A Self-Published Author’s Thoughts on the Whole Kindle Unlimited Thing

Like you, I was completely caught by surprise by the whole Kindle Unlimited thing. Unlimited access to over 600,000 titles on any device for just $9.99 a month? Wait…doesn’t Scribd do something like this already? Do we really need another Netflix-like book-borrowing system. I was skeptical, but on the hunt for something to read (I’m still slogging through The Goldfinch, for some reason…), I fired up my Kindle after a several month hiatus and saw the ad for Kindle Unlimited. I took a read. A 30-day free trial was enough to get me at least remotely interested.

The good thing was I did find a lot of titles I would be greatly interested in reading. Of course, no titles from any of the Big 5 publishers, but that was to expected. The bad thing: you’re only allowed to borrow ten titles at a time. Bad deal? Maybe, but then again, your local public library probably imposes a borrowing limit as well.

Limits aside, I was hooked. I blitzed through three books in a day and a half, and I eagerly returned these so I can picked up three more. I can see why this, for the customer, is appealing. I know Amazon has the same kind of thing with Prime, which is included with the Prime membership (which I don’t have), so for Amazon to offer something similar seems like a win-win for both the online retailer and the customer.

Then I started thinking about the authors. How are they getting compensated for their books being “borrowed?” Immediately, I’m thinking about the shittastic business model that is Spotify, where you have to download, for example, the new Imagine Dragons album, oh, what 87,124,713 times in order to match the same exactly royalty payment the band would get where I to buy their album from Target? Not that I would, because Imagine Dragons bore me to tears, but you get my point. What if a book has to be borrowed about 93 billion times before an author sees a $120 royalty check?

Better yet, where is Kindle Unlimited getting all 600,000 of these titles from? I noticed a few Harry Potter titles, and the Hunger Games trilogy…hang on, didn’t I see an e-mail from Kindle Direct Publishing the other day, that I may or may not have ignored?

Today we are excited to introduce Kindle Unlimited-–a new subscription service for readers in the U.S. and a new revenue opportunity for authors enrolled in KDP Select.

Do I know of any authors enrolled in Kindle Direct Publishing Select? Oh, wait a minute...I’M A KDP SELECT AUTHOR! HANG ON! WHY WASN’T I INFORMED OF THIS? THIS IS AN OUTRAGE? HOW DARE AMAZON ALLOW MY MASTERPIECE TO BE oh who I am kidding?


(Here’s the pic I snapped of the search results for my book, which I posted on my Instagram account)

Upon first reaction, I was pleased. It means some more exposure. Some new ways to market my book, perhaps (more on that below), and spread the word.

Upon second reaction, I started thinking about that Spotify example again, and whether I’d get royally hosed in the ass, royalty speaking. I started looking into this issue a little deeper.

From the friendly little e-mail I received from Kindle Direct Publishing just the other day:

KDP Select authors and publishers will earn a share of the KDP Select global fund each time a customer accesses their book from Kindle Unlimited and reads more than 10% of their book-–about the length of reading the free sample available in Kindle books-–as opposed to a payout when the book is simply downloaded. Only the first time a customer reads a book past 10% will be counted.


I dug a little deeper, searching for help topics at KDP’s website:

To qualify for royalty payment

You’re eligible for royalty payment from Kindle Unlimited each time a new customer reads more than 10% of your book for the first time. A customer can read your book again as many times as they like, but you will only receive payment for the first 10% read.

So this means that in order for me to get the royalty due my book, which is 149 pages long, should someone borrow it, they need to get past Page 15. In other words, they’ll read the first two or three essays. Fine.

But nowhere does it tell me how that royalty is calculated. I did see this over at Michael J. Sullivan’s terrific blog piece at Digital Book World:

Self-published authors are paid from a pool set by Amazon each month. They have no idea how much they will be paid per book.


So rather than settling on, say a flat 20% royalty (I’m probably overstating, considering Amazon’s going to get their pound of flesh and maybe more) for every borrowed book, I might (key word “might) be getting, on average, $2 per month, whether my book gets downloaded a shit-ton or four times max. I mean, just how is this pool calculated? How will I, or the thousands of other self-published authors who’ve opted into Kindle Direct Publishing, know exactly how much of a payment we can expect?

