One of the two central challenges authors, independent or traditionally published, face is writing quality stories. Marketing your books is the second challenge – particularly for indie authors with little name recognition.
In a book publishing business ever more dominated by Amazon (WSJ cite), one option to reach a larger number of potential readers is to avail oneself of Amazon’s subscription service, Kindle Unlimited (KU). I’ve used KU for the last three months to support sales of my modern fantasy/action & adventure novel, THE LORDS OF OBLIVION https://amzn.to/2MqYapM , and I’ll share my initial thoughts about it here.
KU lets readers pay $10 per month for ‘unlimited access’ via their devices (e.g. phones) to a ‘million titles’ from authors/publishers who have placed their books on this service. KU membership is analogous to a virtual library card for modern readers who may never set foot in a brick and mortar lending library building.
Simply selling your work as an eBook or hard-copy on Amazon’s platform doesn’t automatically get it on KU; you must elect to join KU. In turn, authors/publishers are paid for pages read once the book is on KU. Roughly, this payment is $1.25 for a 300 page book. Authors can track aggregate pages read on their KDP reports tab.
Advantages vs Disadvantages of KU
There are several advantages to using KU. Obviously, it’s one more channel to get your work in front of readers – potentially lots and lots of readers. A recent estimate indicates that there are about 3 million KU readers (include cite). Further, these folks appear to both read and review books at higher levels than non-members. In addition, if your book is already published as an Amazon eBook, it’s an extraordinarily easy process to authorize its availability on KU.
However, there are disadvantages that indie authors need to consider before deploying KU. Among these are the potential for cannibalization of actual eBook sales where your profit margins are higher. After all, if you’re a reader using KU, why buy something that you’ve already paid to access with your monthly subscription? This is analogous to a conundrum from the traditional days of hard-copy books which when sold to a library meant potential readers could simply check a book out without buying it. Of course, then as now, many of these readers would only read your book as a library checkout and would never pay to own it.
My own experience is that Amazon eBook sales did indeed drop once I’d made my book available on KU. And while Amazon currently pays a 70% royalty on sales of my $5.95 eBook ($4.17), I only get about $1.25 for every 300 pages read on KU. Naturally, if you price your eBook at $2.99 (the lowest price that Amazon pays a 70% royalty for), the difference between a KU read and an eBook sale is smaller. However, whatever you set your price at, you’ll need to sell enormous numbers of books to make any significant money via KU – no wonder some writers take an almost factory production approach to their writing.
It’s tricky to quantitate exactly how many shoppers would have bought THE LORDS OF OBLIVION eBook had it not also been available on KU given that I couldn’t control key variables including seasonal sales fluctuations, introduction of competing books by other authors, and changes in my advertising. However, a review of the profits before and after KU availability indicates reduced income. This implies that though KU may well have expanded my reader base (yeah!), this didn’t offset the drop in profitability (sigh!).
I’ll plan to observe this effect for several more months to better quantitate the net impact of the competing effects of expanded readership vs reduced profitability.
Another disadvantage for authors considering KU is Amazon’s prohibition against using other platforms to sell electronic versions of your book (at the moment, hard-copy sales are unaffected by this requirement). Of course, this creates a dependency on a single channel for your book’s electronic sales. However competing distribution channels for eBook distribution come with their own set of challenges including the need to format your book to meet their platform’s standards and the lack of compatibility across platforms. Further, at the moment, Amazon’s rivals simply can’t compete on reaching readers. Perhaps if Apple makes a serious effort with its Apple Books platform, this will introduce needed competition into this space.
For indie authors with micro scale operating and marketing budgets, KU offers a chance to dramatically increase your is ability to potentially get your work in front of interested readers’ eyeballs. And you may derive some modest income from this effort at the expense of more profitable sales in other formats. In fact, this is a classic business challenge: whether to opt for market share or higher margins. Anyway, for writers with little name recognition, KU is a useful distribution conduit though you’ll still need to market like crazy to get anyone to actually be aware of your book(s) and leverage this channel’s capabilities.