Authors are upset with Amazon.com again.
For much of this year, mainstream novelists were furious that Amazon was discouraging the sale of some titles in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette over ebooks.
Now self-published writers, who owe much of their audience to the retailer’s publishing platform, are unhappy.
One problem is too much competition. However, 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 US$9.99 a month.
It might bring in readers, but the writers say that 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 ebook 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 past few years have been a golden age.
Fiction underwent a boom unseen since the post-World War II era, when seemingly every liberal arts major set their 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 ebooks in its Kindle store. Today it has more than 3 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 ebooks leveled off last year at US$3 billion after increasing nearly 50 percent in 2012, according to BookStats. However, Kindle Unlimited is making the glut worse, some writers say.
The program has the same all-you-can-consume business model as Spotify in music, Netflix Inc in video and the book startups 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 would not be promoted.
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 6 million books, according to her Web site.
She said in an interview that she does not understand what her partner Amazon is thinking.
“Your rabid romance reader who was buying US$100 worth of books a week and funneling US$5,200 into Amazon per year is now generating less than US$120 a year,” she said. “The revenue is just lost. That doesn’t work well for Amazon or the writers.”
Amazon, though, might be willing to forgo some income in the short term to create a service that draws readers in and encourages them to buy other items. The books, in that sense, are loss leaders, although the writers take the loss, not Amazon.
An Amazon spokesman declined to answer questions about Kindle Unlimited.
While Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos celebrated “authors as customers” as recently as in his letter to shareholders last year, and the retailer tried to enlist the help of independent writers in its campaign against Hachette this summer, some self-published authors are beginning to suspect that they are just another supplier.
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