Kindle Unlimited Authors & The Visibility Gambit

Kindle Unlimited has had plenty of bad press over the last few years – some of it from me – but some authors are making bank.

Regardless of how some authors feel about Kindle Unlimited, it is popular with readers, meaning there can be huge opportunity for the savvy self-publisher. Especially if you make full use of the tools Amazon gives you, and understand that it’s all about visibility.

Enrolling in KU comes at a well-documented cost: exclusivity. But it’s the potential benefits I want to focus on today because some of that might be getting lost in the (well justified) complaints about scammers, transparency, and falling pay rates. Even though those rates have dropped by around 20% this year alone, KU is still paying out more dollars to indie authors than all non-Amazon retailers combined. And I think indies need to be selfish and do what’s best for them – whatever they decide that may be.

The other price of staying out of KU is arguably the bigger one: visibility. Each borrow is counted as a sale for rank purposes, and borrows can make up 50%-80% (or more) of a KU book’s rank – unless you are down in the telephone number rankings and invisible to everyone.

Borrows Cannibalizing Sales

When KU first launched the big debate among self-publishers was whether borrows would cannibalize sales – an important consideration when sales are more lucrative and puny humans tend to need food several times a day.

And it turns out they do, but of the books not enrolled in KU.

Think about it from the reader’s perspective, where the experience really is frictionless. Let’s say you have already shelled out for the KU subscription. You go scooting around the charts on Amazon looking for a new read and spot a few books that look interesting. One is $2.99, the next is $7.99, and the other is in KU. Which do you download?

The answer is obvious.

Maximizing Page Reads

Okay, so readers love KU, the program is paying out more money to indies than all non-Amazon retailers combined, and staying out has a huge visibility cost – plus you are basically competing against free books if you stay wide. Authors may still decide that exclusivity is too big a price to pay, but these are the factors that must be considered.

If you have opted for KU, or want to make the most of your final term before going wide, a different sort of mindset is required to maximize your page reads.

The promo treats Amazon gives us haven’t really changed over the last few years – still pretty much free days or Countdown deals – but best practices surround them have evolved.

I’ve been managing KU promos for a bestselling author over the last six months and we’ve been putting together hugely effective campaigns generating millions of page reads and Kindle Unlimited All Star bonuses every month since March.

I can tell you that big page read success comes down to three things:

  1. Aggression
  2. Willingness to sacrifice income on the altar of visibility
  3. Patience

Let’s take those in turn.


KU rewards ballsy moves. Put together the biggest campaign you can. A critical mass of sales/downloads is needed to get the visibility which will subsequently turn into reads.

A simple example: I’ve noticed a floor of around 5,000 downloads from a free run to see any kind of meaningful page read boost afterwards. Stack your ads and make sure to break that threshold at minimum. If you are looking like you might fall short, then it’s definitely worth dropping some cash on a Facebook or BookBub CPM campaign to get you over the line – you should get it back in reads.

A more complex example: let’s say you are launching Book 4 in a KU-enrolled series, and are wondering how to build a decent launch. A good approach might be to make Book 1 free for 5 days, and run a concurrent 99¢ Countdown deal on Book 2, and a $1.99 Countdown on Book 3. Maybe load all the ads on sites like ENT and Robin Reads on that free Book 1 and then give the whole series a push with a carousel ad on Facebook.

That’s already a pretty aggressive launch but further boldness is likely to be rewarded. I’d also suggest launching Book 4 at $2.99, even if you normally price and launch at $3.99 or $4.99, and also throwing all sorts of ads into the mix at places that might normally not give you the best ROI.

Because KU is all about visibility.

Sacrificing Income for Visibility

After encouraging you to spend where you normally might not, I’m going to suggest leaving money on the table too – hold on to your hats!

First, though, some algomancy. If you have read Amazon Decoded you’ll know all about the Popularity List and how it works, and you have also have spotted that the Pop List is what feeds into KU reader recommendations.

What does that mean? It’s all about visibility. Sacrificing income today will pay off in page reads tomorrow.

