Indie Authors and the Question of Kindle Unlimited

Old post alert! This was published in 2014 and some aspects of Kindle Unlimited have changed. If you’re investigating whether KU is right for you, you’ll need to go further than reading this post.

Recently, Amazon joined the e-book subscription playing field alongside Oyster and Scribd to offer subscribers unlimited access to more than 700,000 e-books and 2,000 audiobooks for the monthly price of $9.99. This service is called Kindle Unlimited.

When a player as big as Amazon enters a market, it signals a big shift for the entire industry. The question is whether this shift will be positive.

What’s Different About Kindle Unlimited?

Kindle Unlimited is similar to competitors such as Oyster in that readers pay a low monthly fee for unlimited access to a large selection of e-books. The main advantage of Kindle Unlimited is convenience for those who already have an Amazon account, and it’s economical for readers who already buy several books each month.

Although Amazon’s library is larger than both Oyster’s library (500,000 titles) and Scribd’s (400,000 titles), none of the big five New York publishers are so far participating in the Kindle Unlimited program.

Why Authors Should Be Cautious

Exclusivity: Independent authors who want their books available through Kindle Unlimited must be members of KDP Select, which requires exclusivity to Amazon. Oyster and Scribd have no such exclusivity requirement, but self-published books must be distributed through Smashwords to make it onto Oyster’s shelves, whereas authors have the option to go through Smashwords, INscribe Digital, BookBaby, or Draft2Digital to be included in Scribd’s library. 

I don’t think it’s smart for authors to agree to sell through only one outlet, but more on this later.

Vague payout: It’s unclear how much self-published authors make by selling through Kindle Unlimited. The program provides royalties to indie authors via the KDP Select Global Fund when at least 10 percent of their book is read. According to Amazon, “The fund amount is variable and announced on a monthly basis.”

One blogger, Roger Packer, explained that the system “has to keep its Kindle Unlimited authors on its side, so I would expect payouts to stay above $1.50 per borrow.” Packer believed that authors would appear to lose money on any KU borrow on books priced higher than $2.50; to make a profit, indie authors would need to write books under 150 pages and priced around $3.99.

Amazon kept close to Packer’s prediction, announcing the borrow rate as $1.54—which Packer said was “bound to discourage many authors who either had already enrolled their books in KDP Select or were considering doing so.”

According to the October 2014 Author Earnings Report, “The rate per borrow has averaged $1.62 over the three months since KU launched.”

Note that traditionally published e-books downloaded through KU are paid the same amount as a sale, but independent authors are paid this alternate borrow rate.

Loss of control: Once an author is enrolled in the program, the rules are subject to change at any time. Authors can choose not to re-enroll in KDP Select after 90 days, but these short-term promises can have long-term consequences for traction in other ebookstores.

As Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, pointed out in his post on Amazon’s exclusivity, “Authors who go exclusive at Amazon become more dependent (the opposite of independent) upon Amazon. Just as any financial adviser will advise you to avoid placing your retirement nest egg in a single basket, indies should think twice before locking their books into these three-month, automatically renewing KDP Select contracts.”

Does Kindle Unlimited Make KDP Select Worthwhile?

Authors who enroll in KDP Select are required to participate in Kindle Unlimited, as well as Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. The big question is whether the increasing possibility of your book being accessed for free subtracts from your sales, or if those sales wouldn’t have happened in the place.

Authors report that the benefits offered by KDP Select have significantly declined. When the program launched, it provided authors with a strategic way to increase exposure and, ultimately, book sales. In fact, KDP Select initially enabled downloads to even boost authors’ paid rating—but with an algorithm change and an increasingly crowded market, KDP Select is no longer the effective promotional tool it once was.

The one benefit of Kindle Unlimited is, of course, exposure, but much like the KDP Select program, this is primarily helpful for authors who have other books that they can drive readers to through a Kindle Unlimited title.

For an author who only has one book, offering it exclusively through KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited probably won’t be beneficial to her overall sales and ranking.

