To KU or not to KU: That is the question…

Kindle_Paperwhite_3GTo KU or not KU, that is the question.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the dilemma, I’m referring to the decision most indie authors face when they go to upload a new book for sale: do I make it exclusive to Amazon, and if so, do I enroll it in the Kindle Unlimited program?

This is rarely an issue for me because I don’t usually self-publish. While I love the idea of publishing on my own schedule, the time constraints of my job mean that my efforts are better spent writing the next story than doing all the work of an author and a publisher. That may change in the future, however, and occasionally I self-publish a story just to keep my hand in. Especially with the recent wave of digital presses closing up shop, citing—you guessed it—an inability to compete with Amazon.

The first time I self-published a story, I made a lot of mistakes. I spent too much money in some areas, and not enough in others. It took me an entire day to format the story, which is not the kind of time I have to do this sort of thing, and then it turns out I formatted and uploaded the wrong version. The file I published was an older copy, riddled with errors, and it wasn’t until a friend commented on it to me that I’d even realized what I’d done. Even when I finally corrected most of my noobie self-publishing mistakes, I was never entirely satisfied. Which is a shame because I consider the story my best work to date.

Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to the process again, though I’m not going to make the mistake of trying to do the bulk of it myself. I’m going to have to farm out the things I don’t do as well to experts for assistance, and that means making a bigger financial investment at the beginning in the hopes of recouping it in sales.

Part of the decision-making process is determining whether or not to enroll in Kindle Unlimited. I confess, I have problems with the notion of Amazon exclusivity. Yes, most of my sales come from Amazon, but I like making my stories available across a wide number of outlets. When I last self-published a story, the exclusivity clause alone stopped me cold. Nope, nada, not doing it.

Then there were all the authors who posted about their tanking sales with the advent of KU, and how a reliable income had suddenly dried up as more and more people chose to pay a flat fee each month in order to read as many stories as they liked—as long as those stories were enrolled in KU. Most of the authors who posted about this reluctantly joined the KU boat, preferring to get some kind of payout to none at all.

I can’t help but think if authors had just held out a little longer, KU might have been unable to provide the diversity of stories that readers craved, and readers would have gone back to seeking their favorite authors elsewhere. Enrolling in KU feels a little to me like making a virgin sacrifice to the dragon in hopes of saving the village, ignoring the fact that eventually you are going to run out of virgins and the dragon is going to own you.

But now I keep hearing independent authors saying KU is the only way to go, the only way to get your story noticed in a sea of new arrivals every day (Amazon promotes KU stories and KDP Select stories more than others), the best way to reach new readers, the only way to make it to Amazon’s bestseller lists. I polled fellow authors on Facebook, and have heard strong cases for both sides of the argument from people I highly respect. I keep waffling.

Sacrifice the virgin one more year, or make a long-term plan to hold the dragon at bay?

Because that’s what it comes down to.

One of the things that bothers me the most is Amazon’s constantly changing TOS. It’s meant to stop the scammers from gaming the system but it worries me when I read posts like this one by author Selena Kitt. If KU pays by the page read, and Amazon can’t really tell how many pages are being read, AND that payout keeps dropping over time, there’s a problem. Not to mention this New York Times post as well, which indicates that a disturbing number of readers never finish stories in the first place. Or this disheartening post from The Guardian, which indicates that average author incomes in the U.S. have dropped below the poverty level.

Oh, Rick Castle, you’d better cut back on your lavish lifestyle, or else write more Nikki Heat novels. Fast.

My Facebook friends were equally divided on whether or not to enroll a new story in KU. Some were able to point to increased sales and readership overall, significant enough that they were very happy with KU and highly recommended it. Others not so much. Many people seem to feel that new or mid-list authors must enroll in KU if they hope for their stories to get noticed.

One of my friends, Anna Butler, pointed out that Amazon is not a bookstore. It makes it money on selling consumables—the real money in the book market for Amazon is selling Kindles. Cornering the book market in mobi format allows them to sell more Kindles. Authors and publishers are just another commodity to be exploited for the benefit of the consumer. She makes a strong point there.

Kindle reader in lapAnother friend reminded me that most book sales occur in the first couple of months. Making my next story exclusive to KU means I will have lost the best window for sales if it turns out that KU wasn’t a good choice for me.

Margarita Gakis remarked that KU is just another tool to be used, but to be sure that I was using the tool and not the tool using me. Enrolling in KU isn’t forever. I can choose to withdraw it after one cycle (90 days) and go across more outlets if desired. She’s made conscious decisions about her market and which stories to put in which venues, and I think that’s smart.

Several people messaged me privately to share their experiences—and concerns—regarding KU. Though they weren’t comfortable sharing their experiences publicly, they were happy to let me know what they were, both good and bad.

Author Josh Lanyon weighed on Facebook discussion. I admire Josh’s work greatly (Josh is the kind of author I’d sign a deal with the devil if I could get a tenth of the ability and talent). I asked if I could get a quote for this post. This was Josh’s response in a nutshell: “Authors who resort to KU are not evil. They should not be demonized. But they *are* short sighted. And they will pay the price.”

I’ll be honest. I’m still waffling about what I will do when I finish this current project. Most of us can turn a blind eye to the need for the sacrificial virgin if it will keep the dragon at bay another year or two.

Everyone except the virgins.


