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Is Kindle Unlimited Killing Self-Publishing?

Kindle Unlimited
Over the weekend there was an explosive post by mega-seller H.M. Ward saying that her book sales have taken a 75% dive since joining Kindle Unlimited.

I had my serials in it for 60 days and lost approx 75% of my income. Thats counting borrows and bonuses.  :o My sales dropped like a stone. The number of borrows was higher than sales. They didn’t compliment each other, as expected.

Taking a huge ass pay cut while I’m still working my butt off, well that’s not ok. And KU effected my whole list, not just KU titles. :( At the time of enrollment I had about 60 titles total.

I planned on giving it 90 days, but I have a kid in the hospital for long term care and I noticed my spending was going to exceed my income-by a lot. I couldn’t wait and watch thing plummet further. I pulled my books. That was on Nov 1,  & since then my net revenue has gone up. I’m now at 50% of where I was pre-KU. During the time I was in KU, I had 2 new releases. Neither preformed vastly different than before. They actually earned far less (including borrows).

This model needs to be changed for it to work. Authors shouldn’t be paid lottery style. For this system to work we need a flat rate for borrows, borrowed or not borrowed (not this 10% crap), and it needs to be win win for the reader AND the writer. <– That is the crux of the matter.

A lot of writers chimed in to say they were seeing similar problems. But there was also some sage advice: never put all of your books into the Kindle Unlimited program. Maybe the first in a series and that’s it, i.e. use Kindle Unlimited the way you’d use free promotions. You’d never make all your books permafree, so putting an entire catalog into KU makes little sense.

The Digital Reader and The Passive Voice have more. From a PV comment:

KU definitely affected the visibility of my books, and as a result, my sales and revenues. When KU launched, my books not in KDPS/KU all dropped in rank crazy-fast. Luckily, I was running two upcoming Bookbubs and sales on other channels made up for the decline in Amazon revenue. However, once the Bookbubs declined in influence, my sales on the other channels declined as well so that I ended up being behind the 8-ball in terms of sales and revenue.

So I took the plunge and went all-in to KDPS again. Lends almost made up the difference and KU honestly revived my older lower selling series. However, I am still down overall from pre-KU levels.

The fear is that indie publishing is going to go the way of the music industry. Spotify and other streaming services (see: Youtube, which isn’t even a streaming service), have cut into music royalties. Taylor Swift dropping out of Spotify doesn’t change this tide really. In fact, there’s an argument that it makes it worse: people will just look to torrent sites instead. The point being that subscription services are here to stay, and they make artists go broke. Musicians, at least, can make some money off of touring and t-shirt sales. How many authors make money off of touring and t-shirts?

However, there’s one major difference between music streaming sites and Kindle Unlimited. Though Amazon demands exclusivity for authors to be in the Kindle Unlimited program, this is just per book. Spotify has an artist’s entire catalog. With KU, authors have the choice to list some books and not others.

Will this stem the bleeding of profits? Unfortunately, maybe not. It’s not just that Kindle Unlimited authors are seeing lesser sales for their titles, it’s that everyone else is as well. As Smashwords’ Mark Coker writes:

The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over.  Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited (I might write about Kindle Unlimited in a future blog post).  Some authors are considering quitting.  It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either.  When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on.  Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all.

KU is sucking the air out of indie publishing. If readers have a lifetime’s worth of reading available for free, why would they bother even with a 99 cent book? Why would they especially bother paying for a book of an unknown writer? The problem with Kindle Unlimited is there’s not a huge selection of mainstream books. There are a lot of indie titles already available. In other words, people already have too many self-published books to read.

Is this the end? Well, not entirely, there will always be successful self-publishers, but the gold rush is likely over. What this means is writers can’t really crank out books anymore and hope for the best. It’ll be necessary to stand out more. Given that there are so many books that are well-edited, well-designed, and well-conceived, this is a pretty tall order. Mark Coker continues:

With the glut of high-quality books, good books aren’t good enough anymore.  Cheap books aren’t good enough (Smashwords publishes over 40,000 free ebooks).  The books that reach the most readers are those that bring the reader to emotionally satisfying extremes. This holds true for all genre fiction and all non-fiction.  If your readers aren’t giving you reviews averaging four or five star and using words in their reviews like, “wow,” “incredible” and “amazing,” then you’re probably not taking the reader to an emotionally satisfying extreme.  Extreme joy and pleasure is a required reading experience if you want to turn readers into fans, and turn fans into super fans.  Wow books turn readers into evangelists.

The answer probably isn’t H.M. Ward’s suggestion that people can subscribe per author. People don’t necessarily want 60 books from the same writer. It also screws up discoverability for everyone else.

In fact, that’s how Kindle Unlimited should be used: As a discoverability tool. Put a book in unlimited that can spark interest in the rest of your catalog. At least for KU books, borrows count as “sales,” unlike free books, which do not. The consensus seems to be that it’s best suited for short stories. Get people interested in your writing and make $1 or so per read for a relatively small amount of work.

What authors need to come to terms with is Kindle Unlimited is not designed for authors, it’s designed for readers. If it’s profitable on Amazon’s end, even if it’s making indies angry, the program will keep going. If indie books left Kindle Unlimited en masse, this wouldn’t necessarily make Amazon change their tune, because there still would be a huge number of titles still available. Amazon’s main interest is mainstream titles, not titles from indies. Just like Netflix fills out its streaming catalog with a lot of movies you’ve never heard of, most people watch the most recent Hollywood blockbuster. So long as that’s there, people will keep signing up.

In the end, this is a work in progress for Amazon, and the jury’s still out what this all means. The problem with indie titles not selling is not entirely related to Unlimited, it’s a function of there being so many more books being published than ever before.

The answer, as always, is one thing: Write good books.