(OK, so I lied about there being no post. I have to do something to take my mind off rubbishness.)
Amazon have announced a new feature, Kindle Unlimited. This feature allows Kindle owners (so far only in the US) to download as many books as they want, one at a time, for a $9.99 per month flat fee — it’s a “Spotify for books”. Authors get paid as soon as the Kindle owner reads more than 10% of their book.
This is, in theory, a great thing, but in practice it’s evil. That sounds harsh, but I think it’s fair. And there are two main reasons it’s evil.
The first is that it requires participation in “KDP Select”, Amazon’s exclusivity programme. If you sign up for this, you can’t have your books available digitally anywhere else. I’d have to pull my books from Smashwords, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and the rest, take down the PDF versions on Lulu, and remove the blog posts they were based on from here.
This would not be too terrible for me financially — I sell barely anything through any of those bookshops, and because I’m not good at sorting out tax stuff I haven’t even collected the money I’m owed for most of the sales (it’s all accruing in my Smashwords account, and I’ll get it eventually).
But it would mean that anyone with a non-Kindle e-reader would be unable to buy my books, making it bad for other readers like me (I have a Nook, and mostly buy from the Kobo shop and smaller ebook stores owned by publishers like Obverse or Baen).
It would also be one more tiny step towards Amazon being the only ebook retailer around, which would be bad both for readers (because monopolies are very bad for consumers) and for writers (because monopsonies are even worse for suppliers).
So I would consider it immoral to be involved — in the sense that the most moral action is the one which, should everyone take it, would improve the world the most, not in the sense of judging authors who decide differently. But that’s not actually the worst thing.
The worst thing is that, as with the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (which also requires participation in the KDP Select programme), there is not a flat fee paid to the author for each book read, but instead there’s a pot of money chosen by Amazon (at the moment $2million, as a promotional thing — normally closer to $1million, but offered at their discretion; they could make it ten cents if they wanted) which is split between all the authors according to the proportions in which their books are borrowed.
This is what makes it evil rather than just normal nasty corporate capitalism, because it turns what should be a positive-sum game into a zero-sum one.
If they made payments by number of books borrowed, say a dollar a book, that would be great. I could encourage you to read my book, and I’d get a dollar, and also encourage you to read, say, Andrew Rilstone’s latest book, and he’d get a dollar too.
But with the system where you’re paid by proportion of books borrowed, if I encourage you to read Rilstone’s book, then that means I’m getting a smaller share, so the incentive is for me to discourage you from reading any books by anyone other than myself. It’s a neat and nasty way of breaking any sense of community for authors (and one which would incidentally make collective action much more difficult should Amazon’s terms become more onerous).
This is not only classic divide-and-rule, pitting suppliers against each other, the worst kind of monopoly capitalism, but it’s also a catastrophic thing for readers. One of the most important ways people find new books is when authors reference or acknowledge each other’s work. But if you’re signed up to KDP Select, then you can’t tell readers about those other authors, who might make your share of the pie smaller.
And look at what that pie is. $2,000,000 . Sounds a lot, doesn’t it? But how many subscribers are they going to get at $10 a month? I’d guess quite a lot more than 200,000.
But more importantly, the number of books in the programme is “over 600,000″. Break that down, and that means that the mean payment per book — in this special promotional period where they’re paying more — is $3 per month. Obviously some will get more, but only because others will get even less.
The worst thing imaginable would be if this was a success, undercutting actual ebook sales to the point that it was the only way writers could actually make any money. And I can see that happening if something isn’t done about Amazon’s monopolistic practices (of which this is just one of many).
Thankfully the Big 5 publishers are staying out of this evil, and so long as they are, people will still buy books.
Because I don’t know exactly what the price for my soul is, but I do know it’s more than $3.
As most of you will have seen, I put out a book last night.
Here’s a screenshot of part of the Amazon (UK) page for that book as of just now:
Pretty good, eh? Top thirty in its category, and in the top 24,000 overall books. There are over two million books on Kindle, so that means my new book is, within a few hours of its release, in the top 1.2% of all books available on Kindle! Take that 98.8% of English literature! I are best than you!
And that’s especially impressive given how little promotion I gave it. I only linked it from my blog and Tumblr, and did nothing else. It must be that word-of-mouth thing, right? That must have got me those massive sales.
So let’s have a look at my sales, see how I’m doing, how big a yacht I can afford to buy with my riches…
Better not send that resignation email just yet then…
People seem to be reacting with astonishment to the fact that the book that J. K. Rowling published pseudonymously, through a major publisher, which got decent reviews in some newspapers, had only sold 449 copies in hardback in the last three months.
Those people have obviously never written books.
I’ve stopped looking at my Amazon stats, because to see them requires seeing the reviews, and my blood pressure won’t cope with that, but I looked at them regularly for the first eighteen months or so I published books. My books, as those who read them know, appeal only to a very niche market. They range in sales (or did when I last checked, a few months back) from one or two copies a day on average to one or two copies a month on average (I’m talking here about my proper books, not the little ebooks of short stories).
