(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.