Amazon can’t twitch without indies taking notice. For a brief period yesterday morning, a landing page for a new Amazon streaming service appeared online. A thread at KBoards exploded with the news (are the KBoard forums the best watchdog, author community, and training center all rolled into one, or what?), and then Engadget, Time, and others followed with coverage of their own.
Author and all-around awesome dude Jan Strnad wrote up one of the first detailed opinion pieces about the service, and I share some of his concerns. Subscription services have been rough on musicians. Will they be rough on authors? It’s too soon to tell, but there are a couple ways that books are fundamentally different than music, and perhaps reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
The biggest difference between books and tunes is the time investment. You spend hours, days, even weeks with a good book. You can stream hundreds of tunes in the same amount of time. So hopefully the revenue stream to authors won’t be as diluted as it is for musicians. It also sounds like Amazon has increased the funding for the borrow pool, and I’m guessing profit from the $9.99 monthly fee will go toward funding this program as well, so if they can keep the rate-per-read at $2 or get it higher, this could be a great source of revenue for authors.
Another way that this could be good is the same way that piracy can be good: Exposure. I’m reading a great book right now that my mom handed to me after she read it. Do authors freak out over this common occurrence? I don’t. I want to be read. I hope people pass my books along. The new and shiny aspects of anything will scare some and excite others, and that’s normal. In the last day, I’ve heard from some indie authors a lot smarter than me that we’re about to see our income go up. I’ve also heard from some indie authors a lot smarter than me that this is the end of the world. In a few months or a year, we’ll have a better grasp on how this will play out.
A few things in Amazon’s favor. The first is the inclusion of audiobooks. That’s been a surprising revenue stream for quite a few indies. The second is the 10% sample trigger. For the reader, the $9.99 monthly charge doesn’t change, however many books they try. I think this low trigger will really help spread the wealth to a lot of new writers. The third is the Netflix Reality. People pay a monthly fee to have access to Netflix films, but they still go to the cinema, buy movies elsewhere, and watch TV. Voracious readers will see that $9.99 as one or two books out of their budget every month. That still leaves them shopping for reads on the side.
One of the coolest things I’ve seen in the last two days were the announcements from Scribd and Oyster. Both companies congratulated Amazon on entering a field that they helped to popularize. They welcomed the competition, and spokespeople from both companies took pride in the validation this move gives to their own hard work. I love that attitude. There are a lot of companies out there fighting to please readers and to make reading competitive and awesome. While I’ll be keeping a very close eye on what this does for author income, my main reaction to this is that reading is the best thing you can do with your free time, and it just got easier and more affordable. Will we be subsisting on crumbs in the future? Or will we see the entire pie just get bigger? Right now, I would bet on the latter.
More thoughts as they are coming to me:
Last I heard, the Kindle app on the iPad didn’t allow for direct purchases. Will Kindle Unlimited provide a workaround? If a reader is paying a monthly fee, Amazon is able to bill directly and automatically outside of the app, meaning grabbing a book and reading it on another device will be more seamless than before. This could add to the “stickiness” of the Kindle reading architecture. Not sure if that was part of the plan or just a side benefit. Obviously, Amazon needed to enter this game while it was heating up rather than waiting on the sidelines to see how it shakes out.
How will the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited coexist? Will this be like a main library and a sister branch? It appears they share the same pool of funds for authors. One thing I’ve learned about Amazon from watching their moves is that they seem to try as many things as possible, figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and focus their energies accordingly.
Thoughts as I try out Kindle Unlimited:
I just grabbed a copy of Chabon’s WONDER BOYS. Been on my TBR pile forever. The book loaded straight to my Kindle like a purchased title. I didn’t have to pay anything, as there’s a 1-month free trial of Kindle Unlimited. It was almost too easy. Dangerous, like that 1-Click button. Curiosity becomes choice.
I see a lot of readers giving this a try because of that. Interestingly, the audiobook version of WONDER BOYS also showed up on my device. My wife does 80% of her reading by audio; I rarely listen to them, but now I might as well give it a try. I wonder how many readers will start doing the same? Honestly, I can’t wrap my head around all the implications of this service if it takes off.
I try to base all my decisions as a self-published author on what’s best for the reader. It makes decisions easier, and it almost always works out. This streaming nonsense looks magical from my voracious reader perspective. Like: Too good to be true magical. I hope that means it’s good for writers. In a few months, we should be able to tell.
Some THE SKY IS FALLING thoughts:
The biggest advantage self-published books have over traditionally published books might be price. As a FB follower pointed out, if all books are “free,” because the $9.99 is already being paid every month, will indies suffer disproportionately? Perhaps in the long run. Right now, it seems that the Big 5 is not going all-in with book streaming. And they might, in order to spite Amazon, continue to withhold books from KU. So just as with their god-awful pricing strategies, their unwillingness to serve readers might continue to work to the self-published author’s benefit.
More thoughts, a few days later:
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.
