Kindle Unlimited (Affiliate Link), also called KU, is the “Netflix of ebooks.” It costs readers $9.99 per month to get unlimited access to over one million ebooks. So, is it a good idea for your book to be in Kindle Unlimited?
To help answer this question, I interviewed USA Today bestselling author Lacy Williams. Writing is her day job. She’s up before the sun, putting words on the page before her kids wake up. She has published 50 books, first with a Big-Five publisher and then as an indie author.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Lacy, how does Kindle Unlimited work?
Lacy Williams: Before we jump into how it works, let’s clarify some terminology because there are several things that can trip authors up.
What is Kindle Unlimited?
From the reader’s side, it is called Kindle Unlimited (KU). When the reader signs up at Amazon, they’re familiar with Kindle Unlimited Lending Library, which houses Kindle Unlimited titles they can download.
It really is like Netflix. Books will cycle in and out of KU in the same way movies cycle in and out of Netflix. Kindle Unlimited readers may find a book available for download today that won’t be available later.
What is KDP Select?
From the publishing side, however, authors will be familiar with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP is the platform authors use to place their books where readers can find them in Kindle Unlimited. Authors must opt-in to a program called KDP Select to have their books placed in the KU Lending Library. When you opt in to KDP Select, it means you are giving Amazon exclusive rights to have your book on their website only for 90 days from the day that you enroll.
During that time, your book cannot be on any other retailer. You cannot sell it from your website. You can’t offer it as a free download for readers from your website or anything like that. With KDP Select, you must be exclusive to Amazon for the first 90 days. After the 90-day period, if it’s not working for you, you can take your book out of the program.
How does the Kindle Unlimited Lending Library work?
Another term we should clarify is “KU Borrow.” When a reader finds your book on Amazon and sees it’s available for Kindle Unlimited, they can borrow it to their bookshelf within KU. That’s a KU Borrow.
Readers can borrow up to ten books at once. It’s like your library’s digital platform or like checking out a book from your local library. You’re allowed to borrow a certain number of books. When you return them, it opens a spot on your lending record, and you can get a new book. KU works just like that.
If you read one and return it, or if you start one and don’t like it and want a different book, you can return it using the features on your Kindle or on the online platform at Amazon.
How are authors paid in Kindle Unlimited?
Finally, we’ll use the term Kindle Edition Normalized Page (KENP). When an author uploads a book to Amazon KDP, Kindle looks at how the words are spaced within the book. No matter how many words are in the book, Amazon calculates, based on word spacing, how many pages are in your book. That’s called the KENP.
We don’t know exactly how they calculate to get the number of pages, but Amazon determines the number of pages your book has. The page count of your book will count toward the number of “page reads.” In Kindle, Amazon tracks how many pages a reader reads. And both of those things, the number of pages and the number of pages read, impact how you get paid.
Thomas: Millions of KU readers pay a monthly subscription fee of $10. That money is put into a big pot called the KDP Select Global Fund. Every month, this pot has millions of dollars in it, and the pot is divided amongst authors monthly. But it is not divided equally. The money is divided based on page reads. The author with the most page-reads gets the most money, and so on. You may have a bunch of books on Kindle Unlimited, but if no one reads your book, you’re not going to get any of the money in that pot.
And how much of a reader’s money goes to the books they read depends on how many books they read. If a KU user pays the $10 subscription fee but doesn’t read any books, the whole $10 goes into the pot. On the other hand, if a reader borrows five KU books that month, then only a portion of their monthly subscription fee goes into the pot. That increases the value of all the other readers on the Kindle Unlimited platform since authors are compensated based on the number of pages readers actually read.
Lacy: Author compensation changes every month. For example, in December 2019, the KDP Select Global Fund–that whole pot–was $26.2 million. It was divided amongst authors according to all the pages that were read. Authors with page reads receive a payout that varies slightly from month to month. If a lot more readers are reading that month, the payout might be slightly lower. Some months there is a slight increase. In December 2019, in the United States, the payout was $.00466, or less than a half-cent per page.
