Kindle Unlimited is an author trap. It is a very successful author trap, in part because when you sign up it doesn’t look like a trap.
I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last. Many indie authors have been realizing they are trapped on KU but don’t know how to escape.
The good news: escape is absolutely possible.
The bad news: fast, easy, or painless — you can’t have all three. Often, you can only have one.
A Bit of Background
The trap that Amazon sets is an old one. I first ran into it as a kid.
My grandfather ran the family business. He’d started it when my dad was a kid and ran it successfully for many years. After he retired, my dad and uncle tried to take over, but they struggled with it. Lots of reasons.
Eventually, they got an offer from a long-time client. The client, rather than handling each project individually and going around to different businesses to see who was available, wanted to contract with the family business to do all their projects.
My dad was ecstatic. This was huge! This contract alone would bring in 80% of the company’s income for the year. They wouldn’t need to constantly stress about finding the next job or the next client. It was wonderful.
Until the contract ended, and the client said they’d only re-up at 75% of what they had been paying.
And my dad and uncle had a choice. They could take the new terms, losing a large chunk of income while doing the same amount of work — or they could lose 80% of their work and income in one go.
If you read about the history of early capitalism in England, you’ll find fabric crafters got caught in the same trap. After centuries of crafters owning the loom/spindle/fibre and selling a finished product to merchants or other crafters, a new practice started. Folks who didn’t have their own tools could use tools belonging to a merchant. But then, they could only sell to that merchant. And if they wanted to stop selling to that merchant or sell to someone else… they lost the tools of their trade.
It was one of the first steps in turning crafters into employees.
For indie authors, Amazon is like those merchants. If you don’t have the tools or know how to format and publish your own books, Amazon will give you the tools. You just need to sell your books through Amazon.
Want to stop selling through Amazon? Then you lose the tools to publish.
KU takes the next step. With KU, you don’t need to actively market your book so hard. It automatically goes to the top of the ‘new releases’ list for a captive audience. KU subscribers are always going to look for KU books first. It’s a relatively easy way to build an audience — an audience that is controlled by Amazon. Amazon can set whatever new rules they want, they can change the contract any which way. And you’re stuck because you can’t end the relationship without losing your audience and income.
So Now You’re Trapped
No shade. It’s hard to recognize these traps if you haven’t seen them before. I came damn close to getting sucked in by KU early on. (They DID get me sucked in as a reader for a long while, which is a different kind of trap…)
But how do you get out of the trap?
Well, I’ve got three options for you, but first —
Important Publishing PSAs
1) Once in a while, I see an author who has their books only on Amazon — but NOT on KU.
This is the worst of both worlds. If you are switching away from KU but still publishing through Amazon, make sure to go into your KDP dashboard and add all your non-KU books to ‘other sales channels.’
2) Highly recommend doing mixed-platform publishing.
That is — publish on both Amazon AND other eBook publishing sites (D2D, LuLu, etc.). Two reasons for this. First, no publishing site publishes to all the same retailers. So publishing through multiple sites gives you more reach.
Second, being dependent on a single publisher isn’t nearly as bad as being dependent on a single sales channel — worst comes to worst, you can switch publishers and not lose more than a month or two of income. BUT having only a single publisher is still letting one company control all of your income.
Personally, I publish most of my stuff to both Amazon (published ONLY to Amazon sales channels) and D2D/Smashwords (published everywhere else).
(While I see definite advantages in the D2D/Smash merger in terms of creating real competition for Amazon, the effective duopoly it threatens to create isn’t much better than Amazon’s current effective monopoly. Keep your eye on the status of the industry, and try to have a third option in your back pocket.)
Three Plans for Getting Off Kindle Unlimited
Leap of Faith
I recommend this for folks who don’t have much/any income from KU yet. If getting off KU only means less ‘fun money’ next month, get off now before you become reliant on it.
Just… walk away. Pull all your stuff off KU, post an announcement on your website and social media, update your buy links, and move on.
If Amazon moves against you, as has happened to many writers over the years, it may be your only option. But you’re probably here because you want to avoid this option.
