Friday, August 1, 2014

Kindle Unleashed

The retail giant Amazon.com has been in the news a lot recently. Its fight with Hachette over pricing and pre-orders has caused a particular furor, with authors screaming “foul” as the combatants draw swords and each accuses the other of wanting to destroy the book business or the writing life or something equally far-fetched.

I’m not taking sides in the Amazon/Hachette controversy. Years of watching such battles have left me with a natural skepticism when two giant corporations square off. I suspect each of wanting what’s best for its own business; how the outcome affects authors and readers naturally concerns the authors and readers, whereas the companies seek, first and foremost, to maximize profits.

But that is not the only Amazon-related story this month, nor is it the subject of this post. On July 18, 2014, Amazon.com introduced a new service. Called Kindle Unlimited, it allows subscribers to borrow e-books and audiobooks enrolled in the program: 600,000 so far, according to the site page. In contrast to the previous—and continuing—Kindle Owners Lending Library, borrowers do not need either an Amazon Prime subscription or a physical Kindle device, just a Kindle app and a willingness to sign up for $9.99/month. Subscribers can borrow up to ten books at a time, keep them for as long as they like, then delete the books from the app and add new ones. Amazon places no restriction on the total number of books borrowed each month; that’s where the “unlimited” comes in.

Since anyone can download the Kindle app for free and run it on his/her computer or tablet, the potential readership for Kindle Unlimited is huge, although it’s too soon to tell how many people will shell out $9.99/month to enroll after their free 30-day trial ends.

Meanwhile, authors have to decide whether to join and in what way. New readers, good. Payment for borrowing, good (if someone reads past 10%, the author receives a piece from a predetermined pie—exactly how large a piece remains a mystery, and the size of the pie and the number of slices vary by month).


But there’s a catch. To qualify for the Kindle Unlimited program, a book must be enrolled in KDP Select—meaning that the author or publisher agrees to distribute the e-version only through Amazon.com. No other e-bookstores, no sales through outside websites, no listing with public libraries even: for a minimum of three months, Amazon.com has exclusive rights to the content. (Print sales are not part of the deal.) What’s an author to do?

Until now, my instinct has been to avoid KDP Select. Call it skepticism, again. At least 85% of my sales go through Amazon.com, yet I can’t quite shake the idea that a company that gets too big loses its incentive to please little people like me. After thinking about the options for Kindle Unlimited, though, I decided to run an experiment. I took The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel off the other bookstores that listed it, removed any purchase links from my website and my publisher’s website, checked this blog to ensure I had not forgotten anything (in fact, I had, but not on the blog), and clicked the button to enroll the book in KDP Select.

The Amazon.com computers turned me down. The book was not eligible, they said. I don’t know why. One of the other bookstores took a while to process my request, so to a computer it may have appeared that the book remained on sale. Or the computer may not have recognized that the website purchase links sent people to Amazon.com and did not signal independent distribution. I was surprised and somewhat displeased, but not hugely put out. In the interim I had remembered that my local public library system listed the book—which, as it turned out, disqualified it for KDP Select anyway. I put it back on sale at the other sites and sat back to ponder.

That was when I remembered the two books I wrote before running into my wonderful critique group, which helped me finish The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and the novels that followed. Those two books, Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, had never been listed on any site or uploaded to any library. I hadn’t even opened the files in five years, maybe ten. They looked like perfect candidates for KDP Select. If I made money on them, either directly or through people discovering my other books and buying them, great. And if I didn’t, well, I had given up on the idea of publishing them, so I couldn’t lose what I’d never had.

But were the novels any good? I’ve learned a lot in the last eight years—about writing, about publishing, and even about marketing. With considerable trepidation, I converted the two books to ePub, copied them to my trusty tablet, and began to read.

Darned if they weren’t respectable. Better than respectable, in fact. I discovered some sloppy writing—way too much smiling and laughing and quirking of lips, especially in the first novel. But sloppy writing is easy to fix. The rest of it—characters with the potential to grow, conflict, a story problem, distinctive people and places, narrative drive—was already in place.

So I’m revising to remove the clich├ęs, and you can expect to hear soon that Tarkei Chronicles 1 and 2 are available for Kindle (initially) and in print. Stay tuned, too, for the results of the experiment. I may even write the planned third book one day, after Legends 5 heads out into the world....



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