their business model is to minimise the payments they make to us and their employees (google the court cases against them). Select was the bait to catch Indie authors and we initially benefited. Unlimited is the next step in developing that model as a sequel to dominate the market further and extend their monopolistic position, It won’t then only be suppliers (authors) and employees who suffer.

          1. Thanks for that. Of course, just because Bozos said in 2012 that writers are customers does not make the statement true. We do not buy anything from Amazon. I agree they dominate the market and it helps writers but my points about their ethics and social responsibility, which is well documented, stands. The really big writers successfully made a stand and I agree we do not have that power. That does not mean we have to suck up to their every word just because we gain from their distribution at the moment. KU shows they have the power to unlevel the playing field anyway they want. Customers in some countries are already penalised for where they live with a surcharge on the books they buy. Amazon will do the same elsewhere when they are able. Google the court actions and out of court settlements and consider governments response to their tax avoidance.

            Amazon have helped writers sell books. That does not mean they are ethical or that we should pretend everything in the book distribution industry is without problems. There is pressure from aggregators, not only Smashwords.

    1. Yes, I agree. I keep telling myself that producing more content not only widens my shelf space, but it should help me become a better writer too. We all have readers for our product. Now we just have to produce.
      (Reminder to myself).
      Thanks Gloria.

      1. Matt, I think based on the comments on this thread and the fact that I stress in my article that Amazon are our distributors and the responsibilities of being a publisher/marketer/content provider fall to us, none of us are “sucking up to their every word”. In fact, I think it’s the opposite, we’re taking what’s available analyzing it and then deciding how to run our businesses. I’ve always found that if I spend too much time wondering how the clock ticks time passes me by and I’ve accomplished nothing. Good luck with your books.

        1. I had of course noted that you were cherry picking the points I made and not responding to anything which put Amazon in a bad light.

          But I was not aware until now that IU censors posts. That’s up to IU of course but it’s not ethical.

          I suppose you don’t want to accept that the really big authors agree with what I have said about Amazon and have made their views known (Hachette and their HR record for example)

          1. We remove anything that can be interpreted as a personal attack, Matt. There is plenty of room here for friendly discussion. If you would like more information, please feel free to read our comment policy.

          2. Can’t see that I was making a personal attack. I was stating precisely what the big authors have been openly saying about Amazon (Hachette, their HR record). Yes they use them as a distributor, who would not? But they don’t fall into bed with them. I appreciate smaller authors don’t have their cloutbut they don’t need to bow down to the Zon. There’s such a thing as being principled and , incidentally, free speech.

          3. There’s also such a thing as being insulting, and that is not welcome here. We have a right to keep the forum friendly. In the comment we deleted, you attacked the author’s integrity, and the integrity of some of the other commenters. You are welcome to comment about Amazon and your opinions therein. But calling the integrity of others into question just because you don’t feel they are in agreement with you is not necessary.

          4. KSB

            Read my comments. I did not call into question the integrity of anyone. I in fact said, let’s agree to disagree. I have a point of view that you seem to dislike, even though the big authors are saying the same thing about Amazon. I have no problem with people disagreeing and debating fairly. I do have a problem with selective reporting. But it’s your site, that you run it that way is your business. But, as I said, it’s not ethical.

            A pity, IU has many positive aspects but is too self-centred imo.

            And that’s the problem, you don’t like other opinions being expressed.

          5. You are quite welcome to write a guest post about your opinions on Amazon. We have no problem with “other” opinions being expressed. Please use the contact form and we will respond with the guest post guidelines.

  5. Good, well-reasoned points, Martin. The ground is shifting so quickly, but sticking around, producing quality work, and engaging with readers makes the most sense.

    1. Laurie, to be honest, it makes the most sense to me, too. I don’t plan to take any drastic action until I have a better handle on what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and whether it’s working or not. In the meanwhile, I plan to concentrate on writing!

  6. Thanks for this, Martin. I change my mind nearly every day regarding KU. I have two books in (well, three, but I never count the self-publishing guide), and thus far, I haven’t been able to establish a pattern. As soon as I think sales have decreased, they increase again. I think I’m going to just sit tight for now.

