Too many books or Kindle Unlimited: Why sales may be down

February 11, 2015 Musings 8

Anna over at Herding Cats & Burning Soup has a discussion-starter post about whether Kindle Unlimited is hurting authors’ sales, or whether the problem is just market saturation. I started to reply to her post, and realized I was writing a whole post of my own… so here it is.


I used to work for a bookstore chain, some 25-30 years ago. And there were a fair number of books coming out per month (not that we carried them all). Nonetheless, it does seem to me there are more per month now – in some areas (YA, anyone?) a lot more. So yes, in part the drop in sales that some authors are seeing may be due to market over-saturation: there are just too many books, as Anna suggests in her post.

But in part it’s also a factor of easier access. I know, that doesn’t seem to make sense, but hear me out. 25 years ago, when you wanted a book, you went to a bookstore, where you could browse only what they had in stock – far less than the number of books actually available. Unless you were a professional and got the publisher catalogs, you heard about new books by seeing them in stores, or in the library, or reading a review in a print publication. So readers didn’t really <i>know</i> about all the books, or even all the books in our areas of interest. We only knew about the ones we actually came across, so those were the ones we bought and read.

Today it is so much easier to find out about new books, as well as to buy them. Amazon, B&N, and Kobo all make recommendations. Goodreads makes recommendations. There are tons of book blogs making recommendations. And if the local bookstore doesn’t have a book in stock, you can order it online. If you have a Kindle, the recommendations are constantly coming right into your device. Of course our wishlists or TBR lists are longer now – we are exposed to a lot more titles per month. And for a lot of us, that has translated into buying more and more books.

As Anna points out, that’s overwhelming; she can’t keep up. She has so many unread books already that she only buys what she is going to read right away – in other words, no more stashing for the future. I think a lot of us – bloggers certainly, and possibly non-blogging avid readers as well – are in the same boat. “Too many books, too little time” will – must! – eventually result in a near-moratorium on buying books.

I know I’m at that point, or at least I should be. I have two whole bookcases of print books I haven’t read yet (mostly bought used), and that’s not counting what’s in my Kindle. I’m at the point where I’m starting to delete Kindle freebies I’ll probably never read, and pruning the physical books, both read and unread. And I’m trying to be more careful about buying Kindle books just because they are on sale and I might want to read them someday. (I’ll let you know when I actually succeed!) buried-under-books

But getting back to why authors are complaining that Kindle Unlimited is hurting their sales: As I indicated above, I’m sure market saturation plays a big part in sales or the lack thereof. But the authors may also be seeing a real phenomenon. Some of them can point to a drop in sales immediately after their books became available on Kindle Unlimited, which rather suggests they might be on to something in blaming KU.  I’m curious whether there was a similar drop when their books were available on Oyster or Scrib’d. (It would probably be smaller, because I’m guessing those services have fewer subscribers, but it should have been noticeable.)

I think it remains to be seen whether the subscription model as it currently stands has a long-term, measurable effect on author income. But I won’t be surprised if it does. Some musicians have noticed the same thing with the proliferation of services like Spotify and Pandora – which pay less than pennies per song. And music isn’t like books – you would expect someone who loves a song might eventually purchase it, because people do listen to their favorite songs over and over. Far fewer people (other than me) read their books multiple times. Books are a one-time thing for the most part, which makes a subscription service much more attractive to readers – and much more likely to affect an author’s overall sales. If you’ve read a book via subscription, why bother to buy it?


For now, I haven’t signed up for Kindle Unlimited. Between my own books, ARCs, and the library, I have more than enough to read without it, and anyway, not all of the authors I want to read are available through it. Which brings me to another thought: People who do have KU (or Oyster or Scrib’d) will probably look there first when they want something to read. Unless they want to read a specific book that isn’t available through the service, they may read from the service rather than buy a book on a whim. If enough people do that, it drives down sales across the board. So that’s another way in which authors’ sales might be affected by subscription services: fewer books being bought overall translates to fewer books sold by any given author. Again, that’s only a hypothesis; it will probably take a few years of data-gathering and -crunching before we know for sure. But I can see why authors are worried.

It’s both an exciting and a scary time to be an author, because things are changing so much. Some of the changes help authors, if they can take advantage of them – like using social media to promote their books. Other changes may be detrimental. I think the jury is still out on whether subscription book services is one of them.


What do you think? Are too many books being published? Do you feel overwhelmed by too many choices or too many books you already own? Are subscription services good or bad for authors – and readers?

