Some Authors Upset Over Amazon Turning Into the Netflix for Books

The author H.M. Ward says she left Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program after two months when her income dropped 75 percent. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times
The author H.M. Ward says she left Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program after two months when her income dropped 75 percent. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Authors are upset with Amazon. Again.

For much of the last year, mainstream novelists were furious that Amazon was discouraging the sale of some titles in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette over e-books.

Now self-published writers, who owe much of their audience to the retailer’s publishing platform, are unhappy.

One problem is too much competition. But a new complaint is about Kindle Unlimited, a new Amazon subscription service that offers access to 700,000 books — both self-published and traditionally published — for $9.99 a month.

It may bring in readers, but the writers say they earn less. And in interviews and online forums, they have voiced their complaints.

“Six months ago people were quitting their day job, convinced they could make a career out of writing,” said Bob Mayer, an e-book consultant and publisher who has written 50 books. “Now people are having to go back to that job or are scraping to get by. That’s how quickly things have changed.”

For romance and mystery novelists who embraced digital technology, loved chatting up their fans and wrote really, really fast, the last few years have been a golden age. Fiction underwent a boom unseen since the postwar era, when seemingly every liberal arts major set his sights on the Great American Novel.

Now, though, the world has more stories than it needs or wants to pay for. In 2010, Amazon had 600,000 e-books in its Kindle store. Today it has more than three million. The number of books on Smashwords, which distributes self-published writers, grew 20 percent last year. The number of free books rose by one-third.

Revenue from e-books leveled off in 2013 at $3 billion after increasing nearly 50 percent in 2012, according to BookStats. But Kindle Unlimited is making the glut worse, some writers say.

The program has the same all-you-can-eat business model as Spotify in music, Netflix in video and the book start-ups Oyster and Scribd. Consumers feast on these services, which can offer new artists a wider audience than they ever could have found before the digital era.

Some established artists, however, see fewer rewards. Taylor Swift pulled her music off Spotify this fall, saying it was devaluing her art and costing her money. “Valuable things should be paid for,” she explained.

Holly Ward, who writes romances under the name H.M. Ward, has much the same complaint about Kindle Unlimited. After two months in the program, she said, her income dropped 75 percent. “I couldn’t wait and watch things plummet further,” she said on a Kindle discussion board. She immediately left the program. Kindle Unlimited is not mandatory, but writers fear that if they do not participate, their books will not be promoted.

Ms. Ward, 37, started self-publishing in 2011 with “Demon Kissed,” a paranormal tale for teenagers, and quickly became one of Amazon’s breakout successes, selling more than six million books, according to her website. She said in an interview that she does not understand what her partner Amazon is thinking.

“Your rabid romance reader who was buying $100 worth of books a week and funneling $5,200 into Amazon per year is now generating less than $120 a year,” she said. “The revenue is just lost. That doesn’t work well for Amazon or the writers.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
David Streitfeld

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