Author discontent grows as Kindle Unlimited enters its fifth month

1390640732_aa2ab2e743[1]When Kindle Unlimited launched in the US 4 months ago there were many questioning whether it was good or bad for authors, and if the chorus of complaints over the past few days are any indication then the answer will be no.

HM Ward kicked off the discussion on Friday when she revealed that she was pulling out of KDP Select, the program Amazon uses to funnel indie ebooks into Kindle Unlimited.

Ward withdrew her books not because the average payment had dropped to only $1.33, but because her total revenues had fallen by 75%:

Ok, some of you already know, but I had my serials in it for 60 days and lost approx 75% of my income. Thats counting borrows and bonuses.  :o My sales dropped like a stone. The number of borrows was higher than sales. They didn't compliment each other, as expected.

Taking a huge ass pay cut while I'm still working my butt off, well that's not ok. And KU effected my whole list, not just KU titles. :( At the time of enrollment I had about 60 titles total.

I planned on giving it 90 days, but I have a kid in the hospital for long term care and I noticed my spending was going to exceed my income-by a lot. I couldn't wait and watch thing plummet further. I pulled my books. That was on Nov 1,  & since then my net revenue has gone up. I'm now at 50% of where I was pre-KU. During the time I was in KU, I had 2 new releases. Neither preformed vastly different than before. They actually earned far less (including borrows).

When Kindle Unlimited launched in July, it was hoped that the increase in fees paid for loans would counteract the loss in income from authors not being able to sell their ebooks outside of the Kindle Store.

Sadly, a lot of authors are reporting that that is not the case. This story was picked up over on The Passive Voice, where Mimi Strong concurred with Ward:

I made the “All Stars” list for October. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but $1k is not going to make up for lost sales on other platforms. It doesn’t even cover the emotional toll of having to field emails from confused readers who can’t understand why they can’t buy my books.

...

In the end, I go with math and ignore emotions. I’m pulling out of KU. If my sales are better on other platforms, I’ll stay out. If my sales aren’t any better, I’ll go back into KU with gritted teeth and a few choice words. Nobody cares but me. I’ll go with the math.

Two authors complaining does not a trend make, but it is worth watching.

Speaking of watching, while looking into this story I noted what looks like the beginning of a worrisome trend. There are authors whose works weren't in KU who are reporting that their incomes had dipped since it launched, almost as if readers were spending so much time reading the ebooks in KU that they stopped buying ebooks. With 750,000 titles, KU could be displacing ebook sales.

Juli Monroe, author and editor of Teleread, mentioned a dip a few weeks back, and there are similar reports from KBoards:

I'd like to add my voice to the choir of KU discontent. Before KU launched, I had seven novels, multiple serials and a few shorts through various names, and I was making a living solely writing fiction.

Along comes KU and now... well, I'm not.

My earnings are roughly 60% what they were back before KU launched with four releases since. I tried out KU for a few of my novels, saw a lot of borrows but a massive loss in earnings, so took them out again.

Now, earnings aren't what they were, but they're holding steady again. I have the great people at Kobo to thank for consistently spotlighting some of my books, meaning two months of bigger Kobo sales than Zon right now.

And there's a similar report in the comment section at The Passive Voice:

KU definitely affected the visibility of my books, and as a result, my sales and revenues. When KU launched, my books not in KDPS/KU all dropped in rank crazy-fast. Luckily, I was running two upcoming Bookbubs and sales on other channels made up for the decline in Amazon revenue. However, once the Bookbubs declined in influence, my sales on the other channels declined as well so that I ended up being behind the 8-ball in terms of sales and revenue.

So I took the plunge and went all-in to KDPS again. Lends almost made up the difference and KU honestly revived my older lower selling series. However, I am still down overall from pre-KU levels. As soon as my KDPS terms are up, I’m back out, baby. I may keep my older series and my 99c shorter works in KDPS for the exposure and because even $1.33 is better than $0.3465, but I’m taking my longer better-selling and higher priced books out.

Again, two anecdotes don't make a trend, but I am trying to keep this post to a reasonable length while also sharing a potentially important news story.

Even at 4 months old Kindle Unlimited is still too new for us to fully understand the effect it is having, and that includes the impact it may be having on authors who aren't even in KU.

