Saturday, January 3, 2015

Kindle Unlimited: Which Conspiracy Theories Should You Believe?

Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s ebook subscription service, was launched back in July of this year and while all the data isn’t in, a lot of self-publishers are complaining it has hurt their sales and/or revenue. As a result, some famous Amazon supporters have been pulling out of the program, at least temporarily. It’s not clear that KU is hurting the revenue of all self-published writers. Some authors even say they see improved revenue and better numbers in both in borrows and sales. For example, Robert Gregory Browne commented on the Passive Voice: “Kindle Unlimited makes me money… my sales haven’t suffered and I’ve at least doubled borrows.” Moreover, if you charge less than $1.99 for your books, you make more for a borrow than a sale through Kindle Unlimited. This is a big advantage for short fiction and writers who price first in a series at $.99.

While it is not a good thing if any writers incomes are hurt, this is a great opportunity for the self-publishing community to unite by sharing information and strategy to the benefit of all. Many writers are doing exactly that, generously revealing their own personal sales information, explaining what is and isn't working, and discussing future plans.

Personally, I think Kindle Unlimited is a very interesting new tool for writers. I can see how it might help some and hurt others, but overall, I believe that businesses grow and improve by embracing change so it seems like an exciting development. I am about to self-publish my first book, Eve's Hungry, and I intend to put it into KU. In fact, KU has solved a lot of issues for me in terms of pricing strategy. Since this is my first book, discovery, gaining new readers, will be my primary focus. Much of the conventional advice is that if I want new readers I should make the book available for as little as possible: $2.99, $.99 or even perma-free. Others say that free and $.99 don't work on Amazon anymore. Others, notably Kristine Kathryn Rusch say that underpricing a full length novel devalues it in the long term and suggests a minimum of $6. Since my book is a real novel, over 70,000 words, I'm tempted to take her advice. So Kindle Unlimited solves both problems. I can put my book up for $5.99, so I don't seem to be devaluating it, but it will also be free to KU subscribers to add to discovery. That KU requires exclusivity is actually a bonus to me. Putting out my first book is complicated enough. I'm happy to go all in with Amazon for this first one. As I get results I'll share them on this site.

It would be nice if most discussions about Kindle Unlimited focused on real data, on individual choices, and what is best for self-publishers in the immediate future. Unfortunately, the anti-Amazon crowd, particularly those who don't like self-publishing and view it as a threat to the established publishing community, see this an an opportunity. They are quickly co-opting the debate for their own purposes by throwing out misinformation, conspiracy theories, and wild predictions of the future.

Those of us who don't see Amazon as evil are compelled to make some effort to defend it. So we are thrust into a debate about Amazon's good or bad intent with Kindle Unlimited, and where it might really be headed in the distant future. Sadly, once again the issue becomes framed through the lens of how it helps or hurts traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. Someday, over the rainbow, self-publishers might be allowed to conduct their business without it being perceived as a fight between them and traditional publishing. But, for today, Amazon critics are determined to use the KU debate to refight old battles they lost.

This is going to be a long post, so feel free to jump off now and go to the links above of real writers talking about real facts, rather than general speculation and conspiracy theories. I don't mind, really.

While some of the people complaining about Kindle Unlimited are writers who are directly affected by it, many are what I will call PPP, or Pundits Protecting (traditional) Publishing. These are the same group of people who originally slammed self-publishing for creating a "volcano of shit," and who openly pinned for it to be shoved into ghettos where no one would see it. These are the same ones who, during the Amazon/Hachette dispute, spun around and demanded self-publishers join Hachette's side to save literature and stop Amazon. When self-publishers didn't join Hachette's side, or offered sensible compromises, they were attacked and belittled with absurd arguments like "thinking Amazon was their friend." The PPP made sure that reasonable discussions about ebook pricing dissolved into attacks on self-publishing for undercutting prices. They frequently suggested that self-publishers had nothing to offer readers but free and cheap books. When the Amazon/Hachette dispute was settled with a whimper, despite their efforts to paint it as a life or death struggle for the future of literature, the PPP tried to claim it was a victory for agency and price fixing and another nail in the coffin of self-publishing.

