Why You Will Not Find My Books In Kindle Unlimited

(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.

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18 Responses to Why You Will Not Find My Books In Kindle Unlimited

  1. andrewducker says:

    Have they said how they will calculate the amount they share?

    I mean, Spotify works similarly – 70% of their income gets paid out based on listening share, which means that the more subscribers there are, the more money there is, but it’s basically a pot being paid out based out on who listens to what. And that seems pretty reasonable to me.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      The big difference is that Spotify pay out 70% of their income, while Amazon are paying out an arbitrary amount which they decide themselves and which doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to the amount they make from the service.

      • andrewducker says:

        Ok, yeah, that’s really rubbish.

      • evilsoup says:

        I’m not sure if that is a particularly big difference, in practice; Spotify and its ilk pay out rather pitiful amounts to musicians. Just like this Amazon service will.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          That depends if you view Spotify as a replacement for radio or for buying music. If the former, then their per-play-per-listener payout is actually much higher (the actual amounts are of course lower because of the long tail — it works out as a lot of people getting a little bit, rather than a few people getting a lot and most getting nothing). If the latter, then it’s much less unless people listen to a particular album *a LOT*.
          In the same way, this could be seen either as a replacement for buying books or for the library…

          • evilsoup says:

            At least in the behaviour of people I know who use it, Spotify certainly is a replacement for buying music. I suspect the same would be true of this Amazon service, if it managed to properly get going — ten dollars a month is already more than I spend on ebooks, anyway. I think it’s obviously a bad enough deal that it won’t pick up many authors (and so it won’t get off the ground), but on the other hand I doubt anyone has ever lost money underestimating the business savvy of artists.

            I was going to argue against that ‘library’ point, but I see that you’ve made all the arguments I was going to in another comment, so I guess we’re actually on the same page (tee hee) there.

  2. D says:

    in the sense that the most moral action is the one which, should everyone take it, would improve the world the most

    It’s like the bizarre love-child of Kant and Jeremy Bentham…

  3. D says:

    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

    So it’s basically the same as PLR, but funded by Amazon rather than out of tax?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      A bit, except that of course:
      Libraries don’t require a £10 per month fee, which means that books being available through them is a public service rather than a service to a private company.
      Libraries only lend out books for a finite period of time.
      Libraries only stock a finite number of copies of each book.
      Libraries pay for the physical copy they’re lending out.
      Making books available through libraries is a legal obligation.
      Libraries don’t have different rates of payment for different publishers (Amazon are apparently paying medium-sized publishers the full cost of the book every time it’s lent out, and only making the small publishers and self-publishers compete among themselves for scraps).
      Libraries don’t operate out of bookstores, putting up big signs saying “You *could* buy this book… or you could take it home for free!”

      So really not very much like it at all. Making books available for library lending is an obligation which comes with the rights granted under copyright law, and is limited in very important ways which mean that it has relatively little effect on authors’ earning power, and for the vast majority of them it makes up a very small proportion of their total income, so the zero-sum effect doesn’t really kick in. I suspect if this becomes any kind of success it will quickly become the main or sole source of income for a lot of independent authors (as most of them make all their money from Kindle sales anyway — a lot don’t offer physical books or have books available on other platforms at all) and so the zero-sum effect will be far more important.

      • D says:

        Libraries don’t require a £10 per month fee, which means that books being available through them is a public service rather than a service to a private company.

        They’re paid for out of tax, though, so I do pay a monthly fee for my library card (though it’s nothing like £10).

        Libraries only lend out books for a finite period of time.

        But I can borrow six at a time, whereas if I am to understand you right you can only ‘borrow’ one from Amazon?

        Libraries only stock a finite number of copies of each book.

        True, but as most of them operate a request system you can be guaranteed to get one if you’re patient.

        Libraries pay for the physical copy they’re lending out.

        True, but the royalties for one copy (or even two or three copies) are hardly a significant issue.

        Making books available through libraries is a legal obligation.

        I don’t think it is, is it? Copyright libraries have a legal right to request any book (but they don’t always use it) but I don’t think there’s any special statutory obligation to supply to any other library, is there?

