Why pay for Kindle Unlimited when the library is free? I’ll tell you

Why pay for Kindle Unlimited when the library is free? I’ll tell you

When I recently wrote

31 “read-sons” to love Kindle Unlimited

one of my readers, Karen, expressed mystification as to why someone would choose to pay for

Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

as I do, when you can get e-books from the public library for free.

It’s a great question, and one that I’ve seen asked many times in the Kindle forums. Well, it isn’t always posed as a question…sometimes, it’s more of a condemnatory opinion. 😉

I’m thankful to Karen for having posed it in a respectful way, and thus inspiring me to write this post. I didn’t want to make Karen wait, so I gave three quick answers there, but I’m going to considerably expand them here.

Let me say first, though, that my goal isn’t to discourage people from using the public library. 🙂 I love libraries: I’ve said in the past that if the choice was between closing public libraries and closing schools (a hypothetical lose/lose situation if ever there was one), I would put literacy instruction in libraries and close the schools. I’m a trainer myself and understand the difference that a skilled teacher can make…I just very, very highly value free access to ideas and how that can lead to self learning and perspective.

I just think that KU is a good choice for some people, and would like to explain why that’s the case.


Karen mentioned their public library having thousands of books and “all of the bestsellers”.

While it has gotten much better, public libraries can’t just freely get e-books from publishers, and that has restricted availability.

However, that’s not to suggest that KU has unlimited availability! The biggest publishers are generally not participating in KU, and that will cut down on the bestseller title choice.

KU (in the USA) does have 816,492 titles at the time of writing. That’s considerably more than “thousands”, as most people would use the term.

I think the best bet is for me to compare it to a specific library. I figured I’d use the New York Public Library, which I think is likely to have one of the larger collections.

It appears to me that they have 75,161 e-book titles…less than a tenth of the number that KU has.

Reasonably, the question might be whether they have more of the titles which you want to read. KU certainly has a lot of independently published titles, which you might or might not consider to be a good thing.

Before I start looking at specific titles, let me point something out about availability. We are about to enter the fourth dimension…time.

Public libraries have a limited number of licenses for a given e-book (at least, for one still under copyright protection). In other words, it’s like copies of a p-book (paperbook). If they have ten licenses for Gone Girl, and ten patrons have borrowed it at the same time, the eleventh person has to wait for one of the ten to “return it”.

In the past, I have commonly seen waits of weeks or even months to get very popular books. I do consider that to be an availability issue…while the book may be in the catalog, it isn’t available right now.

Okay, let’s take a look.

Here are the ten most popular e-books at time of writing at the NYPL site, whether or not they are on KU, and their availability. For the last point, we’ll take the number of people on the wait list, divide it by the number of licenses, and multiply two weeks by that (I’m guessing two weeks is a common lending period).

In other words, let’s say that the library had twenty people waiting to read X book, and the library had five licenses. 20/5*2 weeks=8 weeks before you would get it.

Now, that could be an overestimation: it assumes that the people who have it now just got it, when they may be nearing the end of their lending period…but it’s a reasonably simple formula which will give us an idea.

  1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (not in KU): 554 on wait list / 283 copies…about 3.91 weeks (a month, roughly), before you can get it
  2. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (not in KU): 199 on wait list / 67 copies about 5.9 weeks
  3. The Maze Runner by James Dashner (not in KU): 70 on  wait  list / 52 copies about 2.7 weeks
  4. If I Stay by Gayle Forman (not in KU): 132 on wait list / 64 copies about 4.1 weeks
  5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (not in KU): 309 on wait list / 228 copies about 2.7 weeks

So, yes, so far, the most popular books at the NYPL aren’t in KU…but you can’t get them right away from the library, either.

Moving down to find the first books available without a hold at the NYPL, we get

  • Sycamore Row by John Grisham (not in KU): #12 at NYPL
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (KU)
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James (not in KU)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (not in KU)
  • Fifty Shades Darker by E L James (not in KU): #21 at NYPL

No question, if you want what I call People Magazine books (books which would be reviewed in that publication), the public library has more of them, especially if you are willing to wait.

However, it’s not a choice of just one or the other. If you have KU, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the public library for bestsellers as well.

The real question is, does KU have books the NYPL doesn’t have, which you would want to read? Obviously, it has more books…more than 700,000 more.

Let’s look at the top five “New and Popular” listed in KU:

  •  My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni (not at NYPL)
  • Departure by A.G. Riddle (not at NYPL)
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (at NYPL: 84 on wait list / 30 copies = about 5.6 weeks)
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1 on wait list / 50 copies = about .04 weeks, or about six hours. 😉 )
  • Forever with Me by Kristen Proby (not at NYPL)

Two of the top books in KU were available through the NYPL, and one probably pretty quickly.