So it shouldn't be a huge surprise that the same group that has always been antagonistic to Amazon, and self-publishing, are smacking their lips with savory schadenfreude as they hope self-publishers are suffering. They are smugly recycling their old failed arguments into a “I told you so” lesson. Presumably, self-publishers should have collectively turned on Amazon and supported giant print publishers prior to their ebook income streams being hurt by KU. How that would have helped them, or fixed any issues with KU, is anyone’s guess.

With KU in the news, the PPP hope to convince self-publishers to act against their own interests and for the benefit of the traditional publishing world they support. Their goal is to protect the status quo: rich successful writers who don't like competition, literary agents who don't like the independence self-publishing gives writers, publishing executives who don't want their choices questioned, and giant publishing corporations that want to maintain their dominance over the industry. There is no consideration that some self-publishers might foolishly take their advice and get seriously hurt, like the student in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie who runs off to join the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War. Self-publishers who pull out of Kindle Unlimited, or pull some books, or don't join it in the first place, should do so because it is good for their business, not because the mouthpieces of larger business interests convince them that Amazon is an evil that must be stopped.

Since the actual problem isn’t sufficient to terrify self-publishers into hating Amazon, it’s necessary to forecast future doom by predicting that KU payouts will inevitably shrink to nothing and the service will destroy all ebook sales. While they're at it, why not recycle old arguments like that too many writers are flooding the market and creating a "glut." And that cheap ebooks devalue writing and will soon force everyone to work for free. Those predictions didn’t come true when they were made years before, but with KU maybe they will. And why not suggest that evil Amazon knew KU would hurt self-publishers and introduced it because they view books as a "loss leader" so they can sell other stuff like diapers.

Let’s return to reality for a moment. We don’t know for sure yet whether KU is a net positive or negative for self-publishers. Obviously, new writers entering the market can’t know whether it helps or hurts, since they don’t have any data to make a comparison. We also can’t know for sure if any individual drop off in sales is completely related to KU, or if there might be other factors related to the author's work or the market in general. We can’t know if any drop in revenue is a temporary effect of KU as it starts up and readers test it out, or part of a troubling long term trend. We also don’t know if most writers can solve their issues by modifying which books they put into the program and which they keep out. Finally, we don’t know if Amazon itself may make changes in the program to solve most of the complaints.

What we do know, is that the anti-Amazon army isn’t going to wait for data, and is going to do everything they can to try to terrify self-publishers into panicking. They’re going to try to convince writers that pulling out of KU is the “right” thing to do for literature and humanity. They want to frighten off writers who are considering self-publishing by saying, falsely, that the entire market is collapsing. And they want everyone to pressure Amazon into making changes that might not be good for Amazon, and might be worse for self-published writers, but good for the big publishing interests.

I have faith that the larger self-publishing community won’t fall for this propaganda any more than they did during the Hachette dispute. I’m also sure Amazon isn’t going to panic and make any hasty moves. However, I think it’s important to try to counter these arguments before they can gain ground and possibly hurt some innocents along the way who believe them.

Let’s start with a quick review of the whole Amazon vs. traditional publishing argument. What’s wrong with traditional publishing? Nothing. But, historically, there’s a lot of things wrong with the way the very biggest traditional publishing companies (now merged into the big five) have been behaving. Starting with the fact that they have colluded for years to treat many, many writers terribly with unfair "standard" contracts, fuzzy accounting, and poor handling of their books. Not all writers, just the most vulnerable ones, and that makes it worse. Toss in that they have historically treated women writers miserably and primarily favor white males from certain socioeconomic classes that mirror the executives making publishing decisions. Add that they have been horrible to genre writers, who bring in the bulk of their profits, and try to prop up pretentious literary darlings no one wants to read and in the processes have driven down the market for all books. Let’s not forget they did everything they could to sabotage independent book stores in favor of giant book chains. They also treat readers badly by gouging them with high prices, which also hurts the overall market. But the most important thing is this:

They won’t publish your book.

