Ah, the wonders of the digital age! I can see all the movies I want from Netflix for $7.99 a month, listen to all the music I want for free from Spotify (or for $9.99 a month without the pesky ads) and now, I can read 24 hours a day from a library of 700,000 books for another $9.99 a month from Kindle Unlimited. In other words, I can be entertained in any way I want for as long as I want for less than I spend on coffee in a month.
I don’t actually use any of these services, for various reasons. Out in the middle of nowhere, where I live, high-speed internet connections are still primitive and unreliable. I’m perfectly satisfied with what is available on cable TV and old-fashioned DVDs. I find the choices on Spotify or Pandora overwhelming; too much to pick from leads to dithering and agita, so I actually buy the music I like. And anyone who has read my posts over the last three years doesn’t even need to ask about Kindle Unlimited.
An article in The New York Times on December 28 (“Amazon Offers All-You-Can-Eat Books. Authors Turn Up Noses”) prompted me to do a little investigating of the pros and cons of unlimited services in other areas. I learned from talking to subscribers that Netflix seems to remove content regularly and that there is a lot of original programming, some successful, some not, and TV shows. Apparently, the licensing agreements Netflix makes with the creators (or controllers) of films impacts availability. Spotify does not seem to have this problem; the catalogs of artists are controlled by the big three labels, and they and Spotify have a secure contractual relationship. The much publicized pullout of Taylor Swift from Spotify apparently only drew more listeners to the free service (any publicity is good publicity). One source said it would take twenty Taylor Swifts taking the same action to have any impact. And those who wanted to hear Taylor Swift switched to YouTube, which pays even less. So much for not allowing your work to be devalued.
Consumers are thrilled by the concept of getting unlimited fare for a small monthly price (even free if you’re willing to listen to ads). In the case of music, it seems most everything is available. Discontent surfaces quickly when the offerings are limited by outside forces, as in the case of Netflix. How is this going to play out in the world of books?
One argument I have heard frequently in Amazon’s favor is that authors have been able to self-publish easily, find an audience, and actually make a living without jumping through the hoops that success (or even publication) requires in the traditional system. Imagine 70% royalties! Those money grubbing old-school publishers have just been cheating authors all these years! But with Kindle Unlimited, these royalties have been cut drastically, and are now apparently arbitrarily set and changed. Those who quit their day jobs are under some stress. It is not mandatory that an author self-publishing on Amazon participate, but most are afraid that if they do not, their books will not be promoted. And if they are on Kindle Unlimited, they are exclusive – no sales through other channels.
These authors are beginning to feel exploited. Amazon was their friend! They were appreciated, paid well, and given opportunities never before available. And now they’re stuck with declining incomes and limited options. There is suspicion that these books are being used as loss leaders, to draw readers in and promote other items to them. It occurs to me that perhaps independent booksellers were not so foolish last year in declining Amazon’s generous offer to allow them to sell Kindles and Kindle books and earn a commission. After the two year contract, Amazon would have the customer lists, and the booksellers would have nothing.
Amazon is a business. The objective, not unique to them, is to make money. Although their earnings don’t reflect much success on the money-making front, they seem to be good at long term strategy. Locking in a large contingent of writers and then using them to promote the overall company is not a bad plan. Anyone who thinks a business is giving away rewards without some plan for future benefit is delusional. Their job is not to promote the arts; it’s to enhance the bottom line.
So what’s an author caught in this trap to do? Since compensation seems to be “per view” of a book, some are breaking down novels into 5 or more parts, a series, multiplying the number of times the work will be viewed by a reader who is interested in the story. Some are writing more and faster. Some may have to get day jobs again, and write, if it is their calling, in their spare time as so many authors have before. One complaint about the growth of on-line self-publishing has been that there are too many books vying for the readers’ attention; with hundreds of thousands of books out there, there is too much competition. Perhaps that problem will resolve itself when the monetary rewards are limited.
In the music industry, many artists who do not have the standing of a Taylor Swift live with the fact that the royalties they receive are miniscule but hope that exposure on Spotify or other services will lead to greater success and earnings in the future. I am sure some will find an audience this way. Similarly, a truly talented writer may rise above the crowd, gain a following, and succeed in a more traditional environment. Unfortunately, though, it looks like the party is over for the vast majority.