So Kindle Unlimited Gives Traditionally Published Books an Advantage – What Else is New?

4340980647_3237664cc3_o[1]Kindle Unlimited may have only launched on Friday but it's already having an affect on the Kindle Store rankings. A check of the Kindle Store "paid" best seller list this morning has revealed that 45 of the top 100 titles on the list were included in Kindle Unlimited.

Among the 45 titles were 17 titles from Amazon, 15 traditionally published titles which are included in Kindle Unlimited, and 13 titles which are part of the KDP Select program. The best seller list also included 14 self-published titles which are not part of KDP Select and thus not exclusive to Amazon.

This is a marked change from the week ending July 13, which Publishers Lunch says had 14 titles from Amazon Publishing and KDP Select on the list (as well as 25 additional self-published titles and 1 traditionally published title which is now part of Kindle Unlimited). And the week before that the best seller list included 7 titles from Amazon Publishing and KDP Select, 26 additional self-pub titles, and a single traditionally published title which is now part of Kindle Unlimited.

Kindle Unlimited launched on Friday with a catalog of 640,000 plus titles which Amazon customers in the US can read for a fee of $9.99 a month. Most of the titles (over 550,000) are drawn from KDP Select, with a levening of titles from traditional publishers including Wiley, Scholastic, WW Norton, HMH, and more (but no titles from the Big 5).

That program is only 5 days old but it is already having an effect on Amazon's best seller list.

Far from being a simply tally of units sold, Amazon has long used many different factors to generate their best seller lists. At one point free ebooks affected the rankings, but their influence has lessened with time. Loans made via Kindle Owner's Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited, on the other hand, can have a significant effect, and the free ebooks given away as part of the Kindle First program also can cause a spike in sales.

As you can see from the data summarized above, the launch of Kindle Unlimited is having a positive effect on any titles included. Whether this translates to actual sales is another matter.

It's not clear how the rankings affect the revenues of indie authors, who are paid shares out of a pool of money, but the traditional publishers with titles in KDP Select are probably quite pleased. At least some of those publishers, including (at a minimum) Scholastic, are paid full price for each loan made via KU and KOLL. Others were recruited to the program and are paid when 10% of an ebook is read.

This does unfortunately relegate self-published authors to second-class status, but that is not new. The payment terms for Kindle Unlimited are identical to the terms for KOLL, including how the traditional publishers are reimbursed. In other words when sites like DBW make claims like "Kindle Unlimited’s Two-Tier System Makes Some Authors Second-Class Citizens", they are wrong from the get-go.

Are self-published authors treated as second class citizens? Maybe(*), but if that is the case then it's certainly not a new situation. There are several privileges that the majority of indie authors don't have (including pre-order buttons) which are available to traditionally published authors. So if you really want to label them second class citizens then they've always been mistreated by Amazon.

On the other hand, self-pub authors have the option of removing their titles from Kindle Unlimited, and traditionally published authors do not.  Also, indie authors get 70% (ish) of retail, while traditionally published authors do not. So who exactly is the second-class citizen?

I find that term absurd, and that goes double when you consider the current debate in its historical context. As Hugh Howey pointed out yesterday, much of the hand-wringing going on right now is a repeat of the debate surrounding KDP Select in 2011:

I’m having a Groundhog Day moment, here. Indies are getting screwed. Exclusivity is death for authors. We are in coach and Big 5 authors are in first class. Our pay is going down.

The same discussion exploded on KBoards back in 2011. They were the Kindle Boards at the time, and self-publishing was a lot more stigmatized than it is today. Amazon launched a program called KDP Select, and if you went exclusive with them, you gained two marketing advantages: Your ebooks became part of the Kindle Lending Library, and you were granted 5 “free” days for every 90-day period of Select.

There is really little to differentiate between the treatment of indie authors in KOLL and KU, aside from perhaps the fact that the increase in the number of publishers participating in Kindle Unlimited.

That increase might negatively affect the net gain an indie author sees from Kindle Unlimited, in which case they might be better off if they pull out. But as I pointed out on Sunday, there is no one size fits all for the ebook market and there never has been.