Okay, now Amazon. There’s stuff about them not treating warehouses workers as good as they should, okay, bad there. They were really mean to those rich writers who took out the $100,000 ad in the New York Times. And I’m sure there’s some other stuff. But the most important thing is this:

They will publish your book.

And they allow you to make money from it. That's a pretty nice thing. And no one really did it before Amazon. At least, not in a way that gave you a good chance of making money. Right now, it's easy to take that for granted, but it could have gone another way. Amazon could have made deals with the big publishers that would have completely shut self-publishers out of the ebook market. And, in retrospect, I'm sure the big five wish they had. Sure, thanks to the internet, there would be other companies that would sell self-published books, but they would not be attached to the largest online market in the world. And that would have dramatically lowered the chances of any self-publisher making a living.

Now you might think you deserve more money, or you just might want more money, but at least Amazon gives you the opportunity to make money. The big publishers won't. That is, they won't publish the vast majority of writers. (And they can't under their current business model.) Amazon will publish anyone and that is one of the main reasons the big publishers hate them. They don't want the competition that self-publishing brings. And if they could force Amazon to stop selling self-published books, or shove them into a ghetto that one could find, they would do it in a heartbeat. (That might have been part of what the Hachette dispute was really about.)

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that overall KU is currently hurting more self-publishers (at least in terms of revenue) than it is helping. Let’s go a step further and assume that those writers, who have lost revenue, would have done better if KU hadn’t been created, and would do better, at least in the short term, if KU never existed. And, just for giggles, let’s assume Amazon is not a super villain that randomly kills their loyal sidekicks to prove how evil they are. I’m not saying Amazon is anyone’s friend, but let’s work on the assumption that they are a business, and are more concerned with overall profits and growth than simply destroying writers lives because they don’t care about literature. And let's assume that they didn't facilitate the entire rise of self-publishing, just to suddenly try to kill it off to sell more diapers.

So why did Amazon create Kindle Unlimited? Why didn't it just leave everything the way it was? Shouldn’t they have known that it would hurt a lot self-publishers income?

The notion of subscription services has always been popular with big corporations. Amazon already has one with Amazon Prime. It's a great way to mint money, if they work. But most of them don't work. The giant record labels have tried for many years to get people to subscribe to music services, but for the most part they have failed except for the free ones. Yet the huge success of Netflix in movies and television has inspired a lot of talk about whether that model would work with books. The technology for doing it with ebooks is even more simple. There are a lot of investment bankers and startup executives (who really don't care about writers) who are willing to throw a lot of money out to test the concept.

Amazon wisely tries to stay ahead of the competition. They had already been experimenting with ebook subscriptions by allowing Prime members to borrow a very limited number of books. If Amazon had wanted to jump into subscription services in a big way, they could have easily done it long before anyone else. And frankly, if Amazon wanted to hurt self-publishers and make all books free, they could have just turned Prime into a full ebook subscription service. But Amazon didn't. They set up a separate service with Kindle Unlimited that costs an additional monthly payment and is certain to have less subscribers than Prime. Why? Probably because they are making a ton of money through ebook sales and they didn't want to rock the book. This PPP invention that Amazon views ebooks sales as a lot leader is absurd. Apple, yes. Amazon, no. Apple charges a big premium for their hardware, so they don't care as much about making money on content. They do make a lot of money on it, but their main goal is to sell hardware. Amazon is the opposite. Kindles are very low priced, often sold at or below cost. Amazon wants to make money on content. (There is no profitable business model where getting free books makes people buy other stuff like lawn mower blades.) Hugh Howey is correct when he says that Amazon is primarily concerned with helping their customers. But they do want their customers to give them as much money as possible. As a result, I think they hesitated to launch a subscription service, which might hurt their overall ebook sales, and angered self-publishers, until they were forced to.

