Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Getting Paid as a Writer - Are Free Books Poisoning the Well?

At some juncture last year, I came across the following clip (entitled "Pay the Writer") from a film about sci-fi icon Harlan Ellison: 

In it, as suggested by the title, Ellison talks about writers getting paid for what they do. Despite being only a few minutes long, the clip is laugh-out-loud funny in certain areas.  However, one of the the things that struck me is Ellison's statement that writers should get paid for everything they do.  (For instance, the clip starts off with Ellison providing an anecdote of someone wanting to use an interview he did for the television show Babylon 5. However, they want to use the interview for free; Ellison insists on being paid.)  Ellison states that it's the amateurs out there doing everything for free that make it so hard for the professionals, who understand that they shouldn't be doing anything without getting paid.

Ellison's comment puts me in mind of the current state of indie publishing, wherein many authors will offer their work for free.  Of course, the logic behind free is fairly straightforward: readers might take a chance on an otherwise unknown author if his work is free, whereas they might pass if they have to pay for it.  Hopefully those who obtain the book for free will read it and become fans, such that they might thereafter be willing to pay cold hard cash for future material by that particular author.

It's a strategy that has worked for a number of highly successful indie authors, but is it in fact poisoning the well?  Is "free" conditioning a certain segment of the reading population to only want to read books that don't cost them anything?  I remember a few years back reading a statement by Joe Konrath (who is clearly an indie publishing success story) that he planned to eventually rotate all of his books in and out of free.  One of the comments to that statement was from a reader who essentially said he'd never buy another Konrath book, because now he knew that - at some juncture - he'd be able to get every one of them for free.

From all accounts, Joe Konrath is still doing quite well, so maybe the number of readers willing to wait until all of his books are eventually free is minuscule. (And maybe that's the case across the board.)  Still, it's troubling to think that maybe free books are sending the wrong message to potential readers.  After all, Stephen King, James Patterson, Danielle Steel and others never had to start out offering books for free (at least not that I'm aware of).  That said, the advent of self-publishing has undoubtedly crowded the marketplace, making it harder than ever to get noticed.   

In retrospect, I think Ellison makes a valid point: writers need to be aware of the value of their work  and not be afraid of asking that they be appropriately compensated for it.  At the same time, because of the ever-shifting landscape that is indie publishing, there is no doubt that "free" has its place. However, it's a tool that has to be used judiciously as part of an overall plan. It is not, in and of itself, an answer or a solution to the barriers indie authors face.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Revamped Kindle Unlimited (KU 2.0)

As almost everyone knows by now, Amazon is now offering a revamped version of it's all-you-can-read buffet known as Kindle Unlimited.  Affectionately known as KU 2.0, this new offering is the same on the reader side of the equation ($9.99/month), but represents what could be a seismic shift on the author side.

I previously wrote about how the original KU offered tons of opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. However, for the purposes of this article, I will disregard the presence of scammers, con artists and the like and assume that every author with books in KU is honest.  

Basically, in its first iteration, authors in the program were paid whenever someone borrowed their books and read and least 10% of them.  Moreover, it didn't matter if your book was 10 pages in length or 10,000 - each borrow paid the same.  In other words, every author got the same buck-thirty (or whatever the monthly payout was) for each borrow, regardless of book length.  Great if you're the guy cranking out Penny Dreadfuls every couple of days; not so great if you're trying to be the next James Michener. 

However, under KU 2.0, authors won't simply be paid by the number of borrows but rather by the number of pages read.  In my book (no pun intended), that's a much fairer system. For instance, an author with books in KU 1.0 priced at $3.99 or more would really take a beating in terms of earnings each time a book was borrowed.  Now, being paid by the page, they at least have a chance of earning as much (or maybe even more) with a borrow.  In short, I think this is one that Amazon got right (or at least is headed in the right direction).

That said, let's not make the mistake of assuming that Amazon is instituting this change so that writers can be more fairly compensated.  Amazon is in the business of making money for Amazon; if authors just happen to benefit, that's merely a side effect. The whole point of KU, of course, is to put the squeeze on similar services, liked Scribd and Oyster.  KU 2.0 seems geared to attract many authors who may have stayed away from the program or opted out because the payout was so low - mostly those who write longer works as opposed to shorter ones.  And of course, the requirement for exclusivity - meaning that a book in KU can't be offered on another platform (e.g., Barnes & Noble) - would mean that authors opting in would have to remove their titles from other sales channels.  (Needless to say, the exclusivity requirement is overkill; Amazon is already the 800-pound gorilla in terms of book sales, so there's no need to crush all life out of the competition.  Besides, does Amazon really want to run the risk of there being an antitrust case down the road, with the company ultimately getting broken up like Ma Bell and Standard Oil?)

But back to the subject at hand, I would interpret Kindle 2.0 as a good thing.  (I know that many will disagree with that assessment, but it just strikes me as a more equitable system.) As to whether it will make me put my books back into KU, the jury is still out on that.  I'm really not a fan of exclusivity, and I like having my books available on as many platforms as possible.  (Moreover, if their goal is to make money, I think Amazon will earn a lot more of it by dropping the exclusivity requirement.)  So I'm still opting out for now, but maybe KU 3.0 will bait the hook with a more attractive lure. 

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