The rumors started earlier this week, but it became official on Friday morning: Amazon’s home page trumpeted something new called “Kindle Unlimited.” It’s the Kindle version of Oyster and Scribd, or the book version of Netflix and Hulu Plus. Kindle Unlimited is simple for the readers: pay $9.99 per month, and one can select from “over 600,000 books” (more on that in a minute) and thousands of audio books (not so much about that in a minute) as many times per month as one wishes. Are you one of those readers who like to have two or more books going at once? Step right up, my friend; you can have up to ten books at once from Kindle Unlimited on your reader and for as long as you want (so long as you keep forking over that $9.99 per month, of course). Finish a book, and you return it with a click or two and pick another book of you want, or finish up what you have and then select away again. Do you read a book a day? Two books a day? Help yourself. The first month is free, and yes, I joined. Amazon makes it easy (is that a surprise?). Click on the sign up button, log into your account, and all of a sudden every book that is part of the Kindle Unlimited plan has a red button next to it that 1) indicates that it is part of the Kindle Unlimited plan and 2) announces that it can be read for free.
I was pleased to see that every book that Hachette has ever published is included in Kindle Unlimited. Just kidding, of course; THAT woke you up, didn’t it? Actually, none of the big five traditional publishers are represented on Kindle Unlimited. All of the Kindle imprints are present, as one might expect, and Open Road Media (mysteriouspress.com, anyone?), HMH, Algonquin, and Bloomsbury are there, as are authors’ works which are exclusive to Amazon. I also found a goodly portion of T. Jefferson Parker backlist to be part of it, and, if you are so inclined, The Hunger Games series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Seven Habits…you get the idea. You know that business dispute between Hachette and Amazon? I am sure that the participation of Hachette (and, down the road, the other major publishers) is an important element of it.
There is also an audiobook component to Kindle Unlimited through audible.com but at this point anecdotal reports indicate that there are only two thousand titles or so are included in Kindle Unlimited. This number will undoubtedly increase. Further, if you borrow an eBook that has an audiobook version which is part of the program, the audiobook is included automatically. And, of course, there is also the whisper sync feature included with many books. So there is plenty for everyone.
Kindle Unlimited is not Amazon Prime. There’s no long-term commitment with Kindle Unlimited; it’s for books only; and if you are already an Amazon Prime member, Amazon apparently is not folding Kindle Unlimited into your Prime membership. The only elements both programs have in common are 1) uh, Amazon and 2) borrowing books. With regard to the latter, Prime lets you read a book per month for free and lend books you’ve purchased; Kindle Unlimited is, well, unlimited; but you can’t lend other books you’ve purchased.
There is an additional consideration, of course, for the authors among us: how are the royalties for those authors whose works are included in Kindle Unlimited get paid? I did some searching for the answer, and even made a few telephone calls. Responses ranged from “Amazon isn’t releasing that information” to “I don’t know.” One source told me that for an independent author to receive royalties the “borrower” has to read at least ten per cent (10%) of the book (and yes, as an aside, it kind of creeps me out that Amazon would have a way of knowing how much of a particular book I have, or haven’t read). Once the author has accomplished that threshold through the reader, royalties are calculated along the lines of an equation which looks something like 5(x)+3(y)-42+(-7)=zippideedoodah. To put it another way, no one who is talking is really sure at this point. Authors who are free to do so might want to seek further information before committing, which of course is a good idea before entering into any contract, agreement or commitment.
There will be more — much more — to be said about Kindle Unlimited in the coming weeks and months. For the moment, however…are you interested? Did you sign up for a free trial? Have you given it a test run? And what would you like to see? I’ve already answered all of the questions but the last. I’d like to be able to borrow…graphic novels. I think that will happen when we land a man on the sun, but I’ve been surprised, pleasantly and otherwise, before. One can always hope.
As the E-book insurrection continues apace, things change on the landscape (some would call it a “battlefield”) almost weekly. Today your intrepid reporter issues a few notes and predictions which I am typing inside a tent somewhere in the literary DMZ:
– Physical shelf space continues a precipitous decline. Print sales are down 25% this year, so bookstores are folding or increasing their stationery footprint at the expense of physical books. Book buyers increasingly browse and buy online, adding to the woes of brick-and-mortar.
