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FunBITS: Kindle Unlimited Is Pretty Limited

I was on vacation last week, which was a great opportunity to catch up on my reading. It was an ideal time to test the beach capabilities of my newish Kindle Paperwhite (for my initial impressions, see “Amazon Announces New Kindle Paperwhite,” 3 September 2013), which Amazon has long bragged about, as well as the recently launched Kindle Unlimited service.

Kindle Unlimited is Amazon’s answer to subscription book services like Oyster and Scribd. (For Michael Cohen’s take on Oyster and Scribd, see “FunBITS: Scribd and Oyster Aim to Be Netflix for Books,” 25 October 2013). For $9.99 per month, Kindle Unlimited promises open access to over 600,000 Kindle books, plus a generous helping of Audible audiobooks.

If you’re a voracious reader, that may sound tempting, but there’s a catch: none of the five major publishers are on board. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some gems in Kindle Unlimited, which boasts the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hunger Games trilogy, and the entirety of the Harry Potter series.

The one thing that differentiates Kindle Unlimited from its competitors is that it’s natively compatible with Amazon’s Kindle ebook readers. Once you’ve subscribed, if you see titles in the Kindle Store that are labeled “kindleunlimited,” you can download and read them for free.

I’ve been critical of some of Amazon’s business decisions (like the removal of in-app purchases from ComiXology; see “Explaining the ComiXology In-app Purchase Debacle,” 3 May 2014), but I love the Kindle Paperwhite, which is the best ebook reader on the market. It’s small enough to fit into a large pocket but large enough to be readable; it has a clear, bright screen that’s easy on the eyes without being glaring; it has more storage than I’ll ever use; it suffers from few distractions; and it’s relatively cheap. I’m generally unenthused by Amazon’s other hardware devices, but in my book, the Kindle Paperwhite is a home run. It’s a simple device that has one function
and does it well.

That, as a whole, is the advantage that Amazon has in the subscription ebook space: the might of its thoroughly competent Kindle readers and the retail ubiquity of Once you’ve subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, obtaining books is as simple as clicking or tapping Read for Free on an eligible title. The book will be sent to the device you specify.

Unlike Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (a side benefit of being an Amazon Prime subscriber), Kindle Unlimited works on any device with a Kindle app, like an iPad; the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library requires that you read on an actual Kindle device. If a book you download from Kindle Unlimited is listed as “with narration,” the corresponding audiobook will also be added to your linked Audible account, if you have one: just open the Audible app on your iPhone or iPad and you’ll see the book listed in your library automatically. Thanks to the magic of Whispersync for Voice, the ebook and audiobook will sync locations, a feature I would have killed for
when I was a commuter.

Amazon isn’t the first to offer a veritable smorgasbord of reading — besides Scribd and Oyster, as many snarky online commenters have noted, public libraries have been around for hundreds of years, and many have long offered ebook lending.

It’s a good point. Many public libraries have systems powered by Overdrive, where you can enter your library card number and send books to your Kindle for free. But while the Overdrive-based selection at my local public library was better than I expected, it suffered from artificial scarcity. I was able to check out Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” with no problem, which was great, but I came up short with just about every other title I tried. How about “The Hunger Games”? Available, but on hold. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”? Available, but on hold. What about Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”? You guessed it. I even tried what I thought was a somewhat obscure title on the
periphery of my to-read list — Pope Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” Nope, on hold.

So yes, your local public library has a number of ebooks on offer, but you might have to wait before you can read them. This is purely due to artificial limitations on libraries imposed by publishers — some publishers even require libraries to pay for a new ebook license after a specific number of check-outs, in an attempt to simulate wear-and-tear on paper books in the virtual world.

The question is: is Kindle Unlimited worth the money? To find out, the TidBITS staff compiled an eclectic list of 30 books, of varying ages and subjects, all of which are available in the Kindle Store and which would currently cost you $232.12 if you bought them individually (prices, of course, are subject to change). I wanted to see how many of these books were available for subscribers of Kindle Unlimited, Oyster, and Scribd, and in Overdrive at my public library.

Of our 30 books, only 6 (20 percent) were available via Kindle Unlimited, 7 (23 percent) were available through Oyster, 8 (27 percent) through Scribd, and 13 (43 percent) were available through my library. However, of those 13, 10 were on hold. Financially, a Kindle Unlimited subscription would have accounted for $51.48 of our list, Oyster $40.54, Scribd $56.53, and if you didn’t mind waiting a short while, the library would save you $92.42 (plus the money you saved on subscription fees to a commercial
service). Dedicated library users often rely on “the shotgun method,” where you put several books you’re interested in on hold and receive them randomly as they become available, but that doesn’t help much if you need reading material right away.