The Uncertain Future

It’s difficult to know where the e-book subscription industry is headed. Many were skeptical of its viability at first, but now that Amazon has joined the party, it might prove the credibility of this model.

As long as indie authors and publishers are being fairly compensated and making a comparable percentage of what they would in the typical e-book market, I think subscription services will be a success. Problems arise when services charge fees that are too low, making it difficult to sustain a model in which authors and publishers are compensated according to industry standards.

For now, though, indie authors just have to watch and wait to see how Kindle Unlimited will affect their business.

Are your books available through Kindle Unlimited? What are your thoughts about the program?

Note from Jane: For more on authors’ experiences with KDP Select and KU Unlimited, read “Author Discontent Grows As Kindle Unlimited Enters Its Fifth Month” by Nate Hoffelder.

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , .

Hellen Barbara is the founder and president of Pubslush, a literary pre-publication platform that offers crowdfunding and pre-order options for authors and publishers. She serves on the board of directors for Gavin’s Got Heart, is a member of the Exceptional Women in Publishing organization, and is a Power Circle member of Ellevate, a global professional women's network.

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Alaina StanfordCarmen Webster BuxtonMichael E. HendersonLucas Bale (@balespen)Diana Stevan Recent comment authors

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Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

This has answered a few questions for me, as I really had no idea what the royalty sharing worked out to via Kindle Unlimited. Indie writers should know that Amazon “deals” have backfired before for us. We should venture into this very carefully and be prepared to pull out if it’s not working. That said, the lending aspect totally changes the game and does make KDP Select viable again for many of us. Coincidentally, I just posted about juggling your KDP freebies and a two-step system writers can use once they have more than a couple on the go. Thanks!

C.S Janey
C.S Janey

I pulled all my books to join the program when my sales tanked 70% on Amazon after KU was introduced, because while they were making sales on other sites, Amazon was the major portion. In October, my per borrow pay was $1.33, down from $1.52 in September (where they were only in for half the month). I will not be renewing my books in KDP and will be putting them everywhere else again once my 90 days are up at the beginning of January for the majority of my books. I did look at it as people reading my books… Read more »

A. Grace
A. Grace

I have several books at $.99 that I was earning about $.33/sale on so getting >$1.50 per borrow has been a godsend. Agreed that for higher priced books, there isn’t an advantage unless you just want to “get copies out there” via free promotional days. That can significantly boost sales for sequels but doesn’t do much for an author with only one book or standalones.


[…] Today's guest post is by Hellen Barbara (@hbarbara27), president of Pubslush. Recently, Amazon joined the e-book subscription playing field alongside Oyster and Scribd to offer subscribers unlimite…  […]

Ernie Zelinski

I won’t participate in either Kindle Unlimited or Kindle Select. I also refuse to price any of my ebooks below $5.97 unless it is a book of quotations. Offering my books for free or 99 cents or even $2.99 would cheapen what I have to offer. Marketing guru Seth Godin called the strategy of low ball pricing: “Clawing Yourself to the Bottom.” Seth stated: “Trading in your standards in order to gain short-term attention or profit isn’t as easy as it looks. Once-great media brands that now traffic in cheesecake and quick clicks didn’t get there by mistake. Respected brands… Read more »

Diana Stevan

Ernie, I appreciate your comments here. I’m of the same mind. I’ve worked too hard to offer my debut novel at bargain basement prices. I’m currently enrolled in Kindle Select but plan to leave when my 90 days are up. In hindsight, I’m still not sure if it was a good idea or not to enroll. It’s been not quite 60 days since I published A Cry From The Deep. Time will tell, huh?

Toby Neal
Toby Neal

Just to contradict some of the commenters here, KU has been awesome. Borrows exceed sales on my books and and I’m still doing way better there than I did out of other platforms.
Volume is key with multiple books out, and series books that cause binge reading are key, but last month I earned one of their “KU All Stars” bonuses. I’m doing better than ever being exclusive to Amazon. Why fix it if its not broke?
Every author has to experiment until they find what works for them.