The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia each have a KU program, and each country has a different payout rate. Books downloaded in those countries are counted separately and divided separately. In December, the payout rate in the UK, Canada, and Australia was lower than in the US.
What the benefits of having your book in Kindle Unlimited?
Thomas: What are some of the benefits of having your book in Kindle Unlimited?
Lacy: When a reader borrows your book and puts it on their KU bookshelf, whether they read it or not, it counts as a borrow.
This is a major benefit because when Amazon calculates the sales ranking of a book, a borrow counts the same as a sale. The Amazon rank number is determined by how many people purchase your book, but it also takes into account how many people borrow your book.
Does KU affect my Amazon sales rankings?
Authors and industry professionals have tested this. Any time a reader borrows your book in KU, Amazon sees it as a purchase because even though KU readers can borrow it for “free,” they have already paid their $10 monthly fee to get that book.
For example, you may have a new book available in the Kindle Unlimited Library. If 1,000 readers borrow it on the first day it’s available, Amazon will see that as 1,000 sales. As a result, your book will move up in the rankings, placing you higher in the Kindle store.
If you publish wide and do not opt-in to KDP Select, you will have to work much harder to get 1,000 sales than you would to get 1,000 borrows in KU. So, the KU borrows are one of the major benefits of opting-in to KDP Select.
Lacy: Another benefit is the possibility of being included in the KDP Select All-Stars list. At the end of each month, Amazon rewards authors with the most titles read.
Authors are awarded a spot on the list in two different ways.
If you have a large catalog of books available in KU, you might have 40 million total page reads out of your entire catalog. That might place you on the All-Stars list of the top 25 people who had the most page reads in the whole KU store.
Or maybe a new book is very popular. So many readers borrowed it and talked about it that it had one million page reads. That book might end up in the Top 25 Most Read Titles for the month.
Either way, Amazon awards bonuses at the end of every month for the most-read titles and most-read authors.
Amazon does not publish the names of those authors. They used to, but due to unethical behavior by other authors, Amazon now keeps that list private. They don’t publish names or amounts, but there are bonuses, and it’s difficult to get them.
I know an author who has been on the list multiple times. She has a very big catalog, and she advertises her books all the time. She runs discount sales and has a lot of visibility on Amazon. Because of that, she makes this all-star list.
Thomas: Another advantage is that the author receives a “Bestseller” badge. When people borrow your book or download it onto their Kindle, it counts as a purchase for the Amazon Bestseller badge.
From the reader’s perspective, the Bestseller badge is huge. Readers don’t pay much attention to a sales ranking. They don’t know if you’re ranking at 10,000 or 50,000. But Amazon shoppers definitely pay attention to that orange Number One Bestseller badge that appears on your book’s product page. That alone may be enough reason to opt-in to KU because that will help drive sales.
Of the 1,000 sales that got you the Number One Bestseller badge in that category, it’s possible that 950 of them were free downloads–or borrows–from the Kindle Unlimited program. But Amazon customers don’t know that. They just see that your book is a bestseller.
Lacy: There are a lot of category bookshelves within Amazon. If you have a higher ranking in a specific category, even if you’re not really high in the store, you could rank in the top 100 in a certain category. That still gives you more visibility.
Voracious readers who look at those Top-100 lists might have read the first 50 books already, but if they see your book ranked at 51, they’re likely to view it. Even if you’re not ranked number one, you can still get better visibility by being on those lists.
Thomas: One of the nice things about Kindle Unlimited is that readers can try out a new author for a very low risk. After all, if I don’t like the new author, I can stop reading the book and return it without losing money.
On the other hand, if I see a new author on KU named Lacy Williams whose book covers and descriptions look interesting, I can borrow her book and see if I like it. If I do, like it, I’ll look for more books by Lacy. When I find out she has 49 other titles, I’m thrilled. By the time I’ve read through Lacy’s catalog, she has 100,000 page reads from my Kindle.
