The Kindle Unlimited Service. For $10 a month = $120 a year, you get access to hundreds of thousands of titles for free. Sounds like a good deal, but I hate taking on what I call “lifestyle overhead”, the little services that nickel & dime your monthly paycheck until you have nothing left. The cell phone plan, the cable plan, magazine subscriptions, etc. all seem cheap but add up. In many cases, it’s worth forgoing the monthly bargain and buying things when you need them. (i.e. rather than subscribing to a magazine, only buying it when you happen by the bookstore and want to read it)
But I’m an avid reader, who easily spends more than $120 a year on books, so it’s worth looking into Amazon’s new offer. With three hours of commute time on Tokyo’s trains, I get through about two books a week for nonfiction, and a book a week for fiction, which means about seventy-five books a year. Joining Kindle Unlimited seems like an easy choice, but is it? Again, I really hate lifestyle overhead. I want to make absolutely sure that it would be worth letting Jeff Bezos’s hand slip into my wallet every payday to yank out a ten spot.
My first mistake was to browse through Kindle Unlimited’s selection and try to get a feel for the books I could read through it. That’s probably what Amazon is counting on people to do. Granted, there are a lot of interesting and appealing books, and I could see myself reading them. But, that was the wrong way to go about it, and I caught myself.
I was making the same mistake people who walk into a department store, see something on sale, and buy it, thinking they’re saving money, make, which is: It’s not saving money if you wouldn’t have bought it in the first place.
So I decided to try a different approach. I went to my formidable Amazon wishlist and went title-by-title, putting the books into the Kindle Unlimited search form.
That line of text would soon become a familiar sight as I poured through my wishlist. Basically none of the hundreds of books I had deemed worth reading in the future was in their selection. When I was browsing through their collection, I had been wondering why Amazon didn’t include some kind of nudge for the service saying “If you subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, look at how much you’d save off your wishlist!”, but that reason became clear quite fast. Most people would probably get something along the lines of “If you subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, you’d save $0.00!” Not a very enticing advertisement.
Of course, Amazon is a shrewd company with more data on its customers than its customers have on themselves, so they could probably calculate the value of someone’s wishlist and only show an advertisement if the number was something that would look appealing, probably a number greater than $120, the cost for a year, but someone would have to have an enormous wishlist for that number to pop up – the kind of wishlist that includes stuff they don’t remember wanting to read.
Amazon’s new service leaves out a lot of publishers. After their kerfuffle, Hachette obviously has no interest in supporting Amazon, and the other big publishers: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster are still up in the air, likely in heated contract negotiations if they haven’t outright rejected the service.
Independent book authors seem to be getting a big share of the collection (without their prior consent thanks to the terms of the Kindle Digital Select program), which is fine for readers, but not fine for the authors, who are saddled with the KDP Select exclusivity contract, meaning they can’t sell their books elsewhere like normal publishers, on top of getting paid via a strange royalty system.
Given that the reader doesn’t seem to benefit, authors don’t seem to benefit, and publishers don’t seem to benefit, it’s pretty obvious that Amazon is the only one who stands to gain from the service. In addition to a guaranteed income source from people who wish they read a lot but don’t, they can take even more business away from other bookstores and online e-book services because, you can bet, once someone has committed to paying $120 a year for a book service, they’re not going to want to pay more on top of that for a book from somewhere else, even if they’re stuck picking books they weren’t even all that interested in reading.
That point brings up another caveat you should consider. If you’re paying $120 a year for an unlimited book supply, you’re likely to pick the books you read from that supply, whether you wanted to read them or not. If you’re only interested in reading words, then that’s a fine deal, but most of us have a limited amount of time and realize that one good book (or one book that is of particular interest to us) is worth a hundred books that aren’t. Your reading habits will change. No longer will you pick the book that interests you most, read it, then pick the next book that interests you the most, you’ll pick the book that interests you the most from the limited selection in the Unlimited service. The quality of your limited reading time will drop.
There’s also another thing that will drop the quality of your reading time: the unlimited aspect of the Unlimited program. Like overeating and getting sick at an all-you-can-eat buffet to “get the most value for your buck”, you’ll likely start skimming, skipping, or putting books down faster than when you had to pay for them individually. There’s a real chance that, under Unlimited, reading books will become like reading web pages: a skimming process.
Lower quality content (i.e. the books you’re not truly interested in) at a higher pace? Sounds like the internet, and Amazon seems determined to turn the consumption of books in that direction.
Of course, leaving aside that caveats, the true value of the Unlimited program for readers is going to hinge on whether Amazon can get the big publishers on board and get a larger portion of our wishlists available. As of now, they haven’t done it, so it’s probably not worth it. But don’t take my word for it. Go to your wishlist and start typing those titles into their search engine. That will provide you with the only answer you need.