The limits of Kindle Unlimited

When Amazon launched the Kindle Store to support its new e-reader, it kick-started a revolution in publishing. Which was nice of it. For the first time in history, the grip of traditional publishing over the production and distribution of books was broken. Sure, you can point to previous attempts by vanity presses, web downloads, etc, to break that stranglehold. There were precursors to the technology of the Kindle Store, but nothing to match the scale of it.

With scale came opportunity, and that opportunity fell squarely into the laps of authors. For the first time, we were able to have a viable route to market from which we could make a living outside of the traditional route. I belong to one of the second wave of independent or self-published authors, those who never even bothered trying the traditional route. I had no interest in doing so. I love the independence that Amazon brought to the market.

That was ten years ago. Now, in 2019, we indies have anything up to a third of the ebook market covered, and have become a real force inside publishing, with big name authors of our own and defectors aplenty from the other side. But there is a growing schism within the world of indie publishing, one that few outside our little bubble know anything about, and it’s one that I feel very passionately on one side of. That schism? Kindle Unlimited.

One one side you have those who publish their books exclusively through Amazon, and enrol in their ‘subscription’ model, Kindle Unlimited. On the other, those who publish ‘wide’ — not just through Amazon, but through the likes of Kobo, iBooks, Nook, and more. They might even sell direct, through their own websites.

That might sound like quite a sedate little rift, like people having a battle to see who could be quietest in a library, but I can assure you that it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a war. Okay, maybe not a war. More like a shoving match at a nursery. But there are harsh words, occasionally.

The lure of Kindle Unlimited is strong. Ask even the most ardent Wide-supporter, and they will tell you the bulk of their sales come from Amazon, and there’s absolutely no doubt Amazon support their exclusive authors to a much greater degree, and punish the ne’er-do-wells that don’t join up. There are authors out there absolutely killing it with KU at the moment, and doing very well off the ‘per page’ payments they get from their books being enrolled. Go and look up your favourite sub-category of fiction on the Amazon store right now, and you’ll see the top ten is almost exclusively KU titles. Right now, it’s the biggest and best game in town.

Which makes joining up is a no-brainer, right?

Not if you ask anyone in the other camp. And, since I’m in that other camp, I thought I’d give you my top five reasons why you won’t find my books in Kindle Unlimited any time soon.

Exclusivity is bad for the individual author

The whole point of becoming an indie publisher is to have just that – independence. By tying yourself to one retailer you are tying yourself to that retailer’s customers. Going wide might not as lucrative, but it does mean putting your roots down across several platforms, and even having the room to create your own. If you are looking at being a writer as a long-term career, that must be worth more than tying yourself to one weight and hoping you don’t get thrown overboard. While the money in KU can appear eye-watering, it is not guaranteed. There are just as many authors on message boards who are struggling within KU, as outside of it, and struggling for customers in one single bucket.

Exclusivity is bad for the entire market.

Monopolies are not a good thing, something that anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of economics will tell you. Amazon’s dominance came about through innovation, by having the best webstore out there, by building algorithms that actually show people what they want rather than what advertisers are trying to sell them. But by trying to assert continued dominance on the market by trying to stop authors going elsewhere, they are setting themselves up for a fall, and stymying growth in the process. The best thing for authors would be for multiple platforms to have the kind of power that Amazon does, but that will never happen while Amazon has such control over the existing market. You could argue that Twitter has made Facebook innovate, and vice versa, forcing each to stay competitive in a way that the likes of Myspace never had. We’re missing that in the book market at the moment, and that’s a damn shame.

Exclusivity is bad for readers

A good counter-argument for all of the above is to look at musicians moaning about Spotify. Business models change to fit the customers needs, not the other way around, a lesson the internet teaches us again and again. Kindle Unlimited makes lots of sense if you are a voracious reader, but again, in the long run, I think it will hurt readers, too. By making the price of entry to authors exclusivity, you are going to have a lot of authors who would want to take part staying away. This is absolutely the case with me. I would love my books to be in KU, but the price is too high. But if you are a voracious reader, you’re already paying the monthly fee, so you’re a lot less likely to pay for a book that’s not in KU. So the exclusivity is actively depriving the readers who are KU’s customers of a lot of good books.

Staking your business on the whims of another is not a good idea

Amazon are not in this to make authors rich. They’re in it to make themselves rich. So when they make decisions, it’ll never be to the exclusive benefit of authors. We’ve already seen numerous instances of this, from the change from borrows to page reads, to culling of reader reviews, to whole titles being de-listed. This only happens to writers in KU, for the most part — the ones with the most to lose. There is nothing to stop Amazon turning round tomorrow and pulling the plug, and then where will all those authors who’ve made their entire businesses around it be? Up the world’s longest river without a paddle, that’s where.

Amazon are so, so bad

Let’s face it, we all know it. If Amazon were a movie character, they’d be Dr Evil. They refuse to pay tax, they treat their workers like absolute shit, and they have so many shady business practices that they make the Trump organisation look like, well, okay, they’re evil, too. There’s two sides to this — I do have a real moral quandary in my books making money for a company that probably have an ‘evil flying monkey’ division. But also, at some point people will turn away. I’ve had emails form readers saying they’d never buy anything from Amazon, so I’m glad i can point them in several other directions, and even to my own website.

So there you have. Five reasons I’m not with Kindle Unlimited, and they all boil down to one thing — exclusivity.

This is not to say I’m against the idea of Kindle Unlimited, or of a true streaming service for readers and authors. I absolutely am not. The monthly subscription model is increasingly the way of the world, as any musician will tell you. I would love to be in Kindle Unlimited, and for the voracious readers in that ecosystem to be able to read my books as part of their service. I just won’t give up my independence for it.

Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list or read along at Wattpad. Oh, and I’ve got a Patreon. Sign up for free books, a free weekly short story, and much more.