When you are wide, it’s always a trade-off between income and audience. Pricing is about maximizing whichever of those is your immediate goal. You might make a Book 1 permafree to get more buyers for Books 2 and 3. Or you might decide to launch a new release at $4.99 because you know that is the price point which maximizes your income.

In KU, you have just one concern: visibility, and you should be prepared to make moves that will bring in less immediate money if they improve rank. Practically speaking, this might mean launching at $2.99 instead of $4.99, or even launching at 99¢. It might even mean keeping your book at that lower price for a week or two after a launch or promo.

Yes, you want to make money at some point – especially if you have to pay for all the ads that an aggressive KU campaign might demand – but you need to hold your nerve.

Kindle Unlimited Authors Need Patience

This is hard. You’ve spent a whack on ads, launched at a lower price than you would like, and to readers who would be happy to more! Plus, it’s Day 7 now and rank is starting to slip and every cell in your body is screaming at you to jack up the price.

You might want to wait.

Remember the Pop List? Another of its (many) quirks is the lag time. If you sell a bunch of books during your launch or promo, you will tend to see that reflected in a sales rank improvement maybe four hours later. The Pop List is more like four days – meaning it could be Week 2 post-launch before you all those launch sales really improving your position on the Pop List.

And that’s when you get the page read bump.

I could get deeper into the weeds on all this – and will in a book I’m working on – but the short version is this: if you raise your price at what might be the usual time, i.e. at the right moment to maximize income, you could be killing a page read bump which is already en route. One that could dwarf whatever you might make from raising price right after launch week.

And because each borrow counts as a sale for rank purposes, and because borrowing a book is much more frictionless for readers than purchasing, that page read spike can, and often does, turn into a wave of page reads that could keep you at a high level for weeks afterwards. When I’ve organized launches and promos that resulted in millions of page reads, the peak time for those reads wasn’t during the free run or the 99c Countdown deal period – it was often a week or more later. So if you raise your price too early, you won’t get a chance to see what that page read surge could build to.

I’ve seen books launch to, say, #300 in the rankings, hang around there for a few days, then start to slip to maybe #800 or #900. Normally you might raise your price at this point, and try and make some money on the way down, but if you hold off, the book can bed in at a higher point – making you much more money in the long run as that visibility turns into reads.

You might think, that’s the creamy top. What about the rest of us? Well, there’s plenty of milk in the middle too, and these principles hold true on a smaller scale also. For example, a free run can work pretty well on a standalone book, because that visibility turns into reads and those reads will keep coming in for quite a while.

Before you decide to go wide, it might be worth exploring how to maximize your income in KU first. If you have the resources to market aggressively and if you are willing to sacrifice immediate income for long-term visibility, the rewards can be immense.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

37 Replies to “Kindle Unlimited Authors & The Visibility Gambit”

  1. When you say ~ 5000 downloads to get the pop list going, do you mean on one day? Or spread over a few days?
    (Got all your promo books, BTW. Amazon Decoded is such an eye-opener. And Strangers to Superfans. Wish I’d read them sooner!) Thanks!

    1. Don’t fixate on that number too much because it’s highly variable and just given as a very rough guide. And I’m typically talking about the standard five-day free run period, rather than one day.

      1. Oh, cool. That’s what I assumed, and stacked promo accordingly. It’s a useful number to check your order of magnitude of promo is right, even if it’s very rough. People like me love numbers to aim for. Thanks. 🙂

    2. Hello David,

      I’m a new author of children’s books in the final edit stage of a series. I followed a link from a book by Karen Inglis which led to you. Lots of food for thought, thank you. I just wanted you to know that I’m learning from you (and articles by Karen and Joanna Penn). All three of you are sharing such a wealth of indie information with different perspectives and your own self-publishing stories to tell. It’s so valuable to us newbies! I’ve just bought one of your ebooks as my way of saying thanks for the free stuff as with the two ladies I mentioned. Proves what goes around comes around.