These are just the differences off the top of my head. There are probably more. What advantages do indies have to counter all of these disadvantages? 70% royalties and the freedom to price their ebooks below dickish levels. And it’s hard to overstate the power of not being dickish. But let’s be honest about the bifurcation. It’s always been there. As has the favoritism.
Some high-selling indies have been able to secure pre-orders for over a year now. The argument has been that these indies have proven they can stick to a release date. Amazon is reluctant to allow just any indie author to set a date, promise a product, take a customer’s money, and then not deliver. Incidentally, I’ve come down on the side of pre-orders not being great for self-published authors. It would take a blog post to explain why. (Remind me in a week, and I will.)
That favoritism extends to KU. Some indies, myself included, are in the program without being exclusive to Amazon. But this isn’t a permanent exemption. We didn’t even know what we were signing up for; we just knew it was a time-limited trial. We are going to have to make a decision with our books, on a case-by-case level, to leave KU or go all-in. My guess is that Amazon was forced to invite as many bestselling authors as they could get because of the difficulty in getting major publishing houses to sign on (none have). Their goal was to get top-selling books into KU, and their side hope must be that they can convince us to stay. I’m not sure how many will.
So Amazon is treating indies differently than traditionally published authors, which is how things have always been. They are treating some indies differently than other indies, which is how it’s always been. I’m sure they negotiate with publishers differently based on size. I’ve seen how publishers treat authors differently based on sales. It sucks, and it’s unfair, and it’s the way things have to be to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for more equality wherever we can. We should.
Personally, I’m very uncomfortable enjoying any privileged status. When I saw how this was shaking out, I didn’t like that I was getting special treatment. I doubt I would have opted in had I known. My temptation is to make a decision right now rather than in the timeframe Amazon has given me. I could go exclusive with them and remain in KU, or I can ask to pull out and see if they would let me. (I could also go into B&N and run around moving my print copy off its current co-op front-table space and shelve those books spine-out in the stacks, but that’s laborious.)
Those are the personal issues I’m having. They are separate from whether or not subscription services are even sustainable.
Are subscription services sustainable?
I don’t think they are, except as loss-leaders. My understanding is that Oyster and Scribd rely on venture capital inflow. Their losses today can only be turned into profits tomorrow if they (1) Pay publishers and authors less per “read” (2) They substantially increase their monthly fee to their users or (3) They maintain a high number of subscribers who don’t use their services much.
Starting from the rear:
(3) is how gyms make money. It’s hard to get excited about a service that only supports itself if people pay not to use it. Then again, I love libraries, and this is another way that subscription services are a lot like libraries. A lot of people pay; very few go.
(2) Will be nasty if it happens, but the realistic monthly fee to make everything balance might be double what these companies are currently charging. Subscription services pay somewhere between the full amount and 60% of the total sales commision for a “read.” That means subscription services are in the hole after two books are read in a month, per user. And readers don’t even have to get through the entire book. This is a house of cards destined to collapse.
(1), of course, means paying publishers (and authors) less per “read” than they would normally receive on a full purchase.
It may be that (1) is the only solution. And this runs counter to all my advocating for author pay, but the problem with the current bifurcation isn’t that indies are paid too little, but that the traditionally published authors are paid too much. If this model isn’t sustainable at full price, subscription services should either go away, or publishers and authors should be comfortable making less for a “borrow” than they do for a “purchase.”
Consider this: Is it a good thing to fight for wages that will collapse a system so that nobody gets paid? It’s better to not have that system in the first place. It isn’t even clear to me that a temporary read is worth more than a flat $2 fee. Print books get passed around all the time, and nothing makes its way back to the author or publisher. I’m more upset at Amazon offering full purchase commissions to traditional publishers than I am the likely $2 we’ll get. They are too desperate for that content. Leave KU for indies. And let all indies in, not just those who go exclusive. Hell, lower the subscription fee to $7.99 and tout this as an indie free-for-all.
I feel like Oyster and Scribd forced Amazon into something that they know doesn’t work. And they are being dinged for trying to come up with a balanced model that makes it work. That’s like comparing a fair wage to a union worker who starts off at $40 an hour with zero experience. Yeah, good for that worker. But the factory will be gone in ten years, and how did that help anyone?
In sum: I’m still not sure what I think about all this.
It’s jut too early to tell. I’m watching my sales charts for the first time in years. Sales went down when I got into the Lending Library, but borrows went up. I’m making slightly less, but I’ve got more readers. I’ll take that any day. When KU launched, my borrows tripled, which is what I’m hearing from others as well. And my sales went up slightly, as borrows are affecting sales rank. I view this as a library system, and libraries shouldn’t be charged full price for every borrow. But is it a model I’m cheering on? Not at all. I’m watching it warily. I’m trying to be my usual, optimistic self. And I’m going to give it at least a month, for fuck’s sakes, before I proclaim this the second coming of sliced bread or the end of the world.