Why I refuse to join Kindle Unlimited

Lots of my self-pub writer friends urge me to sign on with Kindle Unlimited. They tell me I’ll make more money by making my books only available on Amazon.

They’re probably correct… in the short term.

But if you have only one customer, and only one sales channel, that sales channel can destroy yo without warning. And today, Amazon’s scam-fighting techniques are crushing authors guilty of only one thing: trusting Amazon as their sole customer.

Puzzled? It took me a while to figure out how this scam was working, too. And it’s driven home that signing on with Kindle Unlimited is like playing Russian roulette. Eventually, it will burn you.

Understanding why means understanding how Kindle Unlimited works.

An author places a book in Kindle Unlimited agrees that the title will be exclusive to Amazon. You won’t be able to get it on iBooks, Kobo, or sell it on your own store. Authors can place any fraction of their books in Kindle Unlimited.

Readers who sign on with Kindle Unlimited get unlimited access to books in KU for $10/month. Readers can try the service for free for 30 days.

Amazon sets aside a pot of money each month. This money is divided between KU authors each month, based on the number of pages of the author’s books people read. Amazon increases the pool each month, keeping the payout per page somewhat constant.

An author who violates KU’s terms of service gets their publishing account suspended. All of the books published with that account get yanked from sale, and any money Amazon hasn’t paid out is lost.

As a businessman, I have problems with Kindle Unlimited. The price you get paid has nothing to do with how many you “sell”–it’s entirely in Amazon’s control. They can change that at any time, and you have no recourse. The exclusivity clause means that readers who like Kobo or another ereader have no way to legally get your book.

Also as a businessman, Amazon offers little interaction with suppliers. Yes, I write books, but that’s with my author hat on. Once I take off the author hat and put my business hat on, I sell widgets. (Strictly speaking, I sell nothing: I license copyright. That’s a separate discussion, though.) If Amazon has a problem with me, they’ll shut me off with minimal explanation and not give me an opportunity to get back in compliance. They might offer a big publisher a chance to make whole, but not a little company like mine.

I’m a full time author. Yes, my wife works, but she’s not supporting me. Our goal is to be able to live on one person’s income, so that if something happens to one of us we will be okay. If I do not make enough money to realistically contribute to my family, then I need to get a job that does.

By that measure, I’m successful. (Thank you, loyal readers!)

An amount of money sufficient to support my family is small enough that Amazon does not care about me. My business is quite literally not worth an hour of an Amazon support rep’s time.

So: if I screw up, if I anger the 800-kilogram capybara that is Amazon, and Amazon is my sole customer…

I’m out of business. Kaput. Done. Finished.

Most one-person publishing businesses are smaller than mine. And Amazon cares even less about them. I don’t know if you can have negative caring, but if you can it’s in Amazon’s software.

Let’s go back to how Kindle Unlimited works. The rules are simple. The purpose of simple rules is to be abused. Anyone who knows anything about fraud, or anyone with a security background, can come up with half a dozen ways to scam Amazon out of a share of the profits.

Here’s a way that seems to be in play today.

  1. Start a “book-booster” service. The service automatically generates Amazon accounts and signs them up for the free 30-day Kindle Unlimited trial. It can also “read” the books. This can be built out of the same freely-available software used for building web sites.
  2. When an author buys the service for one of his books, the service checks out “reads” the book.
  3. Poof! The book climbs in the bestseller lists.
  4. The boosted ranking makes the book more visible. Perhaps some real humans will notice it.
  5. The author gets money from Amazon’s pool.

This is a clear violation of Amazon’s terms of service. If you get caught, the Amazon Capybara will eat you. You’re out of business.

Depending on how you ask, the current book-boosting algorithm is either naive, or takes advantage of Amazon’s ranking methods. It borrows the books all in one day. In reality, book sales are spread out and erratic, achieving averages only on a quarterly or even yearly basis.

It seems that when Amazon sees a book getting a one-day sales spike, from accounts that act in concert, it concludes that the author has hired a book-boosting service and closes the author’s account.

How do these book-boosting services attempt to hide their customers?

By also boosting Kindle Unlimited authors who have not hired the service. They’re attempting to make this seem like normal activity.

The catch is–again, Amazon does not care. To Amazon, authors are plentiful and of low value.

If Amazon sees this kind of boost on a KU author, they unilaterally close the publishing account. All books, including those not on Kindle Unlimited, are removed from sale.

And this is only one scam among many. Amazon crushes these scams with extreme prejudice. It isn’t looking to crush one-person publishers, but if a few low-value publishers like mine get caught up in scam-fighting software, that’s an acceptable loss.

There’s no way to know when one of these scam-fighting measures is about to hit you. Amazon’s decision-making processes are opaque.

Now, let’s look at life without Kindle Unlimited.

As a publisher who uses Amazon as one of many sales channels: Amazon is about half my income. Losing them would suck.

If I signed on with Kindle Unlimited, I would probably get enough additional reads to more than compensate for the loss of Kobo, iBooks, and so on. But then I’m completely and utterly at Amazon’s mercy.

I’m playing the long game. No, not a year-long game, or a five-year game. Try twenty years, a hundred years.

My ultimate goal is to guide readers directly to my site for everything, providing a disintermediated revenue stream for myself and my heirs. I want to transform Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and all the other bookstores into billboards that pay me. That directly conflicts with using Kindle Unlimited.

Where do you want to be in twenty years?

4 Replies to “Why I refuse to join Kindle Unlimited”

  1. You make a lot of good points. I’ve read some other articles that made similar ones but you have a more powerful and grounded way of putting it. I’m going to think carefully about your ending question.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Mike. I am not a full-time author but have written a few books through traditional publishers and have several ideas I may try for self-publishing. I had seen Kindle Unlimited promotions but had not looked into the details. So, thanks for making it so clear!

    I completely agree with your thinking on this. Ultimately *I* want to be in control of my content and channels (to the best that I can). Amazon’s role as a gatekeeper like this continues to be concerning.

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