It’s worth noting that these top five are not necessarily the most borrowed books…I assume these are the most popular counting purchases. That matters because two of them are part of Kindle First, and they were being given away pre-publication to Prime members (each Prime account can get one per month from a special list). That will tend to drive up their overall popularity, but doesn’t mean that they will be borrowed more (although both of these have been released at this point, so they can be borrowed.

Let’s also take a look at some of the ones I listed in my “31 read-sons”:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (just looking at the first book for this comparison) (available at NYPL): 48 on the wait list / 23 copies about 4.2 weeks (1 month)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (again, just the first book, although they are all available in KU) (available at NYPL): 5 on the wait list / 56 copies about 28 hours
  • James Bond books by Ian Fleming (not available at NYPL as e-books)
  • Janet Dailey: at least some are available, apparently without hold
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (not available at NYPL)

It doesn’t surprise me that some major backlist (not the new and hottest books) aren’t available at the library, but are through KU. Libraries have to choose: more licenses for The Hunger Games, or buy licenses for a fifty year old James Bond novel.

My point on this first one is that the selection at KU is at least complementary to that of a public library. I also need to emphasize that I’m looking at a major public library…quite a few public libraries won’t have that many titles, they certainly won’t have that many licenses (although they probably don’t have the same demand, either), and some won’t have any at all.


This is simple. If you already have an Amazon account, it’s a lot easier to borrow a book through Kindle Unlimited than it is to borrow it from your public library. The latter would necessitate using a different process…and two processes are always less convenient.

Once you are signed up for KU, borrowing a book is not much harder than buying a book in the Kindle store.

You don’t have to have a library card, typically proving residence (or paying an out-of-towner fee); you don’t have to go to a different app or website; you can send it to multiple devices on your account…it’s just more familiar for Kindleers.

A Sense of Social  Responsibility

The library is there for every person in the community, and you certainly have the right to use it.

However, due to those limited licenses that the library buys, every time you borrow a book, it potentially makes someone else wait longer for it.

Since I can afford KU, I feel like I’m not keeping a book out of the hands of someone who can’t afford it.

It’s like…when a homeless gives away a meal, or gives out free socks. A person of comfortable means could hypothetically go get those socks, but they can also buy their own. They run out of socks: I’ve seen that firsthand. Again, for me, I feel like it’s more socially responsible for me to use KU than it is to use the public library, at least for books I can easily get.

Another thing is that I’m pretty sure that an author tends to get a lot more money when a book is borrowed through KU than when it is licensed by the library. I want to support the authors.

Finally, I feel like this is an innovative model for the future…and I do want to support that, as well.

There you go! I don’t expect this to convert people to getting KU who don’t see a value in it, and that’s not the goal…I just hope to help them see why it has a value for other people.

What do you think? Are you a KU subscriber and have found it valuable? If so, why? If you aren’t a KU subscriber, have you tried the free month? If not, why not? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Join over a thousand readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


13 Responses to “Why pay for Kindle Unlimited when the library is free? I’ll tell you”

  1. Robert Anderson Says:

    Your research and information is amazing, thanks!

  2. Karin Says:

    First I would like to say that I am a Librarian by education and I have worked in bookstores and Libraries for over fifteen years. I love the Kindle Unlimited program because you can borrow a book for as long as you want. It’s true you can only borrow 10 books at a time, but you can keep them as long as you want. I also like the fact that authors are paid for every borrow. I find that I am saving a lot of money too.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Karin!

      I really appreciate you sharing that perspective!

      I do think some people run out of time with e-book borrows from the public library, especially with a longer book. Some libraries let you renew, but not all of them.

      One little point: the authors are paid after someone has read ten percent of the book, not just because it was borrowed. That’s one of the differences between the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited, for authors/publishers. Minor thing, but just wanted it to be clear.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I borrowed the book, “These Are The Voyages,” which would have cost about what a month of KU would cost. I kept it for more than a month because I decided to go back and rewatch each episode of Trek after having read the details behind its creation and production. If I had borrowed it from a public library, I would never have been able to keep it long enough to do that. But because you can have 10 books out at a time through KU, I was able to browse and return several cook books and read several “cozy” mysteries and other novels during the time I kept “These Are the Voyages.” I was also reading a long historical novel about Queen Elizabeth the first which took longer than a month. I also started and returned several books unfinished because they lost my interest. It was nice knowing that leaving them unfinished wasn’t costing me anything more than the regular monthly fee, and that I could easily borrow another in its place.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Excellent examples!

        I didn’t watch every episode in These Are the Voyages, but I did go back and watch a few. I’m sure I had that book for more than a month as well.

        In fact, KU fits my reading pattern much better than a public library…although I would guess that mine isn’t common. I’m often reading the same book for months, perhaps years. That’s in part because I’m reading several books. I thought about writing a post on this, and I might yet, but here are the basics.

        I usually have a “reader leader”, one which I am pretty much charging through. It could be a novel or non-fiction or short stories…but I’m often quite engaged with it. Right now, that’s Horns by Joe Hill.