Lacy: There are also intangible benefits. Amazon emails their KU readers to say, “Because you’ve read this title in Kindle Unlimited, you may also be interested in these other titles in Kindle Unlimited.” The email is focused on KU titles, so KU authors may receive some free publicity from Amazon by being in that program.
What are the cons of having your book in KU?
Thomas: What are some cons of having your book in KU?
Lacy: The payout per page read is a con. For example, we said the December payout was less than half a cent per page. If someone borrows my 100-page novella and reads the entire book in Kindle Unlimited, I get paid 46 cents.
I price my novellas at $2.99, and if a reader purchased the book on Amazon (rather than borrowing it from KU), my royalty would be $2.09. The royalty for a purchase is much higher than if a reader finished the entire book in Kindle Unlimited.
On a purchase, it does not matter if the reader reads it or not. Obviously, I want my readers to read my books because I want them to enjoy them and buy the next one. But as far as royalty payments are concerned, it doesn’t matter if or when they read it. I get paid the same amount whether they read it or not.
For a 250-page book, the KU payout would be $1.16. If I price that same book at $4.99 to sell, the royalty on a purchase would be $3.49.
A 400-page book KU payout is $1.86. If I sell it for $9.99, the royalty rate is $6.99.
The payout for the author in Kindle Unlimited can be a lot lower. But you really have to balance the payout with the visibility.
If you have a lot of borrows, you’ll still gain visibility with customers who are not part of KU and are looking to purchase a book. They might see it on one of Amazon’s category bookshelves and decide to buy it. If you didn’t have the visibility, they might never see it in the first place. It’s a balancing act.
Another con is the 90-day exclusivity. During that period, your books cannot be available on any other platform. If you have a lot of readers on Apple iBook or on Barnes and Noble, those readers will not have access to that book for 90 days.
How to create urgency for your book in Kindle Unlimited.
Some authors work around this by making their books temporarily available on all those other platforms for a limited time. They’ll announce to their email list and social media followers that for one week, their new book will be available on these wide platforms for a week or two. After that, they’ll put it in the KU Library, and for the next 90 days, that’s the only place it’s available.
The benefit is that authors can capture sales (as opposed to the lower-paying borrows) from KU readers who really want to read the book in that first week. They don’t have access to it through KU yet, so they might go ahead and purchase it during that first week. There is the potential for higher royalties during that first week before you put it into Kindle Unlimited.
Thomas: That’s also a great way to introduce urgency. Urgency is a powerful motivator because people will never act if they can do it tomorrow. They’ll always procrastinate. When you let readers know it will only be available on iBook for a week, suddenly, iBook users have a huge incentive to act now rather than to procrastinate.
It’s not a contrived urgency because placing it in KU forces you to take it off iBook. It’s not a gimmick. It’s a powerful social trigger, and it’s a great way to leverage marketing psychology.
Lacy: It is a great strategy, but you definitely want to be clear. Your readers come to expect certain patterns. If you’re going to do it, do it with every book launch. Your readers want to have a good relationship with you, so clearly communicate how you’re going to do the launches and how they can get the book on the platform they use.
Another strategy is to publish a paperback or a hardcover copy of your book. Printed copies are not subject to the exclusivity agreement with Amazon in KU. You can offer your paperback version wide across all retailers, and that has nothing to do with your ebook version.
If readers really don’t want to buy it on Amazon, I let them know it’s available in paperback at these other retailers. That gives them another option.
What kind of authors do best in KU?
Thomas: What kind of author is a good fit for KU?
Lacy: It depends on the author and what their intentions are for their career. Authors who publish frequently do extremely well. They usually publish more than one book a year, so readers are looking for their books in the KU program and on Amazon on a regular basis. Authors who have long books or long backlists also do well.