        Libraries don’t have different rates of payment for different publishers (Amazon are apparently paying medium-sized publishers the full cost of the book every time it’s lent out, and only making the small publishers and self-publishers compete among themselves for scraps).

        As I understood it they do: public lending right is capped, in order that it doesn’t all go to the three most popular authors if they take up say 90% of loan between them. Is that not right? has it changed?

        Libraries don’t operate out of bookstores, putting up big signs saying “You *could* buy this book… or you could take it home for free!”

        No, but I think everybody is aware that libraries exist, aren’t they? So everybody knows that if they want the book now they will have to buy it but if they are willing to go out of their way a bit (in the case of my local public library, across the market square from Waterstones) and wait (in the Amazon case, if I understand it right, wait until they’ve finished the book they are currently ‘borrowing’ and any they have ahead in their ‘want to read’ queue) then they can read it for free.

        I suspect if this becomes any kind of success it will quickly become the main or sole source of income for a lot of independent authors (as most of them make all their money from Kindle sales anyway — a lot don’t offer physical books or have books available on other platforms at all) and so the zero-sum effect will be far more important.

        Well, I don’t see why one should care about independent authors: if they are good enough they should get their books properly published and then it won’t be an issue for them.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          “Well, I don’t see why one should care about independent authors”
          In which case why are you arguing in a thread specifically *about* independent authors? And one reason why one should care is if one happens to be me, in which case one has independently published ten books and doesn’t want to lose the income from them. (I’ve also got stuff coming out from traditional publishers — people choose to publish independently for reasons other than quality, and most of the self-published authors I have any kind of regular contact with also publish with traditional publishers, depending on the project).

          Also, if you’re going to use stupid made-up email addresses, at least do so consistently. The reason the form asks for an email address is so that I can set it to automatically allow through posts using the same email address without me having to approve each post separately, once I’ve approved one post from a commenter. It doesn’t have to be your real address, and I *never* use it to contact anyone unless they specifically ask me to, but it *does* have to be consistent.

          As for the rest:

          “But I can borrow six at a time, whereas if I am to understand you right you can only ‘borrow’ one from Amazon?”
          That was my understanding when I wrote this post, based on my reading of the email Amazon sent to authors. Looking at their press materials, I believe I was wrong and one could theoretically “borrow” all 600,000 books at once. I can’t check for sure as I can’t view their terms & conditions, which are only available to those accessing the website from the USA.

          “They’re paid for out of tax, though, so I do pay a monthly fee for my library card (though it’s nothing like £10).”
          Obviously the money comes from somewhere. My point was that providing library books is a public service. Poorer people’s library use is subsidised by the rich.

          “I don’t think there’s any special statutory obligation to supply to any other library, is there?”
          That wasn’t my point — I worded it badly. My point was that if a library does purchase a copy, there’s no legal way to stop them from lending it as far as I am aware.

          “As I understood it they do: public lending right is capped, in order that it doesn’t all go to the three most popular authors if they take up say 90% of loan between them. Is that not right? has it changed?”
          Firstly, that’s authors, not publishers. Secondly, it’s not a different rate, it’s a capped rate. Saying “everyone gets 27p (or whatever) per book lent up to a maximum £6000” is a very different thing from saying “group A gets 27p per book lent, while group B gets £10”.

          • D says:

            In which case why are you arguing in a thread specifically *about* independent authors?

            It’s the internet, I thought arguing was what it was for.

            Also, if you’re going to use stupid made-up email addresses, at least do so consistently

            I can’t remember what random string of characters I typed into one computer when I come to type into another!

            Looking at their press materials, I believe I was wrong and one could theoretically “borrow” all 600,000 books at once

            That would be weird, but then, I don’t understand why anyone would want to read any book that isn’t ink on paper, so this whole thing is totally beyond my understanding. People are weird.

            My point was that if a library does purchase a copy, there’s no legal way to stop them from lending it as far as I am aware.

