‘We Demand Parity’: Labor Unrest Among Amazon’s Authors

image - iStockphoto / Maica
image – iStockphoto / Maica

“Self-Published Authors Have Never Had a Level Playing Field On Amazon”

If I were writing a television newscast script for an anchor on a US network right now, the first line of this story would be:

Has Amazon finally gone too far?

Fortunately, I’m not writing for the crowd that enjoys the network TV cliché-fest because simple, this just isn’t. In fact, if you’re a collector of nostalgia-for-past-uproars, let me remind you that just three weeks ago, the publishing world’s loud, hot summer looked far, far simpler than it does now. Cast your mind back with me as the flashback jiggly thing happens on our screen…

  • Remember that fond moment when a group of traditionally published authors led by Douglas Preston put together a petition for other authors to sign, protesting Amazon’s tactics in its negotiations with the Big Five publisher Hachette?
  • And remember when a group of independent authors led by Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath put together a responding petition overnight calling on Hachette to “stop fighting low prices and fair wages?”
  • Traditionally published authors and self-publishing authors were squaring off, exhorting their colleagues to take one side or another, everybody knew where they stood and they stood for what they knew.

Those were the days, weren’t they? You could just tweet your way onto this side or that side and enjoy watching our main mouths chew each others’ legs off.

At the very least, it looked as if the self-publishing camp that swore Prestonite would weaken you were surely way down with Amazon, right? Well, of course right. A few excerpts from the independents’ petition text:

While we are saddened that writers and readers are being affected by the negotiations between these two corporations, Amazon is not the one to blame… Amazon pays writers nearly six times what publishers pay us. Amazon allows us to retain ownership of our works. Amazon provides us the freedom to express ourselves in more creative ways, adding to the diversity of literature. Unlike the New York “Big Five,” Amazon allows every writer access to their platform. Hachette believes you’ll read whatever Hachette tells you to, and rejects and dismisses many worthy writers. Amazon has built a business based on the belief that you, the reader, can make your own choices about what you want to read.

So could anything happen to blur what seemed like such a relatively clean divide between self-publishing authors and Amazon?

What A Difference A Subscription Program Makes

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited went live Friday.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Five days later, you’ll find a new chapter in writings from Howey. Did you say you wanted simple? You are so out of luck.

His new commentary reveals a far more nuanced, more conflicted, more textured perspective in the independent camp’s leadership than many in the industry have wanted to credit him with. Here’s the depth. Lots of it. Just try to pin down this guy in his posts Kindle Unlimited (Friday, July 18) and It’s 2011 All Over Again (today, July 22).

Not only is he letting his constituency in on his progressive thoughts as he tries to sort out the KU program’s pros can cons, but he’s counseling his colleagues that “freaking out the way people did in 2011 [the introduction of KDP Select and its exclusivity], when the end result was amazing for authors, seems crazy to me.”

This is Howey now, in his new, richer dialectic:

Self-published authors have never had a level playing field on Amazon. (Despite this, they now earn more daily ebook royalties than all the authors at the Big 5 combined.) What we do have is limited control over our prices, 70% royalties in a sensible range, an equal sales platform, and no rank manipulation, like we see elsewhere.

And:

Paying full price for a borrow is not sustainable, and Amazon shouldn’t do it either. Oyster and Scribd are doomed, or they will have to alter their pay structure or charge more for their services. What I wish Amazon would have done is make KU indie-only and invite publishers to play by the same rules. Asking Amazon to give us full sales commission for a borrow and a 10% read is like asking a manufacturing plant to pay starting wages of $60/hour. It would be fun for a little while, but then they’d have to close the plant. We need something that will last, something fair to readers (who don’t get to keep these books), writers, and retailers.

And (the emphasis is mine on this one):

What has improved is our expectation that Amazon should treat us as equals. Think about that for a moment.

Gradually, the indie and traditional experiences are merging. Amazon has been experimenting with giving indies pre-order buttons. They have created price tools and pressures to move self-published prices higher, and the fight with the Big 5 has been to get price points lower. Over the last few years, all the pressures in both directions have been for a unified platform, so much so that we are coming to expect it. That’s mind-blowing to me. Are we second class citizens? Hell, yeah. We always have been. Third-class, even. But we no longer expect to be. We demand parity. That’s a helluva change.

If the change in expectations that Howey is outlining for his fellow authors — “we demand parity” — is a “helluva change,” so is the complexity with which the community appears to be examining a genuinely challenging turn of events.

Howey has joked that “it’s awesome to see pundits like (Publishers Lunch’s) Michael Cader express — for the first time ever, perhaps, concern for self-published authors.” But he doesn’t fall far for it. (“The way it’s being framed is completely bonkers.”)

That Cader-Howey campfire singalong may not yet be in the offing, but anybody on any side or no side of the current debate can, actually, see quite a difference now being described in how Amazon seems to handle its two great camps of authors.

“What Has Improved Is Our Expectation That Amazon Should Treat Us As Equals”

I’ll bullet out a few points for you. Just for you Live Action Five TV news fans.

  • Cader, Publishers Lunch: Self-published authors must join KDP Select to participate, and they will be paid the same way they are compensated for Kindle Owners Lending Library “borrows”: Everyone gets a pro-rated share of a monthly pool of cash, set at Amazon’s sole discretion.
  • Nick Statt
    Nick Statt

    Nick Statt, CNET: [KDP Select] requires authors to restrict the availability of their title to Amazon’s Kindle platform for up to 90 days at a time in exchange for higher royalties on e-book sales — sales ostensibly undercut by the availability of these books on Amazon’s growing number of e-book lending services.

