Could Amazon Exclusivity Be Good For The Future Of eBooks?

iStockphoto / Gajus
iStockphoto / Gajus

‘The Absolute Best Experience  For Readers’

Here’s an argument we don’t hear frequently for the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select programs.

I’m ensuring the best possible reader experience with ebooks.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

This is the soon-to-be-seafaring author Hugh Howey, who says that there’s something more important than the doubling of his overall income since Amazon instituted per-page payouts for its Kindle Select programs on July 1.

The bigger factor, he writes, is that cooperating with the Kindle Select requirement of exclusivity means supporting the “superior medium” for readers.

This is not the format- or device-agnostic stance we’ve come to expect in industry conversations in recent years. Howey minces no words: He wants you e-reading.

I want greater and greater ebook adoption. I want more and more readers to move to ebooks. It is the artistic medium, the environmental medium, the democratic medium, the literary medium, and the indie medium.

And, having created the viability of the e-reader in 2007 with the Kindle — and in parlaying the effectiveness of the Kindle construct as a commercial content sales-and-delivery system — Amazon now is offering consumers the best way to read, Howey says, through its ubiquitous apps and devices.

The best way to increase the adoption of this superior medium is to ensure that readers have a great experience. The Amazon storefront and their Kindle devices are the absolute best experience for readers.

The vogue these days, of course, is to swear allegiance to print. For the most part, it’s not fashionable to concede that one might actually prefer a digital book to a print doorstop. Generally, one claims to be e-reading only because one is “on the go all the time” or “traveling with no way to carry all those books” or “reading on my phone, where am I going to put a book, man?”

The ebook is “the artistic medium, the environmental medium, the democratic medium, the literary medium, and the indie medium.”
Hugh Howey

Unfazed, Howey argues that alternatives to the “superior” e-reading experiences Amazon is offering don’t encourage the ebook adoption he wants to see:

What is the collapse of Nook doing for the adoption of ebooks? Barnes and Noble goes back and forth on whether or not they’re going to support their own device. That causes those who bought a Nook to become wary of committing to buying more digital books. And what about Apple’s refusal to make iTunes a web-based store rather than an application? This makes sharing links and buying ebooks more difficult across devices. And let’s not even start on B&N’s storefront. Or Google’s hubris when it comes to dealing with authors.

He then positions standing outside of Amazon exclusivity in order to sell on multiple platforms as a mistake — a way to support what he sees as inferiority in the e-reading system. If you place your work on the platforms he’s mentioning, he says, you’re engaging in “indiscriminate partnerships” that, in the end, mean readers getting sup-par digital reading.

Indiscriminate business partnership does not move the industry forward, and making my ebooks available at places that don’t provide the best reader experience does not help my career. When I saw that KU was going to help me reach more readers —and more than make up lost income from all other outlets combined — I was swayed. But it was when I blogged about unlimited access to ebooks with readers, and heard what kind of experience those readers were having with KU, that I saw why it was important for me to only make my works available at top-notch retailers.

This is a flight to quality that could become a significant byproduct of Amazon’s change to per-page payouts. While most of us have been focused on the question of whether authors would be paid better or worse in the new scheme (and Howey was, too, I think), the surprise he’s pointing out is in a revelation of the Kindle ecosystem as that “superior medium.”

And Then: Armageddon Didn’t Happen

Wondrous tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth greeted the news of per-page payouts from Amazon on its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) lending product: the Kindle Unlimited (KU) subscription program and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL).

In June, lots of indie authors who depend on the enabling platforms of Amazon’s self-publishing programs were alarmed (okay, stark-staring) at the news that Amazon would stop paying a flat rate for a borrow in KU and KOLL. It would, instead, institute a per-page payout, with pages read calculated using a Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count.

Image - iStockphoto: Lee Torrens
Image – iStockphoto: Lee Torrens

In our article of 16th June, Amazon’s New KDP Select Per-Page Payments: Everybody Has To Swim for It Now, we outlined the adjustments.

The #indie drums were so noisy because many writers had learned to upload very short “books” or to split up longer works to create artificial series. When 10 percent of any work was read, it would pay as a “book,” at a full share of the KDP Select Global Fund — the same amount that that a much longer book would pay.

Folks whose specialty seems to have become writing 15-page erotica — do you know the phrase “one-hander”? — might no longer be paid as much as the authors of a 100,000-page novels would get.

As it turns out, the change to per-page payouts seems to have been a good one for most of those willing to talk about it. That’s not to say there’s universal rejoicing. You can find some sharp disagreement in blog comments if you look around. The wider trend, though, seems cautiously optimistic.

