Ch. 11: Bad Publishing Experiments

Amazon's exclusive subscription service is a bad deal for publishers

Recently HarperCollins UK announced that it will be making some of its backlist titles available via Kindle Unlimited.

“The publisher confirmed that as of today (1st October) 100s of backlist titles had been released as part of what was described as a ‘strategic and tactical’ push…HarperCollins UK is the first of the big corporate UK publishers to participate in the subscription scheme, first launched in 2014.” [The Bookseller, paywall]

To be included in the Kindle Unlimited program, self-published authors must make their titles available exclusively through Amazon’s program. The article does not clarify whether this is part of the terms of HarperCollins’ arrangement.

Authors who include their books as part of this program aren’t paid a fixed rate, but receive a share of the Amazon global fund, a pool of money worth $25.8M in September 2019, according to Amazon communications. Amazon sets the amount of money in this pool, and portions it out based on an author’s share of the total pages read in that month. It is not clear whether HC is being compensated this way or whether they have struck a different arrangement for inclusion of their titles.

I’m the first one to suggest that book publishers should experiment with new models and ideas. It’s the only way that the industry will remain competitive and relevant as technology and business norms change.

But there are also problematic experiments. An experiment where the end result is giving more power to the most powerful player in the publishing space, decreasing competition, and undermining the value of the book is a bad experiment.

It’s especially galling to me to see this happen at a time that the US Big Five publishers are harshly curtailing library access to ebooks, and increasing the prices charged to libraries for this access.

“HarperCollins has argued that, based on a limited number of titles included, the service can be used as a discovery tool to drive à la carte business.”

Libraries can also be a discovery tool for readers, with the added benefit that libraries aren’t directly in competition with book publishers, as Amazon’s imprints are, nor are they profiting off the data they gather, as Amazon is.

This is the type of experiment that will likely work out in the short term for HarperCollins UK. It is in Amazon’s interest to make this experiment seem successful, so that HarperCollins becomes addicted to the dribble of revenue this will generate and the increase in visibility this will likely create for the authors whose books are included. If HC UK declares this a success, other major corporate publishers will almost definitely follow suit.

But Amazon has the ability not just to change the terms whenever it suits them, but to decrease the amount of money in the pool, or not keep pace with an increase in subscribers, reducing the amount of pay for writers and publishers versus the benefit Amazon receives for that content.

What’s more, if readers can get access to tons of high quality books published by the major publishers for the cost of buying a single ebook per month, it will continue to decrease the value they place on ebooks, and possibly even on print books.

Publishers should experiment with pricing, with format, with direct sales, with innovative partnerships with libraries and other organizations, and so much more. But experiments that benefit the biggest player in the book sales game, that play by the rules that Amazon sets, are likely to end up harming writers and publishers in the long term. As an industry, we have already ceded so much ground to Amazon. Let’s try to avoid ceding even more in pursuit of minimal short term benefits.