  • Howey: Traditionally published authors get the full price [for a book read 10 percent or more on KU] because their publisher gets the full sales commission.
  • Howey: Self-published authors get a flat fee, probably something around $2 per read…Amazon has often treated indies worse than traditionally published authors.
  • David Gaughran: I hate exclusivity. I don’t like it on principle, and I don’t like telling readers that they can’t buy my book for any reason. So I haven’t decided yet. I’ll probably throw something in there and see how it goes, but it won’t be with gleeful abandon.
  • Smashwords’ Mark Coker: Any time an author goes exclusive, they risk alienating fans who prefer shopping at other retailers, and they miss the opportunity for serendipitous discovery by new readers at other stores. They risk missing those times where lightning strikes and their books break out at different retailers at different times, often for reasons that can’t be identified.
  • Joe Hartlaub
    Joe Hartlaub

    Joe Hartlaub, The Kill Zone: I was pleased to see that every book that Hachette has ever published is included in Kindle Unlimited. Just kidding, of course; THAT woke you up, didn’t it? Actually, none of the big five traditional publishers is represented on Kindle Unlimited. All of the Kindle imprints are present, as one might expect, and Open Road Media… HMH, Algonquin, and Bloomsbury are there, as are authors’ works which are exclusive to Amazon.

  • Howey: Personally, I’m very uncomfortable enjoying any privileged status. When I saw how this was shaking out, I didn’t like that I was getting special treatment. I doubt I would have opted in had I known.

I’ve included that last bit of a longer sequence from Howey in which he explains that he and some other high-ranking Kindle Million Club sellers at Amazon were placed into the KU program without an exclusivity requirement. Apparently, they have a limited time of about a month to decide whether to continue. His discussion of this factor deepens even further the intricacy of factors he’s weighing:

We [the indie bestsellers grandfathered into the KU program without exclusivity requirements] didn’t even know what we were signing up for; we just knew it was a time-limited trial. We are going to have to make a decision with our books, on a case-by-case level, to leave KU or go all-in. My guess is that Amazon was forced to invite as many bestselling authors as they could get because of the difficulty in getting major publishing houses to sign on (none have). Their goal was to get top-selling books into KU, and their side hope must be that they can convince us to stay. I’m not sure how many will.

The Irony of the Amazonian Field

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

As Philip Jones sums it up in his article for The Bookseller, Doubts raised by indie authors over KU terms:

Concern has been raised that the move could dilute author earnings, while limiting authors’ abilities to sell their content on other e-book sites. Some have also questioned why Amazon is paying participating publishers a wholesale fee for the read of each title, while indie writers are offered a percentage of a pool of money.

There are also questions of how the subscription service will affect e-book sales on Kindle, and the impact it is already having on Kindle’s bestseller charts—with each “read” on Kindle Unlimited counted as a sale.

And as I’ve written several times recently, what you begin to hear is a far-flung workforce beginning to recognize itself as a labor pool.

This is how a labor movement starts.

Here are independent authors engaging in bottomless comment threads with Howey and other leading figures to compare their KU borrowed-books numbers and worry about details.

The workers have convened. A meeting is in progress.

Notice that there’s a lot less yelling at this point — less of the freaking out that Howey suggests isn’t productive — and more “on the other hand” debate occurring. Gaughran’s write-up is measured, as its headline suggests: Kindle Unlimited: The Key Questions. Coker, who as founder of a competitor-platform to Amazon could easily be soap-boxing his message, posts his thoughts as a question: Is Kindle Unlimited Bad For Authors?

Manjula Martin
Manjula Martin

The New York Times’ Anna North’s op-ed piece, Why Writers Are Opening Up About Money (Or The Lack Thereof), references the relatively new Scratch Magazine, and quotes its co-founder Manjula Martin on the wider picture of the imperiled financial context for writers:

As the economy is changing and as things just feel more precarious in our culture, that bleeds through to the literary culture. And I think a big part of that too is a question of, “Is literature and are the arts going to continue to be valued in ways that we have perhaps always just assumed they would be?”

And in the conversations among the authors, even the consternation that Howey and others express at the uneven handling of traditionally published authors and self-published authors (some of whom are more equal than others) doesn’t get any traction with everyone. No, this debate is earnest, not a show.

Author and independent publisher Bob Mayer takes a firm line on both trad- and self-publishing in the era of KU:

Now we have Kindle Unlimited and how writers are being divided into classes? Duh. Always been. Simple answer if one doesn’t like Unlimited. Pull books from Select. Just as the authors putting an ad in the NY Times should focus their energies on something they might actually be able to do: get their publishers to pull their books from Amazon. Does anyone else find it strange that they’re ‘fighting’ Amazon while still working with Amazon? That’s called collusion. Amazon’s a corporation that doesn’t owe them squat. There is no right to have Amazon grant a pre-order button (ask indies who have fought this battle for years) or even stock your book. The contract these trad authors signed was with their publisher not Amazon. Focus on the real deal you signed.

What may be the ultimate irony here, however, gets back to the sense that, one way or another, the energy of a workers’ collective is building.

No such process ever is blessed with complete agreement in its ranks.

And you can feel the leadership looking for its moment, you can hear it in those cadenced phrases from Howey, laced with the stump-speech pride of the downtrodden and a rowdy fist pump on the word “change”:

Are we second class citizens? Hell, yeah. We always have been. Third-class, even. But we no longer expect to be. We demand parity. That’s a helluva change.

They demand parity. A helluva change.

And how ironic it may be if such demands come about because the greatest enabler of this workforce, Amazon itself, did something as simple as a bad newscast would phrase it: went too far. TC mark


A #FutureChat live discussion with The FutureBook community on subscriptions in publishing is planned for 11 a.m. Eastern / 3 p.m. GMT on Friday, July 15. You’re welcome to join us.

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