I’ve had all my novellas, which are about 100 to 150 pages, in the KU program. But the payout on those books is not worth it. So, I’m in the process of taking the shorter books out of KU and going wide with the novellas.
Some authors rotate their books in and out of the KU program. They may have one series that’s in the program to introduce a lot of readers to the series. But they may have two series that are not in the program. Some rotate a series in for a quarter and out for the next quarter.
KU works well for authors with series because these readers are really hungry for content.
These are the same readers who go to a library book sale and buy a giant box of books for a dollar. They don’t care if it’s a mix of books. They don’t care if their favorite author has a book in there. They just like to read story after story. They may find an author they absolutely love and go on and read all their books.
If you’re a strong writer, and you have strong hooks, you can draw readers from one book to the next, whether it’s in KU or not. If you have one series that’s in KU, make sure there’s a really strong hook to your second series that’s not in KU. Leave an open story question or an open relationship or something that is going to drive that reader to want to read your next series.
If you tie it all up with a bow and end everything neatly, then the reader has the choice of starting something completely different.
When you think about a strategy that crosses multiple platforms, consider how you can drive readers to other places.
I’ve really enjoyed KU, and I have made a lot of money there, but for my next release, I’m going to try a wide release. It will be a trilogy, and we’re going to see how that goes this summer.
I will say I have not heard a lot of people having success with a single book.
Thomas: Authors who write genre fiction are a better fit for KU because genre fiction readers are less discriminating. They just want to read more of their genre. There are people who will read more than 100 romance novels a year, and if that’s how many romance novels you’re reading each year, you’re not picky.
No single author can generate that volume of content for them to read. Romance and Science Fiction and Fantasy do well in KU because those readers are so voracious. Neither Literary Fiction nor Memoir does as well in KU. Those readers tend to be more selective about the books they read. For example, people who read memoir generally want to read books about celebrities they already know.
How can authors increase downloads on KU?
Thomas: I really like the idea of putting your books on Kindle Unlimited for a limited time. Let’s say we have two authors, and they each have ten books. Author A puts their ten books in Kindle Unlimited for 90 days. Author B keeps their ten books in Kindle Unlimited for a year or forever.
Author A is going to get all their downloads in those 90 days, which is going to make them more likely to rank and hit bestseller status because they’ve concentrated all their downloads into this frenetic window. They’re more likely to become a superstar.
But it’s hard for Author B to be a superstar every month.
If you’ve never put your books in KU, you could announce to your readers, “Ten of my books are now available on Kindle Unlimited. But they’re only available there for three months, so get them now!” That will fulfill your 90-day commitment to KU, and it’s also a powerful motivator to get readers to download it within that period.
Some authors have enough books to rotate in and out. But I really like the idea of coming in for a short period of time, making all the money you can from all those KU readers and then leaving.
After 90 days, you can take them out of KU, but the people who’ve downloaded your book can still read it. It’s still available on their device. Once they delete it off their device, they won’t be able to re-download it if you’ve taken it out of KU.
When do authors get the most downloads in KU?
Lacy: Several big-name authors have told me they typically have most of their book sales in that first month after launch. But there is a lot of value in the backlist. You should see growth in your backlist sales with each new launch. Ideally, you want each new launch to reach a lot of new readers.
But I agree, by having a 90-day strategy, you can still capture most of the revenue in the first 90 days simply because of how launches work. In those first 90 days, Amazon also curates a Category Bestseller List specifically for new releases. So that’s visibility you won’t get if your books are perpetually available. It’s helpful to have new releases in the mix.
Thomas: Besides the “Bestseller” badge, Amazon also awards the “Number One New Release” badge. From a reader’s perspective, both badges carry an equal amount of weight. In fact, the Number One New Release badge may have more weight. Readers think, “Wow, this is the hot new book. It’s the number one new release.” That’s almost more exciting than being a bestseller. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a bestseller, but it’s been a bestseller for decades.
But “Number One New Release” has a little bit of sizzle.