8 Responses to “Too many books or Kindle Unlimited: Why sales may be down”

  1. Katherine @ I Wish I Lived in a Library

    You make an interesting point about access. When I was a kid I discovered Four Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright in a bookstore and I read that book to pieces. I adored that book. So I was shocked as an adult when I discovered that not only was in part of a series but Enright had several other books. While I have enjoyed them very much as an adult it makes me kind of sad that I didn’t get to read them as a kid just because neither the local bookstore or library had them.
    I don’t buy all that many books for the same reason you and Anna don’t buy many books. I don’t know if the subscription services are really going to keep people from buying books but I think now there’s just so many out there the sales get spread out a little thinner.
    Katherine @ I Wish I Lived in a Library recently posted…Deadly Assets – Blog Tour ReviewMy Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I know exactly what you mean! I was lucky that between school libraries and the public library I was able to find all the Melendy books, but I didn’t fare as well with other authors and series. My mom bought me two of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books in England, when we visited there. We didn’t know the series well enough to get the first book, even! It took me years to track down even a few of the others in the U.S. (That was well before the Internet, when you had only 2 options for out-of-print books: the library or used book stores. I haunted the latter whenever I could.)

  2. Bea @Bea's Book Nook

    I can definitely see subscription services affecting sales but I tend to lump them with libraries – they allow you to try books and authors you might not otherwise. I can’t count the number of authors I’ve gone on to read or buy because I got one of their books at the library and enjoyed it. It will be interesting down the road to see what effect the lending services have. I barely have time to read the books I already own (says the woman who has downloaded 2 freebies and 2 review books so far this week). I have even less money to purchase books so I am finicky about what I buy.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      “hey allow you to try books and authors you might not otherwise. ” Yes, and that’s also the reasoning behind offering ebooks at $1.99 or $2.99 or whatever. It works, too. I’ve bought the entire Lunar Chronicles (well, I haven’t gotten Fairest yet) in Kindle after reading Cinder from the library – and now I’m thinking of buying the hardcovers as well. I bought Nora Roberts’ Dark Witch as a deeply discounted Kindle book, and preordered the next two. I could name a number of other authors whose acquaintance I’ve made through the library, Kindle Daily Deals, or ARCs, whose books I’ve gone on to buy and collect: Charles Finch, Jim C. Hines, Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle/Amanda Quick, Robyn Carr, Emily March, Bee Ridgeway, and a bunch of cozy writers…

      “I barely have time to read the books I already own (says the woman who has downloaded 2 freebies and 2 review books so far this week.)” LOL – I’m in the same boat. I say I have to cut back on getting new books, and then I don’t.

  3. anna (herding cats & burning soup)

    It really is amazing how much the internet has changed things with availability and knowing what’s out there when you think about it. It’s been there most of my life though I am way more active online than I used to be because of the blog. I really do wonder some times if that’s part of the oversaturated feel. Hrms!

    I tried the free KU but it just wan’t for me. Very few of the books I read ended up being a part of it. You know, that’s actually the opposite of what I’ve heard from authors regarding KU. The ones I’ve had complaining are the ones NOT in KU. They say their sales have fallen because readers are ONLY reading books in KU and since theirs aren’t in it they’re suffering. I just don’t quite buy into that personally.

    You’re totally right it is an awesome and scary time for the community. It’ll be interesting to see where things fall and end up within the next couple years!
    anna (herding cats & burning soup) recently posted…Guest Post w/ Anne Barton–Crushing on Your Brother’s Friends…My Profile

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I’m not I buy into that argument either, Anna, but I wish there were hard data to say one way or another. I could see it happening. OTOH, I suspect low-price and free ebooks also have at least a little impact on sales of authors whose books aren’t sold at a hefty discount, even while they serve to (hopefully) increase sales of the authors whose books are offered for less. I am spending more on books for myself now than I have over the last few years, but I’m spending a lot of it on books that are $1.99. OTOH, I wasn’t buying a lot of new hardcovers before – only the authors I collect that way. Same with paperbacks. I try only to buy new print books that I want to own and keep, for reasons of both budget and available shelf space! I read way too many books in a year to be able to afford them all new. But I do buy new books for other people – a fair number of them, actually, in both print and Kindle formats. It’s the top choice of gift in our extended family, so I spend a lot on books at Christmas in particular! I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I think about it, though my buying habits have changed in that I’m getting more Kindle books on sale, I don’t think it’s affecting my overall book purchases that much.

  4. Bookworm Brandee

    Great post, Lark!! I’d never really thought about the fact that we have so many more books available. <– That's why my shelves are overflowing! 😉 I don't think that too many books are being published – I like the variety. But I'm sure it does affect sales numbers for authors/publishers. As for KU – I was at a conference back in October and most of the authors that spoke there weren't fans. But like you said, the jury is still out. Scary times, indeed.
    Bookworm Brandee recently posted…#ShelfLove ~ My *ahem* Book Buying BudgetMy Profile