It's not worthless, just cheap

Kindle Unlimited and the ongoing commoditization of books

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If you know anyone who writes books, or if you follow any authors on social media, you’re probably used to regular cries of doom and gloom about the death of writing and how Amazon is killing the book as we know it. Some of this may even be true. But if anything, it’s the massive increase in writing of all kinds that is killing (or changing) the book industry, and Amazon is just one part of that phenomenon. Books — like so many other forms of media — are becoming a commodity.

Take Kindle Unlimited, for example, an Amazon feature that provides a kind of Spotify-for-books rental service, where users pay $9.99 per month and can borrow one of more than 700,000 books. The service is similar to subscription rentals offered by Oyster and Scribd, but since this is Amazon, all hell broke loose when the new offering was announced in July. In a lot of ways, the response has been similar to complaints musicians have made about Spotify and other streaming services.

Within weeks of the launch, authors were complaining that it was devaluing their books, in some cases by large amounts — and that they couldn’t opt out of the program because anyone participating in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program (which requires exclusivity) was automatically added to Kindle Unlimited. One author said that the income she received from her Amazon Kindle offerings fell by more than 75 percent after the launch of the rental service, and others provided similar figures in complaints posted on various writing-related sites and in Kindle author forums.

Write more, charge less

Just a few days ago, however, the New York Times wrote about an author named Kathryn Le Veque whose books are popular with Kindle users, and noted that the exact opposite has happened to her: Her revenue from the Kindle program has climbed by more than 50 percent since Kindle Unlimited was introduced. Why? Primarily because she reduced the price of her non-rental books from an average of $4 apiece to as low as 99 cents each.

Letter writing

In other words, Le Veque realized on some level that the landscape for her books had changed: instead of being standalone novels that people could either buy or not buy, they had suddenly become a kind of premium offering compared to the cheap rental of mass numbers of books through Kindle Unlimited. If fans got a taste of her writing via the service (authors whose books are in the program get paid if 10 percent of their book is read), they might want to buy one or two — but they weren’t likely to pay as much.

As Le Veque points out in the NYT piece, not everyone is in the same category as she is when it comes to adapting to this landscape: since she has been writing fiction for more than 20 years without selling a single book through the traditional publishing industry, she has a backlog of material she can quickly produce and/or cut the price on. And even she says she is writing more than ever.

That said, however, Le Veque has clearly established a devoted following of readers, and in at least some cases she says those readers are renting or borrowing her books — and then buying a copy of them anyway. That’s not going to be the case for every author, naturally, but it is possible. Writers who create that kind of relationship will be rewarded, although perhaps not to the same degree as in the past.

Devaluation is everywhere

The standard response to Kindle Unlimited, and most of Amazon’s other moves — including its repeated attempts to force publishers to reduce the prices of their e-books, occasionally through strong-arm tactics like its blockade of Hachette titles — is to complain that the company is devaluing the book, or book writing. And it is certainly playing a role in doing that, since it is the world’s largest online book retailer.

Old typewriter

But Amazon isn’t the one devaluing books. In an economic sense, the internet is devaluing books, and almost every other kind of writing or media. Book writing and publishing used to be hard, and complicated, and time-consuming, and expensive — just like putting out a newspaper or magazine used to be, or distributing high-quality video. Now those things are trivially cheap. Virtually anyone can do them, and plenty of people are, in numbers far greater than we’ve seen at almost any point in human history.

But the vast majority of what’s being written or published or filmed or broadcast is crap, you will protest. And it probably is, by most people’s definition. But that doesn’t mean someone won’t want to see it, or read it, or rent it or maybe even buy it. And since there are oceans of similar content available for nothing, they aren’t going to pay as much as they used to for it — especially if it’s digital only.

So where does that leave authors? The same place it leaves everyone else in media: namely, trying to adapt to a marketplace where supply is almost unlimited, but demand has remained approximately the same. That’s not Amazon’s fault. If anything, I think it’s trying to help authors and publishers adapt — although it may not look that way.

11 Responses to “Kindle Unlimited and the ongoing commoditization of books”

  1. Omar Luqmaan-Harris

    Digital media creates the same issue for all industries it disrupts – discoverability. It’s not just about marketing and promotion anymore. The market is flooded with choice which is good for the consumer. And the smart author/publisher keeps tweaking their formula and putting out quality content until their audience catches on and then you ride that trend. Complaining gets us nowhere…

  2. Finally, someone stated the obvious. Amazon, KDP, and self publishing is just as responsible for the death of books as the poorly run, profit driven corporate NY publishers.

