Does Kindle Unlimited cannibalize book sales?

Here’s a thread that pops up when you google “does KU cannibalize book sales?”

The conclusion:

Tracy-663094KU borrows do not cannibalize sales on Amazon. KU subscribers are a different audience than Amazon buyers. A KU subscriber probably won’t even see your book if it’s not in KU (since they’ll filter their searches) and even if they did find it, why would they buy it if there are (literally) 1.2 million other books they can read for free.In fact KU borrows help sales in Amazon. This I can personally attest to, because I pulled half my catalog out of KU and sales on Amazon crashed. Since KU borrows count towards a books ranking, books that are not in KU will not be as visible, won’t be bought, will drop in rank, etc.

This is a nice thought.

Here’s another thread that pops up for the same search.

The conclusion:

I don’t for one second think that all my borrows would be sales even though I know that borrows cannibalize sales.

After nearly two years of looking at sales and KENP pages read, here’s what I think:

YES. KU borrows absolutely, no question about it, cannibalize sales. At least for me.

I know this for sure because I brought out Pure Magic in May 2015 (If you read that sentence and suddenly blinked and thought about how fast the years pass, me too.) But I didn’t put it in KU until March 2018. I can click on “lifetime” and look at sales and KENP reads on the same page and wow. I mean, wow. Sales plummet the moment the title is in KU. Same with Shadow Twin.

Also, the only titles that have never been in KU are Door into Light and The Sphere of the Winds and both of those, particularly the latter, show relatively strong direct sales compared to any Black Dog book. That’s not direct evidence that KU eats direct sales, but it’s suggestive and I personally don’t doubt that this is an important phenomenon.

It’s harder to figure out what that means to income generated by these titles. KDP tells me that Shadow Twin is 668 normalized pages. That means that I earn close to $3 when someone reads the whole thing in KU, which is slightly less than I would earn if they bought the book (at the normal price of $4.99). But obviously if more people read the book in KU than would ordinarily buy the book, the royalties generated could be more, and probably that is happening. Or maybe not! It’s hard to tell!

Regardless, other things are also going on. As you all know — I don’t think anyone could have missed it — the moment I released Tuyo, in May 2020, I started trying much, much harder to make self-publishing into a worthwhile thing. While self-publishing is not yet where I want it to be, it’s certainly far more worthwhile than it used to be, no question about that. Starting in June 2020, the increase in sales (to a limited extent) and KU reads (to a massive extent) is blindingly obvious if I look at “lifetime” and “all titles.” I now routinely get roughly the same number of pages read per day that I used to get per month.

What’s interesting to me is that whenever I run any kind of sale, direct sales respond relatively weakly, but KU pages read responds more strongly, with a lag of course, but considerably more strongly than direct sales and for much longer. Of course one reason for this is that people read the first book in a series, or at least start it, and they think it’s pretty good and go on to get other books in the series. That’s got to be important.

Did it help to drop the prices of almost every book in the series and then run a series promo via Freebooksy? Yes, it did. This promo caused a lot more direct sales than any other series promotion I’ve ever run (still a smallish number, but a big difference). I definitely plan to drop prices for the whole series in the future when I run a series promotion. That will make more difference if I’ve got more books per series; eg, for Black Dog and (relatively soon) for Tuyo, but I think it will make a different for any series.

A probable second reason for the KU bounce is that setting a book to free and promoting it via Freebooksy causes enough downloads to move a title to #1 in a lot of categories and therefore Amazon puts that title in front of a lot of readers. I can’t think of a way to tell what effect that specifically has, but it surely can’t hurt. Black Dog has been #1 in Werewolves and Shifters, Fantasy Adventure Fiction, Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy Fiction, and Occult Horror for the past three days. This is true even though downloads have fallen off sharply. By the end of today, I bet it will have fallen out of the top spot for most or all categories, though I bet it will still be in the top ten for today and who knows, maybe tomorrow.

I will add, though, that the BEST way to increase both sales and KU read remains: Bring out a new book. That makes a much bigger and more permanent difference than running a promotion. I really hope and expect to bring out a minimum of three titles next year — maybe four. We’ll see!

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4 thoughts on “Does Kindle Unlimited cannibalize book sales?”

  1. What does it mean for the author if I don’t read the middle of a KU book but I do read the last few pages? I do that for books that I don’t really like but still want to know the ending.

  2. Maria, I’m not sure. I’ve heard of “click farms,” where people are hired to click through ebooks and thus greatly inflate pages read. That implies that you have to click through each page rather than going to the table of contents and selecting the last chapter and jumping straight to it.

    Clickfarming appears to be a pretty big thing, regularly allowing scammers to take top spots for free books. Here’s a post about that.

  3. Amazon changes how things like this work all the time, so I don’t know. I do know that KU reads generally go sharply upward following a five-day free promotion, with the boost to KU reads beginning about the time the free sale ends and continuing for about a month (this is a very rough estimate and sales on the same exact book and series can vary dramatically). This leads in turn to the recently free book getting a rankings boost.

    If a free first book leads to boosts in paid sales of later books in the series, those will certainly boost those later books in the rankings. I find it painful to reduce all the books in the series a lot in price, for obvious reasons, but I think that probably helps boost sales, rankings, and visibility. Freebooksy, EReader IQ, and all do series promos as well as single-book promos. The upcoming promos I’ll be running in March will be the first time I’ve used JustKindleBooks, so I’ll be interested in seeing whether that service provides a significant boost.

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