KDP Select & Kindle Unlimited: Why Ebooks Not Enrolled Are at a Disadvantage

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales |


Until a week and a half ago, I had never enrolled any of my books in Kindle Select. The program came out after I started self-publishing, and I already had readers on the other platforms. That doesn’t mean I’ve never been tempted! Oh, I’m not in favor of giving exclusivity to Amazon, but from the beginning there have been perks to those who are a part of the program.

As you doubtlessly know, the latest is that the ebooks enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (available only if you’re in Select) can be borrowed in addition to being bought. Since borrows currently pay around $1.50 (this amount fluctuates from month to month, depending on the number of books in the pool and the total money Amazon puts in the pot), this may or may not be a good financial deal for authors. If you have a 99-cent ebook in KU, you’ll get that 1.50 (assuming the reader reaches the 10% mark in the book) instead of the usual 35 cents for a sale. Great deal. If you have a 5.99 ebook in KU, you’ll still get that 1.50, instead of the $4 or so you would get for a sale. A less great deal, assuming borrows cannibalize  sales instead of existing in addition to sales (I’ve actually heard from many authors that such an assumption may not be true, that borrows don’t affect their total sales numbers to a large degree).

If you don’t sell enough books to make it into some Top 100 categories and appear in a number of book’s also-boughts around Amazon, you may want to be a part of the program (or not), based purely on whether you’re coming out ahead (or not) with the borrows. But there’s something else to consider here.

How KU borrows affect sales ranking (a lot)

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a pen name side project that I haven’t gone public with yet. I launched the first two books in October, one at the beginning of the month, and one a week and a half ago. Since the first one is up on Wattpad, I couldn’t put it in KDP Select, but with the second one, I decided to finally give the program a try. I didn’t have readers on other platforms waiting for it, so I figured nobody would be irked when it wasn’t available elsewhere.

Around the same time, one of my writing buddies launched a new book of her own, one in a new series in a new genre. She did not put her title in KDP Select.

Neither of us were expecting piles of sales. What was interesting (or depressing, for non-exclusivity supporters) was how different our sales rankings were right out of the gate, even though we were selling nearly the same number of books in those first few days (we compared numbers).

My KU book started its life at around a 10,000 sales ranking, even though it only got six sales that first day (and two were to other countries, so would have no affect on sales ranking in the main store) and no borrows (at least no borrows that showed up on my dashboard — more on that in a minute). My friend’s book had a similar number of sales (if memory serves, she was ahead for the first couple of days) but had a significantly higher sales ranking. At 10,000, my book squeaked into the Top 100 of its little sub-category. My friend’s book didn’t make it onto any category lists.

The next day, I had four sales and two borrows. The day after that, the book had eight sales and two borrows. It crept up to around a 5,000 sales ranking. It’s hung out between 6,000 and 4,000 for the last week now. A week and a half in, it has a grand total of 77 sales and 84 borrows in the U.S. store.

I’ve been kind of floored by the sales ranking. From my other books, I know it takes a lot more sales a day than that right now to maintain a ranking that high. Even if I counted each borrow that shows up in my dashboard as a sale, the ranking still shouldn’t have been that good. My assumption is that I’m getting credit every time the book is borrowed, even if the reader hasn’t started it or if the reader abandoned the book before reaching the 10% mark.

How many sales would it take for a non-KU book to obtain a similar ranking?

It’s hard for me to answer this without guessing, since I don’t have any other non-KU books quite in that sales range, but as an example, Thorn Fall (not in KDP Select) sold an average of 63 copies a day in the same time period that the pen name book has been out, and its sales ranking has been hovering around 3200.

Just as a guess (and if someone knows of a site that actually figures this out, please let me know), I’d say a non-KU title would need to be selling 30-40 copies a day to stay in that 6,000-4,000 range. On Saturday, October 25th, my KU book sold fifteen copies and had eight borrows show up on the dashboard.

I’ve known all along that borrows count for as much as sales over at Amazon (I’ll let you guys debate on whether or not they should), but what I’m assuming is happening here, based on the fact that I don’t have enough sales or borrows to justify the sales ranking, is that you get credit (your sales ranking gets a boost) even if readers never get to the 10% point required for a borrowed book to “count” and show up on your dashboard. So even if someone just tries your book, decides “meh, not for me” and returns it, you get a sales ranking bump.

I will say that because my book is so new, it’s possible the borrows-credited to actual-borrows-made ratio will even out (as a KU customer, you can check out up to ten books at a time, so mine could be in waiting in a lot of to-read piles) and that in another couple of weeks, I’ll have a lot of borrows show up that haven’t yet. But even so, this is a huge advantage to a new release KU title, as opposed to a new release non-KU title, which can only improve its sales ranking through actual sales. (Novel concept, eh?)

So, what’s the bottom line?

