Amazon Kindle Unlimited

Amazon Kindle Unlimited

Amazon's subscription service for e-books and audiobooks

Amazon this week launched a new subscription service for e-books and audiobooks. Dubbed Kindle Unlimited, the service lets readers consume content in a way that is similar to subscription music and video services. But like the retailer's Instant Video service, Kindle Unlimited is launching with very little support from mainstream content providers, limiting your choices somewhat.

Here's how it works.

Kindle Unlimited costs $9.99 per month. It's available in the US only, for now—so please spare me the international griping, I'm just the messenger—but it will be expanding to other countries soon, Amazon says. There is a 30-day free trial if you want to check it out, and that's probably not a bad idea given the current selection.

For this monthly subscription fee, you get access to over 600,000 e-books through Kindle and over 2,000 audiobooks through Audible; that latter bit—and Amazon's cachet, which pretty much ensures that the service will succeed and grow—is Kindle Unlimited's primary advantage over competing e-book subscription services like Scribd. You can keep up to ten books at a time, and there are no due/expiration dates. (But it's also not technically unlimited, I guess.)

Titles with both Kindle and Audible versions also support Amazon's excellent Whispersync for Voice service, which keeps your progress in a book up to date between e-book and audiobook versions of a title. So you can switch back and forth as you wish, though Windows devices are not support on the Audible side of this equation. (More on that below.)

While there are many factors that will contribute to a subscription service's usefulness, content availability is obviously key. And here, your preferences come into play. For example, with music, some people are actively seeking new music, while others only want specific music they're familiar with. If you're in the latter group, you may not want to subscribe to a music service that omitted any of that music.

And so it is with Kindle Unlimited. You can't browse the New York Times bestseller list and cherry-pick from today's top titles, as virtually none of them are available in the subscription. And chances are, your favorite authors are not represented either.

So yes, I can snag subscription-based access to "The Lord of the Rings," which will be helpful if I want to read that trilogy for the 27th time, or any of Tolkien's other often-dense or scholarly works. The Life of Pi is there, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And The Hunger Games series and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's not a total wasteland.

Kindle Unlimited titles will feature a "Read for Free" button, indicating their inclusion in the subscription.

Except that, of course, it is. None of the five biggest publishers are represented in Kindle Unlimited. There's no Stephen King (except for some interviews and so on). No Alan Furst. No Thomas Harris. No Robert B. Parker. No Dan Brown. No Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven, or Jerry Pournelle. On the nonfiction side, I found nothing from David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose. But there are three titles from Antony Beevor, two of which I already own on Kindle and highly recommend.

Looking to learn computer programming or other technical topics? You can't find Aaron Hillegass's amazing Objective-C/iOS books, and you can in fact find exactly zero books about Objective-C, even self-published books.  There are no Microsoft Press books, but there are a number of edge-case C# books from which to choose. There are some Windows 8/8.1 titles, but not the world's best book about this topic, Windows 8.1 Field Guide. The shame, Amazon! The shame. (For all I know, that last one might be my fault. Moving on.)

In other words, most of the authors I happen to care about not represented at all, or not adequately. And that will likely be the case for you as well. I'm going to experiment with Kindle Unlimited for the next 30 days, and I suspect I'll keep it kicking around, in part because we read so much—my wife and I have purchased over 500 books on Kindle, and we also loan Kindle books from a virtual library—and in part because I've seen Amazon Instant Video expand nicely over the past couple of years. It can only get better.

But there is one final wrinkle in this plan. And that is of course compatibility.

Every Kindle Unlimited e-book title is available on any modern Kindle device, any modern Kindle mobile app (including those for Windows and Windows Phone), and on the web using Amazon's Cloud Reader. But Audible support is limited to some Kindle devices and iOS/Android Audible apps, so Windows gets left out. Yes, you can still listen to Kindle Unlimited audiobooks on Windows/Windows Phone, but you can't sync your progress with Kindle. And that limits the desirability of this service to Windows users, assuming you're interested in Audible and/or can find titles that support this functionality.

If you are a heavy reader and a Kindle user (on whatever devices), you should definitely check out this service. It's rough and woefully incomplete, and the process for "returning" books isn't built into any of Amazon's apps yet, so it's a little hard to use. And while everyone's reading habits are different, just being forced into a funnel of fewer choices has its benefits: Who knows, maybe you'll find some hidden gem. It costs about the price of one Kindle book per month, and I definitely spend more than that on books each month. I suspect many of you do as well.

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