It’s fuzzy, that’s for sure, but my hope is that enough voices will be raised, and a royalty structure that’s fair to self-published authors will come to fruition very soon.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I threw my book up there just to get the feel for self-publishing, to give myself a crash-course on the good, the bad, and the ugly on what it means, and what you have to do, in order to self-publish, and do it successfully. My book’s a non-fiction tome with a somewhat limited audience, and I readily accept it’s something of a challenge to market an anthology (I’ve found people really do hate that term!) of previously-published blogs, but so be it. As far as my experiences with Kindle Direct Publishing – and, to a larger extent, CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing imprint – have been very positive. Should I decide to self-publish, and that’s a very distinct possibility, I will likely opt for KDP once again, exclusivities and fine print be damned.

But I do admit the current payment format allotted for self-published authors whose books are part of the Kindle Unlimited program has me concerned.

In the meantime, here’s an interesting marketing strategy: why read when you can borrow? Sure, I’d rather my book sell like hotcakes, but I’ll take it being available in a wide format like this. So, if you’re on the lookout for some funny, insightful, slightly offensive but always thought-provoking essays on sex, marriage, politics, music, why your favorite band sucks, leggy supermodels, and James Patterson, then be a cheap ass read my book, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run: Seven Years of Rants, Raves, Dirty Jokes and Bad Ideas From a Small But Loud Corner of the Blogosphere” for free, once you sign up for Kindle Unlimited.

Then tell me how much you loved it.


29 thoughts on “A Self-Published Author’s Thoughts on the Whole Kindle Unlimited Thing

  1. Cool post. I didn’t know about the Kindle Unlimited Program but I had been pretty sure something like it would come up. Like basically a repeat of Spotify. Though I hope it is not that bad. But either way I am sure if nothing else it is a good thing to get more exposure. That is like a kind of advertising at the expense of not getting paid your book price… but sadly mostly giving it away.. I would like to hear how it turns out. Since I have also wondered a lot about the good, the bad and the ugly of self publishing. (Since I have been hoping to get there at some point).

    • I’m curious to see how this will all turn out, especially for my sake. At the very least, KU will encourage readers to find unknown self-published talent, even if that does mean the author is almost giving their book away.

      • Heh. You’re curious. Well that makes two of us. I would like to see more unknown self published authors get seen also.

        • Yeah, I definitely think there’s a hidden bonus for undiscovered self-published authors whose books are part of KU. I’ve already read a couple whose works I may read again.

  2. I’m still curious which 600,000 books are available. Well, 599,999 now that I know yours is included. Are there major published titles, or are most of them self-published authors from KDP? I love the connection to Audiable option, but that’s only helpful if the titles overlap.

  3. As I’ve never had a contract with Amazon, do they retain the right to revise contract revisions like yours? I imagine this makes it difficult to argue when they start up new promotions like this. As a reader, I love the idea. As a writer, not so much.

    • Now you’re speaking Legalese, and as a former lawyer wannabe, I would strongly agree Amazon can revise contracts with authors whenever and however they like. Basically, it’s “here are the terms, take it or leave it.” And the majority of authors will take it because of the exposure Amazon provides.

      One thing I didn’t like at first was KU adding my book without my consent – my book being part of KDP Select somehow implies that Amazon can do what it wishes with my title in terms of sales and distribution. But I do have the option of opting out if I’m not pleased with the terms of service, so I can’t complain too much.

  4. My guess is you’re probably still slogging through The Goldfinch because there are about 250 pages in the middle that don’t need to be there.

    • Donna Tartt can write lovely sentences, but her storytelling is another thing. She’s the literary equivalent of a burlesque dancer, flashing glimpses and teasing us along, but after 350 pages, I’m like, “SHOW US THE GOODS ALREADY!”

      • See, not always though. Secret History is impeccably well done. That’s part of the reason I found Goldfinch so disappointing. Basically Boris is the best part of the book and after he leaves you spend the whole novel waiting for him to come back.

  5. This may be a copyright issue. Copyrights are divided into 2 basic categories: moral and economic. Economic rights are further divided into:

    • Print rights
    • Electronic rights
    • Translation rights
    • Screen adaptation rights
    • Stage adaptation rights

    Use of copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s knowledge is permitted only under a statute called “Fair Use,” which may be what happened to you, Gus. Read the agreement or contract you signed with Amazon again. If you gave away all your rights, that means Amazon can do whatever it wants with your material, as long as they pay you x amount in royalties. Either way, writers have to be extremely careful. People on the outside often still seem to think we’re too cerebrally convoluted to understand our basic rights.

