UPDATE: I am now noting kindle unlimited availability, by book, in my monthly reading lists and providing ongoing analysis of whether kindle unlimited would have saved me $ that month. For my Sci-fi & Fantasy reading list–August 2014, kindle unlimited would have saved me $10, so the value has improved for me in the past month. Will keep you posted, @securityjones.

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This past week, Amazon introduced kindleunlimited, a service available for $9.99 a month, which offers a library of more than 600,000 e-books and thousands of audiobooks.  In this post, I look at whether that subscription is worth it for most readers.

The least you need to know:

The kindleunlimited subscription, as launched, provides little value for the vast majority of people. 

Continue reading for all the details and analysis.

The Washington Post has asked Is Kindle Unlimited worth it? in one article and I want to address the same question here, since I found their answer unsatisfying in terms of specifics.  Their main criteria came out to be how many books you read per year:

Kindle Unlimited is $9.99 per month. So you'll be paying Amazon, whose chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post, around $120 per year for the unfettered e-book access. If you're habitually spending money on more than one book per month, then it's a service to think about. It has its perks for big book buyers -- namely that don't have to worry about spending money on a book you end up hating.

According to the research highlighted by the Washington Post, the average person doesn’t read enough to make kindle unlimited worthwhile, but it may be worth a look if you read more than one book per month.

This simple analysis really only makes sense if you are someone who primarily reads paperback or hardback books and are making the jump to ebooks.  Realistically, if you are reading ebooks on a Kindle or Nook or your iPad already, then you are already reaping large savings over your peers who still buy “real” (non-electronic) books.  My wife, for example, reads 3-4 books a month, but it is not at all clear to me that she’d benefit from this new service.  On one hand, when she’s looking through the Amazon library, she gives preference to books she sees that she can “borrow for free”, but on the other hand is equally willing to spend 11.99 to pre-order the latest from a known and well-loved author.

How many books do you read?

So, let’s start where the Washington Post did with the question of how many books we read.  I looked back at the actual digital orders for my wife and I from the beginning of April to July 20. Note that Jacki largely reads romance/romantic suspense/romantic comedy and I primarily read science fiction & fantasy.

 

April

May

June

July

Jacki

4

3

4

1 (so far)

Jeff

8

6

13

10 (so far)

So, using the rough guideline from Washington Post, it looks like kindle unlimited could be a good fit for both Jacki and me.  Let’s continue looking at a second question.

How much do you spend on books each month?

I made a spreadsheet of all of the ebooks that Jacki and I purchased and read since April and divided the total by the number of days.  It turns out that Jacki has spent about $0.75/day and I’ve spent about $1.50/day – but let’s look at that by month (rounded values).

 

April

May

June

July

Jacki

$42

$16

$20

$3 (so far)

Jeff

$30

$45

$63

$25 (so far)

Again, it looks like kindle unlimited could be a good fit for both of us.  Even though Jacki hasn’t spent $9.99 yet in July, it seems likely she’ll buy another book or two.  Even if she doesn’t, the potential saving from the other months make a subscription look potentially valuable.  So, if all of the books we’ve read could be acquired under kindle unlimited, it would clearly be a deal of us.

So far, though, we’ve been ignoring one huge question – how many of the books we buy would be offered as part of kindle unlimited?

How many books did we read that were covered by kindle unlimited?

In this table, I captured how many books we actually read that are covered by kindle unlimited and then put the $cost next to it.

 

April

May

June

July

Jacki

0 / $0

0 / $0

0 / $0

0 / $0

Jeff

1 / $4.33

1 / $3.25

2 / $7.60

3 / $8.66

This puts in solid numbers and it is clear that kindle unlimited would not have been a value for either Jacki or me.  In fact, if we wanted to read the same set of books, we would have ended increasing our costs by more than $55 over the time period. (representing the difference between the monthly totals in the table and $9.99)

For another data point, I did a forward analysis looking at books on my “Recommended for you > Books on Kindle” and found that only 49 of the 150 books (~ 30%) on the list were covered by the subscription.  My average book cost was $4.42 [note: these costs include tax since we live in Washington] and I read an average 9 books/month in the table above, so let’s call it 10 books per month since July is not over. 

In theory, it looks close for me if I read 3 subscriptions books each month of an average value of $4.42.  Again though, the value isn’t quite that high, since the average cost of my books covered by the subscription were only $3.40.  Another issue would be the variance – I’m not going to get a refund on months where I read less than 3, while I would have to read 4 or greater to really accrue any savings in a given month.

