A Question of Ethics

(Proper post later)

I am, as you will know, about to put out a short mystery novel, The Basilisk Murders — it should be out early next week, and it’s the first in a series of three featuring the same protagonist (the other two will be out over the next few months — they’re both in various stages of work).

Now, normally, I make my books available on every platform, but I am *debating* with myself as to whether to make this book only available digitally on Amazon, at least for three months (I would of course still email Patreon backers their free copies).

The reason I’m debating is simple — my fiction doesn’t sell. At all. I’ve made about four hundred quid this month from ebook sales of my non-fiction, and probably another fifty from physical book sales (I won’t know exact numbers for a little while, as different online shops take different times to report, but it’s about that). I’ve made under a tenner from sales of my fiction titles.

Now, there are various reasons for that, but I think a *big* one is that *sales* of independent fiction by less-known authors have been almost completely cannibalised by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited programme, which allows Prime members to read books for free and pays the authors anyway. Now, I think this programme is *utterly evil*, for a variety of reasons, but sadly this seems now to be the primary — and in many cases sole — way that independent novelists are making their money. Especially in mystery and romance, it seems that people have almost entirely moved over to the Kindle Unlimited service (or the similar Kindle Owners’ Lending Library)

So I’m *considering* balancing my ethical qualms against my desire to actually get paid for something that took a great deal of work for me. The main problem as far as readers are concerned, though, is that getting on Kindle Unlimited requires exclusivity — I would not be able to sell the ebook through any channel other than Amazon for three months. (The upside for readers would be that any of you with Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited would be able to read the book legally for free while still getting me money — quite possibly as much money as if you’d bought a copy). Anyone who buys physical books, or who buys Kindle ebooks, would still pay the same and so would be unaffected. (And the books would still be DRM-free, so you could buy the book from Amazon, download the file, and convert it to an epub easily enough).

After that three months I would, of course, make the ebook more widely available. My question is whether anyone (who wouldn’t be getting a free copy from Patreon) was actually planning to buy this book from a non-Kindle ebook store. I seriously dislike participating in a fairly disgusting monopolistic practice, but am more inclined to do so if it doesn’t directly harm a reader.

I should note as well that this will not ever apply to my non-fiction. Those books sell enough, and through a diverse enough set of channels, that my ethical and financial goals align perfectly there. But what I do with my fiction is very much up in the air.

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12 Responses to A Question of Ethics

  1. You need to eat; do what gets you paid.

  2. davidgerard says:

    Prime doesn’t come with KU, it’s separate.

    I would have put my book on KU had I not already had more than 10% publicly available.

    But basically, 93% of my ebook sales are Kindle. The ebook universe is **KINDLE** and a tiny smattering of everyone else.

    Make sure you do a nice paperback, and do it through CreateSpace and never ever Kindle Print ;-) I didn’t expect any paperback sales and they’re about 20-25% of total units sold. YMMV of course.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I conflated two things there — Kindle Unlimited, and Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. The latter *does* come with Prime, and it’s paid through the same pot to writers.

      I always do both paperback and hardback. I’ve usually done the paperbacks through Lulu, but my last two I actually did through Kindle Print, and didn’t have any of the problems you had (I know you had a lot). All the POD publishers just push the files through to IngramSpark anyway, I believe, so it’s much of a muchness which one you use. Paper sales do make up a significant proportion of my sales, too — and the other thing they’re useful for is as a price signal. If you have the paperback for £10 (or whatever) and the ebook for £5, then the ebook looks like a bargain in comparison to the paperback, and the paperback also makes it look more legitimate.

      (Hardbacks sell very little, partly because they don’t get distributed to Amazon by Lulu in the same way paperbacks do, but some people buy them, you can use the same file as the paperback, and there’s no reason to turn down free money.)

      Maybe as much as 20% of my ebook sales come from non-Kindle sources, mostly Apple and pretty much solely my music books. My books on other subjects really only sell through Kindle, but I have them available everywhere because, again, free money (and also because I use a non-Kindle ereader myself).

      • Brian Olsen says:

        Just chiming in, unnecessarily for you but maybe useful for others, that as much as I too love Createspace, it’s not a great time to start using it because it is most likely going to be going away sometime in 2018. Amazon owns it and they’re shutting down the Createspace storefront. That’s not a death knell in and of itself, but many agree that all their services will soon be shuttered completely so that Amazon can focus on KDP Print.

        Which sucks for me, as Createspace is terrific. So now I’m trying to decide between moving all my books to KDP Print, which I’m wary of, or IngramSpark, which is more expensive.

        I feel much the same as you about KU but use it anyway, for one of my two fiction series. That series is less popular with my readers than the series that’s wide, but makes more money because of its KU placement. I had said I would take my second series wide once it was complete, but haven’t been able to bring myself to do it quite yet.

        • davidgerard says:

          Kindle Print is basically CreateSpace with a concussion. My artist and I spent literally a whole day trying to work out Kindle Print’s sizing for the cover … CreateSpace of course had a downloadable template that would have made the task take minutes. So I certainly hope they port over all the useful stuff.

          But I’m not really surprised, CreateSpace looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2008 and it’s pretty clear nobody really cares about it.

          The fatal deficiency of Kindle Print is that you can’t get author proof copies. (Let alone bulk copies printed for you.) I’d probably have persevered with Kindle Print if not for the lack of a proof copy. Apparently you’re supposed to just trust four-colour printing … which is made entirely of voodoo and demons …

          • Brian Olsen says:

            I’ve heard similar complaints about Kindle Print from others – I hope you got your cover the way you wanted it in the end. Since I was happy with Createspace I never felt the need to move. I believe KP just added the ability to order proof copies as well as author wholesale copies, both of which were big stumbling blocks for me – I don’t do many cons, but without wholesale copies I couldn’t do any. I’m still wary, though, and will likely hold on to Createspace until they pry it from my fingers.