At a Jog
Most folks who’ve been on KU a while aren’t fully trapped yet, but have enough income that just taking the leap will hurt.
If that’s you, and you want off KU sooner rather than later, this may be the best option.
Leave all your existing stuff on KU. If you have already announced an upcoming book as being on KU, publish it to KU.
After that, put everything else up as non-KU. Send out announcements and such as you feel appropriate, and make sure folks know what you are doing. Once you are comfortable with your off-KU reader base/income stream, start moving your earlier stuff off of KU as well.
Note: This does not work as well if all your books are series that don’t work as standalones. Folks who don’t buy books from Amazon will not be able to read your earlier books in the series and so will have no incentive to read the later books. Folks who only read KU books won’t buy your new releases unless they’re serious fans.
If most of your catalog is not able to be read standalone, then you probably need the next option:
Ease Into It
If I was trapped on KU and had a large enough income stream that getting off KU would threaten my financial stability, this is the route I’d take. The first thing I would do is start a new series of short stories/novellas.
Short (and consequently cheaper) stories are one of the better ways to pick up readers off of KU. Possibly include an author’s note saying that you are moving off of KU and readers interested in your future stuff should follow you on x estore/subscribe to your newsletter/etc.
Any existing series, I’d continue to put on KU, but with an author’s note somewhere “For (reasons), I’m going to be shifting my writing off of KU. New stuff in this series will continue to be on KU for at least (your estimated timeline). But new stuff that isn’t connected to existing series will not be on KU.”
Once the short stories/novellas are getting some attention, I’d start splitting my book publishing in half. Half (my most popular series, every other standalone, whatever worked best) would continue to go up on KU. The other half would be non-KU.
As you get comfortable/build a following off of KU, up your non-KU publishing until everything new if off KU — including existing/prior series off of KU.
At the same time, if you have any older KU books that aren’t getting read much, this is a good step to start moving them off KU. They’ll be ‘new’ to many non-KU readers, and moving them won’t hurt your existing income much.
The final step (which should take you at least a year, preferably several) is to start moving your newer/popular KU stuff off of KU. Again, keep your readers informed. Add updated author notes in your old stuff, “This is going to be moving off KU soon.” Or send out newsletters. Or write a blog post. (or all three.)
Again, don’t make the jump all at once. Go one book or one series at a time. (Remember that Amazon kinda/sorta counts collections as separate books, so maybe leave your ‘box sets’ or whatever up on KU until last or something.)
I wouldn’t move more than one book a month — both for time management and easing-readers-into-it reasons.
Depending on how many books you have, this whole process can easily take 5+ years. That’s okay! The point here is to take it slow.
Be aware — you will likely lose KU readers no matter how careful you are. I speak from experience when I say that KU becomes a reader trap — I don’t know how many times I looked at a book and said, “I want to read it, but it isn’t on KU.”
But making a gradual transition like this encourages as many KU readers as possible to follow you off of KU, gives you time to (figure out how to) build a following off of KU, and lets your KU books act as a lead-in to your new not-KU books. It maximizes your chances of getting new readers and keeping old ones.
This process isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card. You will need to rebuild your reader base and develop new marketing avenues. But you can do it a bit at a time without destroying your existing income or tossing yourself into new marketing stuff ‘sink or swim.’
Very often, doing the ‘wrong’ thing is better than doing nothing. If you are trapped on KU, the longer you don’t do anything, the tighter the trap will be.
If you want out of the KU trap, you need to start steps as soon as possible. Even if they are just small steps. Even if you aren’t sure they are the best steps. There’s a military saying: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Take a few days, maybe a week, to pick a place to start. That’s just good sense. But don’t spend weeks or months coming up with the ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ plan to get off KU.
Just take a deep breath, and start moving.
Learn something? Get notified of new essays.
On Queer Fiction
Making Self-Promo Work on the #Fediverse
What Is Harm?
Jess Mahler’s eBooks
Self Care, Social Media, and Taking a Chance
The Good King Makes a Good Fantasy