I plan to wait for more info on the effect of ebook subscription services, including Oyster and Scribd, before reaching any conclusions. Those other services offer publishers terms similar to ebook retail contracts, rather than paying them from a pool of money (like Amazon does with authors in KU).

I'm interested in finding out if the larger publishers are also seeing a drop in revenue elsewhere as readers spend more of their time reading books in one of the ebook subscription services.

Do you think that is what the publishers are seeing?

image by phooky

About Nate Hoffelder (11079 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

36 Comments on Author discontent grows as Kindle Unlimited enters its fifth month

  1. It’d be interesting to see whether the other subscription services like Oyster or Scribd are having an impact on sales. Or is this more focusing on Amazon as the big devil in publishing? It would also be interesting to see whether KU has had an impact on returns (another ebook issue that authors have complained about).

    Personally, I think the drop in sales shows that many ebook readers consider their reading to be disposable. They don’t need to buy what they can borrow. It matches with the rise in streaming services for both music and video. Frankly, it also weakens the anti-DRM arguments, because it is possible evidence that people are not caring about the longevity of their digital consumption.

    • Doh! You already addressed the points in my first paragraph the best you’re able to with available info. So, disregard my ramblings there.

  2. My sales still have not recovered. I’m working on two books right now, neither of which are part of my main series. I plan to place both of them in KU for 90 days to see what happens. One is planned as a KU exclusive. The other will come out after the 90.

    Unfortunately, neither will be ready until next year, so it will be a while before I’ll have anything to report on.

    I still think KU sucks for authors, though I do think it is a boon for readers. As authors, we’re going to have to adapt.

  3. As we’ve often argued, KU is a stealth royalty cut. Amazon increases visibility o selected KU titles and because there is only so much visibility available it mean decreased visibility for non-KU titles and those not selected.

    What we are seeing is no surprise, and pretty much inevitable.

    KU is not in any meaningful way attracting new readers. It’s simply taking the same readers who were buying from Amazon before and serving them up KU indie titles which save Amazon a small fortune in full royalty pay-outs.

    What is surprising, is to see authors blaming KU because they’ve lost their income from other retailers. What did they expect?

    Even more surprising is to see some authors complaining that they are having to deal with upset readers from other vendors who suddenly found their favourite author had shafted them. Again, what did they expect?

    Next they’ll be complaining that, having gone back to the other retailers, they’ve lost all momentum and chart position and are having to start over, so their revenues will be down here too.

  4. I saw ads recently that all new Kindles will come with 6months of KU for free. Of course Amazon is hoping people like it enough to stay but im curious what effect that will have on things. I would think the ereader market is if not saturated pretty well wet so not sure if it would be a draw for people or not. If anything it could bring a surge of borrowing that throws another layer of chaos into it all.

  5. As a subscriber to KU. I have my own complaints. I would consider myself to be a high volume user of Amazon Books via the Kindle App. Typically I read 4-6 books a week. Lately I have burnt myself out so my volume has dropped. I subscribed to KU when it came out. I have found it is great but also has vast limitations. Subscription services and DRM technologies can work if priced right. KU has to main issues not enough well known authors. Two it is priced to low. If KU where to take more of a Netflix’s approach using different package options they would be able to better serve the customer and the authors. For instance hypothetically say you could get 20 books seven of those being well known authors they typically sold in the $8-$11 range. With a mix of self published and lower priced novels $4-$6. With a price point of $120-$159 a month. I am sure my numbers are off a bit. But you see my point. Let people tailor the package according to their reading habits. Hell AmAzon is smart do some calculation of previous history and give a quote.

  6. Billionaires! Gotta hate ’em! Ripping off working people in a town near you! (Ain’t capitalistic greed great?)

  7. Constant Kindle Reader // 2 December, 2014 at 8:20 am // Reply

    I think publishers and authors need to take a different approach like movie makers have if they want to save print media. Sell hard covers for a few dollars more but include a code for ebook renewal on whatever platform pays them the most or develop their own app. I always by the blu-ray with “free digital version” which is at least $5 more meaning it isn’t free at all, but I want the digital and dvd and blu ray for convenience and I’m willing to pay for it. I would love to have that new 1000 page hard cover to read and smell and hold the first time but after that I would read it again on the go with on my kindle and/or iDevice. To me I think it makes publishers look much more 21st century to embrace ebooks by saying “here spend fourty bucks on this hard back and we’ll ‘give’ you this ebook” instead of asking us to spend $35 on the hard copy and then another $10 on you Kindle. That seems greedy and the wrong way to encourage a society of increasingly reluctant readers.

