Kindle Unlimited and the ongoing commoditization of books

If you know anyone who writes books, or if you follow any authors on social media, you’re probably used to regular cries of doom and gloom about the death of writing and how Amazon is killing the book as we know it. Some of this may even be true. But if anything, it’s the massive increase in writing of all kinds that is killing (or changing) the book industry, and Amazon is just one part of that phenomenon. Books — like so many other forms of media — are becoming a commodity.

Take Kindle Unlimited, for example, an Amazon feature that provides a kind of Spotify-for-books rental service, where users pay $9.99 per month and can borrow one of more than 700,000 books. The service is similar to subscription rentals offered by Oyster and Scribd, but since this is Amazon, all hell broke loose when the new offering was announced in July. In a lot of ways, the response has been similar to complaints musicians have made about Spotify and other streaming services.

Within weeks of the launch, authors were complaining that it was devaluing their books, in some cases by large amounts — and that they couldn’t opt out of the program because anyone participating in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program (which requires exclusivity) was automatically added to Kindle Unlimited. One author said that the income she received from her Amazon Kindle offerings fell by more than 75 percent after the launch of the rental service, and others provided similar figures in complaints posted on various writing-related sites and in Kindle author forums.

Write more, charge less

Just a few days ago, however, the New York Times wrote about an author named Kathryn Le Veque whose books are popular with Kindle users, and noted that the exact opposite has happened to her: Her revenue from the Kindle program has climbed by more than 50 percent since Kindle Unlimited was introduced. Why? Primarily because she reduced the price of her non-rental books from an average of $4 apiece to as low as 99 cents each.

Letter writing

In other words, Le Veque realized on some level that the landscape for her books had changed: instead of being standalone novels that people could either buy or not buy, they had suddenly become a kind of premium offering compared to the cheap rental of mass numbers of books through Kindle Unlimited. If fans got a taste of her writing via the service (authors whose books are in the program get paid if 10 percent of their book is read), they might want to buy one or two — but they weren’t likely to pay as much.

As Le Veque points out in the NYT piece, not everyone is in the same category as she is when it comes to adapting to this landscape: since she has been writing fiction for more than 20 years without selling a single book through the traditional publishing industry, she has a backlog of material she can quickly produce and/or cut the price on. And even she says she is writing more than ever.

That said, however, Le Veque has clearly established a devoted following of readers, and in at least some cases she says those readers are renting or borrowing her books — and then buying a copy of them anyway. That’s not going to be the case for every author, naturally, but it is possible. Writers who create that kind of relationship will be rewarded, although perhaps not to the same degree as in the past.

Devaluation is everywhere

The standard response to Kindle Unlimited, and most of Amazon’s other moves — including its repeated attempts to force publishers to reduce the prices of their e-books, occasionally through strong-arm tactics like its blockade of Hachette titles — is to complain that the company is devaluing the book, or book writing. And it is certainly playing a role in doing that, since it is the world’s largest online book retailer.

Old typewriter

But Amazon isn’t the one devaluing books. In an economic sense, the internet is devaluing books, and almost every other kind of writing or media. Book writing and publishing used to be hard, and complicated, and time-consuming, and expensive — just like putting out a newspaper or magazine used to be, or distributing high-quality video. Now those things are trivially cheap. Virtually anyone can do them, and plenty of people are, in numbers far greater than we’ve seen at almost any point in human history.

But the vast majority of what’s being written or published or filmed or broadcast is crap, you will protest. And it probably is, by most people’s definition. But that doesn’t mean someone won’t want to see it, or read it, or rent it or maybe even buy it. And since there are oceans of similar content available for nothing, they aren’t going to pay as much as they used to for it — especially if it’s digital only.

So where does that leave authors? The same place it leaves everyone else in media: namely, trying to adapt to a marketplace where supply is almost unlimited, but demand has remained approximately the same. That’s not Amazon’s fault. If anything, I think it’s trying to help authors and publishers adapt — although it may not look that way.