Publishers Lunch

P.S. Do you know the absolutely crazy part about the idea of indie authors being second-class citizens? It's that traditional publishers would have treated those authors worse, including shutting out the majority of authors.

image by Emily Carlin

About Nate Hoffelder (11598 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

8 Comments on So Kindle Unlimited Gives Traditionally Published Books an Advantage – What Else is New?

  1. Wasn’t all that long ago, we went even second class citizens, we were crammed down in steerage. I don’t get the consternation over this. If I were interested in giving up what I had to in order to get the kind of “parity” traditionally published authors have, I’d be querying agents and editors right now. Anybody that wants that is welcome to it.

    • Travelling first class is normally too expensive except for the rich or free-spenders with no concern for money.
      Most people would rather not pay for the “privilege” of travelling first class.

      In the case of KU DBW and the handwringers are (willfully?) ignoring two critical facts:
      1- just because Amazon pays more to feature a tradpub title in KU doesn’t mean the *author* is getting any more money. In the Prime Library, Amazon has long tweaked the pool to keep the author payout around $2 per read. At 25% of “net”, how many tradpub authors in the library are clearing even that much?

      2- indie authors who aren’t happy with Amazon putting their books in KU can pull them out (Amazon even gave them a direct page to request it). Tradpub authors who aren’t happy with their publisher putting their books in KU can do… what? Take a full page ad in the NYT print edition to whine about evil Amazon?

  2. Hugh also ended his post saying, “Are we second class citizens? Hell, yeah. We always have been. Third-class, even. But we no longer expect to be. We demand parity. That’s a helluva change.” –

    And I believe, Michael’s point, especially in the comments, at both his original DBW posting & at The Passive Voice, signify the same thing. Particularly that the thrust was for authors, not either Amazon or big publishing.

    I’ve heard from both writers doing great to well to bad to terrible in Select and Kindle Unlimited. Kind of to be expected.

    But both David Gaughran and others have pointed out that the rankings skew future results in KU to those already doing well.

    Also kinda to be expected, to a point. And truthfully I don’t understand it all that well.

    I think the problem for me remains exclusivity.

    If I promote the one title I had in KU before I removed it yesterday, I have to get folk to sign up for KU. If they like that title, and my other titles aren’t also in KU, they have to go buy it. Either on regular Amazon or join Scribd or Oyster, or buy it on iTunes or B&N or Smashwords.

    Most of my customers aren’t going to do that. Go place to place.

    And most of my customers on the other platforms don’t want to now pay more money to go get the one title that was on KU.

    I don’t have the scale, or the terms, to do well with exclusivity.

    My regular titles on Amazon now have little ads under the title heading, before getting to my product description, with a link to an item in Kindle Unlimited.

    Yes. I “feel” I’m a second class citizen.

    Maybe I just didn’t feel it or realize it before.

    To repeat Hugh’s ending words in his post linked to above :

    “Are we second class citizens? Hell, yeah. We always have been. Third-class, even. But we no longer expect to be. We demand parity. That’s a helluva change.”

    Disclosure: I own and love my new Kindle Fire, plan to join KU as a reader when I catch up my currently selected titles on Scribd (to read Joe Konrath), sell gift writings on Amazon Marketplace, shop at Amazon, own an iPhone, and have my work on all non-exclusive sites including regular Amazon (where my sales have flat-lined.)

    • “But we no longer expect to be. We demand parity.”

      This is a rhetorical question, but parity with whom, exactly?

      Publishing is like most industries in that bigger companies get better treatment because they’re worth more in terms of revenue. Indie authors are often the smallest of the small, so they can’t really expect parity treatment with publishing houses 10 times their size.

      The real question you should ask is whether indie authors are getting the same treatment as small publishers. Given that authors can now distribute their work using the same tools as used by small publishers (KDP, Createspace, etc), I would say that they do get the same treatment. And BTW, the biggest flaw in the complaint about indie authors getting only $2 a read is that there are also publishers with titles in KDP Select who are also getting that rate.

      In short, indie authors already have parity with the bottom rung of the market.

      • “but parity with whom, exactly?” –

        Good point Nate.

        I think, for me, shoving aside the larger comparisons, equalities and inequalities, there are things I need to be able to get discovery and sales for my work.

        Putting ads for KU under the titles of my non-Select titles is not helpful. Neither are the skewed exposure, promos, and rankings for already favored authors.