    • Kindle does offer authors the chance to sign up for a Matchbook program- free e-book with print purchase.

      • From the author’s point of view, that’s a crap deal, though, since the ebook is where they make their money. I’d happily throw in a free print copy with an ebook, but obviously there’s no way that Createspace are letting that happen. What I’m not going to do is throw in a free ebook that could make me $3.50 (for a $4.99 book) with a hard copy that makes me less than $2.

        • It’s a crap deal only if you price your trade paperbacks too low. I price mine to make at least the same profit as an e-book, to encourage e-book purchases, but I also reward print purchases with a free e-book if purchased at the same time. If you make less than $2 on a print book, your prices are too low.

      • You don’t have to set your matchbook price to free.

  8. Me, me, me, me…me!

    Those are my sales, those were my earnings, and Amazon needs to give me an answer!

    When I see my 3-year-old pull that I just walk away or let his mother handle him – who wants to hear that?

    And guys, this is Amazon we’re talking about – it’s all about them, not about you. Remember that. Their bottom line could suffer because of the other subscription models out there, and honestly, do any of us want that?

    Because if something like that happens, then a company like Hachette might be able to get a leg-up again, might even pull off some unsuspecting authors into its dubious coils. That’s not good for authors.

    So let’s take one for the team, what say you, old sports? Let’s ensure that our benefactor, Amazon, can continue to remain a viable going concern. Let’s do that by not ruffling its feathers or saying one untoward word about it.

    After all, that might be Amazon derangement syndrome, and no one wants to be accused of that, or anything else that might make the special and bonus-winning authors frown upon them.

    After all, as we’ve seen this past week, no amounts of money are good enough to sate their insatiable appetites for more, more, more…always more.

    • No one here is demanding an answer, Greg, nor is anyone complaining about Amazon taking away what’s rightfully theirs. All I’ve done is quote authors who have noted that their revenues have dropped. I’ve read those quotes again, and I can’t see that we are doing anything other than having a dispassionate discussion on how KU is affecting the ebook market.

      Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what you see that I do not?

      • I see authors putting profits before fans. Mimi Strong would rather make a buck and confuser her readers than give them what they want.

        Where’s Hugh Howey and his union talk when we need it?

        All in all, lots of rich authors complaining and expecting me as a poor author to care. There’s a divide in self-publishing, it’s been here a while. Oh, and this idea that you’re going to help other authors, I’d give that 3 months more in 2015 before it’s gone.

        Take off the rose-colored glasses, folks – this is business now, not fun and games. When you’ve got Ward saying her earnings are down 60%…do you think she’s going to get a new job? No, she’s going to do whatever it takes to get that percentage back, and you better get out of the way.

        Get ready for a lot more big names complaining from their perches on Kboards and the popular blogs. Just don’t buy into it – what have they done for you lately?

        I mean, you’re just a hobbyist to most of them…when was the last time they visited your blog?

        Don’t care what affects those at the top – find a way to take what they have while they’re crying and scrambling and trying to figure out what to do. There’s no better time to run into the hen house than when the chickens are all running around with their heads cut off.

        • Well said, Greg.

          It’s kinda ironic that Amazon – the company that prides itself on putting customers first – is busy encouraging authors to put their customers second.

          Sound business sense from Amazon, of course.

          Not so sound for those authors who shaft their readers on other retail outlets and then find there isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the Amazon rainbow after all.

          Every author that pulls from other retailers to go exclusive with Amazon sends out clear message to their readers.

          F**k you, all I’m interested in next month’s royalties cheque. Got to Amazon to buy my books or go without.

          And then they’ll expect their loyal fans to be thankful when the books start reappearing on other platforms.

          Except many of those loyal fans won’t be so loyal anymore.