    Basically, you all suck, and you’re getting exactly what you deserve.

  3. I was quoted in the NY Times article and my concern isn’t Kindle Unlimited. Actually it’s a tool that a smart author has to figure out to use. The flood of content is worrisome but nothing I can do anything about.

    As Amazon’s own boss, Jeff Bezos, has said: Complaining is not a business strategy. We deal with it and revise our business plan.

    • And “force publishers to reduce the prices of their e-books” should more accurately be “allow Amazon to continue discounting e-books below the publishers’ set price.” Other than these two total inaccuracies, the rest of the characterization was right on. Oh wait– those two inaccuracies are the entire characterization.

  4. GalleryP

    I’m not sure the world has changed all that much: What this post seems to miss is that books, like movies (or blogs) are not ONE thing. Let’s face it, most self-published books are awful and not worth much, if anything. That prices for them are in free fall isn’t really a surprise, is it? The supply is nearly unlimited and the demand is weak. What puzzles me is why Amazon seems to think – at least publicly – that even high quality books should be similarly inexpensive.

  5. The interesting piece missing from your analysis, which appears to say that authors deserve no better and books are all just products anyhow, is that the corporations who set up these sales systems are raking in fortunes from cheapening the dignity of craftsmanship and throwing away the ideals of fair prices for curated and merited achievement. So authors are becoming just another third-world labor force, like the rest of the low-paid, under-employed American workers in a country that has devalued craftsmanship in as many industries as possible, all so that the jobs pay less, the top echelons get richer, the consumers get cheap, mediocre goods, and the workers get shafted. When Amazon figures out how to hire Chinese writers to produce books for a penny a page, maybe your writing job will be exported, too.

  6. Haven’t books been a commodity for a long, long, long time? Publishers have certainly treated them as such. Most avid readers I know also generally think of them that way.
    And while $10/month access to thousands of books might sound new to some I grew up in a town where I could get a free card to a place that had thousands of books they’d let me take for free.
    Though I could just see the idea of a library trying to get off the ground today if it wasn’t a part of our historical cultural fabric. Not that being a part of will save them probably.
    But just imagine the lawsuits from the much beleagured Author’s Guild or the publishing houses. Not to mention the crappy patent lawsuits which would probably show up to.
    In the end the internet and computer technologies have democratized publishing and we should expect greatly increased competition from that. This implies a plummeting of average readership and average earnings.
    In the end some few authors will be recognized and well read and well rewarded. Some who deserve such success won’t find it. And some who do find it will perplex almost everyone as to why exactly. So in other words, nothing new at all really. Much ado about nothing.

  7. Ian Lamont

    I am an active participant on Kboards, the forum used by many independent authors. I would like to offer a slightly different perspective on the timeline of events. When Kindle Unlimited first launched last summer, most commenters did not seem particularly concerned, even though Amazon made it clear that reimbursements were from a relatively small fund and almost by definition there would be cannibalization of digital sales. It was only in the fall, after the trends on payments and sales became obvious, that authors began to sound the alarm about KU killing sales.

    The other problem with KU is the exclusivity requirement — if you want to have your ebook in KU, you can’t sell it anywhere else. This was already an issue with KDP “Select,” the self-publishing program that feeds titles into KU and grants other marketing benefits, but the sales fiasco under the new KU regime has made it clear that the KDP Select authors are further disadvantaged by the fact that they can’t sell their titles via iTunes, Nook, Google Play, etc. This gives authors two reasons for steering clear of KU — terrible payouts and no alternative marketplaces to turn to when the checks from Amazon dry up.

    Ian Lamont
    Publisher, In 30 Minutes guides

    • Daniel Vian

      The problem with “curation” or other kinds of gatekeepers in traditonal publishing is that the people in traditional publishing are for the most part a bunch of Englsh majors whose contact with reality is limited to the fantasies of Jane Austen and Henry James. Anyone who thinks the future is NOT ebooks in a different writing/publishing world is using a crystal ball covered by smoke. Business and publishing models of various kinds will continue to be tried in the same way they were tried after the invention of the printing press. So what? The important thing is that authors need to understand that new technology changes culture and only rarely the other way around. Like any biological species, authors as a species need to adapt or perish.