It’s not all that surprising, but it appears that ebooks that are in KU have a big advantage over the ones that aren’t, because as we all know, a better sales ranking means more visibility in Amazon (once a book gets to the point where it appears in Top 100 lists). Books that aren’t in KU, that may have previously only needed 5 or 8 sales a day to appear in a category chart might now need 10 or 15 sales, because they’re competing with all of those borrows.

Anyway, I doubt this is news to most of you who have been in the program for a while, but I hadn’t previously realized that books are getting a boost for all borrows, whether a reader gets past the first page or not.

For more on Kindle Unlimited, here are a few other blog posts covering it:


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Comments (32)

Thank you for sharing this. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of exclusivity (even though Amazon makes up more than 99% of my sales), and it pains me to hear this, but it makes sense. I know I’m sacrificing visibility, and probably cash, to remain on other platforms. I can’t see myself dropping my current trilogy into KU to get the advantages when there are people waiting for it on other platforms, but I might give it a try when I attempt to break into a new genre–and with novellas, which I’ll lose less money on if they get mostly borrows. Posts like this really help with that decision-making process, but it’s still tough!

If it would help, my book has been ranking between about 5,000 and 4,500 over the past few weeks, and I’d be willing to share sales numbers with you.

I appreciate how your advice comes from an open and thoughtful place rather than blind loyalty to any one way of thinking. Thank you.

Thanks, Kate! You could just tell me if I’m hot or cold in my estimate. 😀

I swear I’ve heard mention of a site out there that estimates daily sales based on a book’s ranking, but I don’t remember what it is. Of course, these things fluctuate daily, so I’m sure it’s hard to be precise.

I tested it with my KU titles and it was spot on.

You’re probably thinking of but I don’t know if it’s numbers or calculations have been updated since it went live.

I’d call it pretty warm in my experience with one non-KU book, but you’d definitely need more than 40 sales a day to break 4,000 in the rankings. More than 50, actually. 🙂

What Kate said. It’s a tough decision to pull a series (because that’s what you have to with a series – you can’t just feature one book on KU) from other retailers and, another important thing to consider, is if Amazon decides to change its strategy after a time so that the KU books don’t then receive the boost anymore (like they did with free books on Select).

It’s especially tough since I’m just beginning to get a tiny bit of traction at other sites.

Could you write a stand alone tie-in/prequel story featuring characters from your series, then consider it an Amazon Exclusive and enroll it in select and KU? That way readers who borrow the book and really enjoy it may graduate to buying the series. And since it would be stand alone, readers who only read through KU won’t feel cheated. Maybe run some short stories through KU as well.

That matches my experience. I moved a bunch of my short stories into KU (about eighteen total), and yesterday I had a total of 17 borrows when I had been averaging about 1 to 3 borrows a day. That alone was enough to raise my Amazon Author Rank by about a thousand points, even though my actual sales on were actually 20 units lower than the previous day.

The lower you are, the higher one borrow can push your author rank. When I was in the 900k range, one 10%-read borrow pushed me to 200k, then another shortly after put me around 100k.

I’ve been anti Amazon only and still hesitate. My sales on Amazon have taken a hit the last few months. Maybe this is why.

My fans would be annoyed if I didn’t release on other platforms, though. Does personally selling epubs violate the exclusivity?

I suppose if you do it under the table, they’d never know, but they don’t allow you to openly sell from your own site. That’s a tough one to swallow!

What I’ve seen in my stats is that spikes in my ranking and borrows reported don’t coincide. It looks like I get the ranking boost for the initial borrow but don’t get the credit on the sales report until the 10% threshold is reached and there can be a significant lag time between the two.

That doesn’t surprise me. I didn’t pay attention at the time, but it does seem like since KU was unrolled, my sales have suffered. I’m not in Select. I don’t like the exclusivity, but I did pull one book from all other sites (still waiting on 2 sites to pull it) and give it a shot in Select to see what happens.

Very interesting stuff. Do you think you’ll be using KU in the future? I don’t know if it would pay for your current name, but I definitely see why you used it for the pen. I always thought it would be good for unknown authors (ahem, *cough*) as far as getting your name out there. Then, maybe it would pay to expand to other platforms. Thanks for sharing your experience!

I don’t think I’ll yank anything I have out there to enroll it (even if KU is only a 90-day commitment, I’d hate to lose the review history on all the other sites).

I have been thinking about the new Nuria series I’m starting soon, because I’d like to give it every shot I can for it to take off. Also, if I decided to launch the first book at 99 cents, the higher earnings on borrows would make them appealing. I’m a couple of months out, though, so I’ll see what’s happening out there when I’m ready.

I’m the writing buddy mentioned above, and I can attest to the fact that my sales rankings for my newest series are a lot lower (or a higher #, depending on how you call it : D) than they “should be” based on sales and historical values. I’ve also recently moved the first three books in my Matt Archer series into Select and my ratings shot up, even though I didn’t see huge increases in sales–or borrows. So what Lindsay is saying could likely be true–clicking the “borrow” button may be enough to trigger a sale for ranking, even if it doesn’t trigger a “borrow” for payment.