– E-Readers are going to explode this Christmas (again). Last year Kindles and Nooks broke the sack on Santa’s back. This year St. Nick will be lugging Kindle Fires all over the universe.
– E-fiction (what Mike Shatzkin calls “narrative text”) is already 25% of the total market. Look for it to be close to 50% by the end of next year. Shatzkin thinks it’ll be 80% within five years.
– This puts increasing stress on the Traditional Publishing Industry (TPI) because print is what made it and sustains it. TPI is doing what it has to do to survive, which comes down to keeping and making happy their A-list authors, and reducing overhead and advances (which of course means less money to invest in new and midlist authors).
– Agents are feeling the pinch, too, since their bread has been buttered by advances. That’s why many of them are transitioning into e-publishing hubs for their clients. The dollars and sense [sic] of this is still being worked out. An agent might broker a deal with a digital house like Open Road in a somewhat traditional manner. Others might offer actual e-publishing services, which raises conflict-of-interest and competency issues. Literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock argues that, “workflow restraints, small staffs, capital concerns, and the modest revenues generated by most digital properties will prevent most Agent-Publishers from adequately managing and effectively publishing more than a few titles.”
– Authors who are succeeding at being completely independent are those who are able to bring entrepreneurial analytics to the task. If you’re going to publish successfully as an indie, you have to think like a business. You have to think about genres and branding and marketing and design and all the aspects of bringing a book to the world. Authors like Bob Mayer, who are trained in strategic thinking, have an advantage. Business skills can be learned but it takes time. For that reason authors may decide to partner with a digital publishing entity. There are way too many variables to discuss here (percentages, length of time for rights, what marketing advantage is offered, and so on). Suffice to say you’ll need to be just as sharp about the details (where the devil is said to hang out) when signing away any digital rights.
– New and frustrated authors are attracted by the nice royalties they can earn by going indie, but you still have to move units to make dough. And to do that, you have to get noticed in the ever-increasing content tsunami. The two bottom line requirements are: consistent production of quality books coupled with creative marketing efforts. Those who are able to deliver the goods at a brisk pace, and are savvy about promotion, have the best chance to reap rewards over time.
– The greatest benefit of indie publishing is speed. It’s hard to wait 12 – 18 months for a physical book to appear. Over the course of a year, from March to March, I will have eight new books out. Three of them traditionally published (one of these is non-fiction), five of them indie originals (and I’m not counting the 7 backlist books I have all the rights to and will bring out next year). I love this! Why the heck not? I love to write and my e-book income in the first 6 months surpassed my latest traditional advance. I say it is okay for writers to make money doing what they love. Radical, I know, but there it is.
– I like TPI. I wrote a nice open letter to that effect. But we all know there is a vicious business spiral going on. Imagine you’re the Ty-D-Bol man and a giant has just flushed the toilet. TPI is in that little boat, hanging on for dear life. Conference rooms all over Manhattan must feel like they’re swirling.
– BTW, did you know Robert Ludlum did voiceovers for those Ty-D-Bol commercials?
For writers considering the indie trail, the times are both challenging and refreshing. But you have to be realistic. The metaphor that e-book publishing is a “gold rush” is no longer apt. There were some early strikes for the bold (e.g., Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking) but now things are reaching a market equilibrium. That means: an indie writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to train (learn to write), get plenty of nutrition (critical feedback) and then run a smart race (strategize with business thinking, pick your spots, make your moves).
And while huge success is not guaranteed, the nice thing is the race is now open to anyone who loves to run.
So what is your current thinking on this ever-changing landscape? What do you think the future holds, say, a year from now?
NOTE: I want to amend a response I made earlier this week to Paula Millhouse, who asked about the advisability of putting a book online before getting a deal. I said Nay. David DeLee respectfully dissented. So I asked my agent about this, and he said it was true a couple of years ago, but things have changed. Publishing online will not kill a potential deal if the book performs. No guarantees either, of course, but that’s always been true in the writing game. Thanks to David for the prompt.