How can Kindle Unlimited help my book marketing plan?
Thomas: Most authors make their money through different income streams. They’re earning money from Kindle Unlimited, from traditional ebook sales on Amazon, and from paper book sales.
What are some other ways you’ve seen KU work inside an overall marketing plan?
Lacy: There are a couple of KU benefits we haven’t mentioned yet. KU allows you to give your book away for free for up to five days. So, during those days, when you have a high number of downloads, those borrows count as sales when they calculate sales rankings for that week.
You can also run a Kindle Countdown Deal for up to 5 days. During those five days, the author still gets 70% royalties based on the regular price, even though you’re running a discounted deal for those few days prior to release. Those are both limited-time promotional tools available through KU that can be very advantageous.
Another strategy for your overall marketing plan is a BookBub Featured Deal. A good friend of mine gets BookBub Feature Deals in the Christian Fiction category almost every quarter. She has several of those titles that are in KU as well. So, she will often run the first book in her series for free for five days through KU.
Then she’ll do a BookBub Feature Deal ad during the same time period. She may stack other ads on the other days during the five-day free run. So, a lot of readers see that free book. Her sell-through rate and page-reads on the other books in that series are phenomenal for more than a month after each BookBub Feature Deal she runs.
The nice thing about BookBub Feature Deals is that you can run them on books from your backlist. Sometimes BookBub prefers them to be on older books, so the books have time to get more reviews on them.
Of course, that strategy only works well for a series and not for a single book.
Amazon also makes a list of books that are currently free via their Countdown Deals. One caveat is that Countdown Deals are not available in all territories. They are available in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, but there are some territories where they are not available.
Thomas: Let’s say I’m a Kindle Unlimited user, and I get an email from BookBub that says, “Book One by author Lacy Williams is free today!”
When I click the link in the email to view that book on Amazon, Amazon is going to present me, by default, the Kindle Unlimited version of that book. When I click to download the free book, it counts as a KU download.
Lacy: Yes, although readers can click a different link– it’s kind of like fine print–right by the “Buy” button or the “Read Now” button on the individual product page. It will still count as a borrow from the sales and ranking perspective, but from the user perspective, clicking on the link by the “Read Now” button will allow you to keep the free book forever.
Most savvy KU readers, especially readers who are on the BookBub email list, probably know the difference. When the KU users get it as a free download, it stays in your library forever, and it doesn’t count against the 10 KU titles you’re allowed at one time. You don’t have to return it.
But there are some readers who are maybe just browsing on Amazon and see it listed as a free book and don’t bother to change it from the KU setting.
If you want your books in KU, don’t cheat.
Thomas: Are there any common myths about Kindle Unlimited that you’d like to debunk?
Lacy: Some authors try to finagle their page count by altering spacing within their books. They think it can drive up their page-count, which hypothetically means getting paid more for each book. But Amazon really cracks down on that. And if you do it, you risk having your entire account revoked.
Some people claim to have scammed the system, and it may have worked in the short term. But it doesn’t work for the long term.
You must write a great book and then another great book. That’s really the only strategy that works.
Thomas: If anyone claims to have a hack or secret to share only with you, run away. Because that kind of approach doesn’t last in the long term. Those authors are not building careers, and they often leave the industry in disgrace. They leave in frustration because either it blows up in their face, their reputation is ruined, or they stop making money and give up. That is not the path to success.
What should authors know before they start using KU?
Thomas: What do you wish you had known before you started using KU? If you go back and talk to the Lacey Williams of the past, what would you tell her?
Lacy: I had been writing for a long time when I dumped all my books into KU at once. In hindsight, I think I would have done better if I would have dropped in one series at a time and taken advantage of the higher visibility you get for that first 90-day period on each individual series.
I also wish I had started with KU sooner. At first, I didn’t like the idea of having to be exclusive to Amazon, so I fought against doing it for a long time.
