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.