    1. Ditto, Melinda. I go back and forth with it too. And, I think we have to have those discussions with ourselves. The information is out there, we all share our results with each other, and we’ll able to make the changes fairly quickly. I might have to re-write this article a month or two from now.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I’m wary of any program that demands exclusivity. I’m going in the opposite direction, building a following by selling my books through the broadest range of retailers available, both nationally and internationally.

    1. That’s awesome, Cathy. And, that’s where the difference will be – finding something else that works. I had a conversation with an author friend a couple of years ago and we couldn’t shake that feeling that the next big idea was staring us in the face, taking up most of the oxygen in the room but we couldn’t identify it. Maybe you have.
      Congratulations to you and thank you for commenting.

  8. Interesting post, Martin. I agree that it’s up to the individual author–as always, YMMV. I think there’s a larger reality dawning, of which KU is only a part. I tried KU and initially was impressed–until the payout. Currently, my books are selling at least 50% more than borrows–and most of the time more than that–so I will pull my two offerings off of KU when the time comes. It’s a business decision, with no emotion attached. I’m eternally grateful that my books do sell, even though it’s tougher and tougher to be heard/seen with so many other great (and not so great) books out there. Visibility/discoverability has ALWAYS been tough for authors, not just indies. And that is the shift I’m talking about: indies are discovering that it isn’t all chocolate and roses. This article is a really good expample of what I mean: https://authordylanhearn.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/5-self-publishing-truths-few-authors-talk-about/

    My takeaway from all this is that if an author’s sales are lower than before, there’s good reason and to realize that a majority of authors are in the same boat.

    1. It’s a good article and he’s saying what we’re all saying – keep producing and trying to become a better writer. And, I agree that even a great book can stay undiscovered (unfortunately). But, if BookSnob or Ereadernewstonight or BooksfromBob or whatever the next great promo site is going to be is working for the majority of authors chances are it’s going to work for you and I. We just have to keep playing the averages and hoping that we have content that readers want to read.
      Congrats on having a plan and following it. Being connected and acting on our information is very important. And, I know you do that.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. As always, you offer a sane point of view. I’ve had good luck with KU lends, and if what readers tell me is the case, they tried my more expensive pieces via KU and then bought the lower priced ones. But we’ll see where it all goes.

    1. Thanks Leland, it’s obviously working for you. And, as Dv mentioned above different authors may see different results. Thanks for commenting and for calling me sane. You did, didn’t you?

  10. Thanks, Martin. Your points are well taken. I have to find more effective ways to market my books and connect with readers, regardless of which publishing platform I choose. I’ve been enrolled in Select for two years, but have never sold many books or had many borrows. So, even if I branched out, it’s no guarantee that my books would sell any better somewhere else!

    1. But, you’re here researching, and shaking the tree to see what’s going to fall out. I think that’s the most important thing. We’re not giving up. We’re finding out what works for us and acting on it.
      Thanks for commenting Linda.

  11. Martin Crosbie! Well said. I will say straight up, I luuuv Amazon. I like that Amazon gives indies a publishing platform. IMO it cannot be beat. But Amazon is the grocery store. I’m the merchandiser. I put my products on its virtual shelves. I promote my product. It sells, but I am not receiving the percentage of revenue I received prior to mid July 2014. My production and promotion cost have not decreased. If anything, they have increased. I am going to try new approaches to sales and visibility. I’ve ignored my paperbacks. No longer. I’ve scheduled a dozen book signings for the first half of 2015. I’ve ignored foreign markets. Now, I’m not. The markets and venues for indie books is expanding globally. I am exploring those venues and making the best decisions I can for my books. One thing I ain’t gonna do is sit on a fence waiting for my laundry to dry on a rainy day. The single thing I have found Amazon short-sighted on is not giving us English-language access to our Amazon pages in India, France, Germany etc. If I had easy access to those pages and my Amazon author pages on those Amazon venues, I would live inside Select forever. But, they don’t. So I won’t. It is almost impossible to engage with those Amazon readers.
    Best to you and yours for all of 2015 and beyond.