And (again, last I checked) my books were regularly in the top 10% of books sold on Amazon.
Not the top 10% self-published, or the top 10% ebooks, or the top 10% books analysing the music of the Monkees, or whatever — the top 10% books.
That means that on average, most books don’t sell. At all. On any given day, 90% of the books available on Amazon sell zero copies. It’s entirely possible, though I can’t look at anyone else’s stats, that a majority of them have never sold a copy to anyone who isn’t a close friend or relative of the author.
And this is why self-publishing is, ultimately, not a sustainable business model for writers, any more than sticking your albums up on bandcamp or CDBaby is for musicians. And it’s because record companies and publishers aren’t really in the business of selling music or books. The business they’re actually in is using money earned by huge sellers to subsidise those who don’t sell. Almost no writers (or musicians) earn out their advances — but some of those who do make *staggering* amounts of money. And that’s enough to offset the advances paid to the loss-making authors (most of them). And those advances are — for people who sell not all that many more books than I do — enough to live on.
And this is why, for all that I self-publish, I think the current trend of vilifying publishers and record companies as “unnecessary middle-men” is counter-productive (though the record companies don’t exactly make it easy on themselves by insisting on ever-greater monopolistic copyright “rights”). I self-publish because my stuff is *incredibly* niche, and there’s no point in even asking if a major publisher wants to put out something like my Seven Soldiers book.
This is, incidentally, why I’ve set the bar so incredibly low on my current Kickstarter — because the audience for *any* book these days, except huge bestsellers, is tiny, to the extent that if all my Twitter followers were to buy my next book (the Beach Boys one, which should be out in a couple of weeks) in the same week, it’d make the Sunday Times top ten for non-fiction.
The inefficiencies in the publishing system are the only reason that anyone under a very small handful of writers makes a living writing. As those inefficiencies disappear, we’re going to need to find a new way to fund writing, unless we want a world where J K Rowling is the only writer making a living at all.
Anyone have any ideas?
I quite want to read Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow’s new book, The Rapture Of The Nerds.
I’m not hugely interested — I like some of Stross’ work a lot (basically the Laundry series and the near-future-Edinburgh police procedurals, all of which I adore), but other than Glasshouse his singularity-based stuff (Accelerando, Singularity Sky, that kind of stuff) does little for me, and I have no interest at all in Doctorow’s work. So I’m guessing there’s a sixty-forty chance I’ll enjoy the book — but if I enjoy it I’ll enjoy it a lot.
I had a quick look at it in Waterstone’s today, and it also looks like a short book — I’m guessing 40-60,000 words. Long novella/short novel length.
It’s currently available as a twenty pound hardback, which is much more than I’d pay for a shortish novel that there’s a decent chance I won’t like. It’s available on various US ebook sites for a more reasonable price, but not available on any UK ebook sites, because all of them insist on imposing regional restrictions — even though Tor own the rights to it throughout the English-speaking world.
However, because Stross and Doctorow are also good sorts, it’s *also* soon to be available (within a day or so), as a *free* ebook download from Doctorow’s site. Stross and Doctorow believe — rightly, in my opinion — that making books available as free creative commons works doesn’t stop people paying for them. Certainly, in my case, I actively sought out ways to purchase the ebook and give money to the authors and publisher even though I knew it was going to be available for free.
But I’m not going to pay twenty quid for it in a format I don’t want to buy it in, either (I reserve buying paper books now for books I either believe I’ll want to keep and reread many times, or books that aren’t available as non-DRM’d ebooks). So I’m going to get it for free, this time.
(Note that I would not download the book for free illegally. I have occasionally torrented books, in order to check a particular author’s work out, but always buy legitimate copies afterwards if those are available to me).
Note that this isn’t the fault of this particular publisher — Tor are publishing the book in multiple countries simultaneously, they’ve allowed the release of the free CC-licensed download, and they make all their books available DRM-free now, they’re doing The Right Thing here — but of the whole system of regional restrictions in copyright licensing, and ebook sellers being overly-restrictive as a result.
I understand exactly why this system exists, and it benefits the authors in many ways, as well as the publishers, but it’s becoming ever more clear that the system no longer works the way it should. Actively preventing customers from giving you money is never going to be a good long-term business strategy.
The question is, as with so much to do with ‘intellectual property’ these days, what do we replace it with? If I could figure that one out, I’d probably have a lot more money to spend on books afterwards…
There’s a big storm at the moment over the US Department of Justice going after several of the biggest publishers for alleged price-fixing of ebooks, which they allegedly did in order to prevent Amazon having a monopoly on book sales. Charles Stross has the best summary I’ve seen of the expected effects, here.
Now, a lot of people are cheering Amazon and hoping for the destruction of these publishers, because they see selling self-published ebooks as being a better option. I disagree, for most of them, even though I self-publish myself.
