The Ethics of Kindle Unlimited

For Readers

I occasionally see readers fretting over whether they’re being unsupportive of their favorite authors by using Kindle Unlimited and I want to give you all a resounding no. The most important thing a reader needs to understand about KU is that authors choose to enroll in it. An author who doesn’t want you to borrow their book won’t be enrolled in KU.

Authors who complain about KU are typically not enrolled in it. They’re complaining because they know they’re losing out on that market. The most common reason for a book not being in KU is because it’s trad published. Most trad publishers haven’t worked out yet how to handle KU and so trad-published authors, who don’t have control over how their books are listed or priced, don’t have that option.

(You will see some major exceptions to this trad publishing rule, such as JK Rowling, but those are cases where Amazon has worked out a specific deal with the publisher for their own marketing purposes.)

Another reason an author might choose not to enroll in KU is because of Amazon’s exclusivity clause. If you want to know more about that, read the “For Authors” section.

What about the money?

Indie authors get to choose a list price for ebook sales. We know ahead of time what the royalty will be when someone purchases our book and we’re pretty much guaranteed that royalty.

KU works a little differently. In KU, we get paid per page read. I think that’s fair (more on that below). The amount we get per page can be estimated based on prior months’ data, but isn’t known for sure until the month has ended. That amount is impacted by scammers cheating the system and has historically decreased from month to month. That’s one of the things you’ll hear authors in KU complain about. But, as a reader, that’s not even a tiny bit your fault.

Does an author get paid more for a buy or a borrow? It depends. A long book, read all the way through, can earn more from KU than it would in royalties if the sale price has been set competitively low. I personally try to price my ebooks so I make about the same either way, i.e. shorter books cost less. Longer books cost more. That makes sense, doesn’t it? But on average, we probably earn a little bit less for a borrow than a buy.

Why I love KU readers

Honestly, most of us indies wouldn’t have careers without you. You try new authors and you reward the content, not the cover, because we get paid when you read, not when you make an impulsive decision to put a book into your cart.

And I’ll bet when you love a book, you end up buying it, right? That means we get paid twice – once for a borrow and once for a buy. And we get paid twice because we earned it, because our book was just that good. That’s the best.

So please don’t ever feel guilty about being a KU reader. You’re making a brave new world of self-publishing possible.

For Authors

This isn’t a question of whether or not KU makes sense financially (it clearly does). It’s a discussion about ethics. Because the sad truth is that by enrolling in KU, we’re trading ethics for money. Amazon has put us in an impossible position where somehow the smallest, least-powerful voices in the publishing industry are the only ones who can fight the biggest voice in the publishing industry.

Amazon’s exclusivity clause is an unfair business practice. Period. KU, thanks to the exclusivity clause, has manhandled other retailers out of the indie portion of the market. This clause is also unfair to readers who prefer not to deal with Amazon because there’s a wealth of self-published books they can’t purchase in digital format. KU is contributing to Amazon’s already-unbreakable hold on the publishing market.

I feel fairly certain that Amazon will get sued for this someday, but what do we do in the meantime?

If you’re like me, you feel bad about it and stay in KU anyway, because it’s realistically the only way to survive. The potential for digital sales from retailers other than Amazon can in no way compete with the income that comes from KU.

Guilt about not being able to change an unfair system while stuck in the middle of the unfair system. So 2018.

For Society

Despite the unfairness of the exclusivity clause, I believe KU is our future. And a good one.

As a society, we’re moving from an ownership model to a rental model. KU is like Netflix is like Uber. Love it or hate it, but expect it to continue.

And I personally prefer a model where authors are rewarded for being read. Yes, there are some arguments that can be made against it (people gaming the system, the trend towards more explosions earlier to keep readers’ attention), but the old model rewarded covers, blurbs, and reputations, not writing. The KU model rewards writing.

The KU model says that if this book falls apart halfway through, the writer doesn’t get full credit. The KU model says that it doesn’t matter how many positive reviews there are for a book, if the emperor has no clothes (reviews were based on pretentious reputation, not reading enjoyment), the emperor doesn’t get paid. The KU model says that a cover might attract a reader, but it won’t pay the writer.

There’s no technical need for the exclusivity clause. That’s just Amazon trying to maximize their own profits. They’ll get smacked down eventually and then our books will be available for sale and loan across multiple platforms. We just need to get that class action lawsuit going. Anyone?




  1. Thank you for a clear explanation of Amazon KU. I’m an avid reader and and 99% of my reading is done on my iPad. I’m familiar with the KU model because my sister has a Kindle and was a KU subscriber. I love the idea of KU but feel strongly that the exclusivity clause is unfair, so refuse to deal with Amazon. I must admit though, it becomes more difficult as their authors list grows. My library is largely iBooks and I totally don’t understand why they don’t have a competing service.

  2. I’m glad you are OK with KU, but, if I can add my thought related to KU:

    Personally, I feel better owning, carrying, and reading a physical book and then keeping it as a treasure on my bookshelf. I remember and enjoy the book’s art, the design, and the feeling of the paper. I like a comfortable size font, not too tiny. 🙂

    When I use KU or e-books, it’s mostly to check out the first chapter. If I like the writing style I purchase and switch to reading the paperback version, from the beginning. I don’t like that KU requires book exclusivity. Thanks for all your good work and entertaining writing!

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