        I’ll also be reading one non-fiction book related to my work: something about human learning or interaction.

        Then, I’ll have some others where I read just part of it at a time…those are the ones I can have on my currently reading list for a very long time. I return to Hans Holzer’s

        Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond (at AmazonSmile)

        regularly. That’s not because I don’t like it: it’s in part because I do. 🙂 I’ll be feeling a bit letdown when I finish it, so I’m delaying that. It’s also a collection of articles, so it’s good for text-to-speech in the car…I don’t always finish the article in one trip, but it’s less important that I keep all of the “characters” and “plot” in my head from one reading session to the next. If the last time I read it was a month ago, it’s okay if I don’t remember precisely what had been happening.

  3. sherylpainter Says:

    Bufo, thanks for all the research and effort you put in. I’ve been a subscriber to KU since it first come out and have used it heavily. Our local small public library has no e-books available, and the system it’s a part of has none as well. Therefore, this is very worthwhile to not only authors, but to me. 🙂 If I chose to get a non-resident library card from a library in another county, I could borrow their very limited e-books, but the cost of the library card is higher yearly than the cost of KU yearly. It just isn’t going to be an option for small town readers like myself. KU has allowed me to try new authors, new genres, new series, without spending over my budget. It’s been a very real win-win relationship between me and KU.

    Thank you so much for all you do for us readers. I’ve learned so much over the years through you, and always look forward to your next ILMK posting.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, sherylpainter!

      Absolutely, good point! I deliberately picked what I thought would be one of the most robust public libraries, but many, many library patrons have few or no options when it comes to e-books.

      In recent times, technology is often adopted more quickly in “less developed” areas…Japan, for example, might be slower to adopt e-books than a country with much less access to technology, and the percentage of people with cellphones in the USA might be lower than in a third world country.


      Well, one reason is that our alternatives to the tech are better. It is easier for someone in a major city to get to a physical library or brick-and-mortar bookstore than it is for someone in a rural area. That makes the “need” for e-books lower.

      Same thing with cellphones: the USA has a good landline system. If you are in a country where landlines are few and far between or unreliable, a cellphone becomes more attractive.

      Thanks for the kind words! I always look forward to writing the next ILMK posting, too! 😉

  4. Cathy B Says:

    I signed up for KU a few months ago and keep a spreadsheet showing which books I have borrowed, which ones I have finished, and how much they would have cost, It turns out I don’t read them fast enough to get my money’s worth – BUT when I come across a book that looks interesting that’s on KU, I put it in my “K Unlimited” wishlist. Normally I would have bought them if they are under $3 or if I was notified that the price just went down. So just looking at my KU wishlist, I may not have read $9.99 a month (I think it’s averaging around $7) but I’ve saved well over $9.99 a month.

    Oh, and I worked at a public library for 3 years (my position was “page” which I thought was very appropriate) and even though I went in 4-5 days per week, I still wasn’t good at returning books on time. I also worked at a bookstore for 6 months during my library stint, and that was the most expensive time of my life, even with the 30% discount! So KU is saving me lots of $$!

    Thank you for your blog. I have been reading it since 2009, and it’s always good.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Cathy!

      Since 2009? Wow, you are one of the originals! 🙂 Thank you so much!

      I am still wanting to do a collection of the “best” articles of the first five years. This season turned out to be a lot busier than I thought and I haven’t gotten to it, but I still hope to do so in the next few months.

      Like you, I don’t necessarily think that KU has lowered my book costs (due to all the free and bargain books), but it has put more expensive books more into the mix, which is nice. 🙂

      Edited to add: I meant to say, you’ve given me an idea. I already have a Kindle Unlimited wish list, but I’m going to do a Kindle Unlimited shelf at Goodreads. That should make it very easy to track what I’ve read on KU, and with the better integration we have now with out Kindles and KU (on my Kindle Fire HDX, for example, I can now update my reading progress easily directly from the book), that should be more informative.

  5. Karen Says:

    Wow Bufo, that is really thoughtful research. I am not convinced it is for me as I live in a state capital with a huge library system and they are thousands of books. I never feel that my borrowing them holds anyone else up as I read a book every 3 days in the winter so I return them quickly. I don’t reach much at all in the summer. Based on your research and comments from the others here, I will at least sign up for the free month and if it works out well, I will continue it. Thanks so much.


    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Karen!

      Sure…can’t hurt to try it, right? If you find it would be worth the $9.99 a month, you can cancel before you pay anything.

  6. Life is too short to read only sure things | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] I do happily subscribe to it, and I think my “defender” position started because I thought people who would get it as a gift or get a free month might run into people who would try to diminish their joy about it. I wrote a post about a week ago comparing it to using the public library: Why pay for Kindle Unlimited when the library is free? I’ll tell you. […]

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