            No, but in that case I think that describing it the way you did, as a ‘legal obligation’, is weird. A legal obligation is something that the law requires I do (eg pay taxes, or make sure that any things I bring onto my land that are likely to do damage in the event of their release do not escape, as per Rylands v Fletcher (1868)). To describe something that I cannot prevent as a ‘legal obligation’… it’s an odd use of the phrase, is all.

            Saying “everyone gets 27p (or whatever) per book lent up to a maximum £6000″ is a very different thing from saying “group A gets 27p per book lent, while group B gets £10″.

            True, though depending on the details it’s impossible to say which is actually financially better for group B.

            If group B has a different cap to group A, or group A has a different weighting to group B, then that’s pretty clearly an uneven playing field.

            In any event, as long as there’s a choice, then exercising that choice not to be involved seems to be a pretty good thing to do.

            And if there’s not a choice — if there’s ever a legal ruling that any book published is deemed to be involved in this scheme, for example — expect me to be among the first to tut and sigh and say that it shouldn’t be so, for all the good it’ll do (as I did about the whole ‘Google scanning all the books’ thing).

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              “I can’t remember what random string of characters I typed into one computer when I come to type into another!”
              Then use a non-random string of characters, even your real email address. Like I said, I never use the email addresses supplied, and no-one but me ever sees them (and it’s not as if I don’t know your real email address anyway, for that matter — there are not very many people on the internet with your particular combination of opinions and writing style ;) ).

              “I don’t understand why anyone would want to read any book that isn’t ink on paper, so this whole thing is totally beyond my understanding. ”
              I prefer ink on paper (one of the main reasons why, unlike many independent authors, I put out all my books in paper is because unless I see a hardback with a dust jacket I don’t think it’s a ‘real’ book, though there are other reasons as well). But there are some very good reasons why I end up buying most of my books as ebooks now. Chief among them is that my house is so full of books it’s realistically quite difficult to find spaces to put them, as we don’t have enough wall-space for bookshelves for all of them, and my wife disapproves of my strategy of just creating giant piles of books in random spots on the floor.
              There’s also the portability factor — I’m currently rereading (among other things) Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which I *do* own in paper copies, but am reading as ebooks as 1100-page hardbacks are difficult to carry on the bus, especially when getting toward the end of one (so I’d have to carry it and the next book).

              “No, but in that case I think that describing it the way you did, as a ‘legal obligation’, is weird. ”
              Probably. I’m not particularly well at the moment, and have had the most unpleasant, stressful, few weeks I’ve had in many years, and this means that I’m quite cognitively impaired at the moment because of my blood pressure. One of the ways this manifests itself is in aphasia, where I can’t find quite the right words, and end up using related concepts to try and get the meaning across.

              • D says:

                there are not very many people on the internet with your particular combination of opinions and writing style

                Is that … almost a compliment? Probably not.

                One of the ways this manifests itself is in aphasia, where I can’t find quite the right words, and end up using related concepts to try and get the meaning across

                That is unfortunate. However, if I were in that state, I would avoid making globally-viewable pronouncements until I could be sure that they were worth a worldwide audience and could be properly defended as written.

                • Andrew Hickey says:

                  Luckily I don’t have a worldwide audience as much as a few hundred occasional readers, most of whom are used to the idiosyncracies of my writing style.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          Lots to respond to here, but I’m just going to pick up on one point:

          “I don’t see why one should care about independent authors: if they are good enough they should get their books properly published and then it won’t be an issue for them.”

          This is purest unadulterated nonsense (or possibly, if I am being charitable, carefully calibrated trolling). Self-published books are just as “proper” as ones that have been rubber-stamped by a middle-man who takes 90% of the cover price. The idea that self-published authors all yearn for publishing contracts is not merely offensive, it’s wrong as a matter of observable fact.

  4. CiaraCat says:

    Wow. Thanks very much for this. I subscribed to their 30-day trial period so I could get my hands on some of the 1939 Retro-Hugo nominated shorter fiction for free, but between this and the fact that I won’t “own” the books, I’d just be borrowing them, I’ll be canceling before they charge me, and I’ll e-mail them and explain why.

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