An announcement made earlier this week by Amazon sent shock waves throughout the indie author world–and through the publishing world, no doubt. The event was the grand unveiling of KDP Select, a program that was being sold to indie authors as a way of increasing exposure and possibly bumping up royalties as well.
What indie authors agree to
Indie authors that opt-in to the KDP Select program must remove their participating titles from all other electronic distribution channels (Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo, etc.) including their own website for a minimum of 90 days. There is a 3 day grace period to opt out.
What Amazon does
Amazon enrolls the title in the Amazon Prime Lending Program. Amazon Prime customers, in addition to the continuing benefit of free 2-day shipping, get value-added in the form of being allowed to borrow one book per month for free from participating authors. Since Amazon was rebuffed by many Big Six publishers when asked to participate in the Lending program, they turned to indie authors to fill the digital shelves.
What authors get
The sure thing that authors opting-in to the program get is a slice (the size of which is based on the total number of downloads in a month) of a $500,000 pie. It didn’t take long for authors to figure out–when total opt-in titles topped 30k–that those slices would be small indeed. As a result, most indie authors see it as a tool for increased exposure for their titles. Helping with that is the option for authors to make their title free for up to 5 days of the 90 (a common tool for promotion that was unavailable directly through Amazon until now).
What is still unclear
The $500,000 pot is an arbitrary amount chosen by Amazon with no particular reasoning being given for the choice. Numbers such as “$6 million in 2012″ have been hinted at for future pots, but–again–this is an arbitrary number seemingly unattached to other factors: downloads, rankings, retail cost of the book, anything. There’s also a conspicuous lack of guarantee behind this number.
The division it’s caused
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that KDP Select is an attempt by Amazon to drive its competitors out of the ebook business, or relegate them to such a minor role that they might as well be gone. For most authors, whether this move by Amazon is ethical or not takes a backseat to the question of whether it benefits that author. For most indies, they have Amazon to thank for creating the independent book space in the first place and many report that the overwhelming majority of sales (often 95% or more out of hundreds or even thousands of downloads) come from Amazon. Amazon is also credited with having the best reporting, financials, search functionality, distribution model, and chance for exposure. They point to Amazon’s competitors’ lack of sophistication in these areas and shrug.
Looking out for Number One is a natural tendency, and especially so among indie authors who have to make hay when (and where) the sun shines. And it’s not often shining anywhere but on Amazon.
The long view
Those that take the longer view fear that the decisions we make today–and the concessions we agree to–will forge the future of all independent authored content, even if Amazon doesn’t become a near or true monopoly. They encourage restraint and caution; if authors send the signal to corporations that they will run to any deal that improves on the last one, they only have to dangle the carrot just enough to get the majority of authors to bite. And if one company does rise to become the dominant player, you can bet those terms (the carrot) will favor the company and not its content providers.
How I see it
The current situation can be divided into two major areas that are not mutually exclusive.
The first (looking out for #1) is “how, as an indie author, do I respond to Amazon’s overtures to tempt me away from their competitors and is the way they’re doing it fair?” And the overwhelming answer is pretty easy and self-evident: if 99% of your sales come from Amazon, competitors aren’t willing to match A’s distribution and exposure successes, and KDP Select is on a 90 trial, there’s no argument
The second and less easily answered question (the “long view”) is: if no competitor can or will respond to Amazon’s moves and it does corner the Ebook/indie market, where does that leave the future of indie publishing? And the uncomfortable truth seems to be that it doesn’t matter, because the only thing an indie author can do at the moment to push back against this possibility would be to refuse to join KDP Select in (a somewhat symbolic and empty) protest. Doing that, however, might signal to Smash, Apple, B&N, that there’s no need to compete or improve, that there are enough indies out there willing to stick it out against Amazon.
Which leaves me feeling distinctly like the horseshoe on the anvil. I don’t want to be beholden to Amazon, no matter how good they’ve been to me in the past. Call me a cynic, but as much as I owe to Amazon, I can never forget that our goals right now are aligned, not identical. Indies have proven to be a nice revenue stream for the behemoth, but I can’t help but think that we are also the tool that Amazon has tried to use to bring Big Six publishing to heel. We are the wedge that’s begun to dislodge antiquated business practices from the publishing industry. But a wedge is still a tool.
When that process is done, we will only be a line item on the ledger sheet. And if there are no other competitors around when there’s some accounting to be done (say, the need to impress Wall Street or the majority of shareholders), indie authors will see their presumably inviolate rights mutated, transferred, or taken away as the situation demands.
I also don’t want to be stuck with the other distributors who don’t seem to care about making a sound business model. Each main competitor seems to have one component of the puzzle, but no more: Apple has the money and the reach but not the desire; Smashwords has the desire but not the know-how, clout, or reach; Barnes and Noble has the pedigree and the desire, but can’t seem to keep from tripping over itself. If none of these blind giants gets their act together, Amazon is going to nudge them over–because they’re already stumbling towards–the cliff.
The subversive in me thinks the only solution is an author co-op where writers take control of their own future. Call me crazy, but an online store that is owned and funded by authors would be able to generate higher royalties while benefiting from the synergies of aggregated promotion and distribution. No exclusivity contracts, instant opt-in/opt-out. Advertising abilities that would dwarf any single author’s efforts.
Unfortunately, the idea is so far from reality that it’s hard to even talk about it with a straight face. But the landscape is changing and things we thought impossible yesterday (like independent electronic publishing, for instance) will become commonplace tomorrow.