        Really, all I need, and want, in addition to keeping the good things I do have (royalty rate, being able to publish, ease of publishing) is non-exclusivity.

        Then, I can drive people to all my work, in any one location they favor. Especially in a subscription program like Scribd or Oyster or KU.

        At that point, I don’t have to worry that, if a reader likes one of my works, they won’t be able to read other titles, just because they’re being excluded by that outlet.

        That’s it for me really. Pretty simple.

        Exclusivity is a gate keeping function. Not bad, not evil. But simply a filter that excludes me if I don’t jump certain hoops. Then gives those who do, preferential treatment.

        In a large carry everything venue like Amazon, which I use extensively, if I don’t do exclusivity, while other authors are allowed sell elsewhere, as in the Kindle Unlimited program, then that’s “feels” like it makes me a second class citizen.

        It’s something a business has to deal with in a place like America.

        Is it fully applied by other businesses? No, of course not.

        Does that sort of disparity prevent people from wanting the companies they do business with from wanting, demanding, certain features from a company? No, not either.

        Yes, this is a capitalist society (thank goodness). That doesn’t mean buyer or seller take it how it is.

        The market place continually changes. Not just to technology. But people’s expectation and desires.

        That’s part of the capitalist society also.

        The interaction.

        My protest about exclusivity is part of that interaction.

        So, for me, to better able to compete in the marketplace, I need non-exclusiveness at his point.

        If I ever got to Hugh’s or Patterson’s or Konrath’s or Evanovich’s position (which I doubt), of course I’d be open to listening to an individual exclusive deal.

        Which is, I should add, another good point Michael made in his article.

        And I do agree, I do feel I have some sort of parity with the bottom of the market 🙂 but it sure doesn’t feel good to me 🙂

  3. For the record, I’m not ignoring that self-published authors aren’t slighted in other ways.

    1. Traditional publishers have pre-orders (well except Hachette)
    2. Traditional publishers get paid full margin for books below $2.99 and above $9.99
    3. Traditional published titles can more easily get go “perma-free”
    4. Traditional published titles don’t need to be exclusive
    5. Traditional published titles get full wholesale price rather than KOLL %

    I’m sure there are others as well. I wasn’t saying this is the FIRST time such a disparity reared it’s head…it is just the most recent time and as KU is on everyone’s mind right now I thought it was worth mentioning the differences, especially since many authors were not clear there were any.

    Some have claimed that I’m saying not to go into Unlimited, or that I think the sky is falling. No such statements were made. It was a simple laying out of details. Why people are reading things into this is beyond me.

    When traditional publishers treat author’s unfairly, I write about it. Why wouldn’t I do the same for Amazon, or B&N, or any other entity?

    Also for the record, I have no problem with “super-star authors” (the 1% if you will) getting special treatment. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, they get better “deals” than I do and they should. My issue is for us “mere mortals” – the “midlist” should be apples to apples. I suspect traditional authors and self-published authors bring in “about” the same income to Amazon, so why shouldn’t they have similar terms?

    My point was quite simple. I wanted to spell out the different systems and publicly say author-publishers should have the same terms that trad-publishers do. I’m not sure why that’s such a bad thing to say.

    • Actually, as a result of the debate here and elsewhere I would argue that your comparison is fundamentally flawed in an entirely different way. Indie authors should be compared to publishers, not traditionally published authors. The latter group has less power, a smaller share of the revenue, and less control, while indie authors have as much control and money as publishers.

      What you see as second-class treatment I see as treatment identical to indie publishers. There are indie publishers in KDP, and there are indie publishers in KDP Select. Since they’re getting the same treatment as indie authors I don’t see how anyone is a second-class citizen.

  4. Just a quick follow-up from twitter. Until Nate pointed it out to me I didn’t notice the article headline said “Makes” that should have been “Treats” I originally wrote this post for a different blog and it was “Treats” there. Jeremy and I were quickly exchanging emails to transfer my post to their blog and I was also busy with other “early morning things” When Jeremy said, “How is this for a headline” I looked at it quickly and said “Looks great” but although it said Makes I read Treats – as that was my original headline. I don’t think Jeremy was trying to change my headline…to be honest I don’t think I sent it to him just the body copy. It was just poor proofing on my side. And I apologize for the wrong word being used.

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