Kindle Unlimited: Author-Publisher As Second-Class Citizen?

Having talked a little about Kindle Unlimited the other day, I thought it was worth calling attention to this article by noted hybrid author, Michael J. Sullivan, over at Digital Book World. Relevant passage (though you should read the whole darn thing):

Historically, Amazon has been good about treating self-published authors and traditionally published authors equally. There are some exceptions (for instance traditionally published titles can be pre-ordered, and most self-published authors cannot get this feature. Again there have been exceptions made for best-selling self-published authors), but for the most part both self- and traditionally published authors have enjoyed equal treatment. They share similar exposure on best-seller lists and top-rated lists, and Amazon’s “cut” from sales have been the same for both groups (30% under the agency model). In fact, when the agency model went into affect, Amazon raised self-publisher’s royalty from 35% to 70% to match what traditional publishers were getting. But now with the roll-out of Kindle Unlimited, we see two very different treatments:

Self-published authors MUST be exclusive to Amazon (except for a handful of best-selling authors) and can’t sell their books on other sites. Traditionally published books have no such exclusivity requirement and can be sold wherever the publisher wishes.

Self-published authors are paid from a pool set by Amazon each month. They have no idea how much they will be paid per book. Traditionally published books get paid exactly as they would if a sale were made. They know exactly what the unit price will be for each book and are not relying on the Amazon’s whim as far as what their unit price will be.

Now, a few comments.

Some of my books are there, not through KDP Select, but through Amazon Publishing (Skyscape, in particular). The books seem to be doing well — noticed a jump in my ranking (which is a number may or may not be attached to anything, like a child’s steering wheel toy).

But this isn’t that. This post is more relevant to author-publishers.

As noted, if you want into Kindle Unlimited, you have to be exclusive through KDP Select.

Which means — well, it means tough tee-tas, is what it means. It means if you’re willing to shut the door on other sales avenues, Amazon will reward you by… giving you a different, in some ways lesser, deal than if you entered KU with a publisher.

Someone will correctly point out that the average $2/month payout is potentially better, though, then what a published author will get. That’s likely true (though not guaranteed) — but it doesn’t change the fact that the price of your self-published book becomes irrelevant. Control over price is a meaningful aspect of acting as your own author-publisher, and this takes that away from you. Sure, it’s nice if you wrote a 5,000 word story at $0.99, but a 100,000-word fantasy for $5.99 –? Hey, two bucks either way. And nobody knows how the pool is calculated or if it’ll go up, down, or sideways. To reuse a phrase — it doesn’t seem to be attached to anything.

So: if you’re an author-publisher, maybe be a little wary of Kindle Unlimited. I don’t know that it’s worth an, ahem, big petition or anything, but it may be worth sending Amazon a polite note to suggest that they tie the compensation to the price of the book and, further, eradicate any exclusivity demands. Because, again, diversification will help make a writer — exclusivity can help break one. Particularly one just starting out.

35 comments

  • That’s the biggest reason why I haven’t done KDP Select, and why I won’t be doing Kindle Unlimited. I mean, I barely make anything from Barnes & Noble and Apple, but (since a lot of my customers are gamers) I do a pretty good amount via DriveThruFiction. Amazon is our best sales source, but that’s not enough to make me want to go exclusive.

    • Yeah, and my direct sales have increased significantly since January. I’d be giving up quite a bit of money to do go that way — for a less certain payout per book, too, with KU.

    • Yeah, after reading Chuck’s initial blog about the new system I came away from it thinking that you would get 70% of your cover price, whatever it was, provided the person who grabbed it read at least 10% of it. This would encourage author-publishers to list their books for more traditional prices, but allow people in the program to still acquire the books for cheap.

      Now it sounds like the author-publisher could easily get shafted.

  • Chuck I’m not going to use the “E” word about Amazon, I swear that’s not what I’m saying, but all writers really really need to go read The Everything Store to get a bigger picture of what Bezos is doing and how books are just the gateway drug to building the beast. KU and KOLL and KDP and any other “K” program set up by the Zon are IMHO designed for one reason: to create more sticky fly paper happiness between Zon customers and the Zon infrastructure. Cheap/free/Prime/borrow Books, music, TV shows, film — the sticky in the paper. A perk in the giant ecosystem that wants to sell you TVs, clothes, rat traps, sex toys, machetes, suitcases, and soon, groceries delivered fresh to your doorstep, while collecting something even more valuable than your cash — endlessly detailed data about what you buy and who you are.

    It doesn’t matter to the Zon if its system works against most of the participating writers. Where else can those bitching writers go, huh? And if they leave, there are lots more ready to take their places. The dream of succeeding despite the system’s inherently rigged elements will keep writers striving to prove they’re going to beat the odds.

