Kindle Unlimited, the Writer, and the Librarian

I found out about Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited service via email, but not in the way you might think. Since I wrote a couple of books and published them through Kindle Direct, my email wasn’t just about the new service, but how I could leverage it and build synergy with the service to provide seamless access to my content and offer a new paradigm that would resonate with my readers — or something like that.  Basically, there’s a pool of money and I can get a bit of that money if I enroll my books into the new programme and let people access them through Kindle Unlimited.

But that’s not what drew my attention. Here’s the bit that made my left eyebrow shoot up so high and so quickly that it left my face with enough velocity to crack the drywall ceiling above me.

KDP Select authors and publishers will earn a share of the KDP Select global fund each time a customer accesses their book from Kindle Unlimited and reads more than 10% of their book-–about the length of reading the free sample available in Kindle books-–as opposed to a payout when the book is simply downloaded. Only the first time a customer reads a book past 10% will be counted.

52812410First off, I had to read that sentence twice to parse it properly. If nothing else it made no sense to me how something could happen “each time” but only on the “first time.” To translate what they’re saying here,  whenever someone snags my books through Kindle Unlimited, I only get paid if they read more than 10% of it, and I only get paid when they do it the first time. So if you snagged one of my books on Amazon, read more than 10% of it, I get some money. By “some money” I mean “a tiny bit of money” by which I also mean “a fraction of what I’d get if you simply bought the book.”

Look, I don’t care about getting rich off my books. I’m not a James Patterson, because I mostly write non-fiction. I’m certainly not an Asimov or a Bryson. I knew that my books weren’t going to make a boatload of cash. To date, I’ve sold enough to afford a couple of nice dinners out on the town. I have a job, and I love my job, and the writing thing is just something I do. I like to write, and it’s easy to make a few bucks with it, so I do. Before services like Kindle Direct came along, I just published my stuff online for free.

Oh wait, I still do. That’s how I typically write a  book.

I’m like the guy down the street who will change the oil on your car for $10 or a case of beer. The only difference is that I’m a writer and not a front porch mechanic.

I’m saying all this to make sure it’s well understood that I don’t care about the money because my writing and Amazon will likely never become a viable revenue stream. I’m like the guy down the street who will change the oil on your car for $10 or a case of beer. The only difference is that I’m a writer and not a front porch mechanic.

What gets me is how writers don’t get paid unless someone reads more than 10% of the book. As far as I know, that’s a subscription model unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. With Kindle Unlimited, one can grab my books and then just sort of hang on to them. Maybe idly flipping through a page here and there and, maybe eventually, I get paid, but only after they read more than 10%.

Does that sound senseless to anyone else? I can’t think of a single model like that for anything, both online and off. So far as I know, Spotify doesn’t work like that. Netflix doesn’t work like that. Zinio doesn’t work like that. iTunes media and even Amazon Prime Streaming doesn’t work like that. Amazon claims that they basically need to read a little more than the sample included on the website.

I suppose you can sit in a Barnes & Noble coffeeshop and read to your heart’s content without ever paying a dime for the book, but I didn’t expect Amazon to digitally institutionalize that behaviour.

Going beyond, it presents something I find a little disturbing, especially as a librarian.

We all know how Amazon has, more or less, complete control over what goes onto and stays on your Kindle. So much control, in fact, that they can remove or disable content on your Kindle devices whenever they want. We know they can track how far along you’ve read a Kindle book because that’s how syncing works. If Amazon didn’t know how far along in a book I am on the eInk, then it wouldn’t be able to sync to my iPad app when I pick it up there later.

Thing is, that functionality wasn’t so intimately tied to money until now. It’s another one of those red flags that goes up when I think about how much control libraries hand over to Amazon whenever we direct people to download Kindle books from OverDrive. If they pay authors based upon percentage read, what’s to keep them from using that as a metric for other payments? I’m not saying that libraries will pay more in the future for books where customers read a greater percentage of it, I’m merely warning that is a possible, and potentially profitable outcome.

I think we need to breathe a little bit, inhale… exhale, and then remind ourselves that Amazon really doesn’t give a damn about libraries.

Jeff Bezos enjoys some leisure time. (Artist's rendition.)

Jeff Bezos enjoys some leisure time. (Artist’s rendition.)

Looking at the library blogosphere and discussions about what Kindle Unlimited means for libraries, I can’t help but take a few steps back and look at it from the point of view of someone who actually publishes on Amazon. Librarians are aghast at the usual articles that are, once again, proclaiming the death of libraries as Amazon moves forward with doing what Amazon usually does: making money. I think we need to breathe a little bit, inhale… exhale, and then remind ourselves that Amazon really doesn’t give a damn about libraries. It’s not that they’re trying to kill libraries or change librarians into Amazon pod people, they simply don’t see libraries as a threat or as a competitor in their sphere.

Before we pay too much heed to a writer who admits not having been in a library anytime recently, who “guesses” that the primary reason for college libraries is a quite place to study — we need to realize that just because some dude is writing on the Internet doesn’t mean he knows what the hell he’s talking about. (Yes, that most certainly includes me.) I give MG Siegler’s opinion on libraries the same weight I do my barista’s opinion on colonoscopies. They might have opinions, but I’d like to talk to experts when it comes to my library and my… well, you know.

If there’s a boogieman in the closet, it’s our unwillingness to be daring when it comes to emerging technology. Too many leaders in the library sphere are unwilling or unsupported in their efforts to change the library to fit the times. Do we become publishers and distributors of content? Who knows? But you bring that up at your next library board meeting and gaze upon the blank stares looking back on your idea. The reason tech companies and big content and publishers can get so much over on libraries is quite simple and can be boiled down to two reasons:

  1. We allow them to because there’s no organization in the world, not even the ALA, who will stand up to those corporations and say “No, up yours.”
  2. With few exceptions, libraries don’t do anything new. We adapt new tech, sure. We adopt new ideas, absolutely. But when was the last time you heard of a grand new idea in eBooks or eContent coming out of a library? I know, I know, we’re a government institution and need to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money. Wouldn’t it be interesting though, if we tried saving some of that money by launching our own services rather than simply giving more money away? See, any business will tell you that you need to spend money to make money. There are grants, there are services, and for god’s sake, launch a Kickstarter or something.

Do something, anything. The longer we sit around and wait for permission and paperwork, the easier it is for the next Silicon Valley startup to drag us down a little further and give another schmuck with a keyboard another excuse to write another article about the death of libraries.

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