How Will Kindle Unlimited lmpact The Publishing Industry? A Thorough Investigation

Jeff Bezos might find it hard to read a book from *any* subscription service when he holds his Kindles in the air like that. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/REED SAXON
Jeff Bezos might find it hard to read a book from *any* subscription service when he holds his Kindles in the air like that. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/REED SAXON

Kindle Unlimited is Amazon’s entry into the ebook subscription service marketplace. For $9.99 a month, you get access to 600,000 books. Sounds like a lot — and it is! Kind of. Kindle Unlimited doesn’t have deals with any of the “big five” publishers: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, and Penguin Random House. (They used to be the Big Six, until Penguin and Random House merged last year. Unfortunately, they missed a golden opportunity to name this new publisher Random House of Penguins.) For authors, another downside: self-published authors can only participate in the program if they make their books exclusive to Amazon. For all of us, there is the fact that ebook subscription services promote themselves as “a Netflix for books” even though the idea of “a Netflix for books” predates Netflix by many, many years, because that idea is a public library. Herein, I consult a whole bunch of experts on the ebook subscription scene to answer all your Kindle Unlimited questions, and then some.

Amazon requiring exclusivity from self-published authors: good thing, bad thing, neutral thing?For the defense, I called up Hugh Howey, bestselling author of the Wool series: “It’s similar to a program [Amazon] launched in 2011, and a lot of us credit that program with the success we had as writers. It required us to go exclusive, and it was a lending program just like this… My hope is the program is going to make the careers of hundreds of authors no one has ever heard of.” For the opposition, I spoke with Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, which advertises itself as “the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks”: “I am not a fan of exclusivity. I think exclusivity is toxic to the world of publishing… Exclusivity starves the other publishers of their lifeblood.” (For more on Coker’s thoughts here, check out his Huffington Post article, “Is Kindle Unlimited Bad For Authors?”)

Are there a lot of self-published authors out there? Why does this matter so much?Says Coker: “Self-published authors today only account for a small fraction of book sales in the industry. But when you look closer at ebook sales, the percentage controlled by self-published authors is much higher… These indie authors are becoming, every single year, a more potent voice in publishing. And to remove them from other retailers undermines [other publishers’] ability to compete against Amazon… Amazon accounts for somewhere around 60 percent of the ebook market. So when an author sits down to make this difficult decision [of where to publish their book], they have to weigh the pros and cons of that decision… I think it’s very disruptive to an author’s career to go exclusive anywhere, because it really takes years for an author to establish a readership and platform… One of the problems with exclusivity is, it forces authors to make this artificially imposed either-or situation about their distribution. A better option for all authors is to say yes to every retailer, including Amazon.”

$9.99 isn’t a lot of money, but it isn’t no money. Can I get a lot of ebooks for free elsewhere?YOU CAN. This is probably the number one annoying thing about the hype surrounding Kindle Unlimited. You can find six million free e-texts at Open Library. Do you know how many classics are in the public domain and are already free and available to you? So many, that’s how many. Read 45,000 of them at Project Gutenberg, for instance. There is also this nifty thing that I referred to above, and that thing is called a public library, which you are already paying for because (I assume) you pay taxes. Sometimes you have to leave your dwelling and traverse the dangerous streets of whatever metropolis you call home in order to get a book from the library. Is it really FREE if you have to put clothing on over your underwear to acquire it? But lots of libraries have systems in place for you to order ebooks directly from your Kindle or other such device. Maria Bustillos at The Awl expresses her thoughts on this matter quite eloquently: “Seriously, Fuck You, ‘Kindle Unlimited.’

Yeah! Amazon is evil, amirite?Okay, cool your jets. I asked Howey if he thought that maybe Amazon was evil. “I think anybody who has this much market power, we’re going to have these questions about them,” he said. “I know people at major publishing houses, a lot of people in the industry. I think there are a lot of good people are out there. But if we gave any of them too much control, we’d be wary of them. And that’s a good thing; we should be skeptical and ask questions and demand great behavior. I think Amazon probably gets too much of the critical eye right now, and we don’t share it across the industry. I think it was fascinating with the Amazon/Hachette negotiations, we immediately assumed Amazon was the bad guy, when Hachette was just three years removed from the price-fixing [controversy]. Because of that recent history, I assumed that if anyone, Hachette was the one negotiating in bad faith. We should be critical of all these institutions. I don’t blanket trust or blanket distrust anyone.”

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Let’s say I like paying for things I can also get for free, because I am a good Samaritan who enjoys supporting pro-book endeavors, or I have some cash to spare, or because I like shiny, easy-to-navigate interfaces and curation that newfangled apps provide. What are my options?You’ve got Oyster, which costs $9.95 a month and has a library of over 500,000 books, and Scribd, which costs $8.99 a month and gives you access to over 400,000 books. Both include offerings from HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster. Scribd has been around since 2007, is in 100 countries and 80 languages. Oyster launched last September and only available in the U.S.

What do they think of the new kid in town?Eric Stromberg, Oyster Books CEO, said, “We’re not surprised to see them launch a subscription product. And being chased by a big company is not a new experience for a start-up.” He also noted that “of Oyster’s top 100 titles, only 11 are available on the Kindle Unlimited service.” Julie Haddon, vice president of marketing for Scribd, spent seven years at EBay, “So I’m very familiar with Amazon, and I have a ton of respect for them. I think they’re a terrific brand, and I think they’re a strong competitor. But I think that competition is good, because ultimately the consumers will win and the publishers will win.” That said, Haddon shares Coker’s concerns about exclusivity. “It’s not always the best thing for the author or the reader… Competition, like I said, is good. The more distribution channels we can open up for an author or an artist, the better. So exclusivity is not a part of that.”

Anything worrisome about this whole ebook subscription model in general? “I’m frankly worried that none of these models are sustainable for these companies,” said Howey. “I’m an eternal optimist, but I’ve been very skeptical about subscription services. I don’t think the way they’re structured is feasible… [But] I like the idea of paying less than full-price for these borrows; it’s only fair to the reader, if they can’t own the book after.”

On the other hand, maybe subscription models are the future. Of everything.“I feel like we’ve made tremendous leaps and bounds from the way across the board content is access,” said Haddon. “[We’re] largely moving from what people used to do, where they owned their content and media, and now they’re looking more at, how do we access it? If you would have told me 20 years ago that I didn’t have to own every DVD, and I could access them, that I didn’t have to pay $109 to buy the collection of this favorite episodic series that I watch, I would have thought that was crazy. So who knows where we’ll be going forward. But this on demand life that we live, it’s a consumer’s world. We should let people have the choice of how and why and where and when they get it.”