    • “Chuck I’m not going to use the “E” word about Amazon, I swear that’s not what I’m saying, but all writers really really need to go read The Everything Store to get a bigger picture of what Bezos is doing and how books are just the gateway drug to building the beast. KU and KOLL and KDP and any other “K” program set up by the Zon are IMHO designed for one reason: to create more sticky fly paper happiness between Zon customers and the Zon infrastructure. Cheap/free/Prime/borrow Books, music, TV shows, film — the sticky in the paper. A perk in the giant ecosystem that wants to sell you TVs, clothes, rat traps, sex toys, machetes, suitcases, and soon, groceries delivered fresh to your doorstep, while collecting something even more valuable than your cash — endlessly detailed data about what you buy and who you are.”

      Well, yeah, definitely. That’s not evil, that’s just capitalism.

      And so, author-publishers need to play a little bit of Capitalism Baseball right back at ‘em and make sure that they’re sold in several stores and distribution systems — because normally, exclusivity costs the vendor.

      — c.

  • I don’t understand why Amazon tied the Kindle Unlimited participation for indies to exclusivity through Kindle Select. While the vast majority of my sales come from Amazon versus all the other sales venues, I have never been comfortable putting all my eggs in one basket. So I won’t go exclusive. I don’t know what that will mean in the long run if KU really takes off. And with my best selling novel for sale at 4.99, I would make less with KU on books loaned. Though perhaps Amazon is trying to push a model where volume would make up for item price, the way it does with other suppliers. It’s a little troubling, since it is my strong belief that intellectual property is not simply any other widget.

    Time to play the wait and see game. Again.

  • I don’t know that it’s worth an, ahem, big petition or anything

    *chuckle*

    Even worse, if what I’ve read is correct, is that some high-volume self-published authors got in without needing to go exclusive, which really backs up the idea of a two- or multi-tier system.

    • It is true that a few dozen authors got in without exclusivity – but that aspect doesn’t bother me. They are REALLY big sellers….outliers for sure…and special rules for outliers I don’t have a problem with. I’m upset that the self and the traditional (two very large groups that have a lot of mid-list authors) are treated so differently.

  • Yeah, this exclusivity thing really cheeses me off. The reason they’re doing this is because Amazon is all about pursuing lock-in — they want the consumer using Amazon for *everything*, and they certainly want to be the one-stop indie bookshop. That’s why you only get the special promotional perks if you use KDPS, you get more regions where you earn 70% royalties through KDPS, and you get access to this thing with KDPS. Amazon wants to have Kindle-only features.

    Unfortunately for me I’ve never qualified for KDPS (I make my work available on my website, the licenses I use to distribute make it legal for people to freely copy and distribute my work non-commercially) which violate Amazon’s terms. So there are a number of interesting options Amazon offers, including this thing, that are closed to me.

  • That’s interesting information. I hadn’t realised that what an author received through Kindle Unlimited wasn’t going to be their standard royalties. Definitely worth knowing for when I release my new series later this year.

  • I am going to publish my first novel at the end of this year. Something I have been working on for almost 2 1/2 years. It would be IMPOSSIBLE for me to make any headway if KU requires an exclusivity agreement to participate. If I understand – I would make more by publishing it chapter by chapter at .99 a piece then if where to publish the whole book. I have no doubt that KU is going to become a beast – perhaps a Frankenstein’s Monster, but with everything outside of writing that is required (Platform building,Blogging, Tweeting, Touring, etc.) I might stand a better chance at success if I went out and bought a lottery ticket, because the returns sound about even if what you all are saying is true.

    Man – That is a whole lot of depressing

    • Not necessarily, no. Those outside the Big Five are participating (and, many are participating with even better deals — instant trigger on payment). Plus, Amazon Publishing is participating, which is roughly equivalent to traditional publishing.

    • It’s worth noting that the Big Five is not the Venn diagram of all major publishers–Scholastic, which is a pretty substantial market force in kid’s books in the US, for example–seems to be participating. There’s a lot of publishers who are definitely not small press without being the Big Five, and a number of them may be opting in.

      • Scholastic is apparently only participating because their contract doesn’t allow them to not participate. But Amazon — again, reportedly — is paying them ALL THE MONEYS, not PART OF THE MONEYS, in order to seduce people to the KU side with Hunger Harry and the Potter Games. OR WHATEVER THOSE NOVELS ARE CALLED.

  • I haven’t self published anything yet but am working on getting an anthology of short, weird fiction stories together to do this. Hopefully time will be on my side to see how this plays out.

