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Decoding Kindle Unlimited: A Guide for Indie Authors

Decoding Kindle Unlimited: A Guide for Indie Authors

Greetings to all the indie authors out there, juggling more tasks than a one-handed juggler in a hailstorm. 

Phew. Even THINKING about that makes me tired.

If you're anything like me when I first started (and let's hope you're not too much like me, or we'll be in real trouble because you'll probably steal my socks), you've found yourself asking the question, "What the heck is Kindle Unlimited and why should I care?" Well, dear readers and fellow keyboard warriors, it's time to take a deep dive into the Amazonian wilderness of Kindle Unlimited (KU), looking at its benefits and drawbacks, and answering that burning question: "Should I enroll my book in KU?"

For the uninitiated, Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon subscription service that's often compared to Netflix, but for books. For a monthly fee, readers get unlimited access to over a million books, spanning a multitude of genres. You, as a self-publisher, have the opportunity to include your books in this vast digital library.

How do you get paid, you ask? Rather than traditional sales, KU uses a system based on pages read. Sounds simple enough, right? Hold onto your laptops, because this is where the jungle gets dense.

Enrolling in KU is done through KDP Select, a program of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. Upon joining KDP Select, your book becomes exclusive to Amazon for a 90-day period. Yes, you read that right. Your book will date Amazon exclusively, and no other e-book platform gets a look in. This might sound like an unhealthy relationship to some, but Amazon is pretty much that controlling boyfriend. He's a billionaire, he's perhaps going to take you to the heights of fame and fortune...but you BELONG TO HIM.

As you may have guessed, there are pros and cons to this relationship. So let's talk about them.

KU Pros

1. Increased Visibility: With Amazon being a bit like the Jeff Bezos of the online book-selling world (in that they both are very rich, and probably won't talk to you much about their future plans), enrolling in KU often leads to an increased visibility for your books. Your work becomes accessible to millions of voracious readers who subscribe to KU. This can be particularly helpful for new authors seeking to build an audience.

2. Getting Paid for Pages Read: In traditional sales, it doesn’t matter if the reader finishes your book or gives up after Chapter 2. With KU, however, every page a subscriber reads equates to earnings. This means that if you write longer books and manage to hook your readers, you could potentially earn more than the book’s listed price. (But be aware that, as of now, the payout per page read is about .0034 cents.)

3. Count Towards Sales Rank: Pages read count towards your sales rank on Amazon. Higher rankings mean more visibility, more potential readers, and a greater chance of being featured in Amazon's "Customers who bought this also bought..." section, the Holy Grail of cross-promotion.

KU Cons

3. Cannibalization of Sales: There’s a risk that KU might cannibalize your regular sales. You might find that the folks who would have bought your book are now reading it through KU, which could reduce your overall income. It's a bit like throwing a party and realizing everyone only came for the free food and nobody actually bought you a gift. Which makes you sad.

2. Unpredictable Earnings: The amount you earn per page read changes from month to month. This can make your earnings unpredictable, not unlike trying to guess the exact date George R. R. Martin will actually finish a series. Amazon determines the total amount in the KDP Select Global Fund each month and divides it among all the pages read, so your earnings can (and likely will) vary based on factors outside your control.

1. Exclusivity: As previously mentioned, enrolling in KDP Select means your eBook must be exclusive to Amazon. This could be a hard pill to swallow if you've been successfully selling on platforms like Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, or that nifty new holographic brain chip book platform that Elon Musk is probably working on. Losing the ability to distribute your work widely can feel like you're cutting off your nose to earn money for your face, which is a bit of a mixed metaphor but I feel we know each other well enough at this point I can go for it.

With those points in mind, it's essential to consider what kind of author you are, the genre of your books, and where your audience is.

Real-world examples

Surely, you didn’t think we were done yet, did you? Now, it’s time to dissect the pros and cons of Kindle Unlimited with real-world examples and scenarios. This way, we can take our theoretical knowledge and tie it down to some concrete, practical understanding, much like that time I tried to construct IKEA furniture without reading the instructions. Fun times!

Let’s begin with genre fiction, such as Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Mystery. These genres typically see more success on KU due to the high volume of voracious readers gobbling up series work. Take, for instance, Mark Dawson, a successful thriller author who has been a strong proponent of KU. With a long-running series and a faithful readership, KU became a significant contributor to his overall income. When readers found his first book, they were hooked and proceeded to devour the rest of his series.

On the other hand, if you're writing non-fiction or literary fiction, KU might not be as beneficial. These genres tend not to attract the binge-readers who make KU profitable. Remember the exclusivity clause? For these authors, the inability to sell on other platforms could be more of a handicap than an advantage.

Or consider Joanna Penn, an author and self-publishing guru, and someone I count as a fantastic personal friend, who opted to "go wide" and publish on multiple platforms. For her, the diverse income streams outweigh the benefits of KU. And honestly, who doesn’t like to diversify? It’s like having your cake, eating it too, and also having a pie, a batch of cookies, and a pudding for good measure. But without the bloaty feeling and bathroom trips. Win-win!

Decisions, decisions...

So, how do you decide? What to do, what to do?

Look at your writing: Are you writing a series that could hook readers and keep them coming back for more? KU might be your golden ticket. But if you’re more of a slow burn, thoughtful prose kind of writer, going wide and reaching readers across multiple platforms might work better for you.

Also, consider your audience: If your target readers are primarily KU subscribers, dive in! But if they're dispersed across different platforms, don't limit yourself. You wouldn't fish in a pond where there are no fish, right? Unless you’re really bad at fishing. But that’s a discussion for another day.

But remember, choosing KU doesn’t mean you’re married to it. It’s a 90-day commitment, not a lifelong contract. You can always test it out, see how it works for you, then reassess. Iterate, experiment, and adapt – because that’s how we indie authors survive in the wilderness, much like cockroaches after a nuclear apocalypse, only more literary and with worse social skills. Fewer legs, too.

KU is a tool, and like any tool, it's most effective when used correctly. So whether you decide to trek into the KU jungle or blaze your own trail, remember this: as indie authors, we're all explorers, pioneers in the vast wilderness of the publishing world. Keep writing, keep exploring, and become your own best story!

Your KU Checklist

Should YOU be a KU author? Should you go wide? This checklist will help you figure out where you might find the best success!

  • ​What genre is my book? If your book falls into a genre that typically performs well on KU (like Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or Mystery), it might be worth considering.
  • ​Is my book part of a series? Series tend to perform well on KU, as readers often binge-read entire series.
  • ​Where is my target audience? Are they primarily on Amazon, or do they also frequent other eBook platforms like Apple Books or Barnes & Noble?
  • ​Am I comfortable with Amazon exclusivity? Remember, enrolling in KDP Select means your eBook must be exclusive to Amazon. Can you afford to lose the ability to sell on other platforms?
  • ​Am I okay with unpredictable income? The payout for KU can vary from month to month based on the KDP Select Global Fund and total pages read across the platform. Can you deal with these fluctuations?
  • ​Have I considered the potential for cannibalization of sales? Are you okay with the possibility that people who might have bought your book outright are instead reading it via KU, potentially reducing your income?
  • ​Am I prepared to monitor my KU performance and adjust accordingly? Remember, KU is not a "set it and forget it" platform. To make the most of it, you need to be willing to monitor your results, adjust your strategy, and possibly even alter your writing to cater more to KU readers.
  • ​Am I willing to experiment? Would you be open to testing KU for a 90-day cycle to see how your book performs?

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I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.

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