What forced them too? The launch of ebook subscription services Scribd and Oyster. This was bad news for Amazon for a bunch of reasons. Scribd and Oyster are typical investment startups and are in a position to lose money for quite a long time, as long as they can gain market share and prove they have some potential. Amazon is also famously willing to lose money to gain market share, but since these companies are just starting, their share is small and they can afford to lose more per customer. They also don't have to worry about cannibalizing their own ebook sales, they don't sell ebooks. Amazon does. I'll repeat: Amazon does not want ebook sales to tank. There is no logical reason to believe they do. But Amazon had to respond. For two reasons: one, if Scribd and Oyster took off in a big way, Amazon might lose BOTH markets anyway, second, if they took off, they could start offering ebook sales and who knows, maybe even sell diapers.

Okay, so Amazon was in a fix. But what about self-publishers, what do they care if Amazon is hurt by Scribd and Oyster? Isn't competition good? Isn't it better if there are more services wanting our ebooks? Yes, in some cases it is good. iBooks, despite Apple's eagerness to cozy up with big publishing, is generally a good thing, it provides some alternatives to Amazon. Nook is okay too. But Scribd and Oyster, in my opinion, are poisonous. Self-publishers should not be rushing to support them, particularly at the expense of Amazon. Why?

They won't publish your book.

But wait, aren’t a lot of self-publishers putting they’re books on those services to “diversify?” No. They are putting their books on Smashwords. And Smashwords is putting them on Scribd and Oyster. Because both of those services require an aggregator in order to accept self-published work. That, to me, is bad. Oh, Scribd, at least, will allow you put up stuff for free, but if you want to make money, you have to give a cut of it to an aggregator like Smashwords. (Now explain to me again how Amazon is secretly planning to make writers work for free when they don’t allow free books and writers have to jump through hoops to get perma-free? Meanwhile, Scribd will take free books, but makes writers jump through hoops (signing with Smashwords) if they want to make money? Scribd is the good guy?) I assume there are some writers who are happy with Smashwords, but I’ve read a lot of bad stuff. I was particularly concerned with the issue of them forcing self-publishers into a hidden ghetto for libraries that used Overdrive’s service. Smashwords CEO Mark Coker’s explanation of how that happened, and their slow efforts to correct it, always sounded flimsy to me. Was Smashwords testing out the self-publishing ghetto big publishers dream of creating?

But the biggest thing is I fundamentally disagree with the idea that self-publishers should be forced to use an aggregator (a middleman) in order to get on these services, or any book service. Apple used to require an aggregator, and as much of an Apple fanboy as I am, I was very annoyed with it. Thankfully they’ve switched and now allow you to directly set up accounts. (Hmm… did Apple switch only because the DOJ forced them to keep arms length from big publishing?) Amazon has already proved self-publishing can be done without an aggregator, so in my opinion that should be the model self-publishers support. Let's not go backwards. The entire purpose of self-publishing is to get rid of middlemen, and aggregators are nothing but middlemen. Aggregators should offer something extra (marketing?) to self-publishers to earn their cut, not simple access.

So I would be against Smashwords even if I hadn’t heard bad things about them. (If you need an aggregator, check out some of the other options like Bookbaby and draft2Digital.) But Mark Coker makes me even more nervous every time he opens his mouth. Coker has plenty of reasons to hate Amazon, they won’t play ball the way he wants, but much of his commentary during the Hachette debate was pretty transparently false. And naturally he’s all over Kindle Unlimited as being the first step in dooming writers to working for free. Despite supposedly being out there fighting for self-publishers, most of his commentary is very traditional publisher friendly. He stays on point with a lot of their false arguments about not only Amazon, but about a glut in content (which is particularly odd for someone who supposedly makes his living helping create that content).