    As someone new to the whole thing it seems like Amazon had built up a good reputation with self publishers and, now that they have that (and therefore, a lot of people rely on Amazon), they are pushing through whatever they want, knowing (or hoping), authors will fall in line and follow suit?

    • …had a quick look at a youtube advert from Kindle Unlimited (from Amazon, so obviously pushing the service) but it was interesting to read the comments. A lot of support, which is troubling. For customers buying books it is a good deal, I guess, but they won’t be aware, or even care, what happens to the authors royalties.

  • Just a quick comment to reiterate everyone else’s view. Like many of you guys, my non Amazon sales are negligible but I’d like to think I have a reasonably good business head on my shoulders and exclusivity sets off all my warning bells. I don’t want to have my livelihood at the whim of Amazon and if they want me to join their system then it has to be on an equal footing with trad published authors.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • My urban fantasy novels are now losing money via KU. KDP say it’s all about exposure. My overall sales haven’t changed, but KU is eating what would otherwise have been a paid for sale at a good price. I’m adopting a wait and see approach but suspect I will remove subsequent books in a series so I can at least be paid ‘properly’.

  • In Michael Sullivan’s piece he also reveals how the big name titles like The Hunger Games are there without the publishers agreement, and how big name authors like Hugh Howey who just happen to act as Amazon PR guys get their titles in Kindle Unlimited AND still sell on Apple and B&N.

    On the bright side I’m sure Howey will now be joining Konrath and Eisler and issuing a petition to make readers aware of the way indie authors are being treated as third class citizens by Amazon.

    • Hugh, and the other top-selling authors getting a better deal doesn’t bother me in the least. People at that sales level always get better deals, it is the rewards of success. The fact that Hugh gets the “preferential treatment” but STILL advocates for everyone that doesn’t is admirable to me. He is expending a lot of time and effort to help other authors when he certainly doesn’t need to.

  • Maybe I’m being simple and/or closed-minded here, but to me Amazon is looking more and more like an online billboard with a handy checkout lane. I may be exaggerating a bit, but honestly what is the biggest advantage for signing up with Amazon exclusively? Exposure. Just my two cents, for what they’re worth.

  • I just want to say, on my quest to finally end my exclusivity with Amazon, it really behooves one to not give this giant corporation the only pair of keys to your publishing vehicle. They lure you in with lots of shiny little options and pretty little toys that would benefit only a few, but they all do (with the help of the 1-percenters like Konrath and Howey) is reinforce the concept of author-publishers being temporarily embarrassed bestsellers, which not unlike other temporarily embarrassed millionaires, forces people to act against their own best interests.

    I wrote about my recent experiences with this on my blog, but I won’t link it here. Until Amazon decides to open the gates and stops putting a choke hold on independent authors via KDP Select, I recommend that people stay away. Or if they must dip a toe in, do it for one 90 day cycle and get the hell out.

  • Thanks for the signal boost. Regarding your increase in ranking…it’s pretty well known now (from several data points) that rankings are being adjusted when a KU download occurs…and not when the reader hits 10%, so rankings are going to skew in some unusual ways. In other words, a change in rank may or may not mean more money. This is especially troublesome for any traditionally published authors that are in the KU program (though there aren’t many of those outside of the Amazon imprints), because in the past rankings were our only barometer since we get royalty reports only twice a year and delayed by many months.

    For the self-published authors we’ve been able to correlate ranking to daily sales volumes…in the past but now we won’t be able to (which will make Author’s Earnings reports have even more trouble). The “sale” is counted at 10% of read but the “ranking” changes when the download happens. It will make everything just that much more difficult.

    Also, I would love for Amazon to report both the download number and the read past 10% number (right now we only get the read past 10% number). It would be good to know how much “read through” we got just as bookscan data helps to let us know sell-through rather than buy-in for print books in bookstores.

  • I am in KDP and it’s not from any great love for Amazon, it’s just that I have never made a sale on any other platform. I tried B&N for a year, and never made a single Nook sale. I couldn’t set up an account with Kobo because they wouldn’t recognize my credit union as a real bank. Every attempt I made at formatting for Smashwords was a total mess, and their style guide is basically, “Buy MSWord or you’re out of luck.”

    So I pulled my books from B&N and rejoined KDP. Now I’m on KU and I’ll see how that works out. The thing is, though, I have no contract with Amazon, I can pull my books any time I want if a better distributor comes around.

  • If you have a series (or two or three or more) it seems worthwhile to put the first (and maybe second) book of each into KU, maybe drive some sales forward that way. And if you have some older books whose sales have levelled off, maybe putting a couple in will drive some sales as well. At this point its all experimentation, I’ll see what it’s doing a few months from now and go from there.

    Andrew

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