Would it be valuable if you only read self-published books?

To be succinct, no.

To be honest, when I started this analysis, I sort of expected that kindle unlimited would be of value to us because we tend to read a lot of self-published books from Amazon. 

I’m a huge supporter of self-published books on Amazon, which has opened up a vast new set of science fiction and fantasy series that I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.  I’d estimate that 80% of my ebook purchases now fall into that category thanks to awesome stories from Christopher Nuttall, Lindsey Buroker, Jamie McFarlane, Michael G. Southwick and many, many others.  These authors, given a fighting chance, are creating some great stories to entertain us – and becoming better writers with each book they release!

On the other hand, these books are cheaper anyway.  Out of 37 books since April, only 6 cost me over $7.  Over half of the books cost me less than $3.50 including tax.

Contrary to what I expected though, when I look through these authors’ books on Amazon, many of them are not covered by kindle unlimited.  School in Magic, for example, and Bookworm by Chris Nuttall and I don’t see any of Buroker’s books are in the subscription, nor Chris Hechtl’s books.

So, in spite of speculation by myself and media, even folks who focus exclusively on the emerging self-publishing genres on Amazon aren’t necessarily getting enough value to justify the monthly subscription.

When would kindle unlimited makes sense?

Assuming you are a pretty frequent reader, there are two scenarios where kindle unlimited could be worthwhile:

Scenario 1: It would be worthwhile if enough of the books read are covered by kindle unlimited which consistently cost more than $9.99 total, per month.  As demonstrated above, this is not the case for us with the current set of books covered by kindle unlimited.

Scenario 2: It would be worthwhile if one was willing tailor their choices to what is covered by kindle unlimited.

Honestly, scenario 2 seems very unlikely for any dedicated reader.  Are you not going to read the latest from your favorite author if it isn’t in the subscription?  Unlikely, so that means you’ll pay for books above and beyond the subscription while still needing to read enough volume from kindle unlimited to make it worthwhile.

And while having some high profiles book series like the Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter makes it seem more valuable and interesting, I suspect avid readers have already read all of these.  I know I have.  To make it valuable to me, there are a few things that will have to happen:

  • Known and loved authors for key genres will have to join the program.  Think of the books you read that show up on Amazon and allow you to place an advance order.  I’m not holding my breath on this one, but this would seriously increase the $ value of the subscription.
  • If all self-published fiction (at least for key genres) was included.  I suspect it is heading this way, so I’ll have to do a reassessment in 3-6 months to see how things have changed.  I will still be buying books outside of the subscription for ‘big’ authors/books, but this sort of change could represent a bigger savings to me.
  • A change in the business model.  I can’t anticipate what this would be, but in my opinion, the current business model is almost completely unsustainable because the value to customers is so low.  It must be a loss leader or forcing function for Amazon towards some other future objective because it is hard to imagine very many readers for which the subscription is worthwhile.

Other Considerations

I don’t leverage the audiobooks, so I didn’t really assess the value of the “more than 2,000 digital audio titles,” but at least one of my colleagues was very interested in that.

Also, I didn’t look at a scenario for youth or children readers – and this could be more appealing for newer readers since they won’t necessarily have read Harry Potter or whatever.  I did spot check my 9yo sons three favorite book series and none of them were covered by kindle unlimited, so that is a data point.

Another thing that I didn’t explore was leveraging one account for the family.  My wife and I use separate accounts for our book purchases because of the recommendations, so I did my analysis that way.  Eyeballing the final table makes it obvious that even if we worked from a single account, kindle unlimited would add cost for us, rather than saving us anything, but your mileage may vary.

Finally, I’m a bit of a collector. One thing I love about my kindle/Amazon experience is that I can go back through 2010 and see exactly what books I read, when I read them and potentially read them again.  I don’t know how that changes with kindle unlimited.  Is it like Netflix in that I could read a book, but potentially lose access to it later when a contract expires? I don’t like that idea, especially when we’re talking about books that only cost $2.99.

Conclusion – Kindle Unlimited is Not a Value for Most People

As an avid reader, the idea of a “Netflix for books” is one that appeals to me, but in my analysis, the kindle unlimited service as it is currently implemented would simply increase the amount of money I’m paying for my books.