    1. Thanks Jackie. Again, like others in this thread you’re out there looking for ways to connect and engage with your readers. The alternative is to sit back and blame Amazon, Smashwords, etc. If we build it they will come. We just need more of them.
      Best to you too and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Very well reasoned post…I agree with so much of what has been said and I am appreciative! But I would like to offer some other points if I may. Amazon is no longer JUST the earths’ biggest book store…it’s the earth’s biggest store period! So as they grow and diversify, books (in whatever form) may decrease in value as revenues increase for streaming original programming, Fire Phones, Kindle devices and all the other products they may not manufacture, but distribute. Value, meaning, whatever they contribute to the bottom line. You are so right in highlighting that Amazon is a distributor…and I think they may have gotten a bit less warm and fuzzy as often happens with massive growth of a good product. The attention and care given earlier authors may not even be possible now, much less probable. I imagine the guy who bought the first Xerox copier had a lot more attention than the millionth customer. It will shake out, I think, individually for each author. Hey, I love the guys too. Create Space is a few miles from my house and I just got my Amazon Fire Stick…LOVE. But for Indie authors, I think there is change in the wind. How we adjust our own sails is completely an individual decision.

    1. I agree with everything you said Jacqueline. It does feel different doesn’t it. And, you’re right book sales are just one section of their overall sales.
      As for that change in the wind, it’s too strong to fight it so I’m going to roll with it for a while and see where we end up. Interesting times, aren’t they.
      Thanks for commenting.

  13. As one who has been keeping a good track this last year of which place did what in book sales, I am this close to shutting down all the other avenues and just going with Amazon Select and even giving KU a go. We only sold 9 books for the whole year on other sites. While my sales with Amazon haven’t been Martin Crosbie stellar, they have been much more significant than the 9 for other sites. yes, everyone has different results based on genre, marketing, and even whether the good luck fairy decides to visit you or not. Not sure how to work the specials thing but I could read up on it and figure it out. Thank you Martin for helping to possibly convert another. You write amazing articles and love reading them.

    1. Aha, there it is. I agree Wendy, we all need the wind to blow the right way from time to time. Luck and timing is important for sure. And, so is working hard and I know that you’re doing that. Good luck and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  14. Martin,
    I have to disagree with your comment: “Firstly, Amazon will be led where their customers lead them.” I think is very clear that Amazon is and has always been in the driver’s seat. It has always been more of a puppet master that has already (a) driven Borders and many other independent bookstores out of business, and (b) tried to dictate unreasonable terms to Hachette and other publishers that would substantially hurt their businesses in the long run. Even worse, for those of us who have self-published for a while, Amazon has managed to significantly drive down the price of all books, which in turn significantly reduces most writers’ income. I am not talking about the few bestselling authors who will do well with or without Amazon, but the vast majority who are considered “mid list” and who are struggling to make a living.) Many newbies are willing to make that trade-off (a vastly reduced income in exchange for the opportunity to get published) but the same forces that drive down the price of your first book will make it that much more difficult to substantially raise prices later. And most writers never make it to that second book.

    Amazon is not the friend of authors and publishers, even if it does afford more opportunities for beginning authors. Those opportunities always come at a great cost to everyone it does business with. The introduction of Kindle Unlimited and what it means to authors is very troubling, but it is absolutely consistent with its business practices ever since Amazon came into existence.

    1. I agree William . “Mid list” authors and “newbies” should, in my view, think a little more deeply at what Amazon are doing and consider their anti-author game plan.

      Yes, we benefit in the short term but we should not be toadying up to them as if they’re the best thing since sliced bread.

      I’m not in the league of the best selling authors that would do well with or without Amazon but I know several and their sentiments mirror yours.

      I’ve been accused, unfairly I think, of “singling out” Amazon for criticism (though I take that on broad shoulders). I accept there are other corporations that have reputations as bad as Amazon’s (on tax avoidance for example) but I should not have needed to point out that in a thread about Amazon it would have been inappropriate to divert the discussion to a criticism of other businesses and I therefore did not do so. .

      I think that Indies Unlimited is a valuable resource for self published authors but at times it takes a very pro-Amazon stance instead of seeing both sides of a debate.

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