            • davidgerard says:

              Well, Kindle Print is really bringing Createspace in-house. They just haven’t yet brought all the mechanisms with it … The cover did in fact come out wonderfully!

            • davidgerard says:

              Oh, and I left the paperback on CreateSpace, and ticked the box to sell on Amazon – so Amazon found the listing, saw the matching title and author and automatically joined it to the Kindle listing, which is what I wanted. If it doesn’t do that in a couple of days then apparently you contact customer service to do it for you. I’m happy with the result.

  3. plok says:

    I had a big comment here, but only found my point at the very end of it, so I’m rewriting. Here’s how I see it:

    You are operating in the e-book space, and you have to take what comes with that. Resisting the more evil impulses of FAANG (huh, if you add Twitter in you get “FTAANG!”, a good Jack Kirby sound effect!) is something I think is a good idea, but hardly anyone can resist all the time, and that’s not on us but on the folks who crave monopoly/monopsony power, who keep on increasing the pressure, and who are the bad guys here. Not us!

    We’re not the bad guys!

    So I don’t see this as a self-betrayal, nor do I see it as an automatic slippery slope. If it were just a matter of another tenner a month, well I am about to have a bit more spare change starting in November, and I wouldn’t mind a copy of crazy-ass Destroyer, you know? But it isn’t about that, that’s not the point, the point is marketing both in the short- and the medium-term. I want to be very careful to make sure I definitely encourage you to consider your own subsidization of books that don’t sell as a worthwhile, valuable, perhaps even necessary thing…because unless you are Wodehouse there will always be something you write that doesn’t sell, but then again unless you are Wodehouse you need to keep on writing fiction anyway so you can refine your fiction-writing skills. Also you’re hardly going to get an idea for a story and then have it on your mind and then not write it out, so one way or another you will be doing the work anyhow. And the books will sell at some point, they’re good books Brent, in the long term there’s absolutely no reason to think they won’t, at least that’s my opinion. If you don’t think they’re so good, well I will counter that they are rather Andrewy though, and I can’t be the only one who finds your point of view stimulating, I may be special but I’m not that bloody special, Actually (oh no, this is getting just as long as the other one now!), the reason the non-fiction sells is because of your point of view, it’s just that also you hook onto subjects that people who will appreciate you already know about and are already interested in. One way or another, it’s only a matter of time before someone connects Andrew Hickey the writer of amusing fiction with that bloke who apparently took a load of mescaline and then read a million Grant Morrison comics in one sitting, like Flaming Carrot if he also had a subscription to New Scientist. Actually I think the seeds may already be pretty well sown, just not sprouted yet: if your nonfiction is selling better than your fiction, then your nonfiction is marketing your fiction anyway, even as we speak. It just might take a while to work.


    In the meantime, there is the meantime, and nothing wrong with making a Business Decision in the E-Book Space. A tenner either way is no big deal, that’s what makes this not an ethical quandary. There will be plenty of time to consider that in the future many races will become friends because of the Daleks, if the Thing You Don’t Like starts stuffing your pay packet with another 400 pounds a month. THEN you may agonize! But right now, a brief marketing experiment seems unlikely to have any unethical effect, so I don’t think you need to worry too much. Basically, at this point it only sucks for you to mess around with the Thing You Despise, so if you can physically bear to do it then I’d say it’s all right? It’s less like deciding to let Edith Keeler die than it is like quitting smoking but then breaking down and grabbing a quick one outside on a very stressful day. And that’s not a failure, it’s just part of the process!

    • plok says:

      Sorry, double-posted, curse this lack of caffeine…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thank you, this is really useful perspective. Sorry, I would do a longer reply than this, but my eyes are hurting from all the dust in the air after yesterday’s storm and so typing is painful (I’d leave replying until tomorrow, but when I do that I never end up getting round to replying).
      Anyway, thank you, This helps.

      • plok says:

        Naturally, one is pleased to have given satisfaction…though I might just add that it’s probably not quite correct to consider The Basilisk Murders and Four Stories About The Singularity and Dr. Watson Investigates and Head Of State and Destroyer to all be pretty much the same things, with the exact same potential appeal. What you should expect, Amazon or no Amazon, is that over time some of these books will sell better than others, first by just a little and then by a little more, hopefully eventually by a lot, and that the composition of the readership will be slightly different in each case, just as Monkee Music isn’t quite the same product, for quite the same readership, as The Beatles In Mono. Also you probably shouldn’t expect that any given book won’t find a readership whose composition changes over time, too! You’re throwing out a lot of lines, here, as each one of your books is built around a different hooky idea, and only your style unites them all, but you are not selling units of style. Hey, you never know but that The Basilisk Murders may indeed turn out to be a real grabber! And for all you may not consider Destroyer your favourite, it remains one hell of an elevator pitch. So even if the dreaded experiment succeeds, here, you still may never actually arrive at the ethical-quandary point.

        Though I don’t know anything about the E-Book Space at all, so it’s just a thought. “What happens if one of the books starts to enjoy a bit more success?” may be the same question as “what if your career starts to take off a little bit more?”, or it may not.

        But then again it may!

        And if that happens (I would say: when it happens, since slow and steady wins the race), then you’ll have more freedom of action, not less.

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