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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How to Write & Pitch the Cross-Genre Novel – Part 1

by Michelle Richmond

(This article originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

The term “genre fiction” traditionally refers to any novel that fits neatly into a prescribed category: science fiction, romance, mystery, Western. But the line between genre fiction and mainstream fiction becomes blurrier by the year, in part because readers have become more sophisticated, and in part because the publishing industry is expanding, finding new and ever more creative ways to reach audiences.

Just because a novel contains a murder doesn’t mean it will check the old boxes one used to expect from a mystery. Likewise, a man on a horse doesn’t automatically mean we’re in for a traditional Western. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated apocalypse novel, The Road, come to mind. A thriller may be intensely character-driven, like Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing; and a novel that inhabits a richly imagined science fiction world may also be marketed as mainstream fiction, like Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles.


M.J. Rose, internationally bestselling author of twelve novels and two nonfiction titles and founder of AuthorBuzz.com, knows what it means to face off against genre conventions. Her novels combine such diverse genres as romance, paranormal, and mystery, and are often also classified as historical fiction. Last year, Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances simultaneously made two best-of lists in very different genres: Amazon’s “Best Fantasy Novels” and Publishers Weekly’s “Best Mystery/Suspense.” But the success of Rose’s recent books belies a dilemma that she faced from the beginning of her writing career, and which she still confronts today. While reviewers and readers often praise the diversity of Rose’s books, that very diversity has been a headache in terms of publishing. “For years,” Rose says, “publishers told my agent that they loved my work but didn’t know how to market such cross-genre fiction.” If anything, she says, the cross-genre nature of her work made it harder to sell.

Literary agent Elizabeth Pomoda agrees. “Fiction in different genres is packaged and marketed differently and shelved on different bookstore shelves,” she says. “There’s no shelf for cross-genre fiction, so cross-genre fiction wouldn’t be the easiest way to start a career.” That said, the literary landscape is changing, and the gates are opening in ways no one could have predicted ten years ago. She notes that we are now living “in a bottom-up culture in which readers, not publishing conglomerates, are the gatekeepers, and word of mouth is replacing reviews.”

Julianna Baggott, bestselling author of nineteen books running the gamut from YA to poetry, knows a few things about genre-bending. The header logo on Baggott’s labyrinthine website reads, “Baggott, Asher, Bode,” the three names under which she writes. Baggott’s extraordinary career serves as proof that the challenges of crossing genre can also net huge rewards. “Switching from one genre to another is like hitting a release valve,” she says. “When one genre starts to feel limiting, another begins to look liberating.”

Baggott’s most recent novels, Pure and Fuse, are part of a science-fiction trilogy featuring young adult heroines whose stories will also appeal to adults. The worlds Baggott creates are fantastical, and the writing is as lyrical as it is suspenseful. Baggott encourages writers to take what they know from one genre and use it to their advantage in anything they write.

“Each genre has its own demands,” Baggott says, “and the lessons learned in one are often transferable to another. The impact of image and brevity honed in poetry are useful in the novel. The truth of essay helps with insights and epiphany in fiction. I call screenplays ‘plot poems,’ because both the poem and the screenplay must be able to bear up under the weight of so much white on the page, like a house buried under snow.”

This is part 1 of a 4-part series. Subscribe to my weekly writing and publishing tips to never miss a post.

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What is the Authors Alliance?

T.J. Stiles has written this excellent explanation and warning about the Authors Alliance, a new organization founded by four academics at Berkeley, including two copyright professors who favor radically broad fair use.

I would like to pass along a warning about a new group that is trying hard to attract members, calling itself the Authors Alliance. In a recent interview in Publishers Weekly, founder and executive director Pamela Samuelson presented the Authors Alliance essentially as a counterweight to the Authors Guild. As an Authors Guild board member you may consider me biased. I have read the Authors Alliance materials, am familiar with the work of its directors, and met with one of them and developed a pretty good picture of what it’s all about.

If any of you earn a living as a writer, or hope to, I strongly urge you not to join the Authors Alliance. If you think authors should be the ones to decide what is done with their books, then I strongly urge you not to join.

However, if you are an academic, or scorn the idea of making a living from writing as a quest for “fame and fortune,” the Authors Alliance may be the organization for you. If you think, in our digital age, that the biggest problem facing authors is how hard it is to give your work away for free, it’s for you. If you think you’ve got too much power over people who copy and distribute your work without your permission, by all means sign up. Even if you agree with one or two things advocated by the Authors Alliance, if you join you lend weight to its entire agenda.

