The Authors Who Love Amazon
The e-commerce giant has finally made self-publishing lucrative. But does its dominance come at a cost?
ALANA SEMUELS JUL 20, 2018
TSERING TOPGYAL / AP
For most of Prime Day, Amazon’s annual sales bonanza, an unfamiliar face topped the site’s Author Rank page: Mike Omer, a 39-year-old Israeli computer engineer and self-published author whose profile picture is a candid shot of a young, blond man in sunglasses sitting on grass. He was—and at the time of this writing, still is—ranked above J.K. Rowling (No.8), James Patterson (No. 9), and Stephen King (No. 10) in sales of all his books on Amazon.com. His most recent book is ranked tenth on Amazon Charts, which Amazon launched after The New York Times stopped issuing e-book rankings, and which measures sales of individual books on Amazon. (The company does not disclose the metrics behind Author Rank, which is still in beta.)
Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative. While he may not be as familiar a name as the big authors marketed by traditional publishing houses, and may not have as many total book sales, Omer is making an enviable living from his writing. Sales of his first e-book, Spider’s Web, and its sequels, allowed him to quit his job and become a full-time author. Now, he makes more money than he did as a computer engineer. “I’m making a really nice salary, even by American standards,” he said.
After the success of Omer’s first book series, Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, published his most recent book, a mystery called A Killer’s Mind, which was also promoted on Amazon’s First Reads, a new subscription service in which the company recommends a handful of books and allows subscribers to download them before their official publication date. Omer told me he has now sold more than 10,000 books through Amazon, and that his books have also been borrowed more than 10,000 times on Kindle Unlimited, the subscription service in which readers pay $9.99 a month to access over 1 million titles on Amazon. “What made this possible is Amazon,” he told me. “It can expose me to millions, or tens of millions of readers.” (Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder of Codex Group, which consults with the publishing industry, told me that Amazon’s rankings and sales information are not reliable because they also count books that are borrowed, like Harry Potter books, which are consumed in a different way than books that are bought.)
For decades, self-publishing was derided as an embarrassing sign that an author couldn’t cut it in the “real” publishing industry—“the literary world’s version of masturbation,” as Salon once put it. And Amazon, the world’s biggest e-commerce site, with its bookstore-beating prices, was painted as an enemy to authors. But now its self-publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), has made it easy for people to upload their books, send them out into the universe, and make money doing so. Its store has created a place for readers to go and easily find inexpensive self-published books. The site that got its start by radically changing where books are sold is now reshaping how books are published and read.
This is, of course, threatening to the traditional publishing industry, which seems to be in a state of everlasting free-fall. Industrywide, self-publishing is gaining readers as traditional publishers are losing them, according to Author Earnings, a site produced by an anonymous marketing analytics expert who calls himself Data Guy. The self-published share of paid US e-book units increased to 46.4 percent from 44.7 percent between the second quarters of 2017 and 2018, Data Guy told me in an email, while the traditionally published share of paid e-book units decreased to 43.2 percent from 45.5 percent. (His data takes into account self-published and Amazon imprint-published books, which many traditional data sources do not.)
Central to Amazon’s gambit—and authors’ pay—is Kindle Unlimited. Launched in 2014, the feature was a response to other companies that were trying to create a Netflix for books, such as Oyster, which shut down in 2015, and Scribd, which is slowly gaining acceptance from the Big Five publishing houses. Authors can choose to participate in KDP Select, which automatically puts a book into Kindle Unlimited, and which can be highly lucrative. Amazon sets aside a pot of money every month that it divvies up among KDP Select authors, based on how many of their pages have been read each month by Kindle Unlimited subscribers and readers from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which allows Prime members to borrow one book a month for free. The payment ends up being a little less than half a penny per page, authors told me, but those who are read the most can also get monthly bonuses as high as $25,000. Last year, Amazon paid out more than $220 million to authors, the company told me. Regardless of participation in KDP Select, authors who self-publish on Amazon through KDP also earn a 70 percent royalty on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and a 35 percent royalty on books that cost more or less than that.
Kindle Unlimited works in the same way as Amazon’s other big subscription service, Prime: Just as Prime users often think of shipping as free, even though they’re paying a monthly or annual fee for it, Kindle Unlimited readers may begin to think of books as free, even though they’re paying a monthly fee, because each additional book they read in Kindle Unlimited doesn’t cost them anything extra. This can be a boon for new authors: Readers who might not be willing to pay outright for books by unknown writers will read those books on Kindle Unlimited, where they feel “free.”