But Amazon has the most readers. They’ve been building their website to cater to readers for longer than any other retailer. The bulk of readers are going to be there, so there’s a part of me that wishes I would have gone sooner.
Thomas: In other words, you started making a lot more money when you went exclusive with Amazon.
Lacy: Yes, I did.
Thomas: To cut to the chase, you made more money, but you had less freedom. Because with KU, you’re now entirely tied to Amazon. Your fortunes are entirely tied to Amazon’s fortunes, and they control you.
Why is having an email list important for authors with books in Kindle Unlimited?
Lacy: I will say I went into it with a strong strategy to draw readers specifically to my platform and my website. Because in the back of my mind, I remembered the incident in publishing where all the Big Five publishers had to re-sign their contracts and were forced to sign them on Amazon’s terms. The Big Five publishers had no choice but to accept Amazon’s terms because all their readers were on Amazon. They had to sign whatever Amazon wanted them to sign because they didn’t have direct contact with their readers.
With every single launch, I offered something special that would entice readers to join my email list. It’s usually a bonus novella, bonus scenes, or a bonus couple that readers are interested in. Maybe the bonus couple’s happily-ever-after didn’t happen in the book, so I put it into a bonus book to draw those readers from Amazon to my email newsletter list. That way, if something happens in the future where I transition away from Amazon, I still have contact with my readers.
I went into KU hating the exclusivity, but knowing that I could draw readers to myself. I have continued to do that with every launch. Every author should have something like that in place so they can do the same thing.
Thomas: That is why having an email list is so important. It mitigates the risk of being involved with Amazon. Traditional publishing companies, the big ones especially, missed out because they didn’t have direct connections with readers, and it put them at the mercy of those who did.
Amazon’s secret to success is not a secret. They are passionately and fanatically focused on their customers. Many people in publishing focus on the book or the bookstore, and those are the wrong things to focus on.
Amazon is going to give people the kind of book they want because their focus is on the customer. That’s where the success is.
Supposedly, when they have meetings at Amazon headquarters, they place an empty chair at the table to represent the customer. I don’t know if they do that all the time, or if it’s a corporate legend, but it makes sense as a practice.
If you’re willing to be more passionate about your readers than you are about your writing, you’re going to find that you’re so much more successful in the publishing world and that your readers will like your writing more.
I’ll admit it takes a bit of the magic out of writing. We enter publishing because we love our writing. But ultimately, people are more important than paper.
Lacy: You can’t succeed in KU if you don’t write a book that readers want to read. You need a strong cover, a strong blurb, and something on every single page that makes them turn to the next page until the book is over. Because in KU, if they don’t read the book, then you don’t get paid.
Thomas: More than any other platform, KU lets you know if you have a good book or not. If you get downloads, but people only read 20 pages and then quit, your book is not going to succeed in KU.
Free Ebook for Novel Marketing Listeners and Readers
Thomas: Lacy, you have a special offering for Novel Marketing readers, what is it?
Lacy: It’s a free ebook called The Smart Indie: Basic Publishing Plan. You can download it at my website, www.lacywilliams.net/novelmarketing. It’s a hands-on guide that breaks down self-publishing into five core concepts based on the acronym SMART.
S – Story >> How to develop your book to reach your core readers.
M – Marketing & Platform >> How to use a budget of any size to market your books.
A – Art >> How to package your book to appeal to new readers.
R – Retailers & Metadata >> Where to publish your book and tips on how to gain visibility.
T – Tracking & Adjusting >> How to know whether you’re making a profit or losing money. And what to do about it.
In this course you will learn how to qualify for tax deductions for your writing-related expenses (not all writers qualify) and about 19 tax deductions authors can take advantage of. You will also learn how to start making a writing income even before your first book comes out. You will also learn business fundamentals like when and how to form an LLC, how to create a business plan and how to reduce your chances of being audited by the IRS. The course is taught by Tom Umstattd a CPA with over 35 years of experience working with authors.
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