Years ago, when I started journalism classes at Indiana University, our professor told us this joke as a metaphor for interviews:
A tourist asks a professional gambler if there’s a roulette wheel in town.
“There’s one at the casino,” says the gambler, “but it’s crooked.”
“If it’s crooked, why do you play?” asks the tourist.
“It’s the only wheel in town,” says the gambler.
For self-published, debut authors with no established readership, Kindle Unlimited feels like it could be that roulette wheel.
For those who are unfamiliar with KU, Kindle Unlimited is a service offered by Amazon. For $9.99 a month, readers can read as many books, or partial books, as they have time to peruse.
The advantages to the authors who put their books into this service are less clear-cut.
The way the program works from the author perspective is that she gets a portion of Amazon’s revenue from the program, based on how many total pages whatever books she has in the program get read each month.
For example, if an author puts three books in KU, and each is 400 pages, and each book gets downloaded 100 times, that would be 40,000 pages.
Let’s say, for ease of arithmetic, that Amazon decides to distribute a million dollars for the Kindle Unlimited program that month, and that there were 99 other authors. Each, by chance, accumulated the exact same number of page reads that our author received. Each author would get $10,000.
But if the Kindle tracking software sees that customers only read the first chapter (10 pages, to keep the arithmetic simple) of my books before abandoning them, my page reads would be cut from 40,000 to 1000, and my share of the loot to $250.
Do I still want to be in the program?
I think my books are really good. I believe that most people, once they read one chapter, are going to want to finish the book, so yes, I’m still in.
But what if some really devious and dishonest person hired people to download his books and click through them, all day everyday, so that it looks like he had a million (or ten million) page reads in a month? Then, even if my books are really good, they can’t compete. When the money gets distributed, my share will be tiny.
This happens. It’s called click-farming.
Originally, the Amazon payout was based purely on downloads. Then they learned that scammers were downloading books without reading them (an early, crude version of click-farming), so Amazon instituted the pages-read algorithm. This made a huge difference in how much authors got paid, even legitimate authors. The adjustment was painful, and created some negative feeling in the author community toward the Zon, but the payout per page has been relatively stable since this switch.
But scammers are nimble. They adjust much faster than real authors, who focus their energies on writing books people will want to read, rather than on ways to game the system. It was after Amazon switched to payout based on pages read that scammers invented the new and improved version of click-farming.
Legitimate authors reported click-farming to Amazon several years ago, but it’s only in the past few months that the Zon has begun addressing the problem by kicking the click-farmers out of the program.
So we’re good again, right?
Did I mention that the click-farmers are really devious and nimble? They’ve begun hiding their tracks by randomly selecting other authors’ books and clicking through them—causing said author to get kicked out of Kindle Unlimited.
And, unfortunately, this isn’t the only problem with KU. Amazon has adjusted the algorithm for how the money gets distributed more than once. Furthermore, there is little transparency in the payout process, so it’s impossible to predict how much you’re going to get paid, even though you can track your page reads in your author dashboard.
And KU requires that an author sell her book only via Amazon while it’s in the program—no Barnes & Noble, no iTunes, no Google Books, no Kobo.
So those are the downsides of Kindle Unlimited.
Now let’s look at the upside.
- The exclusive commitment to KU is only for 90 days.
- You can sell your book on Amazon—both electronic and paper versions—while it is in KU. According to Passive Guy, from The Passive Voice, who tracks the book industry, most romance book sales occur via Amazon.
- Your pages-read helps your Amazon ranking, which gives you the possibility of becoming more visible and selling more books. Conversely, non-KU authors, without the KU pages-read statistic to boost them, become less visible on Amazon.
- You get extra promotional tools to use on Amazon if you’re in KU. And since Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world, whether you go narrow or wide, those are worth having, especially for a debut author.
So, given these pluses and minuses, what am I going to do, come September, when I release The Demon Always Wins to the reading public?
Initially, I’m going to put my multi-prize-winning but still unknown story into Kindle Unlimited for 90 days.
And, 30 days later, when The Demon’s in the Details follows his older brother into the wild, I’m going to repeat that plan.
I’ll let you know how that works out.