        • 100000% with you. Couldn’t have said it better!

  9. Keep in mind that, except for the impact of a blockbuster hit like Harry Potter, book sales are a pie that fixed in size. Subscriptions and purchases are compete for the same block of reading time.

    If what you write is ho-hum and generic, you’re probably better off with subscriptions. But if you’ve got a unique twist that no other writer has and an established fan base, you’re far better off going with what pays the best per reader, which lies in sales. If they want you and you alone, they’ll buy.

    Long term, we need to persuade people that what many spend a lot of their time doing—listening to music—won’t satisfy over them over long-term like reading. Most contemporary music is shallow, with just a few limited themes. Books give us a broader and deeper perspective on our lives.

    In short, to get more sales, create more readers.

    • You hit it right on the head! Write to passion, not to market. Write well, write often. If you build it, they will come.

  10. Personally, I never saw how this program was going to turn a profit for authors. Amazon is essentially encouraging readers to read books virtually for free. Like a library.

    I could see the platform potentially help new authors get noticed. But for those scribes who are already make a living off sales, the hit to income is a painful brunt to bear.

    Maybe in the long-term it could end up being very lucrative. But who wants to risk foreclosure or late medical payments on the hope that this venture will pay off?

    • I wouldn’t malign libraries. You get to sell at least one copy to a library, and some of the borrowers may buy their own copies, later on (I’ve done that many times).

      I never signed with those people because of the exclusivity clause, and I’ve “suffered the consequences” for the past two years. Is there anybody else out there who failed to take the bait?

    • Amazon Kindle isn’t making money for me anymore. I published 25 books at traditional publishers including Harper and Random House. I made money at those houses. I make very little on Kindle and even less now. As an author, I’ve had to adapt and write for business to make a living. Can’t make a living as an author on Kindle. You would be crazy to try. I have a family and can’t dick around with Amazon. I have bills to pay and shoes to buy for the kids! Amazon is FAST becoming a HOBBYIST publishing company. It’s sad it’s totally crumbling. And as an author, of course I think of my readers first, or I wouldn’t be writing. That’s a no-brainer. It’s time to take back our power as authors, and stop this insipid game with Kindle.

      • That’s a facetious comment about Amazon “totally crumbling.” You are not required to go exclusive to sell on Amazon, it’s your choice whether to participate in KU/KOLL. And no one is preventing you from going with Harper or Random House. Just sounds like a pro-Hatchett remark disguised as an op-ed.

  11. My sales for my one really selling book went into the toilet when it was put into KU without any notice. And the big publishers won’t care–they are getting regular royalties for each borrow, not like the rest of us.

    My next book isn’t going into KDP, folks.

  12. Someone asked about other subscription services like Oyster and Scribd. They are not the same as KU. KU wants the books to be exclusive to Amazon. So I had to pull down my books from other sites to put them on KU. I’ve been getting those same emails from confused readers wondering why they can’t by my books on B&N or Kobo. I have to keep explaining that I was trying something new (something I regret) and gave Amazon the exclusive on about half of my self-pub titles.

    So far, I’m very unhappy with the deal, but unlike some of those big names who got sweetheart deals – no time limits, non-exclusivity, etc – I’m stuck. I can’t get out of the agreement I made and I’m seeing a big downturn in income. My self-pub income was cut by half.

    Every single author I speak to – and I’ve talked to a lot of my friends about this issue – has experienced the same thing. KU – or the attendant change in algorithms – caused a huge drop in income. Suddenly. Like jumping off a cliff.

    We’ll need to adjust because I don’t think this is the end of such changes. I’ve been expecting the self-pub heyday to come to an end at some point, but I never expected it to happen this way.

