By Henry Robertson
Photo courtesy of Tatsuo Yamashita.
In the wake of Amazon’s feud with Hachette, the online retail giant is once again stirring up controversy, this time over its new Kindle Unlimited (KU) service. Rather than a major publishing conglomerate, the disgruntled party here is self-published authors.
KU, which made its debut last July, is a service where customers can access over 700,000 books for a flat rate of $9.99 per month. In an ideal sense, KU serves as a platform where self-published authors can present their works and broaden their audiences.
While KU may facilitate accessibility for authors and readers alike, the problem lies in the $9.99 fixed cost. As readers rent more books, the price doesn’t change, so the marginal payout for each book decreases. Popular authors still sell more and thus make more than lesser-known authors. However, because of the plethora of books available for readers to rent, the royalty costs shrink across the boards.
Is the problem an oversaturation of authors and books available through KU? BTR caught up with The New York Times best-seller romance novelist H.M. Ward to offer perspective on the service.
“If more books are released because of KU, that alone is not a bad thing,” Ward posits.
She adds the “so-called over saturation of books glutting the market has changed the market greatly and for the better. A great, very recent, example was the formation of the New Adult section. Trade pubs weren’t printing it, but readers wanted it. Indies noticed it, filled the hole, and now Amazon has a New Adult section. Today it’s a thriving genre.”
But while technology gives, it also takes away. Because the fixed cost causes customers to purchase more books, the more the royalty payout per book shrinks. After a few months of using the service, Ward decided to pull her books from KU as she found her earnings were slashed by 75 percent.
Perhaps the concept behind KU is inherently flawed. In what New York Times author David Streitfeld deems the “all-you-can-eat” business model, the fixed monthly fee encourages gregarious readers to rent as many books as possible to get their money’s worth, a practice which comes at the detriment of authors.
Authors striving to make a living have to adapt to the changing marketplace. A book’s length is inconsequential to payout.
“KU rewards shorter works with the same royalty as a 100,000 word novel,” Ward explains. Therefore she predicts there will be “far fewer lengthy novels. Books will become shorter out of necessity. An author still has to put food on the table.”
Ward was able to adapt to the serial format, but for other authors, this task is more daunting. If authors are given incentive to write shorter books, that could affect their style, character development, and other such intricacies and subtleties in their works. Concise is not always better, and the shorter format may disrupt an author’s flow and creative energy.
For all of its disruptive problems, KU does not seem to be breaking any laws. Writers are by no means mandated to use the service. However, for self-published authors who need the exposure, the service poses a catch-22. KU makes it easier to distribute books and by this same token, the more books that are offered exasperates the royalty problem.
The average 70 percent cut that authors receive for each book sold (a much higher cut than traditional publishing houses offer) loses its potency when the royalty payout per book continues to diminish.
“The problem doesn’t only affect self-published authors,” Ward shares. “It is changing the market and has affected everyone’s sales.”
Though Ward was an exception, KU requires most writers to publish exclusively through their platform and not work with competitors like Apple or Barnes & Noble.
Mass readers who use KU can become less inclined to buy books not offered by the service. When her serial novellas were available for KU, Ward saw a decrease in sales for her books not offered by the service, and when she stopped using KU all together, her revenue only recovered to 50 percent of what it was before her involvement.
While today’s technological age has its consequences, authors have faced many struggles in the past that they managed to overcome. As Ward postulates, “hindsight is 20/20 and today we face new challenges. The number of titles is irrelevant because there have always been thousands of books to read.”
While the future of selling books appears bleak, people will continue to write and overcome obstacles out of creative necessity.