“I truly believe that people would not read as many of my books were I not on Kindle Unlimited,” Samantha Christy, who decided to try writing romance novels in 2014, told me. Christy’s Amazon writing career has been so successful that it supports her four children and husband, who quit his job two years ago to manage her IT, taxes, and publishing business. Christy, who typically writes three books a year, talked to me from Hawaii, where she was vacationing with her family before they were headed to Comic-Con International in San Diego to speak on a panel about self-publishing.
Kindle Unlimited has its downsides. Amazon demands exclusivity from its KDP Select authors, meaning they can only sell their books on the Kindle Store, and not on any other digital bookstores, or even on their own websites. The payment structure means that authors who produce a lot of pages, even if they’re not particularly good pages, earn more money than authors who write succinctly. Almost since the launch of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon has been battling “book stuffers,” authors who publish hundreds of pages of content in Kindle Unlimited, some of which is gibberish, some of which tricks readers into flipping to the last page of the book, so the book will count as read and they’ll get paid. Self-publishing on Amazon’s platforms benefits authors in some genres—including romance and mystery, where readers tear through books and writing them might not take a long time—over those who spend years writing novels, or who do deeply researched nonfiction books, Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Author’s Guild, told me.
And authors on Kindle Unlimited have to work hard to promote themselves and attract new readers in a crowded marketplace; one, I.T. Lucas, told me she works 12-hour days, seven days a week. Part of that is writing—she has published 21 full-length novels in three years—and part is marketing. “You have to be willing to run a business at the same time,” Rasenberger said. Christy tries to answer every message she receives on Facebook, does a lot of free giveaways, and frequently holds Q&As and other events. Many authors buy ads on Amazon, effectively paying their employer to get more customers.
The structure of Kindle Unlimited also means writers need to churn out a lot of content. Since 2014, Lea Robinson and Melissa King have published more than 100 romance novels and novellas on Amazon under the pen name Alexa Riley. They told me by phone that they make the bulk of their money from payments from KDP Select as people read their backlist of titles on Kindle Unlimited. This motivates them to keep producing; the more pages they have on Kindle Unlimited, the higher the chance they’ll be a most-read author, which will win them tens of thousands of bonus dollars from Amazon. Each woman tries to write 3,000 words a day, and Alexa Riley generally publishes three books a month.
Even so, King and Robinson said that writing for Amazon doesn’t necessarily feel like more of a churn than any other job would. Each writes from about nine to five each day, and never on the weekends.They both recently left their full-time jobs (Robinson in banking, King as a CFO) to write Alexa Riley books. They have a formula—sexy men, headstrong women, a happy ending—that they and their readers both enjoy. “It is a production with us,” King said. “We don’t deviate from how we write, and we know there are key points we have to hit, and we don’t change our formula.” This formula helps them, since once people discover one book, they tend to pore over the Alexa Riley backlist on Kindle Unlimited for more of the same, which brings in more income for King and Robinson. If they publish a new book and make $10,000 a month, they estimate, just $3,000 of that income comes from sales of the new book on Amazon; the rest comes from Kindle Unlimited payments.
Of course, there are some things that KDP Select doesn’t offer, like printed books and shelf space in bookstores across the country, or a chance to get on the New York Times bestseller lists. But King and Robinson have tried the traditional route, and found it less lucrative than Amazon. In 2016, they published their first book from a “real” publishing house, Carina Press, an imprint of Harlequin, which is a division of HarperCollins. Seeing their book, Everything for Her, on shelves was satisfying—Robinson cried when she saw the book in Barnes & Noble—but working with a traditional publisher was an adjustment. It took nearly a year between the time they finished the book and the time it was published; on Amazon, it usually takes about two weeks. The book was much longer than their traditional works, at 95,000 words, yet the money was about half what it would have been with Amazon. “It felt really prestigious and good for our career,” Robinson said, “but the money wasn’t the same as with Amazon.” They decided, after that experience, to return to self-publishing.