To be clear, I firmly believe that authors should have the choice to give their work away. That’s the Authors Guild position, too. But no one should make that decision for you. I’m pro-choice.

A few key points:

It’s an astroturf organization. It was not organized by authors, nor is it governed by them. The four directors are Berkeley academics. The executive director and her right-hand-woman are law professors who have made many proposals to reduce copyright protections for authors and restrict remedies for infringement. (I take that wording from the writings of Prof. Samuelson.)

As Samuelson stated in Publishers Weekly, the organization is intended to represent the interests of authors who don’t write for a living—academics and hobbyists. See my comments below on the financial interests they represent, and how they are at odds with those of authors who write for a living.

It may be too early to identify official Authors Alliance positions, but its directors and advisory board members have pushed such ideas as

  • allowing people to resell digital files the way they can resell used physical books. Of course, with current technology the original copy would still exist, so that the “resale” would be copying. In other words, anyone could become a publisher of your book, selling or giving it away as much as they want by claiming to simply be reselling. You would have to prove they were doing it more than once—have fun with that! (For you legal wonks, this is called the application of “first-sale doctrine” to digital media.
  • allowing libraries to digitally copy your books, even if you have an e-book edition for sale. No security measures would be required. You would have to hire a lawyer to sue a library if you could prove that the library had allowed its self-published digital version of your book to be stolen and released onto the Internet. As has already happened with the theft of scholarly journals. Even if you did sue, by the way, you can’t collect damages from public libraries or state universities, which enjoy sovereign immunity.
  •  allowing private for-profit corporations to copy your books in their entirety and selling advertising against searches of them, and otherwise making money from your work. They wouldn’t have to ask your permission or share any revenue with you. Samuelson said, on behalf of the Authors Alliance, that Google had the right to do so, which would mean any business corporation could monetize your work, if they know how to game it just right.
  •  allowing potentially unlimited copying for educational uses. For many of us, library and educational markets are huge parts of our income. Many books are created specifically for educational use. Expanding free copying raises potentially huge problems—including the possibility that anyone claiming to be an educator could copy your work wholesale and not pay.
  •  requiring proper attribution of others’ works. This reasonable-sounding proposal sounds all kinds of alarms. Who will judge our books? What will be the penalties?

I have no doubt that their theories are sincerely held. But they happen to align perfectly with their own financial and professional interests. As academics, they don’t care about the commercial market for books or writing. I would argue they’re actively hostile to it.

Not including the executive director, the lowest paid member of the four directors earned $196,000 in 2012; the highest paid earned $262,200. That doesn’t include benefits. Prof. Samuelson is independently wealthy. I’m happy for their success, and wish all professors were paid this well. But my point is that these academics are insulated from the commercial book market, except to engage in it as consumers. They don’t earn much from royalties, but in most cases their advancement is largely based on publishing low-print-run academic works. Their interests lie in getting your books at low cost to supply their own academic work, and in advancing their own careers and incomes by making their own work available for free. Salary information is available here: https://ucannualwage.

When it comes to issues that actually matter to authors, the Authors Guild already advocates and provides actual services. The Authors Alliance does not. The Authors Guild provides free contract review and much more. The Authors Alliance will provide one-size-fits-all “education” about how to get your rights back. Period.

Again, you may believe that authors are too powerful, and have too much control over what happens to their work. But please be warned that if you sign up, you are lending support to a very long agenda. The Authors Guild is actually run by authors, elected by the membership, with an annual meeting open to all. That ain’t true of the Authors Alliance.

The Authors Alliance will stress issues that are of authentic interest to authors, such as making it easier to get your rights back when you’ve signed them away to a publisher. If that was all there was, fair enough. But it exists to make it appear that there is a grassroots authors’ organization in favor of loosening copyright protections and limiting remedies for copyright infringement. (Do we have any remedies, by the way? Take-down letters are about as powerful as wishing wells.) And it doesn’t offer any actual services.

The intellectual-property shop at Berkeley’s law school has a very aggressive and expansive agenda that was crafted without working authors in mind. They want you to join so they can say you are one of a large group that supports that entire agenda. Let the joiner beware.

T.J. Stiles is the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.  He has received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Visit his website at tjstiles.net.

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