Self-publishing is definitely better for some people. It’s better for me, because I write stuff for a niche audience, among whom I have some kind of name recognition, which simply wouldn’t be of interest to a major publisher. It’s also better for a writer like Dean Wesley Smith, the most articulate and level-headed of the self-publishing advocates I know of, because he’s extremely prolific, writing roughly a dozen novels’ worth of prose in the average year, and he writes in a variety of very commercial genres and has experience running a publishing house.
I’m not sure it’s better for writers or readers, and I have two main reasons for that.
The first is that we’ve been here before. I’ve been in a couple of bands, and around 2000 one of them was putting MP3s on sites like Mp3.com, listensmart.com and dozens of other sites which no longer exist. These worked *exactly* the same way ebook and POD sites work, and they also had message boards, and those message boards were saying *exactly* the same things about music in 2000 that people are saying now about publishing in 2012. Substitute “the Big Six” for “the major labels”, “Amazon KDP” for mp3.com, and you can see the same types of people saying the same types of things. “Hooray for the death of the evil corporations that turn my genius down!” “I’m going to give all my work away for free so I’ll get exposure and become a millionaire!”, “Anyone want to swap reviews? I’ll buy yours if you buy mine, so long as it’s not over a dollar!”, “Aargh! My stats have gone down since ten minutes ago! Must promote more!” and so on.
Twelve years later, all those people who hoped to get rich quick are still nowhere. Bypassing the major labels *does* work for a number of artists — just like bypassing the major publishers works for some writers — but the head of Universal Music Group is not sat on a street-corner with a sign around his neck saying “will be a middleman for food”. Because musicians aren’t generally also cover designers, video directors, PR people and all the other skills that are needed to get music into people’s hands.
So I suspect something similar will happen with publishing. The reason I hope so is that I want writers to get paid.
Because most writers don’t actually earn enough to live off through book sales. I know this because I sell more than most, and I don’t.
I currently average around £100 per week from sales of all my books combined, through all channels (physical books through Amazon and Lulu, ebooks through those plus Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and half a dozen smaller bookshops). That’s tripled in the last couple of months, incidentally, and quadrupled since September — there definitely *is* a self-publishing boom going on.
Now, we’ll be as fair as possible to the anti-publishers here and say that income *only* came from my five full-length books. That makes £20 per book per week. We’ll be doubly fair to them and pretend *all* that income came from Amazon. Amazon make up around 25% of the total books market, so if my books were selling *everywhere*, then they could be up to an average £80 per week.
Now the thing is, my books sell *significantly* better on Amazon than the average. All my full-length books are in the top 50% of all books on Amazon at the moment. On average they’re in the top 25%. My best-seller (the Monkees book) is in the top 2%. And that’s on print sales — I rank higher on ebooks. Significantly higher.
Think about that for a moment. I have a book that is selling better than 98% of all books — not ‘all self-published books’ or ‘all books about 60s pop groups’. *Better than 98% of all books*. And yet I’m nowhere near earning a living wage from my writing. Even if we assume all sorts of weird things — pretend that books sell hugely in their first week then never sell again or something, and I’m the only exception — that suggests that the vast majority of writers don’t make very much from their writing.
So how do they live?
Like record companies, publishers pay an advance on royalties. This means the author may get, say, $5000 up-front for a book, and a 15% royalty on sales, but only start getting the royalty once it’s gone past the up-front $5000. Of course, $5000 is not a huge amount of money, but many advances are much higher than that, and it’s possible for many (not all) writers to write four books a year. Put that together, and you can make a living from selling books that never earn back their advance. Which is good, because most don’t. (I’ve seen all sorts of figures bandied around — obviously, publishers don’t want to say when they’ve lost money on a book, so it’s difficult to get reliable information — but none of them say that more than 50% of books ever earn out their advance).
The reason this works is the same reason that many people scream about the publishers — they keep most of the money. If you’re an author who’s making money, that sounds like a bad idea. But essentially publishers exist to be a redistribution service, taking money from the Dan Browns and JK Rowlings of the world, and giving it in the form of advances to less successful writers.
So the net result of the loss of publishers would be the loss of writers as a professional class. We’d have a few bazillionaires, because the Browns and Rowlings would be keeping 70-85% of their money, a handful of people like Dean Wesley Smith who manage to be fast enough to get an absolute ton of product on the market, a few peiople like me who find a comfortable niche or two and maybe manage to scratch a living, and a whole load of amateurs writing in their spare time with minimal or no editing. What you wouldn’t have is the vast swathe of stuff in the middle, all the mid-list writers who manage to earn a steady living from writing one or two good books a year.
So even though for me as a writer the big publishers disappearing would be a good thing, because I’d lose most of the competition for readers’ money, as a reader I’d quite like people to keep getting paid for writing books I want to read.
(On the other hand, if you want to stick it to The Man and give all your money to independent publishers, you can buy my books from Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords. I am nothing if not greedy. Down with The Man!)