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.