How Kindle Unlimited is Slow Death by Suffocation to Authors
The long(ish) test of KDP Kindle Unlimited is starting to prove itself out. And the news isn’t good.
There has been anecdotal evidence for year-on-year results that authors who went and stayed exclusive to Amazon were making less and less money.
The trick is analyzing wide against exclusive. Two different kettles of fish.
The back-of-envelope calculation showed that an exclusive author was leaving between 20-30% of his potential income on the table. Because Amazon has between 70-80% share of the U. S. market, and maybe half of the International market – but we’re only talking about ebooks. Now with Amazon slowly increasing the costs of self-publishing (while lowering payouts), this will be showing drops across the board (like the fiasco with their removing “also-boughts” carousel, replacing it with sponsored ads).
But we’ve been lacking any real analysis of why these drops in author income are happening.
I found this article today from Ilona Andrews, where she lays it out:
The problem with KU availability is two fold.
First, KU books must be exclusive to Amazon. If the book is in KU program, it can’t be sold by any other retailer including the author. Amazon does account for the majority of readers, but there are people who read on other platforms such as Apple Books, BN, and Google. By entering KU, we would have to ignore all of those readers.
Second, KU isn’t as profitable for us. Over half of KU customers have never purchased a book from Amazon. KU attracts people with a limited income, students, retirees, people who are experiencing a financial crunch, bargain hunters, etc. The entire point of the platform is that it’s cheap.
Kindle Unlimited pays the authors between $.004 and $.005 per page. The common wisdom says that Amazon considers an average page to be 187 words. So, some quick math:
ONE FELL SWEEP is about 90,000 words / 187 = 481 pages x $.004 = $1.9 x .85 (agency’s cut) = $1.61. This is assuming the reader would read the entire book. A lot of times they may not read it right away, they might abandon it halfway through, or have to set it aside for some other reason.
ONE FELL SWEEP is priced at $4.99 x.70 x.85 = $2.96 take home pay.
Financially KU makes sense for people with high output, for example romance authors who can do at least 6 releases a year. If you write, let’s say, a regency romance, starting with one duke and then writing sequels about all his brothers and friends, and you do it fast enough, it’s a fair bet readers will follow, since the books are pretty much free. It’s a winning formula.
That’s also why you will see KU develop sharp trends quickly. Let’s say someone writes romance with mermaids and it reaches #1. Everyone copies the idea, because if you are a KU customer and you liked the original, you might try a similar book. It’s free. You lose nothing. Even if you abandon it, the author gets paid a little bit. Suddenly everything is mermaid romance.
You can see a wide variety of paranormal series on KU, for example, and most of them sound kind of the same, the latest trend being reverse harem, which they borrowed from manga.
I’ve spoken to a couple of KU authors before, and while this may not be true for everyone, for most people speed is a priority. A year ago one woman told me that if she didn’t write a book a month, she wouldn’t be able to pay her bills.
And I covered that early in 2018 with a book called “How to Quit Feeding the Beast” – and how authors had to be an unpaid employee for Amazon with these books. Above, you see how the “trends” get going (AKA: Fads) and the Get Rich Quick (GRQ) authors are jumping on whatever the market bandwagon is providing.
All for a small subset of readers who probably won’t buy your book outright and won’t finish it. They want things cheap. Another race to the bottom.
Those types of races end up in 30-cent royalties paid per $.99 book. Amazon wins big – and walks away with 70% of that book. Same for KU – Amazon doesn’t have to care about the author – because they are now a commodity, like their books.
Amazon is disrupting itself from greed.
Long-time self-published authors I’ve followed have all gone wide and stayed that way. EU and China are now increasing their readership, and those areas are represented by aggregators PublishDrive and StreetLib, who are also schlepping your book over to the “main” distributors in the U.S (and Kobo who’s long been international).
As a note: Amazon doesn’t play nice with aggregators. I’ve got story after story with my own books being capriciously underpriced or rejected.
Look – going wide, outside of judicious use of advertising, means less than half of your income comes from Amazon. And your mileage will vary. This is from a sheerly organic approach of publish-and-leave-it (AKA “soft launch”) But this acid test tells you a great deal about your market.
Before you invest in any advertising, you need to first build your own list, and convert the free-book subscribers into buying fans. Because as Steve Scott (affiliate marketer turned self-publishing success story) pointed out: “Amazon works as well as you send it traffic.”
Find your audience, build them into rabid fans, and release regular books that improve with every new one you write. That’s the general approach. Let your fans get their books from anywhere they want.
How would any advertising go? Send them to your own site, where they can find your books2read link. If they prefer Amazon, they will be prompted to select that. Everyone else can go wherever. (Update: D2D today noted that your Facebook advertising pixel now works with books2read links.)
Want your books into libraries? Publish through Draft2Digital or PublishDrive and you’ll get copies available through all the major library wholesalers to them. KU doesn’t get your book there. Sorry.
I’ve been financially free for years, just by the “soft launch” of decent books that people want. It’s not easy work, but when you let the market decide your perennial sellers, then you’re on easy street – so to speak. This last year I invested in building up a big backlist of original fiction. And now I’m seeing how much work it will take to build a fan base that will take my income to the next level. All a test.
But perennial selling books – that are so good they’ll routinely be bought without advertising – is the bread and butter of any author. Chasing KU fads is a lot of work and means no security. Making perennial-selling-books is tougher, since you have to really learn writing craft. You truly write for the ages, not just next month’s “bestseller.”
Meanwhile, I keep track of Amazon – and publish to them separately with every book. That means publishing to them last, as they have their own peculiarities (read: greedy hooks).
Because as Amazon continues to squeeze their authors, I continue to go wider at every opportunity. Mainly because the aggregators earn their income from personal service. They don’t just set up annoying troll-bots to threaten you, or resort to massive cancellation of your entire account.
If I’m getting more than 50% of my income from elsewhere, I don’t need Amazon if they did (again) cancel my account. Sure, it would be a loss, but not a complete lifestyle change.
Look beyond Amazon to get more stable income from your writing business. That’s the moral to this story.
Also published on Medium.