Jane Friedman

Appreciate your perspective here, Toby—thank you. Can you offer insight as to your pricing on your books? I’m hearing that KU can be particularly beneficial for lower priced titles (see earlier comment); any thoughts on that? Are you in a similar situation?

Toby Neal
Toby Neal

I’ve been working the Amazon KDP select benefits like a boss, rotating monthly freebies through my first four titles to hook new readers and then doing ,99 cent sales monthly on newer titles. This sounds like a lot of discounting but I have eleven books out and only do one sale or giveaway a month. These bring in new readers who buy/borrow the rest. Those first four older titles are 3.99 and newer ones are 4.99. It helps that my books have tons of great reviews; I am thrilled to be developing a loyal and engaged fan base. Yes, I… Read more »

Diana Stevan

Toby, I agree with you about Amazon’s cross promotes via email. That’s been surprising. I’ve seen my book title come up in subject headings and friends have stated the same thing. So, yes, that kind of advertising is much appreciated.


[…] Indie Authors and the Question of Kindle Unlimited […]


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Lucas Bale (@balespen)

I think it’s easy to talk about pricing in the way we have been doing – as the primary issue – but it really isn’t. For newer authors, even those with great products, exposure is far more important. Getting eyes on your work is absolutely vital. If I sell one book at $4.99 (a $3.49 “royalty”, for want of a better term) vs. 11 books at 99c ($3.30 royalty), those 11 sales are far more important to me. More reviews (let’s say, as in my experience, 1 in 200 amounts to a review), more are likely to sign up to… Read more »

Michael E. Henderson

I think that the exposure argument for selling your books cheaply, or giving them away, is a fallacy. For one, it assumes people will like your books. What if you got a very negative review from someone who only paid 99 cents, or didn’t pay anything at all? Cheap and free ebooks is killing indie authors. Sure, run a special to attract attention to the next book, but don’t sell yourself short. I personally sell as many books at $5.99 as I do at 99 cents. People will buy your book if they want it, whether it costs 99 cents,… Read more »


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Michael E. Henderson

I haven’t heard anything other than horror stories from authors who were quite successful until KU came along. I’ve also heard, and it’s my experience, that something happened before that. I was never a big seller because I didn’t do any marketing, but I always sold several books per month. Then it went flat. Zero for months on end. There was obviously a change in the Amazon algorithm. I feel that Amazon used indie authors to attract people to cheap content, and then marginalized us in favor of the big houses. So far as I know, no big houses are… Read more »

Alaina Stanford

I agree completely. I have 14 books on Amazon and was bringing in nearly $2k per month until around Sept 2015 then something drastically changed. I spend more time and effort in advertizing now than ever before and am struggling to make $500 a month.

I’ve turned my sights toward other venues such as Smashwords and Kobo, etc. and am pushing my books on those sights like never before hoping to build volume with a vendor that appreciates the indie author. Amazon obviously does not.


[…] Thinking about using Kindle Unlimited? Indie Authors and Kindle Unlimited […]

Carmen Webster Buxton

No one has talked about the thing I think KU does for unknown authors– it gets your book in the hands of someone who might actually READ it. Giving away books for free can help, but you have to give away thousands and thousands of books to do any good. Many people snap them up only because they’re free, not because it’s the kind of book they want to read. Having paid a fee to participate and having a limit on the number of consecutive borrows makes KU readers more selective. They try to borrow only what they think they… Read more »


[…] whose ebooks were performing well through Kindle have dropped since Kindle Unlimited launched. Helen Barbara warns authors to be cautious of these programs. It’s early days, and their benefits to authors are […]


[…] Indie Authors and the Question of Kindle Unlimited […]


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[…] The conditions are detailed on Amazon’s website. I also invite you to read @JaneFriedman’s informative post on the subject (the post was published when KU was first opened to authors, so conditions may be a bit different […]


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