Ebook Subscription Services: Good for Authors? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


Kindle Unlimited: The Key Questions by David Gaughran

Novelist David Gaughran overviews Kindle Unlimited (KU), the new ebook subscription service from Amazon, and what it means for self-publishing authors. Self-pub authors who distribute exclusively through Amazon (through KDP Select) are allowed to participate in KU.

Note that traditionally published authors get paid differently and play by a different set of rules than indie authors.

The key questions Gaughran raises:

  • How much will indie authors be paid for KU borrows? It’s impossible to know right now. Also, payments for indie authors are calculated differently than for traditionally published authors.
  • Will KU cannibalize paid sales? Will it grow the pie? What kind of readers will it attract?
  • How popular will KU be?
  • How will this affect the algorithms? (There are already reports of KU borrows affecting the Kindle bestseller lists.)

As to whether this will be a lucrative program for indie authors, Gaughran writes:

I could see it going both ways. Those who dive in now could benefit from all those readers testing out their trial month. All those borrow-boosted books could zoom up the charts. I’m seeing some of the launch-featured books jumping from around #2,000 to #200, and general volume seems to be way up – i.e. it looks like it’s taking a lot more sales to hit the usual ranks.

Naturally, if this phenomenon continues it will squeeze out many non-Kindle Unlimited books from high-visibility spots in the Kindle Store. That would seem to make enrolling the smart move, but it’s not that simple. For starters, the first month could be a poor guide to how things will pan out – maybe most readers won’t renew their subscription when their free trial expires. And there are other considerations too.

There is really long discussion thread on this at Gaughran’s blog; read the full post and take a look.

I also highly recommend taking a look at this analysis from Publishers Lunch: Influence of Kindle Unlimited on Amazon Bestsellers Grows

For an overview of industry reaction to Kindle Unlimited, read Porter Anderson’s Bookseller piece, A Buffet of Digital Book Subscriptions.

Thoughts & questions:

  • The big-picture question that Gaughran raises: Does KU—or ebook subscription services in general—represent the future of reading?

Comic Sales Rise, in Paper and Pixels by George Gene Gustines

The first line of this piece in the New York Times says it all: “Print and digital may have found the ideal place to coexist: the comic book industry.” The article explores successful players and startups, and their business models. Read the full piece.

Thoughts & questions:

  • This is a rare glimpse of publishing good news and optimism, with business models based on subscription and pay-what-you-want. What can other magazine and book publishers learn from what’s happening in comics?

Beat Amazon! Is Not a Business Plan for Startups by Kevin DiCamillo

DiCamillo summarizes a keynote speech by Craig Mod at the Yale Publishing Course, in which he spoke at length about the qualities of Wattpad as a strong publishing startup:

The best start-ups are kinds of accidents,” Mod posits. And they are simple, too. Wattpad’s mantra seems to be “Let’s have you write something and see if some readers find you.” This “Weirdly utopian, almost naïve way of thinking” has worked well for Wattpad and has turned Allen Lau’s baby into “an infinite gold-making machine.”

Read the complete piece.

Thoughts & questions:

  • Wattpad has been around since 2006 and is not yet profitable. (The latest reports indicate their business model may be based on native advertising.) Do you use it? What’s your take?
  • In his talk, Mod argued that Amazon has no incentive to change and this has led to ebook innovation stagnation. What do you think?
Posted in Smart Set.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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4 Comments on "Ebook Subscription Services: Good for Authors? [Smart Set]"

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Lexa Cain

Thanks for the info. I wonder what will happen with the subscriptions. I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

Helen Sedwick

Writers must remember Amazon is not in the literature business; it’s in the consumer sales business. It launches programs like KU not to appeal to authors, but to appeal to buyers, lots and lots of buyers. Perhaps that will mean more sales overall for authors, but it is painful to see for our work treated as a discountable commodity–like single-ply toilet paper on special markdown.

Marcy Mason McKay

As always, Jane, SO much great information. Only time will tell about eBook subscription services, but I appreciate you being ahead of the curve.

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