What The Hell’s Happening With Kindle Unlimited?

A very quick unpleasant injection of (self-)publishing prattle —

So, Kindle Unlimited is Amazon’s subscription service, yeah? Those who subscribe get access to a variety of e-books that they can click and download for one monthly price. Something-something Spotify, blah-dee-dah-dee Netflix, whatever.

I like the idea as a customer, though I’ll admit a cynical sphincter-clench at the very idea of subscriptions for e-books — e-books are already so fantastically inexpensive that I can’t help the hesitation at seeing the ceiling drop even lower. I feel like Indiana Jones in a cave that’s trying to crush him. This might be my encroaching Old Man Syndrome (“NEW THINGS SCARE ME, NOW EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO USE INTERNET EXPLORER TO CHECK MYSPACE”), but I’m always hissing and spitting at anything that might undercut any author’s ability to earn a living wage.

Regardless, right now, it’s still looking like Kindle Unlimited is troubled waters.

Here’s the news:

Last month, the payout per book checked out was $1.33. A pretty steep drop from what was hovering closer to two bucks per download — which isn’t too far off base with what you’d earn from a buyer buying the book outright (er, presuming you’re in that self-publishing sweet spot of $2.99, which is already cheapy-cheapy). But $1.33 cuts that sharply — average royalties on that e-book from a purchase would be 70%, but this drops it to 44%. (Now, there’s an argument to be had that suggests broader exposure yields to greater sales and thus softens that drop — maybe even erases that drop — though I’ll also note that this is the argument some traditional publishers use to justify the 25% or less of royalty rates in that space.)

This month — and here’s a Publisher’s Lunch link but it requires a subscription, so if anybody has a better link, toss it to me — Amazon added $3.5 million to the fund, which dramatically raised the per-download-payout to, drum roll please…

$1.36.

Wait.

$1.36?!

Three cents.

Which is puzzling, really. It’s suggestive of a couple things. Either nobody’s checking out Kindle Unlimited, or they are, but Kindle Unlimited is getting tons of use across a huge array of books. To reiterate, that means either nobody is subscribing, or there are just too many books in the program getting read to make the payout viable (meaning, the money is spread thin across a glut of books and readers). Amazon puts money in the KDP fund, and nobody really knows where that money comes from or what it’s connected to — it’s a button with tangled pipes and convoluted wiring and it’s hard to know what actually affects that number. Is Amazon just making it up? Is it tied to subscribers? Is there some mad algorithm forged in the brine-pickled belly of an Elder God?

(That’s a larger issue with Amazon, I think, in terms of self-publishing: so much of what happens there is behind the curtain. They change algorithms and suddenly a bestselling self-published book drops through the floor. Discoverability and programmatic cataloging are mysterious processes there — it is all unseen alchemy. It’d be great to have a larger sense of what they’re doing, but they’re not really forthcoming with that information for self-published authors.)

Amazon added three million to bump the payout by three cents. Meaning, without that fund bump, the payout would’ve likely been significantly lower. No idea how much, because nobody’s privy to that information.

So far, at least to my untrained eyes, it seems like Kindle Unlimited is spinning its wheels a bit — I was in for a month and didn’t see a great variety of books available (and though folks seem upset by my insistence on the “shit volcano” effect, discoverability and visibility there is trending toward zero). And stranger still, they require that exclusivity arrangement to be a part of it. Exclusivity to a single retailer and distributor is usually a thing that rewards the seller in some way. If I sell my Fabulous Donglewidget to many retailers and suddenly K-Mart is like, “Nah, fuck that, we want to sell that exclusively,” then we make a deal where I benefit to hang out only on their shelves. Because being on K-Mart’s shelves is not a reward to me — it’s not a privilege. It’s to their benefit, so it has to benefit me and my Fabulous Donglewidget (note: not a euphemism for my or anybody else’s penis). Here, though, where’s the value? “JOIN OUR EXCLUSIVE PROGRAM AND LOSE MONEY PER DOWNLOAD. WERE YOU EARNING TWO DOLLARS A DOWNLOAD? NOW IT’S A DOLLAR THIRTY! FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD, AUTHOR-HUMAN.”

Possible I’m just not seeing the value where it exists — I do not have my books enrolled. And here is a good time for any self-published authors to stop by and speak to me of their experiences, because while I’m hearing a lot of dissatisfaction from the KDP ranks, that might just be the loudest voices complaining (and remains anecdotal — aka, “artisanal data”). And I should note here that the program does make sense if you’re offering up smaller e-books: a short story priced at $0.99 earns you thirty cents on a purchase, but a dollar-thirty-ish on download from KU. That’s earning more than the actual cost of the book itself. But, if you’re selling an epic fantasy priced at $4.99 — well, the drop becomes precipitous.

I respect Amazon for being the LET’S JUST FUCK UP SOME SHIT company that they are — but I worry that they’re trying too hard. Even going so far as to competing with themselves. KDP! KDP select! Kindle Unlimited! Kindle Worlds! Amazon Publishing! Kindle Scout! I seriously cannot keep up. The Amazon ecosystem is starting to feel too jungley: choked with its own vegetation and hard to parse. (Though, again: beware my Old Man Syndrome coloring this view. GET OFF MY LAWN, YOU DAMN HOVERKIDS WITH YOUR E-COMICS AND YOUR KINDLE DRUGS.)

My advice to Amazon is, at this point, drop exclusivity for Kindle Unlimited. Though that might dilute the payouts further, I dunno — at the very least, it’ll ensure that by signing on exclusively with Amazon, a self-published author isn’t also having to pay in for the not-actually-a-privilege.

Curious to hear people’s experiences. Share and share alike, folks.

And then get off my lawn.