Kindle Unlimited, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Amazon...

This is not the post I had intended writing today; my rave about Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb will have to wait until tomorrow, I fear. Instead I’m going to do something I almost never do, and that is to talk a little bit about the business side of writing. A few posts ago, I talked about how the biggest lesson I ever had was that you should write what you want to write, and that it is a grave mistake to change your plans based upon transient business models. That is still my belief, and still my advice.

Anyone reading this post who publishes through Amazon will know that today was a major day in the Kindle Unlimited program, the program that allows readers to borrow essentially unlimited books for $9.99/month. This is actually an excellent idea, and I endorse it; I’ve kept my books in since it was introduced, while an awful lot of people decided to drop out of it, spreading their novels wide. The reason was this - regardless of the size of the book being borrowed, the writer received an equal share of the ‘pot’ that Amazon established. For me, that ended up being around 49% of what I received for a sale.

And you know what? I was fine with that. I didn’t count them in the same way. My analysis was that many of the loans would never have been sales, and ultimately, I’m in this business because I want to tell stories to people. Any way they are going to read them is fine with me. Nevertheless, it did seem rather unfair that a story one-tenth the size received the same amount from the pot, and as it turned out, Amazon agreed, because last month, they announced a big chance. Henceforth, rather than a single ‘borrow’, they were going to pay by the page.

Now this I liked rather more. Under the new system, the writer receives a payment for every page that is read, which removes the advantage that shorter works presented. (Yes, I could have simply switched to writing novellas, and I did consider a few ideas, but ultimately I found that I prefered the short novel format, and decided to stick with that. Chalk that up to all the old science-fiction and fantasy I read when I was a kid; I still prefer books of that length now. Although the short story writers were upset by this change, the general idea was that it was a good thing. This morning Amazon seemed - note that word, there - to burst that bubble.

An email was sent out that outlined the number of pages read each month - on the order of 1.9 billion - and the size of the pot for the same month. $11 million dollars. They went on to say that the pot next month will be at least - note those two words as well - the same amount. A little mathematics indicates that a page earns around 0.0059 dollars. That sounds bad, doesn’t it. I admit, it is a slightly shocking figure when you look at it like that, but it is misleading for multiple reasons. First of all, Amazon has adopted a page size measurement that I struggle to comprehend, but all of my Alamo books seem to be coming out at around 400+ pages. Second, Amazon has, every month since the Kindle Unlimited program began, increased the size of the pot. I don’t think that the amount stabilizing was an accident; they had a number in mind, and made sure it happened.

Looked at that way, if one of my books is read - all the way through, it must be said - I now get 85% of what I would receive for a sale. And that is with an estimate that I suspect is somewhat conservative; my guess is that it will be nearer 95% when it all evens out. Which is something that I would consider as being a very good thing. (Though admittedly, now I know how many pages have been read of each of my books, which is incredibly nerve-racking, I must confess.)

And yet. The sky is falling, and Chicken Little is on the run once again. The internet is full of people screaming that this is a disaster, worse than anyone could have imagined, and that they are immediately going to pull their books from the program and head for the metaphorical hills. This on less than twenty-four hours of data. Data from a system that has been a little glitchy - understandable enough on Day One of a rollout. We’re going to know a lot more at the end of the month about how many pages people read, and we won’t know until the 15th of August how much each page yields. Making any decision now is absurd.

Are there problems with the system? Certainly. I understand that children’s books have been severely affected, to the point that I would suggest that such books be placed in their own program. (Why not have a smaller subscription fee for children, to be divided among writers of children’s books, for example?) I’d be lying if I said I thought ‘shares of a pot’ was a great idea; I’d far rather know what I was making per page in advance, and given that it seems Amazon probably has a figure in mind anyway, telling us what that is wouldn’t do any harm. Do I think this system is, on the whole, better, though? Yes. Does that stop the jitters? No. And any author who claims that it does is lying through his or her teeth. Change is scary, it is in the nature of it, especially when your job depends on the results.

I’d been asked on occasion, ‘What makes a good novel?’ It’s easy, I reply. All you need is compelling characters, an intricate plot, and an engaging setting. Now those things, those are hard! And that has not changed! If anything, it makes it starker than ever, in that we can see what sort of a job we are doing with the borrows. If I was to give one serious piece of advice, it is simply this. A writer writes. That writing a novel is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, and that nothing happens with any ideas if you don’t sit down at the computer and start to type. All I know how to do - at least, I hope I know how to do it - is to write a story. If I attempt to serve other masters than plot, setting and character, something will be lost. The something that I think people read stories for in the first place.

So, what am I going to do differently? Nothing at all. I still intend to release five more novels this year - three Alamo, two Crusader. They will still be at the 70,000-word length, because that remains the length that I feel most suited to. I will not change the plot, the character, or the story, and unless something drastic does change, I will not withdraw my books from Kindle Unlimited. Certainly not on the basis of twenty hours’ data.
Well, sorry for the divergence, there. Normal service to be resumed, when I discuss the respective merits of the First, Third and Fourth Crusades. From a story perspective, naturally...


  1. All of this sounds rather like dangling over a long drop and watching the strands gradually breaking under your weight.......bloody uncomfortable ,if you ask me. It must surely be possible to give hard pressed writers at least some idea of what their projected earnings might be?
    I think you are wise not to panic,but I do wish Amazon would stop tinkering.

  2. about .005 cents a page

    I know a few writers of shorts that are freaking out about it (esp in the adult market) where borrow out strips sales by a mile

  3. You once could have made a good living writing short 5-10 page very specific fetish works for that market and have had it pay the bills and then some and Candy Quinn (great pen name by the way) tells me amazon has killed that whole market dead.