Indie Authors and Kindle Unlimited

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) service, where readers pay $9.99 per month and authors are paid out of a monthly fund, seems to be very polarizing.

Kindle Unlimited History

When KU first launched, many authors complained about it, citing its unfair payment system or how it encourages people to upload short, and often not well written, books (since originally authors were only paid if the reader read 10 percent or more of the book). Digital Book World also reported on the “two-tier system,” saying that KU made some authors second class citizens, because self-published authors had to opt-in to an exclusive program while traditionally published authors could be non-exclusive.

Also, KU started rewarding all star authors with bonuses, as reported by Roger Packer, who said that the top 100 authors will receive more money, in tiers. For example, authors ranked 1-10 received $25,000 for the month, while authors ranked 51-100 received $1,000. Titles that ranked 1-10 received $2,500, while titles ranked 51-100 received $500.

A number of authors also complained about losing income from KU, because even though Amazon kept raising the monthly fund for KU, the payout per book dropped. Chuck Wendig reported in October 2014 that the payout per book download was $1.36 (also, DBW reported that authors in KU shot up the bestseller lists, at least when KU first launched).

The Digital Reader wrote about author’s growing discontent after KU was live for 5 months. Basically, a few authors pulled out of KU and KDP Select because they felt they had lost too much in income, despite some of them making the top 100 list (and receiving the $1,000 bonus). Indies Unlimited also wrote about authors who pulled out of KU because of loss of earnings.

M. Louisa Locke has a detailed post on why she pulled her books out of KDP Select, and by default, KU.

On the flip side, Nicholas C. Rossi reported a few months into KU that “33% of the KU indie titles increased significantly in author earnings since Amazon launched KU, versus only 19% of the non-KU titles.”

You can read more about KU on Chris McMullen’s site.

Kindle Unlimited Changes

As of July 1, 2015, Amazon has changed the way it pays publishers and authors in the KU program. Instead of paying per download (for books where readers read 10% or more), KU now pays based on the number of “pages” someone reads. According to Publisher’s Weekly, this is Amazon’s response to the negative feedback it received on its original payment system.

Melville House, a publisher, broke down what this means in a post. Basically, “Under the new payment method, the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read instead of their share of total qualified borrows.” Shorter works in KU, like novellas, will earn this under this payment method, and the idea is to encourage authors to write and publish longer works. Bonuses will also be calculated under the new model.

According to Amazon, “To determine a book’s page count in a way that works across genres and devices, we’ve developed the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC). We calculate KENPC based on standard settings (e.g. font, line height, line spacing, etc.), and we’ll use KENPC to measure the number of pages customers read in your book, starting with the Start Reading Location (SRL) to the end of your book. Amazon typically sets SRL at chapter 1 so readers can start reading the core content of your book as soon as they open it.”

Some authors are concerned about the new structure, since, as Melville House pointed out, there’s a chance authors end up earning pennies per page. However, Hugh Howey is not among them. In a post he wrote that it was all fear mongering.

What Does This Mean?

The Atlantic wrote an interesting article, saying that KU’s new payment model will promote “cliffhangers and mysteries” so that people will be compelled to turn the page. The idea is probably to get writers to publish longer works that people want to read, and according to The Atlantic that means:

The sweet spot in this formula, then, must be books full of cliffhangers that keep people flipping the pages. The answer is now to pack a book with ticking time-bombs, unexplained plans, and lots of secrets to be revealed later. What did she whisper? Hold on, let’s jump to a different thread halfway around the globe! (Of course, there’s a fine line between books with needless suspense and books that are simply engaging—the latter will probably sell well in any marketplace.)

This is somewhat unfortunate for at least some short story/novella writers, who work hard to keep their work concise through multiple rounds of editing. On the other hand, longer books tend to be more popular, as it allows readers to get lost in the book’s world.

While the new model makes it harder to “game the system” (such as by writing a lot of really short books), The Atlantic points out that images/illustrations count towards the KENPC, so some authors may start including more images.

On the other hand, I think this new model gives authors a great opportunity to learn about what resonates with their readers. Amazon is now sharing some of its analytics with readers and publishers. Whereas before we were all in the dark about whether or not people actually read our books, now we know whether or not people actually finish our books, or if they get bored halfway through. This can be a tool to help improve our writing.

Some other ideas for how to work with KU:

  • Add only the first book in a series and have a note at the end about the other books in the series
  • Create a sample book containing chapters from multiple books, to hook readers

It may also be another opportunity for indie authors to rethink enrolling their books in KU, since it means selling exclusively with Amazon via KDP Select. As John Scalzi writes:

Amazon is still making KDP Select authors compete against each other for a limited, Amazon-defined pot of money, and no matter how you slice it, that sucks for the authors.

Why? Because Amazon puts an arbitrary cap on the amount of money it’s possible to earn — and not just a cap on what you, as an author, can earn, but what every author in the KDP Select system participating in Kindle Unlimited can make. This June, every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited can not, among all of them totaled up, make more than $3 million. Why? Because that’s the pot. That’s how much Amazon wants to splash out this month, and no more. And the more pages are read in the month, the smaller any bit of the pie that you might get for your pages read becomes. It’s a zero-sum game for every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited. Next month, who knows what the size of the pot will be? You don’t — only Amazon does. But whatever amount it is, it’s an amount designed to benefit Amazon, not the individual authors.

This is a bad situation for the authors participating — bad enough that ultimately the minutiae of howthe money is allocated is sort of aside the point, because the relevant point is: You will never make more for your work than Amazon wants you to make. And yes, just Amazon, as the work KDP Select authors put on Amazon are exclusive to Amazon.

I think ultimately what all this means though, is that authors should just stop worrying about what Amazon or any other retailers are doing. By this I don’t mean stop paying attention. I mean write what you want to write, because you believe in it. Any topic can be a compelling story, so long as you write it well (and having access to analytics can help with that.)

One great example of a success story is Andy Weir, author of the self-published novel and soon to be major motion picture The Martian. According to Business Insider, “His earlier attempts at writing pretty much flopped, but “The Martian” took off, partly because it captures Weir’s enthusiasm for science and space exploration.”

Maybe some people are in it for the money, but most writers I’ve come across write because they need to get their stories out there. For years I’ve heard how romance series is one of the few surefire ways to make money in this industry, but I don’t really read romance and I can’t get myself to write a decent romance story. Instead, I recently finished three, what I think are awesome, dinosaur books. It felt good to write them, and I proudly stand by my work.

Sure, experiment and research to find out the best ways to sell and promote your book. But write the best books possible and keep them at their natural length, whether it’s long, short, or somewhere in between. That’s the beauty of digital books. Plus, readers can tell when you’re padding a book, and they can tell when a short book was dashed off, without much or any editing, over a couple days.

Feel free to research niches, but in the end, write what you are interested in writing–I think that’s the best way to stay sane while there are so many changes happening to the publishing industry.


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