What is Amazon Doing to Books?

Why Kindle Unlimited sets a dangerous precedent.

After an ‘unintentional’ leak earlier in the week, Amazon officially introduced its new subscription service, Amazon Unlimited, last Friday. For $.9.99 a month users get access to 600,000 titles. While this might seem an enticing proposition, there are a few caveats. First of all, while some titles such as Harry Potter are on the platform, none of the ‘Big Five’ publishers – Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster – have agreed to be involved. Of course, Amazon is currently involved in a pretty high profile spat with Hachette over terms so this is hardly surprising. Also, at first glance, it would seem that a big chunk of these titles come from Amazon’s self-published offering (up to 500,000 of them). There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing per se, but many of these titles aren’t proof-read, let alone edited by a professional, and they often read as such. Also joining the service probably doesn’t make sense from a purely practical point of view if you read less than 13 books a year. And the numbers indicate that the average American reads 5 books a year, so the 120-dollar price tag is a bit hefty.

But none of that really bothers me really. What does, however, is that most of the coverage around the launch has focused on comparisons with Spotify and Netflix. But these analogies seem inept. Sure they’re useful shorthand for the dynamics of the service, but why does anyone think a Netflix or Spotify for books makes sense? And bear in mind, this isn’t a Luddite argument against progress or innovation. I was a proponent of a both those streaming services from the beginning, because they strike a fair-ish balance between the creator and the audience. And, even though they’re shaking things up slightly, they respect the form. Netflix works because we consume far more film and television on a weekly basis than we do books. And as network and cable fall apart, people enjoy the freedom of building their own viewing patterns. Spotify works because we listen to music all day as we work, jog or do the dishes. And it’s fair to artists because they get royalties every time a song is streamed (the ability to save offline playlists is another matter). But how many times is someone realistically going to read a book on Kindle Unlimited, giving the author a fair reward for their years of work? Lumping the written word in book form in with other types of creativity shows how we’ve come to approach everything as content. It is just a means of traffic generation.

At this point it is useful to invoke Joseph Schumpeter’s conception of the waves of creative destruction with which capitalism renews itself. Each wave has two dimensions: a creative one in which new possibilities, industries and business models emerge; and a destructive one in which old ways of doing things, including things that were genuinely valuable, are destroyed. It is useful to invoke this so that we are mindful of what we are destroying. Beyond nostalgia and fear of change, there are intrinsically valuable processes we could be getting rid of if we’re not careful.

The Kindle isn’t a bad device, I use it all the time to read manuscripts, articles through Instapaper, and ebooks from Amazon. It’s exciting to challenge existing models, and give readers fair prices. But there is a point at which cheapening the true value of the written word becomes almost criminal and detrimental to the quality of what can be produced. Kindle Unlimited will probably find some form of success because Amazon is a behemoth, with a large, faithful and receptive audience. But I think it’s safe to say that’s not a good thing.

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About The Author

Nasri Atallah

Nasri Atallah

Nasri is a British-Lebanese author & publisher based between Paris and Beirut. He enjoys watching satellite television channels in languages he doesn’t understand, YouTube channels in languages he does and bad espresso. He is the founder of Gate37, Managing Director of Media & Publishing at Keeward, and his second book is set for release in early 2015.

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  • hanna hourani

    Good article. Amazon vs the big four of publishing is mostly about margins though. Although the Hachettes of the world would love to paint an epic image of an artist standing up to a tech giant, I’m sure they stepped over quite a few artists during their rise to fame, the same way that Amazon is now stepping on their toes.

    The merits of Kindle publishing, which isn’t too emphasized in this article, is that it gives a platform to writers that were rejected by publishers or that do not want to go through the long and arduous process of getting a literary agent and sending out manuscripts to Hachette and its ilk(who rejected the famous JK Rowling no less, how many other master pieces were lost because of a big four clerk that didn’t read past page 5?).

    It’s almost the same as how Youtube/spotify gives a voice to artists that were rejected by the record labels (or artists that want more control of their work – which labels can take away)

    Sure, there is crap on spotify and there is crap on Kindle. Lots of it. Some of this crap gets famous against what I see as common sense (50 shades of grey, twilight, rebecca black, psy) regardless of how it’s being served to the public.

    Gems have also been born out these self promotion platforms where even published authors are trying their hand.

    At the end of the day, the readers and listeners have their own taste and competition can only be good. So all’s well as long as Amazon doesn’t become the only player on the market.

    And although we like the romantic idea of books, it’s good to remember that they are a medium, in the strict definition of the term. The same way photos and movies are media. We all know what happened to photos and videos (vines and instagram), but at the same time there are still some great indie movies and photos, no?

  • Meedo

    Alright, first the good. The Kindle has changed my life. No hyperbole here. My shelves are literally sagging under the weight of books, which until a couple of years ago entrapped me in a daily dilemma (which of the five or six tomes I have going at any given time should I carry to work?), a weekly conundrum (which dozen should I carry on that three-day business trip?), and a longterm crisis (which hundred volumes should I pack for my move to another country?). The “I love the smell of paper” argument notwithstanding, the Kindle has relieved me of those questions, and though I have yet to find an adequate solution for those pesky art and coffee table books, having pretty much all my paperbacks in digital from (always-readable, given the long battery life and easy-on-the eyes e-ink screen) has saved me a great deal of distress (lest this sound silly, I’m referring to first-world distress of course).

    Now, having gotten the undeniable good out of the way, I realize this article isn’t about the Kindle per se but about Kindle Unlimited.

    It’s clear that modes of consumption do affect consumption habits. For a quick example, one need only turn to Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan’s Emmy acceptance speech, where he acknowledged Netflix and the culture of “binge-viewing” in the success of his show. Is such binging common or even possible when it comes to longform writing? Of course not. So from that perspective, a model that presupposes (what amounts to) $120 for (an average of) 5 books is clearly unsustainable.

    But (and it’s a big but — always loved that expression), the culture that the Kindle Unlimited presupposes isn’t that of binging but of skimming. In the age of twitter (I sound like an old man saying this), we’ve all become speedreaders: we consume more material, but do so more superficially and less completely. As Hanna commented here, this allows more writers to be read. From the reader’s perspective, it allows us to sample more writers. While this isn’t ideal for canonical, or even contemporary, or even curated works of “serious” literary value, it’s great for the forest of self-published material out there. I realize I’m making a dangerous, even elitist, distinction here, and if my opening paragraph here addressed the good, this is about the remainder of the reading spectrum: the bad and the ugly. Once in that forest, Kindle Unlimited allows us to unearth the diamonds in the rough, the hidden gems, the unsung voices, and the happy accidents, which we might then dust off and carry back to the shelf for “serious” literary consideration.

    • Meedo

      Oh and I thoroughly enjoyed the article. Thank you. :)