What Does Amazon Kindle Unlimited Mean for Authors?

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited just went live, offering readers “unlimited” kindle books for a subscription of $9.99 per month. When I first read this, I cringed. As a traditionally published author, I’m all too familiar with Amazon’s full-on assault on the book industry. Jeff Bezos has made no secret of his plan to put every bookstore out of business, and to cripple publishers who won’t fall in line. Kindle Unlimited is just one more step in that direction.

How will authors be paid for Kindle Unlimited titles?

Amazon has been tight-lipped on how authors—independently or traditionally published—will actually make an income through Kindle Unlimited titles. The model has long been that, when an ebook is purchased through Amazon, traditionally published authors make a 25% royalty on that purchase, while indie authors make 30% to 70%, depending on how the book is priced. Kindle Unlimited will change all that. It goes without saying that authors will not receive the normal royalty on books lent through Kindle Unlimited.

One can imagine that Amazon will “pay” authors a tiny percentage from some impossible-to-decipher ledger, as they supposedly do for books in the Kindle Select program. Speaking of which, at the time of this writing, it appears that books enrolled in KDP’s Kindle Select program will automatically be put in the Kindle Unlimited program. It’s unclear if there’s any way to opt out.

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There is a silver lining, however.

As reported in The New York Times, the Big 5 publishers have not made their books available through Kindle Unlimited. That means that readers will quickly discover that many current titles–from blockbusters to highly touted literary newcomers–are unavailable with their subscription. Sure, they’ll be able to download indie titles to their heart’s content. However, readers looking for the latest by Stephen King or Lorrie Moore will be out of luck.

I’m thrilled to see the Big 5 taking a stand against Amazon, which is trying, in no uncertain terms (and with quite a bit of help from the Department of Justice, unfortunately), to create nothing less than a monopoly on books. Or, as enormously popular YA author John Green put it, “What’s ultimately at stake is whether Amazon is going to be able to freely and permanently bully publishers into eventual nonexistence.” The latest battle with Hachette, in which Amazon refused to ship books by Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Galbraith, and other big-name and not-so-big name authors, was just one more in a long line of tactics Amazon has employed to squeeze the life out of publishers. Readers were not amused.

The Big 5 have surely realized by now that every inch they give to Amazon is an inch dug in their own grave.

Why it matters to readers and writers:

Authors who rely on their books for part of their income simply cannot afford to give them away for next to nothing, as Amazon thinks we should. But readers, too, will eventually suffer. I don’t think we would have a Paul Auster or an Ian McEwan or Grace Paley or Alice Munro if they had started out in this publishing climate, earning pennies per book sold. Think of any successful literary writer who slowly built a following by putting out great books every few years. This model is simply no longer viable, thanks in large part to Amazon.

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What can you read on Kindle Unlimited?

I image that Amazon will make a big push to promote a few indie authors, as well as children’s and young adult titles (Scholastic books are available), and books published by Open Road Media. However, you won’t find “any of the top five current New York Times fiction bestsellers,” as Hayley Tsukayama points out in the Washington Post. And book lovers hoping to read Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis, Alain de Bottom or Emma Donoghue, Herman Koch or Stephen King, and most of the books on any current must-read list compiled by anyone other than Amazon, will be sorely disappointed.

Or not.

Because when you set down your Kindle and walk out your door, you may discover a bookstore where the booksellers have actually read the books they’re recommending, a bookstore that cares about readers, authors, and, yes, BOOKS.

And contrary to what Amazon wants you to believe, these booksellers are not luddites. The Kobo ereader, which you can pick up at many independent stores, has a gorgeous interface and more than million titles. To top it off, when you register your kobo with your favorite brick-and-mortar store, the store will receive a small commission on every ebook you purchase. Everyone wins. Authors. Readers. Publishers. The towns where bookstores invest money and goodwill.

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6 Reasons to Join the Authors Guild

If you make all or part of your income from writing, you should consider joining The Authors Guild, an organization that has been advocating on behalf of authors for more than a century. There are many benefits to joining the Guild, but here are six that make membership a winning proposition for authors at any point in their careers:

  1. Free legal services. This is a biggie. The Guild’s top-notch attorneys, who have been at the forefront of copyright litigation and know contracts from the inside out, will review your publishing contract and let you know what changes need to be made, if any, before you sign on the dotted line.
  2. Get your books back in print. The Guild’s Back in Print program helps authors get their backlist titles back into circulation. Most titles can be brought back into print for no charge. Learn more here.
  3. Website services. You could pay someone thousands of dollars to build your website, but it really isn’t necessary. The Guild will build your website for free and host it for just $6 per month.
  4. Phone-in seminars. Participate in free phone-in seminars with experts and industry leaders. Past topics have included the author-agent relationship, tax tips for writers, publicity, and book contract negotiation.
  5. Professional media liability insurance, covering “claims of libel, invasion of privacy, copyright or trademark infringement, plagiarism, errors and omissions, and other related risks.” Just in case.
  6. Dental insurance. If your unfinished novel makes you grind your teeth at night, don’t worry. The Guild’s dental insurance plan has you covered. Read more.

Check the Guild’s eligibility requirements. Go here to join the Authors Guild.

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golden state

Structuring a Novel – Where Stories Begin

Caroline Leavitt, bestselling author of the wonderful novels Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, among others, recently interviewed me about my new novel, GOLDEN STATE (Feb. 4). Here, we talk about structuring a novel–how much you know of the structure before you begin, and the challenges of writing a novel that takes place in a single day.

CL:  Golden State takes place across one day, and yet in that day, whole lives are really lead. I deeply admired the masterful way you played with time, breaking it apart, in order to give us pieces of different stories before we got to the whole. Did you always know this was the structure? How difficult was it to write?