  13. It’s a well known fact that subscription services mean lower earnings for authors. Look at HMB who ran the biggest subscription service – some of their big selling authors earned up to only 17c a book versus close to $2 if they SP a book at $2.99. I know one HMB author who sold 43,000 copies and made $7,300 you do the maths. I make more than that off my SP books.
    However, KU at the moment is a great marketing tool for those building their brand. Launch a new book, put it exclusive for 3 months and readers will trial a new author as they will think they’re not really paying for it. Or put book one in a series in KU for 90 days and build a following to sell the rest of the series. You don’t have to put book 2 -10 into KU.
    Or be clever and put only you 99c books into KU – at $1.33 pool money you’re better off.
    Use KU in the way that’s best for you and where you are in your publishing journey. If you make more not being in KU, stay out. If you need visibility then try it.
    However, if the big 5 publishers enter KU NONE of us will have a choice as more readers will instantly sign up. That is the killer point for me.
    I’m worried as an author that my earnings will be affected. Perhaps this is Amazon’s way of lowering the 70% margin they have to pay us.

    • More than just a stealth royalty cut, Bronwen.

      Amazon are already delivering free music and video as a reward for Prime membership. It’s easy to envisage the next step – free ebooks.

      Amazon will keep reducing the author payout, trying to find the lowest payout thresh hold that the majority of indies will tolerate – and I suspect that’s way below a dollar – and then switch KU to free for Prime members, while paying borrowed authors next to nothing.

      With maybe an increased All-Stars fund to keep the big-hitters and the Amazon cheerleaders quiet.

  14. I have one old box set in KDP. My borrow on that book have picked up barely since KU started. HOWEVER, when I used the 5 Days Free promo for that set, my sales on the other of my books picked up.

    That said, the ground is red at my feet as I struggle to keep writing and not being forced to go back into the humdrum workforce. That’s akin to suicide for me, because I will not be able to write anymore. I work 12 days, 7 days a week now writing or promo and I can’t do that AND a day job.

    It’s always been this way for authors. Publishers and vendors have always put the author last, but there’s a new breed of reader emerging who as someone said finds reading is disposable, and when you combine Amazon invisibility, KU oppression and piracy….it’s a bleak landscape. I’ve taken to not looking at my royalties so that I’m only depressed one day of the month

  15. As an author of serious nonfiction my experiences are often different from those of my genre-fiction confrères, but in this instance I’m seeing the same kind of trends: my revenue sales are going down while my KU/KOLL numbers are going up. I’m just about to uncheck the boxes for renewing my Kindle Select enrollments at the ends of my current terms.

    It seems to me that Amazon his set itself up for a race to the bottom in Kindle Select. The people for whom whatever Amazon chooses to reimburse for KU/KOLL reads is a good return will enroll, but those who can charge more than $2.50 or so per title will not. Of course Amazon will no doubt salt KU with some popular titles, arranging side deals to compensate the authors/publishers. But that may be very tricky to actually do, at least to do enough of to avoid development of a bad odor about KU.

    Right now I’m making a good deal more out of paper than Kindle, so if need be I’ll just unpublish the Kindle versions and steer readers to the paper editions.

    • I am a reader, not an author. Keep in mind that quite a few of us can no longer read paper editions because we need the print enlarged. I am one of them, and while I can read large print copies, not every book is published that way, so for the most part I read Kindle books.

      As to KU, I tried it for 3 months and then dropped it. I read between 150-200 books a year, and prefer choosing from the open market rather than just the books designated as KU. It made me too tense seeing things I wanted to buy but feeling like I needed to stay, for the most part, within this environment while I had the subscription. I bought some books during that time and now am endeavoring to catch up. It is unlikely that I will return to KU.

      I am so sorry that KU is not working out for authors and is making them worse off. That is a terrible thing, and I hope that those who have been affected are able to recover their former incomes when they ditch KU.

  16. There is one way to end this program. Authors need to value their work and not take part in the program. Stop giving away books for free, too. I love the KDP program, but I would never enroll in KDP Select due to this new program. I don’t see any benefits as an author.

    • I agree with you Brina, but the sad fact is, there will always be authors who desperately want their book out there and will use KDP Select even if others pull out. It’s been like that for decades in NY. For every author who refused to take a pittance of an advance, there was a writer desperate enough to take the low-ball advance figure. It would be nice authors pulled out of KDP Select, but that’s a Utopia we’ll never see, UNLESS someone else comes along to sweeten the pot to drain authors out of the KDP Select program.

    • Brina, you said it perfectly.

      Under-valuing books and the writers who create them is becoming pandemic in the new digital age.

      Authors need to step up and stop this insane “race to the bottom” in pricing and compensation for books.

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