As such, I’m probably going to put my new series into Select in December and see what happens. Maybe nothing will, but it’s worth the 90 days experiment at this point.

I didn’t want to out you without permission. 😀

🙂 I’m totally cool with it. And now all I can envision is a bad announcer from an old game show saying, “Amazon! What will they think of next!” Dun, dun, dunnnnnnn…

I’ve been having a similar experience with my novel “Chameleon in a Mirror,” which I put into Select as an experiment after Amazon launched KU. It doesn’t have the kinds of sales you’re talking about, more like 2 sales and 2 borrows a day, but it’s rankings are much stickier than any of my other books, and has been popping in and out of a couple of top 100 lists for the last ten days, despite the modest sales.

I currently have one 4-book series (plus its boxed set) enrolled in KU, and a Halloween collection. My plan is to rotate series, and the Halloween collection is a limited edition that won’t exist after this stint in KU. A few people actually suggested this in Kboards. This way, I’m not completely locked in to Amazon (I get sales at the other sites), but I can experiment with KU and see if it improves things.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, after enrolling my series, my other books started selling better. (I had also just finished tweaking keywords and updating the formatting, to be fair, so it might not be related.) My Halloween collection has been getting equal buys and borrows. I don’t sell many copies of any of my books (yet), but before this month, my sales had flatlined. Now they’re back to my normal coffee money. 😀

I’m still new to KU, so I’ll know better in January when I’ve finished this first run. I’m also planning a couple of Countdowns and ads to promote the sales.

Aha! This makes sense. Since I have very few sales – and I mean very few- I can maybe see this even more directly. I wondered a couple of times why my rank would improve but no sales would show up even 24 hours later. The rank improvement with the initial borrow and then it now showing on my dashboard until they hit a 10% read makes complete sense.

For what it’s worth, when KU began I saw my sales go to absolute zero. When I enrolled in select, they started back up and now they are all borrows, no sales.

Well, rats, and I was considering pulling them out when this time was up since I don’t think the promotions will do me any good. But now I’ll have to reconsider; better an informed decision than one that’s just because I’m annoyed by the exclusivity.

At the recent Novelists, Inc. conference (a totally business focused conference) every industry professional with the exception of Amazon reps said it’s important to be visible in as many places as possible. I still won’t jump on the exclusivity train. For me, it’s about fulfilling the needs of my readers, not seeing how much money I can make. However, those for who need the income to put food on the table (I’m lucky that I don’t), I can understand the decision to do everything via Amazon. However, without competition, I fear things could take a southward turn very fast.

While this is true (I have some short stories in Select, and am seeing the same things), the fact that no one mentions is that unless you’re in the top 25 for a main category, no one cares about rankings except authors. So if you’re going into Select for the rankings, I don’t think that’s a good reason at all.
I put my short stories in Select for a look-see and also because I get paid more if people borrow them. For the reader, there is less of a barrier to borrow short fiction. I’ve had more borrows than I’ve ever had sales for short fiction.
But then again, putting my main fiction in Select would make no sense at all. I make much more on Kobo and D2D than on Amazon.

What’s D2D? Anybody? 🙂

Draft 2 Digital. It’s another distribution site like Smashwords (I’ve heard many people like it more than SW).

I’m getting ready to publish the first book in a new series in the next couple weeks and I am scratching my head over to go the “as many places as possible” route, or hop on the KU // KDP select game. Blarg. I just don’t know.

So all I did was confuse you here? Glad to help. 😀

A lot of new authors are choosing to start out in Select to take advantage of the promotional opportunities and of course KU before branching out.

Good luck with the release!

Sales and ranking aren’t everything… None of our books are on Amazon at all, and we can’t envision a future in which we’ll change our policy of offering rustic, hand-made items exclusively through our own little boutique.

I’m new author with two books out and low sales (less than 10 books/month). I tried enrolling one title in Select to see if a presence in KU would up my exposure. Over 60 days in and I haven’t had a single borrow. My conclusion: KU in and of itself is not an avenue for increasing discoverability.

No, you still have to promote, but you can use the free book or discounted book days to make such promotions more effective (i.e. buy ads for the free or 99 cent days), and then if you *can* gain some steam and show up on the charts, KU makes it easier to stay up there, at least right now. I agree that if you’re not on any charts, it’s not going to help with visibility.

I’ve debated having my book on KDP Select for 3 months so that I can reap all those benefits, and then after 3 months taking it out and releasing it on all the other platforms too. Do you think that might be a viable/useful option?

Mine is also a side/pen name venture, btw – I’d love to know how you are managing the multiple identities thing, for example with social media, etc.

Very much so, Claire. I’ve just moved the first pen name book out of KDP Select and have plans to release the third and fourth on the other platforms this summer too. Once things have slowed down (or you’ve released some other books into KDP Select to take advantage of the benefits), I definitely think this can make sense. Thanks to the Book 1 permafree, the 2nd one has been selling on the other platforms.

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