Kindle Unlimited: Hopes and Fears

Boom. Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited this week and it feels like they just dropped the A-bomb on the self-publishing world.

Believe it or not, this is not a knee-jerk reaction. Unlimited reading for $9.99 a month has wide-reaching implications for this month, this year, and the future. Anybody making an income with self-publishing has an opinion– the thing is, they differ widely.

Kindle Unlimited is still in its infancy, so most anything you read is just speculation. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a measured approach and address the most common hopes and fears.

Hope – Kindle Unlimited is a Discovery Engine

The number one difficulty with selling ebooks, especially as a new, unknown author, is discoverability. This problem has spawned an industry of ebook marketers. With the exception of a noted few, many advertisers sell ad space on little-read blogs and send out emails to small lists of limited value. I’m not accusing these companies of scamming authors- even legit sites often fail to return an investment.

Now there’s a whole new paradigm to reading: frictionless purchases. Sure, the customer pays a monthly bill, but everything is free to read. It should theoretically be much easier to convince a reader to give your book a try.

The thing is, you’re still charging eyeball time and competing with a slew of other books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. While you may be in a smaller pond, I still think you’re going to need to market your books and be professional about it. Overall, this isn’t the dream scenario many would hope, but it should help readers on the fence about picking your book up.

Fear – Price is a Question Mark

This is very clearly the most troubling aspect of Kindle Unlimited. While everyone hopes the $2 price point sticks around, we all are afraid that authors will soon be earning 35 cents a book. Even more unsettling is the fact that this month’s number won’t be very indicative of the long-term effect as 100% of subscribers are in their free trial.

The major problem, however, and one that I fully acknowledge, is that Amazon is not committing to a fixed payment model. That means one or two years from now, no one has any idea how much a single book borrow will be worth. As an author trying to earn a living with an income, it would be negligent to ignore this fact.

Fear – Normal Book Sales will be Cannibalized

This is another common worry, that normal sales will diminish, and further down the slippery slope, the subscription book model will be the only way to read in the future.

Let’s face it: Kindle Unlimited was inevitable. Sites like Scribd and Oyster have started gaining traction with the pay-per-month model already. Amazon is simply adjusting to the market.

It’s true that sales of movies are lower because of streaming video, but let’s examine the first market overtaken by this strategy: music. There remains a strong interest in owning music. Both business models certainly have some overlap, but nothing prohibits them from existing side by side. More borrows may come at the cost of less sales, but the two markets should complement each other for a net plus.

Hope – This Will Make Me Rich

One thing that should be said is this: self-publishing is hard. Already, the business isn’t as easy as it was a few years ago. Competition is stiffer and more professional, and gains in the digital market have slowed. It’s more difficult to make a name for yourself.

The point is, if the old model took work to succeed, this one will too. But it is a new program. It’s a chance for unknowns to get out of the rut that they couldn’t claw out of before. Just like the initial boom of Kindle Direct Publishing, and the initial success of Free, Kindle Unlimited will provide a helpful boost to those enrolled. Just don’t buy that boat, yet.

Fear – Shorter Works Have an Unfair Advantage

Undoubtedly, this is a problem with the program today. Authors are credited a single rate for a borrow, whether their book is a 200,000 word epic fantasy or a 3 page pamphlet on making toast. The subsequent worry is that the market will be flooded with chopped up books and work-in-progress chapters.

This is good and bad, and Amazon will need to address this at some point. Personally, I like that short stories will have more of a market. In fact, my book, The Seventh Sons of Sycamore, was originally written as a serial, and I am thrilled that I can release it as it was meant to be for fans to enjoy. However, I think a line (or two) should be drawn to give more value to longer works. Incidentally, does anybody else think this is why the Kindle Short Reads categories exist?

Fear – Exclusivity is Awful

Just on principle, I agree with the above statement. I’d rather have a diversified portfolio with lots of groups of my customers spread out. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and all that.

However, I’m a new author without traction on the other sites like Google Play, Nook Press, Kobo, or iTunes. Frankly, Amazon sells my books and the others don’t. So it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to join Select and get in on Kindle Unlimited.

But I do hate that Amazon is forcing me to choose. And the long-term consequences of this shift in the market may not be healthy for independents.

Fear – Indies will Subsidize the Big Dogs

Readers pay Amazon $10 a month. They can read Harry Potter or my book. Which do you think they are going to choose?

On top of that, trad-publishers are often getting the full royalty as if their book was a sale (for now, probably pending negotiations). When you look at the total pie, how much of the customer’s $10 do you think the indies will get? On the surface this can seem like another case of the rich getting richer.

Here’s the thing: Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings are supposed to be the headliners. They’re the authors who pull readers into this program. Of course they will get the lion’s share of reads (and money) initially. But keep in mind that this is a sprint, not a marathon. When the big dogs get their books read, where do you imagine readers will turn? There’s plenty of room for indies in this model.

Hope – Reading (and Readers) Will Win

This is my personal belief. Kindle Unlimited will make reading easier and more pleasant. A new, alternate market will grow alongside the old one, and total readership will increase. The size of the pie will get bigger and that means all authors, whether independent or not, will see their revenues going up.

This is a sort of ‘everybody wins’ scenario. And while it’s not technically true that everybody gains in the end, Kindle Unlimited could be a game-changer in the sense that Amazon KDP was 5 years ago. Since then, authors have had more opportunity than perhaps any time in history, and readers have had more choices. That’s a good thing for all of us.

The Long Game

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there are three timelines we need to consider. The first month, the short-term of this year, and the long-term reality once things normalize.

For example, this first month will have tons of temporary subscribers. It won’t be for a few months until we can realistically predict participation, and another year may see drastic changes. The royalties-per-borrow are bound to be jacked for July. Not only that, but new subscribers are most likely to binge, starting with the big name books, and also probably starting with a lot of books.

This is the sort of system that needs to ‘settle down’ a bit before we can really understand long-term habits. Once readers are used to a subscription, they may not try to get the most of their value. I might go a few weeks now without ever checking Netflix, but that wasn’t the case when I initially started. This decreased use will make individual borrows more valuable over time.

Finally, the real long game. One, two, a few years from now. It’s hard to say what the market will look like then. It’s hard to say what books will be valued. But keep in mind, this was the case before Kindle Unlimited, and it’s still the case after. As independent self-published authors, we need to be agile and roll with the changes.

One thing’s for sure: we can adjust faster than the Big 5 can. Open-mindedness is the indie advantage.

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