We can take away a few lessons here. First, it’s worth your time to get a library card and see what’s available on your public library’s digital shelves. You’re likely already paying for your local library with your tax dollars, so you may as well use it. Second, there’s only a slim chance that these subscription books services, as they currently exist, will save you much money.

That’s not to say that Kindle Unlimited is a complete waste. Sure, it’s filled with virtual piles of self-published junk, but there are a host of gems to be found: the aforementioned The Hunger Games trilogy, Harry Potter, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books; most of Philip K. Dick’s works; Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels; Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”; and Thomas Piketty’s just-released “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

If you can identify a number of titles that you can read quickly, subscribing to Kindle Unlimited for a month or two might save you a pretty penny. Of course, you won’t actually own those books, but when you buy books encumbered by digital rights management, you never truly own them anyway.

That is, unless you strip Amazon’s DRM off the downloaded file, the method of which I leave as an exercise to the reader. But that leads to an excellent question posed by our own Michael Cohen: what’s to stop people from signing up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited, downloading dozens of books, and then stripping away the DRM? Well, nothing, apart from general honesty.

There has been much talk about the effect of Kindle Unlimited on authors, but as a published author myself, I’m not terribly worried. First of all, ebook piracy is nothing new, and it’s usually the best-selling titles that are the most pirated (giving less popular books away might even boost sales). Second, it’s up to the publishers to decide if they will participate in Kindle Unlimited (Take Control books aren’t included). If Amazon isn’t offering enough money to the publisher, and thus the authors, those titles won’t be available on Kindle Unlimited. Sure, publishers don’t necessarily have authors’ best interests at heart, but they do have an
industry that they’re invested in maintaining — an industry that needs authors. Finally, Amazon is paying independent authors directly — if they sell exclusively through the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program and if a reader reads 10 percent or more of the book. Independent authors can choose whether or not they want to be included in Kindle Unlimited. Of course, this is an oversimplification of a complex situation that can affect each author differently.

In general, as a reader and writer, I’m in favor of anything that gets people reading more — including cheaper ebooks — even if I deplore Amazon’s strong-arm tactics with authors and publishers.

Another way to look at this: did Netflix kill the movie and TV industry? No, of course not — if anything, Netflix has been an overall boon to the movie and TV industry. (And yes, I realize there are significant differences between video and books.) As a recent example, AMC’s “Breaking Bad” was obscure until Netflix viewers started marathoning the villainous drug drama. In the recording industry, “Weird Al” Yankovic scored his first number one Billboard 200 album with the recent “Mandatory Fun,” likely thanks to posting eight free music videos and the entire
album on streaming audio services. In short, there’s no reason to assume that subscription services can’t enhance existing content markets.

With that said, what about readers? I can’t see Kindle Unlimited garnering that many subscribers as things stand now, with such a thin selection. $9.99 per month isn’t unreasonable, but only if you would get your money’s worth of books you want to read. By comparison, Marvel Unlimited, which focuses on comic books, charges the same $9.99, but has a vastly greater selection and most of the titles Marvel fans want to read.

Kindle Unlimited is a service that can please almost no one. It angers publishers, who see it as devaluing their products — a sentiment many authors share. Voracious readers will be frustrated, as they’ve probably read most of the good stuff on offer. And more leisurely readers will likely better off buying books individually. It’s not like Kindle books are all that expensive — relatively few exceed $10, thanks to Amazon’s insistence on cheap ebooks (backed up by court rulings against the attempts by Apple and publishers to raise prices, see “Apple Receives Final Judgment in Ebook Price-Fixing Case,” 9 September 2013). The only people likely to benefit from Kindle Unlimited
are self-published authors in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program, for whom any increased exposure is a win.

Ultimately, what makes the existence of Kindle Unlimited rather pointless is the fact that for a $99-per-year Amazon Prime subscription and a Kindle (starting at $69), you get access to much of the same stockpile of ebooks (minus audiobooks), thanks to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. With Amazon Prime’s added benefits of free two-day shipping, streaming video, and streaming music, it’s hard not to see it as a better deal than Kindle Unlimited.

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