  2. I really like your books and blog. You be smart.

    I am in KU… sort of… I have a series of ten novels. Seven of the novels are in KU. I keep the new novels out of KU and sell them at the normal price for all my books $9.99 for ebooks and $19.99 for paperbacks. I have high read-through – 85% from Book One to Book Two and about 75% overall for the series. My original idea was to put new releases in KU when sales drop. But they haven’t dropped. My new strategy is to get the KU readers hooked on the series and force them to buy beyond the first seven. My royalty revenue from the three books not in KU is about 30% of my overall royalty revenue and holding fairly steady six months after release.

    I don’t run promos or discount my books beyond 7-book bundles (Shopify) and KU. I have tried promos and other discount strategies before and they don’t seem to make much of a difference in overall revenue (but I will admit that efforts have not been a full-court press.) I price my books high so I have a strong margin which allows me to advertise heavily. I usually have a $500 per day ad spend. It could be a genre thing. I write historical war fiction. My book one tends to hover around #10,000 in rank.


    P.S. I am very jealous of you living in Portugal. I live in Thailand. I wish I could split my time between Pattaya and Porto.

  3. Hi, David! This is a fantastic post. Thanks for the great information!

    Can you tell me how you know when to raise the price from 99 cents? And also, is there anything new in 2018 that changes how this works? I’m getting ready to launch the first three books in a series and two stand-alones, all in a new pen name without a mailing list. Would you launch them all simultaneously or hold off a little in between?

    1. Are the standalones linked to the series? I’d be tempted to turn one of them into a reader magnet (or carve out something else you can use) to get that list going. Launch the reader magnet at the same time as Book 1 and have 2 and 3 ready to go a month apart after that. Go out aggressively at 99c to maximize visibility and borrows and sign-ups and then raise price some time after that with an eye on running further promos for the next two launches. This post should have a lot more info for you:

      1. Thanks, David. Sorry for taking so long to respond. I thought I had it set up to email me when there was a reply but somehow that didn’t happen.

        Unfortunately the stand-alones are not related to the series, though they are in the same overall genre. I may just try using one as a reader magnet anyway.

        I had already found your other post. A wealth of information here. Thank you so much for all the insights. I feel much more competent at this launch business just for having read it. 🙂 I’m setting things up pretty much as recommended here with an aggressive 99 cent launch.

        The one thing I still don’t understand is how I know when to go ahead and switch to normal pricing. Am I looking for a bump in page reads? Or is it after a certain amount of time?

        Thanks again. Your expert advice is most appreciated!!!

  4. David,

    Do you recommend running the free promotion for 5 days straight or for a shorter period? Also, should the countdown deals on books 2, 3 run for the full seven days or just the same five days of the free deal on book 1?

    Do you also run ads for books 2, 3 or just for the free one? And do you have the ads for the free book run on the same day, Day 1 of the free sale, I presume?

    1. Hi Jonathan, generally I recommend going the full five days and trying to maximize downloads as much as possible. Same goes for the Countdown Deals, although it can sometimes be hard to get enough juice to keep things going at a consistent level on those last couple of days.

      If there is a free element to the promotion, such as Book 1 free, then most of the reader site ads will be focused on the freebie, as they are the cheapest source of clicks and downloads for free books, which get much more expensive to generate in places like FB and BB, for less direct return too. So, reader sites will be shifting the freebie. FB will push the series as a whole. Your mailing list will drive sales of the new release (if this is a launch promo rather than a backlist promo), and then BB ads can be dropped in strategically where needed – if the budget stretches that far.

  5. Thanks for this detailed post. This is the first time I have read a KU specific marketing strategy and it helps a lot. I have a question about the Book 4 launch example that you have given.
    So Book 1 is free, others are at KCD, and Book 4 is at the launch price of 99c or 2.99. We are running promos on the free book and doing the FB ads and BB ads.
    Are we running any promos or ads on Book 4? Is it going to be marketed directly, or is it only going to be marketed via the free book? Is that enough?
    I have never hit the 5K threshold for free downloads that you mention, so I guess I have not experienced the full impact that may have on the other books.
    Does Book 4 stand a chance of getting on the Pop list in this example?
    Thanks in advance – I know this is an old post so probably too late to comment here…

  6. David: Thank you for your detailed, patient wisdom. A longtime reader and fan of your KBoards posts, I never thought to spend some time on your blog. Don"t take it personally. There are a number of experts I haven"t yet delved into since I"ve never had enough titles to achieve any sort of critical mass using your/their strategies. I know Mark Dawson from his original pre-course days, and have yet to purchase a single ad! Ditto Dave of KDPRocket, which I finally bought this week.