Two independent community icons, the trad-and-self-published JA Konrath and Howey, have led the way, as you may know, in announcing that participating in the KU and KOLL programs — and thus the exclusivity that is required to participate in those KDP Select programs — turns out to be worth it.

JA Konrath
JA Konrath

And it’s not wrong for authors who have fewer titles and less visibility than these men to pay attention to their analyses of the values of the program overall. While Konrath and Howey have a lot more content in the mix than others — and the kind of fan followings most authors can only dream about — they also have a good mix of short and long works and they’re smartly testing things in what Konrath calls KU 2.0. In his summation, Konrath writes:

Under KU 1.0, I should have written a hundred short stories and made a fortune. Amazon was paying ten times more per word for shorts than they paid for novels. There was no incentive to write well, or to engage readers. The main incentive was to put out a lot of shorts and hook the reader for 10% of the length of the story.

Under KU 2.0, I’m continuing to do what all professional fiction writers have done throughout history; write novels. It’s what readers want. With the rare exceptions of a few authors, no one made a living selling shorts. There was a brief moment, during KU 1.0, where shorts were valuable. Their market value has now dropped. Novels are going to earn writers more money. But they have to be good novels.

That said, shorts are still worth more than they were in the legacy paper world. I got $0.075 cents per word writing for EQMM. I got $0.5 cents a word for writing Whiskey Sour. In other words, as a professional mystery writer, I made about seven cents a word selling to a top short story market, and fifty cents a word selling to a top mystery novel market.

Under KU 2.0, I make the same per word/per page whether I write mysteries, or novels. And I like that a lot.

‘Might Seem Paradoxical At First’

Howey concedes that his new position on exclusivity “might seem paradoxical at first.” He seems almost as surprised as the rest of us to find him writing that, “You can sometimes reach more readers by making your products available with fewer vendors.”

One reason for this, he writes, is that by concentrating all his sales traffic within the single commercial system, his rankings grow faster. That in turn generates even more sales. You might call this the frequent flyer argument and it’s why many travelers find it so important to choose a carrier and stick with it to gain the compounding benefits of long-term loyalty. Howey: 

I knew within a week that I’d made the right decision to join KU. My KU ebooks saw an immediate boost in ranking. Not only were the page-reads mounting, but the sales of those ebooks were also on the rise! My overall income doubled, even with the loss of the other retail outlets, and I’m reaching more readers. This is like advertising that I get paid for, and advertising that leads to more paid sales…By concentrating sales in one location, sales rank gets a boost and more reader reviews are compiled in a single place. This means more visibility and more word-of-mouth sales. It can also mean more readers.”

‘Lock Your Marketing Department Away’

Tom Abba
Tom Abba

At The Bookseller’s The FutureBook, we’ve been running a series of informal “manifestos on the future of the book business” as a prelude to our December FutureBook Conference in London. One of them, from the narrative specialist Tom Abba, is a poetic explication of the concern of many that the e-reading experience “is not good enough” and that the publishing establishment is hardly suited to lead in the innovation that might be needed to take things forward.  Abba writes:

The future of the book is not “locking a group of employees in a room and asking them to lose money for six months”. It should be bold, and clever, and innovative and experimental and confident and it should be new. And it should be now, and here already. 

The future requires courage, because the future has to be conversational. If it is secret, if it hides away from discussion, and conviction, then it cuts off the blood supply that is digital, and dialogue, and cultivation. 

The future of the book has to be iterated. It is not business as usual. Business as usual is not a strategy, it is denial. Denial of opportunity, denial of the chance to make something new. 

That’s the heart of it. How often does this opportunity arise? To make the world? To build something completely fresh? You can invent the future, you can create what we’ve never seen…

The future of the book is a wedding of form and content. It is rethinking the whole endeavour on a massive, and tiny, scale.

And as Howey is saying, the best books under glass, that superior medium, seem to have come from Seattle. When you read Abba talking about the sort of creative-supportive atmosphere that could produce this next step forward into “the future of the book,” which company do you think of? 

Howey:

How we promote reading is important as authors. The more people we get reading on the democratic medium, the medium that allows artistic freedom of expression, the medium that ships electrons and not fuel-costly paper, the better our tradecraft as writers and pastime as readers will be.

Nothing says that companies other than Amazon can’t step forward and seize the opportunity to innovate, as Abba describes it:

And lock your marketing department away for six months instead. They’re going to hate what happens next.

But what’s just important now is that writers like Howey are talking of taking responsibility for what the reader encounters in the experience of reading; that practitioners like Abba are talking of ways that publishing needs to blow a few walls off the old ways, and quickly; and that past experience shows that a 20-year-old technology corporation may, in fact, beat everyone else to the proverbial next level. TC mark

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  • Just, Ritche

    Giovina.

    This is, interesting, but a long read.

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