Heads I Win…Tails You Lose


So here’s a surprise: Exclusive, one-sided contracts lead to disappointment. Lately you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an article about the disappointment authors are experiencing with Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Well not all authors…just Indie Authors. If you’re not familiar with the Kindle program, I’ll give you a quick overview or to learn more just web search something like —Amazon the Evil Empire.

In brief, the Unlimited program is a book subscription service. They pay a monthly fee and have unlimited access to download ebooks. Nothing new, as the program models the Netflix and Spotify businesses. An author can opt-in for the program and receive, as payment, a share of the monthly revenue pool. Sounded okay…until disaster struck.

Disaster mostly in the form of falling sales.

It shouldn’t be a surprise as I could not imagine even a first year law student recommending a writer sign the one-sided Amazon agreement.

Here’s why:

Exclusive without compensation: Many businesses enter into “exclusive” contracts. They promise to either provide their product to only one seller or, as the seller, they agree not to carry products from the producer’s competition. But in these exchanges there are almost always financial benefits for both parties. I would sell my books exclusively to Wal-Mart, for example, if Wal-Mart agreed to only carry one author—Me.

In the Amazon deal, authors agree to distribute only through Amazon and Amazon promises…um…to put the book somewhere on their website. Not only is this one-sided exclusivity, but the author losses the benefits of other distribution avenues like Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and well every other place that sells or distributes book.

Almost everyone in the pool: If you are a new, unknown author it may not seem a bad idea to get in on the Amazon pool of subscription revenue. Except not everyone is in the pool and that is the heart of the revenue problem. Best-Selling traditional published authors are “in” the program, but they are not required or even asked to be exclusive to Amazon. When a reader downloads one of these author’s books, the author receives full compensation for the “purchase.” So, much like the old traditional model, the lion’s share of revenue pays the big authors and what is left is divided among the rest.

The subscription program looks enticing to the reader with its thousands of books and it is made affordable by throwing the Indie authors a few pennies. In short it works like this: The best-selling authors get their full royalty, Amazon gets its profits, and what ever is left is divided among everyone else—Alms for the Poor as they say.

More than one way to skin a cat: As if there isn’t enough suspicion and criticism over self published books, many authors are moving quickly to game the system. Understand their actions aren’t hurting Amazon or the Brad Thors of the world, it is hurting other self-published authors and undermining any future connection between quality and self-publishing.

The game is simple to play. Take your fifteen chapter novel and instead of making it one book—divide it up into 15 books. Since you are compensated for each book download you can turn one payment into 15 payments. Money that comes out of fellow self published authors’ pockets —So much for SPA Unity. It’s not just about money though, instead of moving toward quality ebooks, the Amazon subscription program creates an attitude of “it’s a numbers game,” more “books” is equal to more money and quality be damned.

The Jury Finds: The subscription programs are not the end of the world for authors. It’s just another re-shuffling of an industry that is in flux and still finding its way in the new entertainment world. For many authors, the program which basically makes every book “free” is a good trade-off. If you aren’t selling any books or just selling a few, subscription programs can be a way to find new readers.

Of course, we all know that e-readers are filled with “free” books that the reader will never read. I think what intrigues me most about the subscription program is that the people who get the short-end are the ones who actually make it possible—the self-published authors. You’d never get Stephen King, Brad Thor, J.K. Rowling or any other best-selling authors to accept 30 cents for their book. Amazon could not afford to pay them full royalties and still keep the subscription model at a friendly price if they weren’t loading the coffers with SPAs.

The program works because self published authors are so willing to be second class citizens in the industry. The terms are terrible but there is a pervasive attitude that “it’s the best we can hope for.” There is power in numbers and if every SPA opted out of the program, Amazon would either close it down or they would create better terms for the authors.

I realize that mine is an issue of standing on principles not every author shares. But my concern is greater than even that balance. I want to see self-publishing gain a nearness to the credibility and the stature of traditional publishing. I don’t think that is possible when poor compensation programs create a world of “chap books,” or authors forego editing because they only make a few dollars, or by creating a consumer attitude that your labor has all the value of an all you can eat buffet.

There is something different coming for ebooks. Entertainment of all mediums tends to follow similar trends and the e-book market is no different. I think I see where its going, but I’ll save that for another post. Until then when you consider the Kindle subscription program, forget about the few dollars you might earn, forget about the readers you hope to gain, for get about the false dream that this is your ticket to the big league. Instead consider the value you place on your creation, your book.

If your words and stories are worthless than don’t write them, if you write for fame and fortune find new motivation, if you believe you aren’t really “good enough” then don’t publish. If you think, however, your work has value, if you believe you merit the attention of readers then don’t…I say don’t…give anyone exclusivity to your work…unless they write you a big check or offer something of value in exchange for the value of your product.

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for the early warning about Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. As a reader, I love the option to read so many books. As an author, I had not considered the flip side or the plight of the poor authors trapped by Amazon’s contract.

    I did notice the sudden influx of one chapter “books.” I noticed the horrible books that lacked even rudimentary editing or even spell checking. Since the early days that I have perused e-books by SPAs, I have always noticed the poor grammar, and writing mistakes that made me cringe.

    As a freelance editor, I try to coach my clients that while good editing is expensive, it is worth it because releasing something that is not even lightly edited might hurt your sales later. Most of my clients realize this as I often show them several horribly written books usually on Amazon. I always ask my clients to think what those author’s sales could have been had they tried the basic spell checker on what ever word processing program used.

    I am glad that I did get suckered into Amazon’s trap. I hope that more SPAs avoid Amazon. Perhaps if enough SPAs get the word that the Kindle Unlimited program is not such a good idea maybe Amazon will reconsider.

    • Good points on editing! and you’re correct..I can afford to edit isn’t an acceptable reason to publish anyway. Also, not all editors are created the same, so writers need to vet them as they would any other service. I paid good money the first time out to have a poorly edited book.

      • True not all editors are created equal – same as writers. Sorry to hear that your first book was poorly edited. My guild vets our editors as all of us have to have professional training, usually college, just to belong to the guild. There are a few ways to get more from an editor. Best thing for my clients is Skype. I also like to be able to discuss changes with my writer. Rather than come from the position that I am always correct and the writer wrong, I like to offer suggestions, and explain my changes. Working with an editor should be a collaboration not an armed conflict. I hope that you found a better editor better suited to you. Sometimes we have personality conflicts so I usually offer the client one of my guildmates to see if, perhaps, another editor may mesh with them better.

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