So, everyone thinks Amazon has a secret plan to turn on self-publishers? I don’t think so. But I have my own conspiracy theories. One is that Mark Coker's end game is the hope of selling his company to one of the big five. His writings sure don't seem to come from someone invested in the long term health of the self-publishing movement. Another theory is that the investors of Scribd and Oyster see the big five as playing a huge part in their end games, either out and out sales, mergers or investment. And the big five? I think they are frantically searching for a secret plan to screw self-publishers. Because it’s not enough that they don’t want to publish your book. They don’t want you to publish your own book. That's what is behind all this PPP talk about there being a glut that needs to be stopped. The glut, of course, is all those writers who are self-publishing.

But how can they stop you? Amazon has made it too easy. Well, first, they have to knock Amazon down. So that’s part of all the efforts to use big media to create hysteria against Amazon. Second, they know now that they can’t stop you, so the only hope is to force your books into a ghetto where no one sees them. (Kind of like what Smashwords and Overdrive did with self-published books that wanted library access. Hmm… connection?) To build those ghettos, they will need a lot of leverage with the biggest players in the ebook markets. They tried to get leverage over Apple, but the DOJ stopped them there. They tried to get leverage in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, but that failed too. So, guess what, next they might try to get leverage in subscription services which might be the new frontier for ebooks.

None of the big five publishers have made their ebooks available on Kindle Unlimited. That’s why Amazon has to pay full sale price for the few traditionally published books KU does offer. Two of the big five have made deals with Scribd: HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster. And it looks like Macmillian may soon follow. It would not surprise me if all five did. Undoubtedly one of the reasons the big publishers are willing to work with Scribd is simply to undercut Amazon. (Macmillian CEO John Sargent opening admits that lowering Amazon’s market share is a key priority.) I think it’s also possible that the big publishers insisted Scribd only allow self-published books from an aggregator, or that was something Scribd offered out as an incentive on its own to placate them.

So, what might be the fantasy that big publishers have for how subscription services change the business of ebooks?

1. Services like Scribd and Oyster (anyone but Amazon) dominate.

2. Big publishers make lots of money on those services from their backlists, but protect most of their new releases with tiered pricing. (Keeping them off the services until they have earned as much as possible.)

3. The success of these favored services hurt Amazon’s ebook market share. It’s okay if it kills a lot of (Amazon) ebook sales as long as the big five make the money back elsewhere.

4. Amazon, struggling to compete against the new services, is forced to make deals with the big five the way the big five want them or lose the ebook market all together.

5. Self-publishers must use aggregators to access the services. Bonus if big publishers can force Amazon to use an aggregator too. Self-published material is less prominent on subscription services by design.

6. Big publishers BUY AGGREGATORS. Self-publishers can’t access any major services without an aggregator. Aggregators make big publishers lots of money from self-publishers, which can be used to think up other ways to screw self-publishers. (Raising fees, charging for discovery, charging to put your book up, forcing you to sign over rights, etc.)

Beyond Smashwords, you need no other reason to believe that big publishers are evil, or at least one is evil, than the fact that Penguin Random House bought and operates Authors Solutions. Authors Solutions really is the super-villain of evil publishing organizations. It is so slimy and toxic, it is difficult for me to comprehend why even an evil publishing company would want to own it if they had any other options, which Penguin Random House clearly does. So why did they buy it? Is the amount of money they steal from little old ladies who want to be writers really worth it? Is it worth all the lawsuits and bad press? Really?

It’s the kind of thing that could eventually end up with a Congressional investigation like when Famous Writer’s School was finally exposed back in the 1970’s. Moreover, in an internet age, it’s very hard to maintain that kind of scam, which is why they are now focusing on writers in third world countries. It makes no sense to me. The only way it would make sense for me is:

They see it as the future of self-publishing.

How do the big publishers stop self-publishing? They don’t, they just control it. They make sure that anyone who wants to self-publish has to work through aggregators like Smashwords or services like Authors Solutions. But those companies have to have something to offer self-publishers, other than the long con. That would be access. If you want your book in a major market, either you pay a bundle to Authors Solutions, or you pay a percentage to Smashwords. If not, you don’t get on Scribd or Oyster and whatever other services dominate in the future.

