Is Amazon KU exclusivity a velvet barrier for authors?

Is Amazon KU exclusivity a velvet barrier for authors?

It "might be a possibility" at some point that Amazon would consider changing the the Kindle Unlimited (KU) subscription programme's exclusivity requirement for independent authors, according to Daniel Slater, Amazon Independent Publishing principal.

He spoke Thursday (22nd October) on a panel discussion at the 25th anniversary national conference (#ninc14) of Novelists Inc., in St. Pete Beach, Florida. Slater was asked by an author-attendee during Q&A if there was a chance that Amazon would consider removing the exclusivity element.

Slater pointed out that Kindle Unlimited is "a very new programme" -- launched in July, in competition with other "all you can read" subscription services Oyster and Scribd -- and said that Seattle is watching KU's development and reactions to it carefully. "It might be possible that we'd look at that," he said in reference to the controversial exclusivity component of the programme.

A veteran of the original Kindle launch team and longtime member of digital product development elements of the company, Slater is a former desk editor with the Associated Press, editor with Simon & Schuster, and senior editor with Penguin who joined Amazon's operations in 2005 and directed the development of the Amazon Shorts programme. At this conference, he is part of a strong team of Amazon executive representatives, who include CreateSpace director David Symonds, Audible-ACX "rights evangelist" Nicole Op den Bosch, Jon Fine, outgoing (as of year's end) director of author and publisher relations, and several associates.

And the question for him was prompted by a sharp rise in resistance, this week and last, to that exclusivity constraint for independent authors in the KU programme.

Late last week, Kobo ceo Michael Tamblyn in Toronto took to Twitter with a series of 32 prepared tweets in which he laid out what he said are explicit dangers to authors' marketplace hazards, as reported at The Bookseller by my colleague Lisa Campbell. Tamblyn tweeted, in part:

The mechanisms for the AMZN squeeze are in place," Tamblyn wrote, "agreements allow it. Self-pub inclusion in Select, Unlimited, KOLL are early examples. Amazon can and will, as a business, do what it needs to do to _all_ suppliers in time to improve profitability and grow share...The litmus test for an indie author: could your income survive a conflict with Amazon? If not, it's worth thinking about how you could.

A bit more from Tamblyn on his comments

In response to my request for further comment, Tamblyn -- who is a speaker in the coming FutureBook Conference in London (#FutureBook14) on 14th November -- took a moment to give me some thoughts about his decision to tweet his statement about Amazon's programme. His comments regarding traditional publishers and authors being "in the same boat" have to do with his mentions on Twitter of the Amazon-Hachette sales terms negotiation tactics:

What prompted this? A few things. I’ve always believed that independent authors and traditional publishers are, for all of their obvious differences, in the same boat when it comes to the pressure that a retailer like Amazon can exert. But most stories being written about the Amazon/Hachette dispute put independent authors on one side and traditional publishers on the other. That seemed like it was worth talking about. 

Also, I was sitting on panels about publishing and self-publishing at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the one thing that didn’t come up was the question of exclusivity — the loss of books and authors behind the wall of Amazon’s terms. It seemed crazy to be talking about this absolutely real explosion of creativity that the indie publishing revolution allows, and at the same time not talking about those books possibly slipping into the orbit of a single retailer and the risks that could bring.

Others are talking about this already. I would never presume to think that authors weren’t thinking hard about these issues on a daily basis. Of course they are. It’s their living and their passion. But authors are still sometimes signing up for exclusive programmes and leaving the wider ecosystem of retailers and the readers they serve. Every once in a while, it’s good to remember that diversity in retail is just as important as diversity in authors. Both are always worth fighting for.