People outside of Amazon warn that Kindle Unlimited and Amazon’s publishing model more broadly are threatening the very foundations of the industry. “It’s a cancer. It’s going to undermine the entire publishing industry,” Mark Coker, the founder and CEO of Smashwords, an e-book distributor for indie authors, said to me about Kindle Unlimited. Though authors may feel like they’re benefiting in the short-term, he argued, the Unlimited model is training people to read books for what feels like free. “Amazon is putting the thumb on the scale—although customers will happily pay for books, they give these books out for even cheaper,” he said.
Kindle Unlimited is essentially a Spotify for books, and Spotify has resulted in lower revenues for artists; there’s reason to think Kindle Unlimited could unleash the same havoc on the publishing business. If people only read through subscription services, he said, they’ll stop buying single books. Retailers will continue losing market share, and Amazon will gain it. Even losing a small share of readers to Kindle Unlimited could be fatal for retailers. Barnes & Noble reported a 5 percent decline in sales in its last fiscal year, for instance, sending shares tumbling. Amazon is, he argues, creating a market with fewer retailers. Then, when all the other options have disappeared and Amazon completely dominates the market, Amazon will raise prices and charge authors less, and authors and readers will be trapped, he speculated. (In response to this, Amazon said that authors set their own prices for books.)
Amazon does have a history of hooking people on products and services and then changing the terms. This year, it raised the cost of an Amazon Prime membership to $119 from $99, and it has raised fees on third-party sellers who depend on Amazon to reach shoppers. (An Amazon spokesman told me that authors find it valuable to participate in KDP Select, and that 95 percent re-enroll in the program every month.)
Yet even Coker doesn’t argue that Amazon helped democratize the publishing business. A decade ago, authors who wanted lots of readers had little choice but to try and get published through a traditional house, which accept only a tiny fraction of the books pitched to them, and which pay authors as little as 10 percent of a book’s eventual sales. Now, anyone can try to reach a large audience without going through the traditional publishing gatekeepers. Authors don’t have to pay to publish anything on Amazon, and have more control over what makes it into their books, what their books look like, and how (and if) they’re marketed. King and Robinson, of Alexa Riley, told me that a traditional publishing house probably would never have accepted their manuscripts because their books were too dirty. Friends who wrote romance for traditional publishing houses had to take out kinky sex scenes, they told me, because the publishers weren’t comfortable with the content. Only after traditional publishing houses saw that Alexa Riley’s kinky books sold well did they approach the authors and allow them to keep whatever they wanted.
But have authors traded one corporate overlord for another? That’s what worries Coker, of Smash Words. Now, Amazon is making the rules, prohibiting authors from publishing both on Kindle Unlimited and on other sites, for example, incentivizing people to produce huge amounts of content, and stoking a race to the bottom on book prices. Authors who may have, in an e-book utopia, been able to set their own prices and sell their books wherever they want online, now have to choose: go exclusively with Amazon and KDP Select or try to sell their books without Amazon. Authors getting all their sales from Amazon are playing a dangerous game, Coker said. “In the long term, authors are mortgaging their independence,” he said. “They’re no longer indie authors, they’re dependent authors.”
But for now, self-published authors seem to be willing to take that risk. Samantha Christy told me that an agent recently approached her to talk to her about going the traditional publishing route. She’s going to meet with the agent, but traditional publishing has little appeal, especially because she would get a much smaller cut of sales that way. “Why give away a piece of the pie, if you don’t need to?” she said.
As of press time, Mike Omer was still the top author on Amazon. Now, he’s trying to break into the book market beyond Kindle Unlimited—what he calls “the next level,” the people who go through a few books a month, rather than dozens, and are more discerning about what they read. That level will bring him readers, as self-publishing on Amazon brings in the money. Already, getting A Killer’s Mind published by an Amazon imprint, rather than self-publishing, has led to a lot more attention, which has boosted sales of his self-published works. “I can’t really see an indie author making money without going through Amazon,” he told me.
Omer’s experience has been like a dream, he told me. But for people in the publishing industry, it may seem more like a nightmare. He sidestepped the traditional gatekeepers to publish his books online on Amazon, gaining thousands of readers. He ignored big publishing houses in favor of an imprint run by Amazon, attracting thousands more. He has little interest in the traditional publishing industry at all, in fact. He’s a successful author, and his whole world is Amazon.
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ALANA SEMUELS is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.