(c) Copyright 2014, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved
“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” –Erasmus
Wow, have times changed all that much?
Every author and publisher I know is in a huff over Amazon’s new subscription service, unlimited access to “more than 600,000 titles” for $9.99 a year.
Amazon did not say please or thank you, but swept every ebook on its Kindle Select platform into “Kindle Unlimited.” Authors are compensated for “reads” of more than 10 pct of their books from a very murky Amazon controlled “pool” of funds.
We all accuse Amazon of devaluing the printed word, driving costs down to almost zero, holding authors and publishers hostage.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The truth is, most books in Kindle Unlimited are self-published, although some backlist titles from major publishers are involved. And the fact is, for what it’s worth, that Amazon’s do-it-yourself program, Kindle publishing, is responsible in some way for this because it has glutted the book markets with millions of half-baked, poorly written books. Social media is rife and raucous with indie authors screaming “check out my book!!!” or “Now only 99 cts!!!” etc. It’s a deafening din and pathetic, ridiculous.
As book critic (an NBCC member) and the recipient of tidal waves of unsolicited review copies of the same, I have to say it’s made me expect the worst tripe, just more garbage, every time a new book arrives on my doorstep.
The bad (in sufficient numbers) always drives out the good, obliterates it.
As a result, in a breathtaking short period of time the word “book” and the status of books in our culture has plummeted. Books used to be valuable things even in the eyes of those who were not readers. “Author” used to mean you had at least half a brain and the stamina and commitment to spend years, thousands of lonely hours, with your imagination and mental faculties engaged to produce something serious, usually, and meaningful. It meant you had studied and learned your craft.
Seems like yesteryear already. The often reviled villains, the “gate-keeper” publishers, surely made mistakes, but over time a certain level of quality was maintained. Random House and Simon & Schuster had excellent, for the most part, acquisition editors. They had diligent proof-readers, for heaven sake! It meant something to have a book published by one of them–and still does, I think, and maybe more so today than ever. I still approach titles from major publishers with a degree of confidence in their inherent quality.
Amazon’s sinister effect on books is not just about pricing. Amazon’s free for all has also unleashed a tsunami of wannabe authors who haven’t learned the trade, haven’t read anything, can’t punctuate or spell and who couldn’t spot a typo if it poked them in the eye.
Maybe this will all sort out in the marketplace of art and ideas eventually. Maybe the millions of “I wanna be an author” types, once a critical mass of them have delivered themselves of a few wholly ignored and disregarded “masterpieces,” and failed miserably to win fame and fortune, will give it up and take up casino gambling instead.
I suspect that the real market for books remains pretty much a constant over time. Few have been and are actually willing to go to all the trouble of learning how to write them well, and still fewer are willing to read them if they are not filled with simple thrills and chills.
If you’re trying to make a buck or gain notoriety, the odds of success are better at blackjack or roulette tables in Vegas, no matter how fine a writer you are. If novitiate “authors” had done their homework, this would not be news. The math and statistics are plain as day. It’s nuts to think you’re going to hit it big writing a book, even if you write a great one.
Has Amazon has become just another pandering vanity publisher? Sure looks that way. When the writing is on the wall, I bet Amazon starts charging authors upfront just as the vanity pubs do–and with overrides, back-ends, cross deals, higher commissions.
They’ll ride this one trick pony to death and then move on to something more lucrative than mere books.
One thing they have been really good at is cashing in on the dreams of fame and fortune of the average joes and jills, most of whom grew up when books were considered a good thing, authors worthy of respect, and the writing endeavor inherently worthwhile. But this too will pass, and quickly, I fear.
Please know that I’m not by any means demeaning indie writers as a category, I’m simply pointing to the uncomfortable fact that there are so many more bad ones than good ones that they give the good ones a bad name.
The good ones actually might be better off selling their books out of the trunks of their cars door to door, eyeball to eyeball, or at art festivals and the like.
But Amazon’s over-reaching and self-aggrandizing ways with authors and publishers (“business decisions, market share”) may eventually peter out. Not everyone wants books, or ever has, and Amazon is about to hit the wall on this point. Other media are more appealing to the large numbers than print.
So what’s next? Books as flash or thumb drives to stick in your ear? Voila! Effortless reading? Nobody knows. But that would not be reading in my book nor an aid to higher thought and insight. Images and print involve different kinds of cogitation. Not the last word, readers and writers. Only something to think about 🙂
[PS – I will leave you with a final afterthought, a speculation: it seems entirely plausible to me that Amazon launched the subscription program not so much as a competitive response to Oyster’s and others’ subscription programs as the fact that one day some marketing genius there said, “What the hay? So few of these indie books are actually selling in significant numbers, maybe we can get a sales spike of some sort on them with such a deal.” They held all the cards on Kindle Select authors, had all the leverage in the contract terms …. and maybe that will payoff in the short term for them. But not for long if the majority of the books are bad. The minority of quality backlist titles from major publishers in Kindle Unlimited is so small, so I’d bet the bloom will be off this rose in short order.]