    Now that we"re closing in on the turn of the year launch of a new Prequel + 3 full Novels and the boxed set, I need advanced knowledge. And here I have found the realistic experience required to make a realistic launch and follow-through plan.

    Many thanks!

    Ibizwiz in Kboards

  7. I want a post about your aggressive strategies for that bestselling author and what you"ve found works best for promoting KU books.

    1. It"s hinted at above (in the “more complex example”). It depends what we are doing – a launch in an existing series, a promo of flagging backlist, a kind-of-relaunch for new-to-KU books. In short, throwing the kitchen sink at it. We might run a mix of free and KCDs across a series simultaneously, focusing most of the reader site ads on the series entry point, and then pushing the rest on Facebook and BookBub etc.

      When you are in KU, all sorts of ad venues suddenly become viable. Not only do you have sellthru to the rest of the series, borrows resulting from that visibility, and what I guess you could call “borrowthru” as well, you also get 70% on 99c/$1.99 sales during your countdown period which shifts the equation dramatically. So there might be ad sites out there which I wouldn"t use if I was wide, that suddenly become viable in KU.

      Or take AMS ads. Normally you need an ACOS of 70% to break even, but when you are in KU, those sales are buying visibility which adds additional reads so you can tolerate a higher ACOS and still break even – and that"s before considering series sellthru also.

      Or take FB ads. A certain CPC/conversion rate might put you in the red when you are wide but become profitable in KU with the additional reads that visibility generates.

      Same goes for BB CPM ads and everything else. Being in KU means that any visibility you buy will pay out at a greater rate – meaning you can afford higher rates for that visibility.

  8. In my admittedly very brief experience, KDP Select is a complete waste of time if you are a first time author with a single title to your name (that isn"t romance), without a pre-existing fan base of readers.

    I might give it another try in 5 years when I have a back catalogue of books to my name, and an established readership for my writing For the time being there is no benefit in it for me, whatsoever.

    1. You could make the opposite argument too, but the truth is you will face those challenges either way. Lots of writers have used KDP Select to find their first readers and build an audience, and then a career.

  9. Glad to see your own promos are back on schedule, David. That was quite a set back that Amazon caused. This post though…every reason you suggest for investing in KU is a core reason for unknowns like me to stay away. I have patience in truckloads, but that"s all I have. My following is small, and I simply don"t have the funds to invest in advertising of any sort.
    I believe there is a critical mass of visibility that an Indie must reach /before/ these strategies for KU page reads actually start to work. I"m still struggling with that critical mass. 🙁

    1. I should probably clarify: the kind of muscle needed in an All-Star-aiming campaing is significant, and requires a large campaign a good catalog of books professionally presented with excellent covers, lots of ads on reader sites, a bit of a spend on FB and BB also, etc.

      But that"s not the ONLY strategy which works in KU, just the optimal one IMO. It"s probably an extreme example, but I wanted to show what is possible even when taking all those principles above to extremes.

      It works on a smaller scale too. I had a standalone book which wasn"t doing great. I had a free run with 30,000 downloads and that lead to a page read bump which lasted 5 or 6 weeks. The book is still at a much higher ranking two months down the line, has four times as many reviews as before, and every penny I invested in the promo campaign was paid back in about 3 weeks.

      Outside of KU, that campaign might have been a bust, but the visibility turned into reads which also helped keep the book at a higher level, and that visibility turned into further reads, etc. A feedback loop of sorts.

      Basically what I"m saying is that a different approach, a different mindset is required depending on whether you are wide or in KU.