Eventually, they’ll wise up. They’ll either leave town or have some smokin’ hot sex to take them out of the pool, but either way, the fresh-out-of-virgins dragon will eventually come to call.


And we all will be asked to pay the price.


16 thoughts on “To KU or not to KU: That is the question…

  1. Two Halloweens ago, I debated whether or not to list a book with Amazon exclusively and changed my mind at the last minute. I made the most money I ever made from one of my titles.

    Since then, Amazon created KU, and once again I had that internal debate when releasing my titles. Currently, I only have one book in KU, and it doesn’t sell squat. I pulled all the others. I’m not making any money. But I didn’t make money from KU either; I’m not a NAME.

    The real problem is Amazon has trained readers to think they deserve something for next to nothing. When books are that easy to get, they don’t value them, so even if they download from KU, they often remain unread and the authors unpaid.

    Royalties are not my main source of income. They probably never will be, and that’s a good thing; since KU was created, sales for my books have fallen by two-thirds. The publishing business these days is really depressing. 🙁
    Theo Fenraven recently posted..No Flash Fic TodayMy Profile

    • The real problem is Amazon has trained readers to think they deserve something for next to nothing. When books are that easy to get, they don’t value them, so even if they download from KU, they often remain unread and the authors unpaid

      You make a really good point here, Theo. It’s one that concerns me as well, especially considering how I tend to do the same with the free reads I get from Book Bubs. The NYT post was kind of shocking to me in that respect. Prior to the easy accessibility of e-books, I can’t recall the last time I didn’t finish a book. Now, I’m much quicker to acknowledge a story isn’t working for me and move on.

      Yes, the publishing industry these days is incredibly disheartening. These last few weeks, I’ve considered quitting altogether. 🙁
      Sarah Madison recently posted..To KU or not to KU: That is the question…My Profile

  2. I do think people forget that Amazon is not now primarily a bookstore, and that books are seen as a loss leaders to entice people into buy everything from door knobs to shoes. Authors can’t possibly come out winning against that mindset. Especially since Theo’s comment about Amazon training readers to look for free or dirt cheap – he’s spot on there.

    Great post, Sarah.
    Anna recently posted..An Aussie on the US – Kevin Klehr guest blogs here todayMy Profile

    • Thanks, Anna!

      Especially since Theo’s comment about Amazon training readers to look for free or dirt cheap – he’s spot on there

      Yeah, when I hear readers complaining about paying more than 2.99 for a novel, it is extremely discouraging. Maybe I should get a job at Starbucks. People seem more willing to pay for coffee than stories. 😉
      Sarah Madison recently posted..To KU or not to KU: That is the question…My Profile

  3. I am a reader and I hate Amazon. It won’t sell ebooks in my region (Asia and Pacific), so I have to jump several hoops and lie about my location so that I can buy the ebooks I want. That is why, I almost always wail in despair when an author I like sells books exclusively on Amazon.

    Also, as a reader, I like to own my ebooks so I can reread. In that respect, KU does not interest me.

    • Oh, that’s a good point! Yes, I have friends who tell me how frustrating it is when they own a Nook or some other type of reader and they can’t get access to stories because it’s only on Amazon. I’m like you, too, in that I want to *own* the story, not just borrow it. Even library books don’t disappear off the shelves after a few months!

  4. Hi Sarah! Great post. I haven’t ventured into self-publishing, so KU hasn’t tempted me. From all I’m seeing about it, if I ever were to self-publish, I wouldn’t enroll in KU. I have a Kindle and love the ease of one-clicking at Amazon to get a new book. I didn’t realize that with KU, one doesn’t “own” the books. Horrors! *clutches my Kindle* But thinking of it as a library makes sense. I hate that authors are dependent on the number of pages readers read in order to make money, though.

    • Yeah, that’s a bit of an eye-opener, isn’t it? It’s like renting from Netflix–you have to return those DVDs at some point. Also, like Netflix, something you love (like Doctor Who!) can disappear without warning. At least with a brick and mortar library, those books stay on the shelves for *years*. Any author can pull a story after 90 days on KU, though.

      The other big difference between Netflix, libraries, and KU is that both the libraries and Netflix pay to have the rights to loan something. It can sit on the shelves without being loaned out and the creator still gets something out of the deal. With Amazon paying nothing for the rights to loan anything, and not having a good way of tracking what’s being read (I always read offline…) I’m not sure the payment model is a good one for the long term. 🙁
      Sarah Madison recently posted..To KU or not to KU: That is the question…My Profile

    • From what I have been told, you don’t own books you’ve purchased from Amazon. You have merely purchased a “license” to read the book on your Kindle. I heard this from readers who were having m/m books disappear from their Kindles because someone had put in a complaint about child pornography. Amazon deleted all the books first, and THEN investigated the allegations. I don’t intend to ever buy a Kindle as long as there is a competitor out there.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. For most of the negative reasons mentioned, I’m not planning on using KU with my next indie release. But it’s hard to make those kinds of decisions given how mercurial the book market is, and will continue to be. I dunno. *waffles about some more*

    One thing, though, is I feel you re: hiring others to do the work. I ~can~ do an ebook formatting myself but if I can get a reputable service to do it for fairly cheap? I’m ON IT. I’ve got too many irons in the fire to spend days and days fine tuning that. 😛

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