Kindle Unlimited

You probably figured I’d have a few things to say about Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited service. You are correct.

For those of you who missed the announcement, Kindle Unlimited is an e-book subscription plan. For $9.99 a month, subscribers get access to a library of what Amazon estimates as 600,000 books. That’s “Unlimited Reading” according to the ads. Essentially the same deal that Oyster and Scribd are offering. As usual, though, the devil is in the details.

Sounds great for the reader at first glance (we’ll come back to the author in a couple of minutes): for the price of a single e-book purchase from a major publisher, you can read as many books as you can gobble. Assuming, that is, you can find anything you want to read.

It appears that, at least for now, the 600,000 titles are the same ones that Amazon has long offered through Kindle Direct Publishing Select–one of their e-book self-publishing programs. KDP Select requires that books only be available through Amazon. If authors want to try wider distribution through Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, they have to use a different Amazon self-publishing program.

Aside from a select few high-demand titles such as Harry Potter, the major publishers are not represented in KU. There’s no sign that Amazon is even negotiating with them at this time–though it does shed a new light on the argument Amazon is having with Hachette over e-book pricing, doesn’t it?

I’m certainly not going to take the “all self-published books are crap” line that many commentators are pushing, but let’s face it: there are thousands of self-published books lurking out there that, to be polite, could use the attention of an editor who is not related to the author. Amazon’s ability to help KU readers find the titles that will not make their eyeballs bleed or drive them to shove their Kindles into a blender will ultimately be the factor that controls whether KU lives or dies.

And that’s a big question mark right now. Under a sales model, Amazon’s success has revolved around their ability to sell in quantity. The one and two dollar books have driven Amazon’s success, because if a reader gets a clunker, they can just delete it from their library and try the next potential classic for pocket change. Under a subscription model, all books cost the same to the reader. There’s no inducement to stick with a book past the first few pages if they don’t grab you. A reader who hits a string of unappealing works is going to start thinking “Why the heck am I paying ten bucks a month for this crap?” and cancel their subscription. Amazon needs to be sure that their recommendation engine digs a bit deeper than “Another cheap title by the same author”.

And, speaking of authors, what’s the benefit of KU to the author?

Well… From my admittedly biased position, not a whole lot. According to one writer, Amazon will be setting aside a pool of money in something called the “KDP Select Global Fund”. That pool will vary in size from month to month based on “all factors that impact the KDP Select fund,” whatever that means. Every time a reader reads more than 10% of your book, you get a share of the KDP Select fund.

I don’t have any problem with the 10% or more rule. That’s twenty to thirty pages for a typical adult novel, and if you can’t intrigue readers enough to hold them that long, well, maybe the book wasn’t quite ready for release. In reality, I suspect most readers are going to make the decision to keep going within the first couple of pages, a habit picked up through browsing the shelves in book stores. If you hook them for long enough to get through Page Two, you’ll probably keep them through Page Twenty and get your payment.

My objection is to the unknown and variable amount of that payment. The typical author’s contract gives them 25% of the price of an e-book sale (although Amazon’s rates for self-publishers vary from, I believe, 70% if the book is under $4, down to 20% if it’s over $10–again, the sales model is built around selling a huge pile of cheap books). Under the subscription model, the author gets an unknown percentage of an unknown amount. How does Amazon set the size of the fund? Does the author’s share vary based on the “sell” price of the book? Only Amazon knows and they’re not telling.

The bottom line, though, is that Amazon is–as they’ve kept saying throughout the Hachette dispute–a business, and their focus is on, well, the bottom line. Anyone who thinks authors will be paid more under a new model is most likely delusional. IMNSHO, of course.

Granted, I’d rather have an unknown, ever-changing royalty than no royalty, but it’s depressing to see the legions of self-publishing worshipers crowing about how KU and the other subscription services are going to magically improve the lives and incomes of all writers everywhere by freeing them from the tyranny of the outmoded traditional publishers*. That’s a claim that doesn’t even stand up to the most cursory logical analysis.

* Don’t believe me, or think I’m exaggerating? Read through the comments on the blog post I linked a couple of paragraphs back.

To improve the lot of all writers, we need more people reading, not the same number of people reading more: a larger pie, not a new way of slicing the same, ever-shrinking pie we’ve got.

5 thoughts on “Kindle Unlimited

  1. This just cannot be good for anyone, including Amazon. The worm at the heart of the apple, of course, is the commodification of what, after all, is an art form. This is not a new phenomenon, but Amazon is taking it to a new level: “Here’s a book. Nevermind what book, it’s a book. Read it. It didn’t cost you much, so what the hell. You say the words are too long and it doesn’t have enough sex and action? We’ll fix that”. In an environment like that, how is a writer supposed to function? Of course, this is hardly a new dilemma. Artists have always had to deal with the people who want to pay them by the word. Charles Dickens lived in that world, and he did alright. Art somehow survives. ‘Twas always thus.

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    • And always twill be, even if you don’t wear twill suits.

      There is, however, a difference between the author being paid by the word for the words he wrote (old model) and the words his readers read (new model).

      The first is a negotiation between the writer and the publisher, and both sides have access to the same information in deciding whether the deal is acceptable and the terms are being met.

      The latter is a negotiation between the writer and the distributor, and the distributor has information the writer lacks (number of reads, size of royalty pool), and which the writer could not check for accuracy even if he had access to it. That swings the power in the relationship even further away from the writer than in the past.

      And, as more than a few commentators have pointed out, while musicians get similarly mistreated on the publishing and royalties, they at least have the option of touring to capitalize on their art in a different way. Very few writers could hope to make money on tour.

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