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.