Of course, as many have noted, Kobo -- with its Kobo Writing Life self-publishing platform directed by Mark Lefebvre who is also speaking at this weekend's Novelists Inc. conference -- is in competition with Amazon's self-publishing programmes. My follow-up questions went unanswered about whether Kobo has seen some of its authors move way in order to participate in Amazon's KU 

‘I’d love to see Amazon drop exclusivity as a goal’

Kindle Unlimited's exclusivity regulation then came under separate fire Monday as the author-activist Hugh Howey released his fourth quarterly report with a focus on the new programme and its implications for authors.

Howey, like Slater, is here at the Novelists Inc. conference, and today gives a new presentation of his own at 9:45 a.m. ET / 2:45 p.m. BST / 1:45 p.m. GMT, "The Publishing World Is Changing: How Can You Keep Up?"

In his report -- the most comprehensive analysis to date of the KU development -- Howey writes that he is leaning toward not continuing the programme, after his own trial of it, primarily on the basis of the exclusivity clause.

Howey writes that "there are 2,908,475 Kindle eBooks in the Amazon store as we write this, of which 744,181 were KU-eligible. This means that 25.6% of the Kindle ebooks available in the Amazon store can be borrowed as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription programme. This is obviously great for readers; it remains to be seen if it’s great for writers."

In addition, Howey and his unnamed technologist informally referred to as "Data Guy" cite these statistics from their analysis, July through September, emphasis mine:

  • KU Titles make up 20.0% of the titles on Amazon’s Kindle Best Seller Lists and sublists.
  • KU Titles make up 32.4% of all daily unit downloads. (These are a mix of sales and borrows. From our baseline 50/50 borrows/sales split, we estimate that KU borrows alone make up 16.2% of all non-free downloads on Amazon).
  • KU Titles generate 30.5% of all daily author earnings on Amazon’s Kindle store, using our baseline 50/50 borrows-vs-sales split.

Thus we can estimate that KU borrows alone are generating 14.0% of all daily author earnings on Amazon. Keep in mind, however, that authors in this programme are giving up income from other outlets, which must be taken into account and may mean a decrease in earning potential for some or even many authors.

Howey's summation of the matter at this point, having tested the effects of KU participation on his own sales, is a thumbs-down for the exclusivity element in particular:

What I’d love to see is for Amazon to drop exclusivity as a goal. ...Why not make KU elective for all authors? Why not set the pay scale by page rather than reward shorter length works? Compete for readers in all the other ways that Amazon excels (customer service, one-click, search, also-boughts, recommendations, reviews, etc.) and let authors publish their works far and wide. I have a feeling most authors would continue to share Amazon links by default. I have a feeling Amazon would be just fine and continue to dominate in this space. And everyone else would be a little better off.

More about Novelists Inc

Novelists Inc. is unusual in the makeup of its large membership (now approaching 1,000 veteran authors): it requires writers to be "multi-published" -- more than two books on the market -- in order to apply for membership. Its members are primarily traditionally published authors, many of them now becoming self-published as backlist rights revert to them. The organisation also welcomes "multi-published" self-publishing authors.

Mostly genre fiction writers, there are authors here with up to 40 years in the business. Organisers say that, on average, a "NINC" author has 19 or more novels in play, and at least one member has more than 100 novels to her name. 

The conference, which has its main sessions' opening today, Friday, was preceded by a special "First Word" daylong programme on Thursday, at which many key players took seats on panels, including Slater, Howey, Fine, Symonds, van den Bosch, Lefebvre, Nook's Julia Coblentz, Story Plant Publisher Lou Aronica, Sourcebooks ceo Dominique Raccah (a FutureBook Innovation Award winner), Wellman Digital's Carolyn Pittis, literary agents Kristin Nelson and Steven Axelrod, Avon's Erika Tsang. 

Our #FutureChat conversations with The FutureBook digital publishing community on Twitter are held Fridays: 4 p.m. London time; 11 a.m. New York time; 8 a.m. Los Angeles; 5 p.m. Berlin; 3 p.m. GMT. Everyone is welcome to join in. 

Hurry to register for The FutureBook Conference 2014 -- 14th November at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster.

Main image - Shutterstock: ScottChan