Science fiction and fantasy

Amazon Finally Makes KU Appealing For Novelists

18th July 2015

In May, I'd rather have eaten a bag full of angry ants than make my novel Melody of Demons exclusive to Amazon for inclusion in its Kindle Unlimited programme. It's a typically large epic fantasy novel, clocking in 442 print pages and 522 "estimated" pages on the Kindle (the discrepancy down to the book being printed at the relatively large 6 inches by 9 inches size). That's a whole lot of words, and old-style Kindle Unlimited (KU1) paid out at a uniform rate per borrow, regardless of the book's length.

So KU1 was a better deal for authors of shorter works. This was made worse by the rule that payouts would only happen for books subscribers read up to at least 10%. So someone would only have to read a couple of pages of a 20-page pamphlet, but a novel might need 40 or 50 pages read for the same payout.

Secondly, the payment rate is a mystery until it happens. Rather than paying authors a pre-agreed rate per book, there's a central fund which Amazon decides on beforehand, and it gets divided up between participating authors according to the number of borrows. So not only is it zero-sum, with authors competing against each other for a fixed amount, it also burdens authors with most of the risk and financial uncertainty. Unless subscribers decided to leave KU in droves, Amazon is unlikely to spend more than it can afford on content.

Then there's the exclusivity requirement of Select. For most KU1 participants, joining the programme meant not listing the ebook anywhere else. This one is politically difficult, because Amazon has such a large share of the ebook market that other operators are finding it hard to compete. So when authors go exclusive Amazon edges closer to having a monopoly over ebooks, and this allows Amazon to dictate harsher terms. Because what are writers going to do? In the UK, they have a 95% market share, according to the president of the Booksellers Association in March.


On July 1st Amazon introduced a new method of paying authors according to pages read, which authors are dubbing KU2. Clearly this will work in favour of novelists, and the longer the works, the better. It also favours writers who are able to keep readers interested, so it appears more meritocratic, unless you happen to write highly illustrated children's books, or certain types of non-fiction reference works. But for novelists it's hunky dory.

Moreover, a page isn't a page. My 442 page novel clocks in at 801 pages according to Amazon's new system of standardised counting, Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC). This inflated page count is similar for most authors, except where there are glitches, so it means there will be a very granular method of calculating payment.

But there's more. KU2 answers a burning question for many writers: are people really reading their work, and if so, how much? Data on pages read is useful not just for curiosity's sake, but as a way of gauging whether a book is working, or if it's turning a lot of readers off at a fairly early stage. Unfortunately Amazon have stopped providing any data on the total number of borrows, so it's hard to work out whether a book is getting fully read by fewer readers or partially read by many.


The thing that tipped the scales for me wasn't the prospect of juicy data, or even the more favourable payout for novelists. It was a few choice facts that said a lot about the kind of people who subscribe to KU. Firstly, they read 1.9 billion pages in June 2015. That doesn't mean a lot unless you know how many subscribers there are, but put it together with the $11 million monthly fund for July, and that makes for an estimated payout of $0.0057 per page. Yet KU was paying out $1.35 for a borrow in June, when the global fund was also $11 million. This suggests that the average book borrowed through KU was read to around 237 pages.

That may not sound much, but when you put it next to Kobo's revelations about how little people generally read of even the most popular authors, it was a head-smacking moment for me. Put simply, KU subscribers are voracious readers. Which should have been obvious, considering the fact that an all-you-can-read subscription makes great sense to very heavy readers. I don't know whether most subscribers are getting their money's worth, but KU is where the binge readers hang out.

Nothing is permanent

So I'll be trying out KU, initially with one title but eventually with the rest of the Kaddon Keys trilogy, which I'm currently working on. I don't like abandoning readers who use other retailers, however, so I don't plan to keep the whole series exclusive to Amazon indefinitely. If nothing changes and it works out well, I'll keep them in only until I have another new series to put in.

That's the plan at the moment. But this is publishing, where the only certainty seems to be that everything changes. The only question is, how long will it take for me to eat my words?


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