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Amazon Kindle Unlimited has potential for bookworms on tight budgets

'Mockingjay' by Suzanne Collins is one of more than 640,000 titles available through Kindle Unlimited.
'Mockingjay' by Suzanne Collins is one of more than 640,000 titles available through Kindle Unlimited.
Amazon.com

Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription service

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On Friday, July 18, Amazon officially debuted their new Kindle Unlimited digital subscription service. For $9.99 a month, people in the greater Spokane area who own Kindles or use the free Kindle app on their smart phones or other devices may borrow up to 10 books at a time from a collection that includes (as of Friday morning) 641,913 ebook titles and over 2,000 audiobooks. The only requirements for using the service are having an Amazon account with a valid credit card on file and enabling one-click payments. Since Kindle owners probably have both of those things already, getting started is extremely easy and painless.

Currently, the selection of ebooks offered through Kindle Unlimited includes everything from nonfiction works such as "How Dogs Love Us" by Gregory Berns, to literary classics such as George Orwell's "1984", to popular recent works such as "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins. However, some publishers are not participating in the program so readers may not be able to find many of the books on their wishlists as they browse through the collection.

According to Alexandra Alter of The New York Times, "So far, it appears that few of the biggest publishers will make their titles available through the service. Books from HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, for example, are not offered, representatives from both companies confirmed. A spokesman for Penguin Random House declined to comment, but titles from the company’s 100-plus imprints are not currently available on Kindle Unlimited."

What this means for readers in the greater Spokane area is that they will not find books by local award-winning author Jess Walter or many other popular authors when browsing through the selections in the Kindle Unlimited collection. Some people may find this disappointing enough to not want to stick with the subscription program. Other readers, though, may still find value in the service because it would allow them to select titles by variety of authors ranging from highly respected writers such as Margaret Atwood or Kurt Vonnegut to lesser-known authors they may have not heard of before such as James Browning or Shannon Mayer.

Kate Knibbs of Gizmodo expressed mixed feelings about Kindle Unlimited. She told her readers on July 18 that, "you'll need to want to read a lot of books, but not care too much about which books." That may sound like a bad thing, but it doesn't have to be for people who regularly frequent libraries and check out whatever appeals to them at the time.

The best way to look at Kindle Unlimited is to view it as a useful alternative to the ebook collections offered by the Spokane Public Library and the Spokane County Library District (SCLD). In attempting to create something that has been described as being like Netflix for books, Amazon has provided its customers with a fun and easy way to try out books by authors they aren't familiar with at a relatively low price point. It also may help them read books they can't afford to buy at the time, or help them finally get around to reading works such as "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien or "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey.

If someone reads 10 books a month, that works out to about $1 per book. Amazon does offer a wide variety of titles at the same price point that can be bought the traditional way and a lot of free ebooks, but that may be the only way for a reader to find the titles he or she wants at an affordable price.

Knibbs pointed out that an Amazon Prime membership offers access to the Kindle Owner's Lending Library program, among many other benefits, for $20 less each year. The only problem with the Prime alternative is that members are only able to borrow one free book at a time. So, that may not work as well for some people unless they also order a lot of merchandise from Amazon or want to try out the music and video streaming services they offer. Prime members are able to get a lot of ebooks either for free or at impressive discounts, but Kindle Unlimited may still be a better choice for some avid readers--especially if they also enjoy audiobooks. More audiobooks are available through Kindle Unlimited than through Amazon Prime.

Searching the Kindle Unlimited catalog for titles is actually fairly similar to looking for books in SCLD's Digital Downloads collections. Titles are grouped into helpful categories such as Editor's Picks, Books for the Beach, Short Reads, or Popular Titles. Using the full website may be preferable to looking for books on the mobile version, because the full site also allows people to search by genre and it spotlights featured authors such as Ian Fleming or Lois Lowry. It also offers personalized recommendations. The mobile version doesn't seem to have all the features of the full site, which makes it harder to search for a specific author or title. It may, however, run faster and more smoothly for some people which does make it fairly convenient.

Amazon is currently offering a free 30-day trial of Kindle Unlimited. Taking advantage of that is a great way for people to find out if the service is something they would regularly use. If they like it enough to justify the monthly fee, they don't have to do anything except occasionally return books and look for new ones. If they don't like it, at least they might have an opportunity to finally get around to seeing why some people love those Hunger Games books so much before they cancel their memberships. Either way, it is not a bad option for people who can't afford to buy every book they want to read. The service isn't perfect, but it does offer readers some nice alternatives.