      Yes, a certain amount of visibility is needed before you will see any meaningful effect, but it"s within your grasp. BookBub might be tough to get, but you can put together a decent campaign with other sites. If you have a series, run a few promos concurrently (e.g. like in the manner suggested above, Free Book, 99c book, 1.99 book) and try and push everything simultaneously so they feed into each other.

      It doesn"t necessarily require a huge investment at all. Obviously best results will be achieved if you can spend more money (and spend it well), but Amazon is definitely the one arena where you can bootstrap yourself to bigger things.

      1. Ah this makes sense and yes, some of those suggestions I /can/ do and will do in the future. Thanks so much for clarifying. I feel a lot more hopeful now. 🙂

  10. Thank you David. Just a quick question, regarding making a book free (I"ve never attempted that) as you seem to imply that you get pages read from it. “A simple example: I’ve noticed a floor of around 5,000 downloads from a free run to see any kind of meaningful page read boost afterwards. Stack your ads and make sure to break that threshold at minimum.”
    Is that because if a KU member downloads it you get pages read?

    1. No – you don"t get paid if a KU member downloads your free book, but some people will borrow and read that way even while your book is free. The real benefit is post-free. All those free downloads will lead to a bump in page reads after you return to the paid listings.

      1. Hi David, Just curious: How do free downloads boost my visibility after the free promotion is over? As I understand it, the free downloads do not boost my ranking except in the free rankings. So when my book returns to the paid listings, its rank would most likely be lower than before the promotion. So how does this lead to a bump in KU page reads?

        Thanks for any clarification you can offer 🙂

      2. I think the post above links back to an older one about the Popularity List which goes into detail on that effect, but, in short:

        The only thing that affects sales rank is sales (and borrow, and time in the sense that the weighting of both will decay over time, i.e. new sales are worth much more than old ones, and very old ones are worth almost nothing). What decides your position in the charts is your sales rank.

        The popularity list is different in many ways. One pertinent difference here is that free downloads are counted. This means that after your free run, you will see your title improve its position on the popularity list – if you have enough downloads to begin with. That increased visibility leads to borrows as the popularity list is one of the main things feeding into recommendations for KU subscribers. Therefore, more borrows.

      3. Thanks for that explanation, and I also checked out the other post about the popularity lists. It is challenging to keep up with all of this, so thank you also for keeping us more up to date.

  11. I should note quickly that I"m far from the inventor of this approach or the originator of these insights – Phoenix Sullivan pretty much pioneered this visibility-first, aggressive marketing, winning-KU strategy.

    1. I can"t say exactly why, but the more I give away for free, the more reads I get. I am on track to give away 100k books this month, and accumulate 1.2 million KU page reads. Visibility I suppose.

  12. What a timely piece for me. I recently took over my wife"s marketing process and she has 40+ titles spread out over several series. Some were in KU, some were not. One in particular languished in KU for years, 4 books making $3 per day each. I used all 20 free days over the course of about 5 weeks, gave away 20k copies (just at your 5k avg cited here) and a month later profits are still at $15 per day per book – a whopping increase of $110 a month to $1800 per month – all off less than $500 in promo ads. Now to replicate that with 20+ other books….

  13. KU makes up roughly half my income. I know the exclusivity pill is a tough one for most authors to swallow, but as David pointed out, the market of very active readers is huge.

    One final note: the KU marketplace is weighted higher towards some genres than others. For instance, KU seems to be a must for several sub-genres of sci-fi, but perhaps less so for thrillers. It"s best to check out your targeted sub-genre"s top twenty. If mostly filled with KU titles, that tells you where many of the readers are.

    1. That"s a good point. Some romance authors will be up at the top of that range and SF wouldn"t be far behind but others can vary quite a bit. I bet it"s down to relative indie penetration. Thrillers is a bit of a holdout in that it"s still trad dominated, so less popular authors in KU, less thriller reader attraction to the program perhaps. Or high visibility spots being blocked off by big name perma-sellers like Patterson et al. Or maybe both.

      1. My thinking too. I know a few multi-genre authors who are wide with their thrillers because of this, but all in KU for their sci-fi for the reasons you"ve mentioned. Each author needs to just check their specific market and see how well it does in KU.

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