The monthly pool for Kindle Unlimited (KU), Amazon’s “all you can eat” eBook downloading program, rose in March 2015 to a record high of $9.3 million — while the per-unit payout fell to a record low $1.33 per download. The announcement made April 15 sparked renewed objections from those who create the steady flow of new eBooks driving the online bookselling giant’s increasingly global expansion of eBook downloading.
It all started in July 2014, when Amazon shocked the book world with a new subscription service that allowed consumers to pay just $9.99 per month for unlimited downloading of eBooks by participating authors and publishers. A boon to avid readers — who can now get a full month, or even a full year, of reading material for what was once a common price for a single eBook — KU has proven popular with consumers. The $9.3 mil pool suggests that about 7 million downloads were made in March alone.
But for authors and publishers, KU has cast a shadow over the profession of writing, due to dwindling royalties, which have fallen nearly every month since the program’s inception. Many of those who create the content that Amazon sells argue that for all but the luckiest of their cohorts, a royalty of $1.50 or less makes it nearly impossible to earn a living wage. According to The Digital Reader, “Authors and publishers would be advised to plan on the payout staying low, and act accordingly.”
But the content creator’s options are limited because KU is optional, yet requires exclusivity. In other words, the author must either opt in with increasingly paltry royalties, or opt out and try to get a fair price for an eBook that must now compete with scores of comparable titles that are essentially free to consumers who subscribe to KU.
The KU squeeze is now prompting some authors and publishers to reconsider eBooks altogether, since it’s still possible to earn $4 or more from a paperback sold by Amazon. By making their books available exclusively in paperback, they hope, an author whose book sells perhaps 500 copies per month might eke out a living from the craft of writing.
The growth of KU, they argue, depends on the continued flood of new releases appearing as eBooks, month after month. They reason that dirt cheap eBooks not only undercut paperback sales, but also leave authors and publishers in the unenviable position of competing with one another in a cutthroat market, in which Amazon maintains a near stranglehold, controlling perhaps 65% of all eBook sales worldwide.
Other observers hold that authors and publishers will never band together to combat royalty deflation, especially in the ascendant indie publishing segment. “Getting self-publishers to organize is harder than herding cats,” said one to IR on condition of anonymity.
Will eBook prices and royalties continue to decay in the KU era? IR predicts they will, until new market factors such as stronger competition from Apple, Google or another digital heavyweight come into play. Whether this trend will also demote the profession of writing to the status of a hobby is a question that remains open. Please stay tuned for further coverage in the months ahead.
* Photo – The Poor Author and the Rich Bookseller, Washington Allston (1779-1843)