Kindle Unlimited – has the digital rollercoaster of death left the station, or is it all going to be fine.

As has been mentioned quite often of late, the language of simile has become the norm for start-ups, with every business being posited as the Netflix for books or the Hailo for air travel or the Google for, well, anything else. Come to think of it, we have never heard of a Hailo for air travel … Someone should develop that and buy us a plane.

In reality, it’s only the names that have changed, and comparisons like this have always been a powerful way to explain a complicated business model in a sentence. There was undoubtedly an Elizabethan version of the elevator pitch in which some young buck adjusted his skinny ruff, hopped into a passing coach and explained why his business was the moveable type for the butter-churn generation. His audience was unimpressed and he was jousted out the window. Such is life.

But Kindle Unlimited has now launched, and the easiest way to describe it is as a Netflix for books.* You pay £7.99 a month, get up to 10 books per month, and you can hold them for as long as you like – although you will continue to pay your monthly subscription.

The model raises a number of questions. Firstly, for heavy ebook readers** who mostly shop at Amazon Kindle (which most ebook readers do), this is quite a good deal. Or, at least, it’s cheaper, and the books you want need to be included in the Kindle Unlimited range, which not all books are. What happens, then, if you take a subscription out, and the book you want is not included? Do you buy it, or do you buy another book that is included? After all, your second choice would be free.

Also, for those readers who buy ebooks occasionally, but still like to pick up the odd book in bookshops, will they be less tempted to pick up a print copy in a shop if that book is available to them for free as an ebook? Almost certainly.

A last question, and possibly the most important question, is about the criteria on which books are chosen for inclusion. For instance, is it all books for which the publisher (or author) gives permission? Or is it at the discretion of the retailer, and presumably Amazon could make a strong case that it should be, given it’s their business and not a public service. But, if this were to be the rule, what would happen in the event of a dispute such as the one currently playing out ad nauseam with Hachette?

It’s not a case, it’s important to say, that there are no answers to these questions, just that they should be considered if we, as readers, are to opt for some of the benefits that this programme would offer.


* Or as a library, which is not free. Unlike a library.

** We’re making a distinction here between ebook readers and e-readers, not a commentary on weight. We once picked up a large old volume in a university library, and inscribed inside the flyleaf were the following words: ‘Though the object be heavy it is nonetheless valuable. Let that thought console fat readers.’ That’s not what we meant in this case.