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Is Kindle Unlimited the Future?

By Tom Ashford

Bear with me, despite the somewhat loaded title. This isn’t actually a call to arms for every indie author who’s decided to go exclusive with Amazon rather than spread their books across every other literary platform, but rather a considered (though hardly guaranteed) look at where the industry may be headed.

For those new to self-publishing, Kindle Unlimited is a service through which readers can read unlimited books for a monthly subscription price. Authors can sign their books up for Kindle Unlimited by enrolling in the Kindle Select program. This doesn’t mean giving your book away for free – it’s still full price for those who aren’t subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, and authors get paid for every page subscribers read (at the time of writing, it’s somewhere in the region of $0.004 to $0.0045 per page).

The reason I ask whether or not Kindle Unlimited is the future (of reading) is not a case of exclusive versus wide, but rather one of subscription-based consumer models versus the old system of owning physical material.

Consider how the music industry used to look. You had to buy CDs. Physical media! Then when internet became a household norm (yes, I might be Young Tom, but I’m not that young), you could buy those same albums online through iTunes. Some people hated the change (I was amongst that number), but others fully embraced the digital revolution… perhaps too fully, back when LimeWire and Napster were popular. The way they bought their albums didn’t matter, and the quicker they could get hold of them, the better.

And then what happened? People stopped paying for albums outright. Not because they didn’t want to, mind you, but because out of that digital revolution new models of consumer consumption developed: streaming subscription services. If you pay a monthly fee (distributed amongst the artists according to how many times their tracks have been played, Kindle Unlimited style), you can consume as much music as you want on Spotify, or Amazon Music, or any other online service. In fact, this model was so successful that, thanks to advertising revenue, some of these platforms allow you to listen to music without ever paying them so much as a penny.

And everyone knows that the change to subscription models isn’t exclusive to the music industry. Look at films and television. People still buy DVDs and blu rays, and others will gladly pay full price for a digital copy of a film that they can stream on its day of release. But most of us subscribe to at least one (if not most) of the streaming giants, who spend insane amounts of money on producing original content (or licensing third-party films and television series) which we, as subscribers, can instantly watch for free. We still have to buy a lot of films if we want to watch them straight away, but we also know that sooner or later they’ll arrive to a streaming service somewhere.

Same with video games. The biggest of entertainment industries is finally moving in the same direction as music and TV – offering unlimited gaming entertainment for an ongoing monthly payment. Microsoft have introduced the Xbox Game Pass, which gives its subscribers every new game Microsoft develops for free, plus a whole range of other third-party gaming content. Google are ready to release Stadia – a streaming subscription service which, you’ve guessed it, gives subscribers a range of games for free.

And all that brings me back to the digital publishing industry. The digital revolution saw people move from purchasing physical books to downloading them online, and we already have a literary subscription model from Amazon (the same company who knows all about TV subscription thanks to their Prime service). It’s not just indie authors signing their books up for the service, of course – even books that are available wide, such as the Harry Potter series, are included.

So are subscription services the way forward for books, just as they have been for music and television? Maybe, maybe not. If Amazon didn’t have such a monopoly on the industry, I’d probably bet on it – readers could sign up for multiple subscriptions from various outlets and always be able to read a book for free, on one service or the other. But for better or worse, Amazon does have a tight hold on the ebook market (in the US and UK, at least). And with ebooks largely still read through first-party hardware such as Kindles and Nooks, that’s another barrier to multiple subscription services (though saying that, they do offer apps for other devices).

That said, Amazon does have a monopoly (practically), and clearly considers Kindle Unlimited an important part of their business model. Whilst I very much doubt they (or anyone) would ever move to a system where a subscription was a required part of their approach (few authors will want to be forced to give up the royalties from traditional sales, particularly if exclusive), there’s nothing to say that the Kindle Unlimited program won’t develop over time. With media industries moving further towards subscription-based content across the board, I doubt ebooks won’t follow suit in some form or another.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.