    • I have no quibble with Amazon over how they want to distribute my work. I’m totally fine with Amazon holding all copyright to my work. It’s how they want to structure their royalty payments is what has me concerned. At the end of the day, what matters is that I get compensated fairly. So far, I’m not seeing anything that suggests I’m going to get ripped off, but nothing that also states the royalty I’ll get is fair, either.

      • It’s unlikely that Amazon holds the copyright to your work. I probably should read the self publishing agreement before I mouth off any more on this topic, though, so I’ll shut up now.

        • I did learn this morning that Amazon does NOT own the copyright to my title. They merely own the distribution rights, which is probably worth more than the copyright itself.

    • Copyright law is not my area of expertise, but the Fair Use doctrine allows the reproduction of work only under certain circumstances (commentary, criticism, education and research) and there are further restrictions, including the fact that a creative work (usually) cannot be republished in its entirety.

      Fair Use is a doctrine, not a statute, derived from common law that’s been around for hundreds of years, but was codified in the US under the Copyright Act of 1976.

      Other than that I whole heartedly give thumbs up to your comment regarding creative workers and their economic rights 🙂

      Contract law (also not my area of expertise! When I think about it, I probably can only claim making a pretty good chicken piccata and giving a decent BJ as my areas of expertise . . .) no doubt governs Gus’s situation, and, though I have not read the self-publishing agreement that exists between Amazon and writers, no doubt it provides Amazon free reign in marketing the work of self published authors who sell on Amazon. And like Gus, most of those writers are probably quite happy to avail themselves of any marketing (of which the KDU program can be considered) Amazon may provide.

      • You hit the nail on the head, Karen. Authors align themselves with Amazon solely for the marketing scope the online retailer provides. Their practices have come into question, but you can’t argue with the breadth of services Amazon provides to self-published authors in terms of marketing and distribution. In other words, authors, myself included, are fine with Amazon’s “take it or leave it” approach, because we know the alternatives aren’t that great, or require far more work than we’re willing or able to provide.

  6. I don’t get why only being allowed 10 books at a time is a bad thing? How many can a person read at once anyway.

    I hadn’t heard of this program before and I think it sounds like a cool concept but this part is a little creepy – “KDP Select authors and publishers will earn a share of the KDP Select global fund each time a customer accesses their book from Kindle Unlimited and reads more than 10% of their book” – because it implies that aside from knowing what a person reads, Amazon not only knows, but keeps track of, how much of a certain title a person reads.

    I like to think of myself as a realist but maybe I’m just a pretentious asshole but I don’t care how much money I get paid if I get a book published. I know I’m never going to be the next James Patterson (c’mon, seriously, who can replace God?) and I’d be happy just knowing that people thought what I wrote was good enough for them to spend their time reading. And an autographed picture, it’d be good to be asked for one of those too.

    • C’mon, Michael, you’re not naive enough to think that Amazon doesn’t know what you’re reading? Or that Google doesn’t know what websites you visit? There’s nothing private anymore, don’tcha know?

      But I’m totally with you on your sentiment: I’m fine with sacrificing a hefty payday if I could earn a few more readers who’d enjoy my work, and tell their friends and family all about it.

  7. I’m an Amazon Prime member and a Netflix subscriber, so when I read about the Kindle Unlimited program I thought, “That’s for me!” only there are a half dozen books sitting in my house (and three more sitting on my iPad even though I hate ebooks) that I’m supposed to be reading, but it’s just not happening this summer.

    I think the program is absolutely genius from a business perspective for Amazon, especially now that I see from this post that the Kindle Unlimited catalogue is mostly made up of self-published work. The company is charging $9.99 a month for access to content they acquired for free.

    I’m not a proponent of self-publishing, and I absolutely rail against creative types giving their work away for free (or for .99 as so many self published authors seem to price their books). I doubt if KU is going to be an economic boon to self published authors, and that has everything to do with the quality of self published work, and little to do with the structure of royalty payments of Amazon.

    • It’s definitely not going to be an economic boon to about 95% of the self-published authors whose books are now available on KU. But the exposure may be worth more in the long run, and that’s how I’m going to approach this.

  8. Pingback: My Thoughts on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited | tracycembor

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