We need to talk about KU

#Cockygate (great overviews here, here, and here if you don’t know what this is all about) has brought up a ton of great discussion on Twitter and elsewhere about author branding, trademarks and the potential implications of trademarking common words, the pitfalls of self-publishing in romance, and how to treat your fellow romance writers with compassion and fairness. In the wake of #Cockygate though, it might also be time to discuss the role that Kindle Unlimited played and if it harms or helps the romance industry overall.

coffee and kindle

Faleena Hopkins came up through the Kindle Unlimited program and argued that the time and effort spent building her brand there necessitated going after anyone who stepped on her Cocky toes. KU is a system that seems to encourage aggressive tactics and taking big risks for big payoffs (as David Gaughran* talks about here), but Hopkins’s method goes beyond aggression into full-out attacks on other authors’ ability to protect their own brand and works, couched in threats of legal action and costs that most self-pubbed authors can’t afford.  

I saw people on Twitter talking about cancelling their subscriptions to Kindle Unlimited or authors pulling their books from it because it rewards and empowers scammers and others looking for ways to game the system. But for both readers and authors, it’s not such an easy decision.

For readers, KU is a great way to discover indie authors they love and to help their careers by supporting them, reviewing them, and hyping them up to other readers. It’s also a relatively cheap way to read a LOT of books per month that they wouldn’t have access to at a library or any other place online, which is huge for romance readers who read a ton.

For writers who are playing by the rules, KU can be a good way to create a buzz. By writing and publishing books quickly, authors can build their KU brand with series and related books and develop a following that gives them enough page reads to make a pretty comfortable income off their work. In some cases, the quality of these books might be inversely proportional to the speed at which they’re written, but creating an author brand that sets readers’ expectations of what they’ll be reading is an important strategy on KU. (This, of course, was Faleena’s strategy, taken to the extreme.)

So let’s look at the pros and cons of being on KU for a writer who plays fair:

Pros:

  • It’s all about visibility. Romance readers are voracious and if you can get in front of them, you’ll have an audience. In this way, you can start building a tribe of fans who will keep coming back to every new release you put out and will buy your backlist if some of those books aren’t available on KU.
  • KU allows readers to take a chance on unknown-to-them authors. Even if you get only $1.50 per book in page views, it’s better than $0 if the readers aren’t willing to buy your $3.99 book because you’re a new author to them.
  • Amazon’s algorithm will boost you into more searches once you start getting page reads on KU.
  • If you’re willing to play hardball and put in the time, effort, and money to really promote your work, you can rake in the dough on KU. It’s a long game, and won’t happen with just one book, but if you’re a fast, good writer and a great marketer, you can make really good passive income. How good? Well, it might be REAL GOOD:
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Cons:

  • Exclusivity is the biggest disadvantage to KU – you can only sell your books on Amazon, not on any other platform. There’s more potential to go hard in KU for the bigger payoff, but where are your readers? If you get decent sales from iBooks or Kobo every month, is it worth giving up those sales for exclusivity over at Amazon where there are maybe more potential readers?
  • If you start getting good page reads on KU, then awesome – but are you getting sales? Maybe a reader will love your book so much that they’ll go buy it (that’s the hope), but most readers treat KU as a library rather than a try-before-you-buy bookstore. If someone reads your book the whole way through, you’re getting probably less than half the amount you would had they bought it.
  • As noted above, you have to be aggressive and spend money to make money on KU. Kindle All-Stars (the ones who make the most on KU and get tidy bonuses when they do) might make bank in terms of page reads and revenue from KU, but how much are they spending on ads to make that happen? (I’ve heard of ad budgets in the five figures per month(!) before.)
  • If you’re really committed to making KU work for you, it can get expensive to try to keep up. People aren’t just buying ads, but some people are gaming the system by buying reviews, followers, and likes on social media to appear popular. And then also how do you compete with people who are using unscrupulous methods?
  • And speaking of manipulating KU to one’s advantage: scammers run rampant throughout KU and Amazon is apparently aware of these problems but haven’t close the holes to prevent them from happening, which takes away from those who are playing fair. A common scam is book stuffing: authors will stuff hundreds of pages at the end of a KU book and then providing a link to jump to the very last pages of the book at the end of the main story – by jumping, Amazon believes you read all of those pages and counts them in pages read, meaning the scammer gets a bigger portion of the KU pot. And of course, there are people using very cheap ghostwriters to beef up their content on KU so it looks like they’re publishing a lot, getting page reads, and making a profit that way.
  • Do you know how difficult it is to speak to a real human being at Amazon and not just a bot for author support? it’s beyond frustrating when serious issues arise that can impact your sales numbers and income for the month or throw off your marketing plans or launch date, and you can’t get an actual answer that’s not pre-programmed. 
  • There’s also a lack of transparency from Amazon in how KU operates. How do they determine the page count of ebooks that don’t have standard pages? How do they evaluate the number of pages read? How do they really calculate your revenue?

For some, the pros (hey, get that money!) might outweigh the cons, and for others, the cons might seem entirely overwhelming. KU has its problems but you also can’t ignore its value, especially in the romance genre where demand is high.

woman with kindle

But we also have to consider how to balance the boon to romance and the support for indie authors that KU provides with KU’s competitiveness and scamability (yes, I just made that word up) that underpays deserving authors. If a reader cancels their KU subscription, are they thumbing their nose at that system or taking money away from struggling indies? If a writer pulls their books from KU in defiance, are they throwing away a potential source of income that would enable them to keep writing and get their works read?

I subscribe to KU myself and as a reader, I like being able to try out new authors with little risk and have discovered some of my favourite writers there. But as someone who receives royalties from KU pages read (for editing, not for writing) and who supports authors, I find the KU system troubling and opaque, and I’m wary of its benefits to romance and to the publishing industry in general.

With #Cockygate and seeing how someone who’s been empowered through KU to succeed but also to try to wield that power to strongarm and intimidate other writers, it seems more urgent now to look at how KU affects the industry.

 

*If you want to read up more on KU, I highly recommend David Gaughran, who always has smart and thoughtful insight into KU's advantages and disadvantages.

 

I would love to hear from you if you’re in KU and how it’s worked out for your writing career – or if you’re vehemently against it, why. Follow me on Twitter or come chat over on the Facebook!

 

 

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Photo by bady qb on Unsplash