But Kindle Unlimited screws all that up. If it becomes the biggest subscription service, or at least a good competitor, that worse case scenario plan isn’t going to work. So if we want to talk conspiracy theories rather than real data, top of my list would be to worry about the relationship Scribd has with big publishers. Even if I’m wrong about all those concerns, or if they don’t happen because big publishers can’t get enough leverage, there are very good reasons to prefer the Kindle Unlimited model over Scribd and Oyster.

Amazon is still very much in the business of getting people to buy books, in addition to borrowing them. A reader who borrows a book by Writer Smith, and likes it, can click a button and see a bunch of other books by Writer Smith for sale on Amazon (I know, I've done it and bought books that way). Scribe and Oyster are focused on subscription only. This is a huge advantage to working with Amazon. Unless writers expect to earn all their income from subscription services (dominated by traditional publishing interests) it’s a lot to expect readers to leave Oyster to see what you have available on Amazon. I even think some readers might enjoy a book so much they borrow it and then buy it. I’m already struggling with the 10 book limit on Kindle Unlimited, and I can certainly see buying some books to keep that I borrowed. (I'm on the edge of buying You Only Live Twice, even though it's in my borrow list, because I want to free up the space and I don't have time to read it right now. It's something I'd like to own in ebook form anyway.)

Here’s another important thing to consider in regard to the traditional vs. self-published war. One of the big criticisms of Kindle Unlimited is that it pays from a pool instead of a fixed amount per book. I’ll admit I’m suspicious of that business model, nor am I placated by the idea that Amazon offers special bonuses to “star” authors who sell in the top brackets. (And I’m not a fan of Amazon Studios, which encourages writers to work in a kind of American Idol style contest.)

But I do understand why it makes sense for Amazon to have a fixed pool, and why it was the best approach for them as they test out the new market. I also appreciated that they have added to the pool a couple times to raise the payouts. As others have pointed out, the higher Oyster and Scribd payouts are probably not sustainable if readers actually use their services. Scribd CEO Trip Adler has publicly said that his subscribers on average only read one or two books a month. It appears they are shooting for the “gym membership” model, where most people sign up thinking they will read books, but end up not using it and then forget to cancel. In other words, just short of a scam. (Try asking about a gym membership without feeling dirty afterwards.) Pursuing a kind of sleazy business model isn’t particularly surprising coming from Scribd, which originally planned to make money by violating copyright and encouraging ebook piracy before they switched to subscription and struck deals with some big publishers.

So the question for self-publishers is: do you want to support (over Amazon) a kind of scammy service that pays more for books, but hopes that people won’t read them? How are you going to make money off people who don’t read your books? Scribd will. You won’t. The less people read, the more money Scribd and Oyster make. Amazon, however, has committed to paying out a pool regardless. So the less books people borrow, the more money that will be sent to the authors of the books that are read. Is that so bad? Maybe that is a fairer way after all. So both Amazon, and writers, are invested in making Kindle Unlimited work. Making it a service people want to use. You can make money off of the borrows and also possibly sell your books that aren’t in the service. If Scribd emerges as a service that people pay into but don’t use, not only will you not make any money, but it won’t help you sell books and won’t help promote you as a writer.

If books aren’t being borrowed, doesn’t that hurt the big publishers too? Not necessarily. Because we don’t really know what kind of deals they struck with Scribd and Oyster. It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that they made deals like the record labels did with music subscription services. The reason musicians are making so little from music subscriptions is because the record labels get paid first, and a lot more. It’s quite possible that the big publishers are getting paid a fee just for allowing access to their libraries. Or they get a share of overall subscription sales, or minimum guarantees. In other words, they might be in on the scam. They might be fine if no one borrows or reads books and authors don’t get paid. (Which might account for Scridb requiring a higher percentage than Amazon to qualify a “read.” 30% over 10%. Yes, that’s right, Amazon pays at 10%, you get nothing at Scribd for that.)

