Kindle Unlimited: First Impressions

For the third year in a row, my list of resolutions for the new year includes a commitment to refrain from buying books whenever possible. I know this probably sounds like sacrilege, but the fact is I ran out of bookshelf space years ago. And I hate parting with books, even when I know that I probably won’t reread them. So my resolution isn’t to read less. It is simply to do it in smarter ways, mostly by making better use of our excellent library system. But e-books are part of the equation too. After all, they don’t need bookshelves!

As a long-time Amazon Prime member and a reluctant e-reader convert, I read about the launch of Prime Reading with a great deal of excitement. Free book loans, wrapped up in what I’m already paying? Yes, please!

But Prime Reading fell a bit short of those expectations.

The main flaw, understandable as it is, is the limited library size. Some of the books simply aren’t up to mass-market quality, and many are the first installments in ongoing series… bait to entice the reader to buy subsequent titles. Which is smart marketing, no doubt, and did turn me on to a couple of escapist fiction series that I really enjoyed, but limits the selection to genres in which this strategy is likely to work.

Still, I did like the convenience of being able to pop onto my tablet and find something new to read easily and without cost.

So it only made sense to take the next step into Kindle Unlimited. The program is like Netflix for e-books – for $10 a month, you can read as much as you like from a selection of included titles. And with a one-month free trial, how could I resist?

Boasting more than a million books, many with included Audible narration, the library dwarfs that of Prime Reading. The range of choices is much wider as well, with far more non-fiction and stand-alone books as well as an ample supply of brain-candy in the romance, horror and mystery genres.

I signed up last week and so far, I’m reasonably pleased. I’ve downloaded a number of books. Some are classics – I jumped at the chance to re-read George Orwell’s 1984 and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, both of which I read in high school but got so much more out of with a more mature perspective. Others are newer titles, some of which have lurked on my to-read list for a long time.

The interface to browse the site is a bit clunky, both on mobile and on the desktop, with a limited number of genre categories and a carousel-style display within each on the main landing page. But as a means of organizing a million-plus book titles, it is hard to picture a more efficient alternative.

The titles which are displayed are selected based on reading history, which makes it easy to find books similar to those you’ve read in the past. Right now, the upshot of that is a rather narrow and strange hodgepodge of titles popping up at the front of each genre but the changes after each new book I download are obvious enough that the predictive potential of the recommendations seems promising.

Delving into the categories, I found myself scrolling through a lot of nonsense to find interesting titles. One example: in the “Politics & Social Science” category, the first page of results includes five doomsday prepper how-to guides and three true crime titles about serial killers. But it also features a couple of NYT bestsellers. So browsing that way does turn up some gems, if you’re willing to take the time to scroll past the clutter. 

My sense, just one week in, is that Kindle Unlimited has potential. How well the predictive algorithm adapts to my eclectic reading habits and how often new content is added will likely be the factors that determine whether I become a paying subscriber and for how long I stay.

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