MR: The story began, really, with the idea of the main character, Julie, making her way across town on a broken ankle over the course of a single day. I wanted to use this structure to allow Julie, who is about to turn forty, to reflect on how she got to this point in her life–the mistakes she’s made, the people she has loved, the path she has taken. While I’ve never written a novel set in a single day before, I tend to write in a similar pattern–of present action interspersed with reflection–in all of my novels. It’s just the most natural-feeling way for me to write a story, perhaps because I am always so interested (not just in novels, but also in life) about where people came from, what made them who they are.

With Golden State, however, an extra wrinkle was added–a hostage situation that’s taking place at the hospital where Julie works. It was quite challenging to figure out where the pieces fit. Writing a novel, as you know, is like putting together a huge puzzle. I actually laid the chapters out on my dining room floor for weeks at a time, during various phases of the process, to figure out where things went.

Read Caroline’s interview here.   Read an excerpt from Golden State.

Buy the book:  Indiebound    Amazon 

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my struggle book two

Book Two of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (A Man in Love)

Book Two of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, My Struggle, recently published by Archipilego Books in Brooklyn–is a bit of a puzzle. First, there is the controversy of the title. Publishers around the world have tried to find clever ways to deal with the negative associations with Mein Kampf.

Then, there is the question of exactly what has made the series so commercially successful in Europe. While the book seems to go on forever, and very little happens, it is nonetheless compelling.  One is drawn into the everyday rhythms of the life of this man who wants so desperately to write,  whose relationships, even when at their best, are a hindrance to the fulfillment of that desire.

Knausgaard, who says he desired to be liked since the age of seven, is often unlikable. Immediately after the birth of his first child, he disappears for two weeks to write, leaving his long suffering partner, Linda, home alone with their newborn. Later, Linda goes back to school while Knausgaard stays home with the child. Many pages are devoted to the misery of child care. He finds the situation unfair primarily because he is not a mother, but a father. For Knausgaard, the domestic duties are emasculating, symptomatic of a larger crisis in Scandinavian culture–progressive ideals that turn men into house husbands and cast a dull, polite patina over what should be politically charged conversations.

Nonetheless, his vulnerabilities are such that, at times, one finds oneself empathizing. He clearly loves his children, and there are passages in which his tenderness toward them is heartbreaking. He suffers from a burning desire to please everyone. What makes Knausgaard insufferable is also what makes the book itself compelling. You struggle through the self-absorption because there is there is so much very good and thoughtful writing here. Knausgaard writes powerfully about the desperate desire to carve out time to write, an all-consuming desire that anyone struggling to balance parenthood and writing will find familiar. All of us who juggle writing with family know the wrenching feeling of being tied to people and events and everyday activities, when all you want in the world is to be alone in a room with some books and a laptop.

At one point, when he has to give a lecture about his own work, he sits at a cafe waiting for the appointed time, considering what he will say to this roomful of eager listeners:

I was supposed to talk about the two books I had written. I couldn’t do that, so it would have to be about how the books came into being, those years of nothing until something definite began to take shape, how it slowly but surely took over, in such a way that in the end everything came by itself.

Such beauty is everywhere in this book, which is by turns graceful and maddening, wise and self-serving.

Since the publication of the first book in the series, Knausgaard has sold half a million books in Norway. In the U.S., half a million is a respectable showing (for a single book, not necessarily for multiples), but in Norway, that number means you’ve reached one in ten of the population, an unheard of feat. The series has also been a success in Europe and is garnering a good deal of attention from reviewers in the U.S.  It appears that literature has found its new golden boy, and, in keeping with the archetypal literary golden boy, Knausgaard complains frequently in this book that he hates the attention. The accolades sicken him,  the journalists and photographers who want to capture something of his spirit for an admiring audience are objects of ridicule.

The complaint does not feel quite genuine. The internet is swarming with images of Knausgaard gazing soulfully into the camera, or looking off into the distance with a cigarette in hand. It’s not that he is different from other writers in this respect; Knausgaard’s friend Geir admits that everything that Knausgaard has is exactly what Geir wants and can’t achieve. Having taken a page from the Jonathan Franzen playbook, Knausgaard doth protest too much. It’s fine to enjoy the fame. It’s hypocritical to wallow in it while pretending to despise it.

Ah, but the book. The book itself is very good, easy to put down at moments but easy to come back to. Or, perhaps I should say it calls you back. During the period that I was reading it, I kept remembering that it was there, in the other room, that I only need go in there and shut the door and I would be immersed in it again. I wanted to be immersed in it. The book itself has something. It is truly a joy to read. The endless minutia of the writer’s days has a kind of raw intensity. One might be tempted to say “honesty,” but, upon closer inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The book is orchestrated, like all memoirs, to give a certain view of the speaker. Accuracy isn’t the point, perhaps. Knausgaard is a very good writer, and that is why one is so easily drawn into the book.

Incidentally, one has to question whether the exact same book by a woman would be considered high art at all, or merely another domestic memoir filled with nappies, love affairs, friends, and food porn. Knausgaard is very good at food porn. The way that My Struggle has been received seems symptomatic of the larger issue in the literary landscape: men can write about anything and be praised for creating serious art (Knausgaard’s previous book was about angels), while women who tackle the same themes, with equal talent and scope, are marginalized as “women writers” working in the realm of “domestic” fiction or memoir. This disparity has nothing to do with the quality of Knausgaard’s work, which speaks for itself, but rather with the lingering assumption among critics that women who write about certain subjects are not deserving of serious consideration, while men are.

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