Traditional publishers already have deals to take the bulk of ebook revenue from their writers, so maybe, in addition to getting a piece off the top, they want borrows. But there they have an advantage over self-publishers too. Traditional publishers price their books higher on average. So since Scribd pays 60% of the sale price, on average traditional publishers will get more money. If, say, there are 50,000 borrows of big publisher books that average $8.99 per book, and 50,000 borrows of self-published books that average $3.99 per book, the big publishers get almost twice as much money for the same number of borrows. (Not to mention Smashwords, or another aggregator, takes 15% of the self-pubished share.) If that becomes the model for the future, big publishers win. Self-publishers make the service look appealing because there are lots of books to choose from, but they end up getting a lot less money.

But don’t the big publishers get more per book from Kindle Unlimited too? Yes, but they have a lot less books in the system. Most of Kindle Unlimited is self-published, with a few big titles, like Harry Potter thrown in to make it appealing. So, if 100,000 books get borrowed on Kindle Unlimited, its quite likely most of them will be self-published. In fact, its almost a reverse situation with big publishing helping self-publishing. The big name borrows, like Harry Potter, lure people into subscribing. But once they have a subscription, they mostly have to choose self-published. That may be what the big publishers really fear, and that’s why the PPP is trying to talk self-publishers into abandoning Kindle Unlimited. If Kindle Unlimited is a huge success, and mostly features self-published material, that could be really dangerous to big publishing's long term plans.

There are a lot of other factors to consider. We can’t really know how these different services are treating discovery. Because Scribd is more invested in keeping the big guys happy, will their search favor their books? Or particular books? Will that one or two book borrows a month only be best sellers from the big five? It all gets down to issues of trust, and so far, I see no reason for Scribd or Oyster to be invested in helping self-publishers. And I see a lot of logical reasons for Amazon to be. Not to mention, historically they’ve been pretty good to self-publishers.

Where is this all going? There are two very different possibilities, and some room in the middle. Regardless, long term I hope Amazon remains the major player.

Subscription services could be a bust. They could just turn out not to work on a big enough level to pay off in a serious way. It could be that Scribd and Oyster have to pay too much for their big publishing deals and can’t afford to survive. In that case, Amazon might fold Kindle Unlimited into Prime and it will just be a little perk for their best customers. If so, self-publishers can return their focus to sales and use what is left of Kindle Unlimited for short material and as a kind of perma-free for sample books and first in series. Thus, a lot of this drama about KU will have been for nothing.

The other possibility is that subscription services really work. In that case, they might seriously gut sales and not being in a subscription will mean self-publishers won’t see any revenue. If that is the case, then those who complained that Kindle Unlimited hurt their sales, would eventually have gotten hurt by Scribd and Oyster even if Amazon hadn’t created KU. If sales really drop across the board, it doesn’t matter which subscription service caused it, writers will have to adapt. If that is the case, I would prefer to have Amazon remain one of the big players in subscription, rather than have big publisher friendly (and dependent) Oyster and Scribd completely in charge.

Don't forget, the "loss leader" argument against Amazon might actually work the other way around. Cheap diapers are what drive people to splurge on ebooks. More likely, because of Amazon's size, because they are so diverse and have so many sources of income, they can stand up to the big publishers and are willing to fight for self-publishers, who are also good customers for all their other products. And keeping self-publishers happy might bring Amazon a lot of good will. That glut of writers who are publishing books no one buys? Maybe when they check their sales they wander off to buy lawn mower blades… and other writer's ebooks.

Ultimately, writers should make decisions based on real facts, not conspiracy theories, even my own. If being in Kindle Unlimited doesn't make you money, or hurts your other sales, get out. If being in Oyster or Scribd, or Smashwords, brings in income, go with them. If you're not sure, try to find some actual data. But if we’re going to look into the dark hearts of big corporations, or into the future through a crystal ball, Amazon still seems like the closest thing to long term ally self-publishers have.


  1. Thanks for such an informative post, and for including those wonderful links too.

  2. You're welcome. Thanks for commenting!