It’s 2011 All Over Again
I’m having a Groundhog Day moment, here. Indies are getting screwed. Exclusivity is death for authors. We are in coach and Big 5 authors are in first class. Our pay is going down.
The same discussion exploded on KBoards back in 2011. They were the Kindle Boards at the time, and self-publishing was a lot more stigmatized than it is today. Amazon launched a program called KDP Select, and if you went exclusive with them, you gained two marketing advantages: Your ebooks became part of the Kindle Lending Library, and you were granted 5 “free” days for every 90-day period of Select.
There was a lot of consternation and hand-wringing from self-published authors at the time. Was it worth going exclusive for the added exposure? Were we crazy to give our books away for free? How much would a borrow pay? Would borrows affect our sales? Our rankings? What about the freebies? Who would be dumb/brave enough to sign up for this?
Those who did sign up tended to do very well. Those free days were as good as gold, and soon we were complaining that we didn’t get enough of them. I know of quite a few indies who credit Select as the tool that allowed them to transition to writing full-time. In fact, it was just a year and a half later that KBoards would erupt with threads complaining about the reduced efficacy of Select. Free downloads no longer had the same effect on ranking. The system was too beneficial for indies, and so Amazon tweaked it.
I’ve been updating my KU thread as more and more thoughts come to me. A couple days ago, I listed the ways that indies have been treated unfairly compared to traditionally published authors. Cutting and pasting here:
Amazon’s model for KU is to pay a mix of full price and a flat fee. Traditionally published authors get the full price, because their publisher gets the full sales commission. Self-published authors get a flat fee, probably something around $2 per read. There have been howls over this bifurcation, with people claiming that Amazon, for the first time, is treating indies worse than traditionally published authors. But that’s not true. Amazon has often treated indies worse than traditionally published authors.
Indies don’t get pre-orders, for instance. This has changed a little recently, with some select high-selling indies able to get pre-order buttons. (More on favoritism in a bit.) Indies can’t get into the Kindle Lending Library without being exclusive to Amazon; traditionally published authors can. Indies don’t get the full retail price paid when Amazon discounts or does promotions; traditionally published authors do. Indies only get two category listings on their ebooks; major publishers can often get more than this. Indies have their pay cut if they price below $2.99 or above $9.99; traditionally published authors have no such limitations.
While it’s awesome to see pundits like Michael Cader express—for the first time ever, perhaps—concern for self-published authors, the way it’s being framed is completely bonkers. Self-published authors have never had a level playing field on Amazon. (Despite this, they now earn more daily ebook royalties than all the authors at the Big 5 combined.) What we do have is limited control over our prices, 70% royalties in a sensible range, an equal sales platform, and no rank manipulation, like we see elsewhere.
Another thing I mention in my previous KU thread is the danger of paying too much for subscription borrows. That’s what I think is taking place elsewhere. Paying full price for a borrow is not sustainable, and Amazon shouldn’t do it either. Oyster and Scribd are doomed, or they will have to alter their pay structure or charge more for their services. What I wish Amazon would have done is make KU indie-only and invite publishers to play by the same rules. Asking Amazon to give us full sales commission for a borrow and a 10% read is like asking a manufacturing plant to pay starting wages of $60/hour. It would be fun for a little while, but then they’d have to close the plant. We need something that will last, something fair to readers (who don’t get to keep these books), writers, and retailers.
I’d be happy with $2.50 – $3.00 per borrow. I’d also be happy with a tiered payment system. I don’t think 99 cent short stories should be treated the same as $8.99 novels. I think Amazon should add a “tip button” at the end of the reading process to quickly and easily send 1 dollar directly to the author. Or create a way to subscribe to the author’s upcoming content. Or allow us to tie our own newsletters into the Amazon architecture (or build a newsletter system for us, since MailChimp can get expensive).
These are all tweaks we should be pushing for as we see how this plays out. Maybe after we see how the first month pays and what effect it has on sales. But freaking out the way people did in 2011, when the end result was amazing for authors, seems crazy to me. Or disingenuous from some sources, as the regular players who enjoy driving wedges are pulling their usual stunts.
Remember that nothing is permanent. We’ve seen Amazon tweak the KOLL structure. We’ve seen Amazon open foreign territories at 35% for non-KDP Select members, and then more recently open territories at 70%. The indies who are in KU without being exclusive? That’s not a permanent deal either. There is no permanent favoritism, just a last-minute trial offer. My guess is that it was to score top-selling content when the Big 5 balked. More than that, it’s probably to try and lure indies back into exclusivity. A lot of us cut our teeth on Select. We were the idiots who went exclusive and gave our books away for free three years ago, and then quit our day jobs due to the enormous exposure.
KU now gives us a system that pays authors for what will feel like a free read to the customer. And yet we are hearing a lot of the same worries that people had over Select and KOLL with giving books away for free. Amazing, isn’t it?
At least one thing has improved (and it isn’t the defense of indies from people who have never shown a lick of concern for us in the past; that’s just people deriving glee from stirring up discontentment within the indie community), what has improved is our expectation that Amazon should treat us as equals. Think about that for a moment.
Gradually, the indie and traditional experiences are merging. Amazon has been experimenting with giving indies pre-order buttons. They have created price tools and pressures to move self-published prices higher, and the fight with the Big 5 has been to get price points lower. Over the last few years, all the pressures in both directions have been for a unified platform, so much so that we are coming to expect it. That’s mind-blowing to me. Are we second class citizens? Hell, yeah. We always have been. Third-class, even. But we no longer expect to be. We demand parity. That’s a helluva change.