The problem with Kindle Unlimited

Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a subscription service that lets readers pay a fixed monthly fee to read any number of books that authors have made available through the service. I’ve been a KU subscriber for a while now, and I always thought it was a win-win: I get to read more books and authors get to reach more readers.

Now that I’ve published a book (Endless Sea of Stars) on KU, I’ve seen another side that readers are not usually aware of. My perspective on KU has been substantially altered, and I want to share it with you today, lovely reader.

I’ll be discussing the terms of service and the royalty structure for KU, and comparing the latter to the royalty structure for Kobo Plus as an example. I’ll also let you know what my conclusion has been from all this, and my plans for future books.

Exclusivity clause

Understandably, before I decided to post my novella on KU, I didn’t know that part of their terms of service is exclusivity. This means that I am not allowed to post the ebook version of my novella anywhere besides Amazon while it’s part of the KU program. Not only am I barred from adding my book to another subscription service like Kobo Plus, I can’t even post my ebook to the Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or any other stores, and library services like OverDrive are also off-limits. Some authors have even had their books taken down from KU when they were pirated.

As far as I know, KU is the only subscription service with terms of service that include such a clause. Every other ebook retailer I’ve explored gives the author the freedom to distribute their work through any channels they choose.

Royalty structure

Not to get too in the weeds, but in order to make my point, I’ll need to explain how the royalty structure of KU works, so here goes:

  1. Amazon sets the KDP Select Global Fund amount for the month,
  2. divides by the total number of pages read by all subscribers in the month, and
  3. pays out royalties according to the number of pages of an author’s books read that month.

This is the same monetization structure that TikTok uses, and Hank Green made a wonderfully detailed video about that a while back that explains it much better than I ever could.

Now let’s look at Kobo Plus. It has a superficially similar monetization structure:

  1. Pool all subscription revenue from readers, minus a ten percent commission,
  2. divide by the number of minutes read by all subscribers, and
  3. pay out royalties according to the number of minutes of an author’s books read each month.

At first glance, this might not look so different: a pool of money is split between all authors based on how many folks have read their work that month.

If you look a little more closely, however, you’ll notice a couple of differences that I believe are crucial.

  • The pool in the case of Kobo Plus is very transparent (total subscription revenue), whereas the KU pool is set by Amazon through a completely opaque process.
  • Kobo take a typical commission for the industry (ten percent) off of the total revenue generated by the content they host, whereas Amazon’s pool is fixed, irrespective of revenue generated by authors’ content.

These two factors add up to a very big difference for authors. In the case of the Kobo Plus structure, there is a direct correlation between Kobo Plus revenue and the author’s revenue: the more subscribers, the larger the pool, the more the author makes per minute of their books read. Additionally, Kobo gets a cut of the income generated from the use of authors’ work, so they only make money if authors do.

Amazon, on the other hand, take all the money from subscriptions and then hand back a pool that they set with no explanation given. This means that there is no correlation between how much money Amazon is making off authors’ work and how much Amazon is paying the author. Even as an author with a book in KU, I don’t have access to the amount of money in the “KDP Select Global Fund” until months after the fact.

Going forward

I’ll admit that I am very biased when it come to Amazon as a company. I very much disagree with the way they trample over the folks who make their money for them, be that warehouse workers or self-published authors (including audiobook authors). Not to mention the wording concerning their “Global Fund” makes it sound like they are doing authors a favour by paying us at all. Despite that, I still agreed to publish my debut novel exclusively with them on KU because that was the service I was familiar with.

I think you might have guessed by now that I have no desire to use KU again. I want my readers to be able to access my books no matter what service they choose to use, be that subscription, library, ebook, or print. That means that from here on out, I’ll be foregoing KU to give me the flexibility to publish on the platforms of my choice.

Not only that, but I think I’ll be cancelling my KU subscription as a reader—I can’t ask other authors to publish under terms that I wouldn’t publish under myself.

And that’s why Endless Sea of Stars will be leaving KU at the end of May, and the ebook will be coming to a wide array of other platforms in June! Sign up to my newsletter to find out when it releases!