Subscription Services and My Writing
People have asked me if I have any particular thoughts on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription plan, and whether my own work will be on it (and one presumes, on other similar subscription services, like Oyster and Scribd). So, some thoughts:
While one should never say never, I don’t anticipate any of my novels being on subscription services in the immediate future, no. One, Macmillan, who has published all my novels to date, hasn’t started working with any of the subscription services. Speaking with no direct knowledge whatsoever of their corporate thinking on the matter, it seems unlikely to me that they will, unless there’s a clear economic benefit to them in doing so. Two, even if Macmillan decides to opt in, contractually they’ll probably have to ask my permission first — at which point I have to decide whether there is a clear economic benefit in doing so.
And is there a clear economic benefit to me putting my novels on a subscription service right now? At the very least, some early analysis suggests there would be a better economic benefit for me than for many self-published authors, thanks to the fact I am “traditionally published” — an irony for those who still labor under the impression that publishing is an “us vs. them” sort of business — but I have to say I would want to see some actual, useful data on how writers actually get paid from subscription services before I’d want to jump in with the novels.
Part of that hesitation is based on the experience of musicians with their own streaming services, such as Spotify or Rhapsody — many musicians earn substantially less from streaming than from sales, and unlike musicians, most writers can’t really try to make money from touring (some could. Not many). Now, to be clear, early reports say that the subscription services credit a full sale after someone reads 10% or so of a work (although how much a “full sale” counts for seems to be contingent on several factors, including whether one is “traditionally published” or not — again, see the link above).
That’s not bad. But I’m less than entirely convinced that there won’t be near-immediate pressure to push that compensation downward; say, by trying to cut into the money credited for a “full sale,” or by pushing back the percentage of a book read before a “full sale” to 25% or 33%, or by any other number of ways which I can’t now think of off the top of my head but which the subscription model will in some way enable. For me the question is not if such a push will happen, because it will. The question is when.
So the question becomes: Why would I want to do that?
(Note: This question is asked not in the “why would I want to do something that stupid?” sense but in the “so, what’s in it for me?” sense. As is the next question –)
Why would I, as a writer and a businessperson, want to enable a model that introduces another layer of opportunity for others to drive down the amount I can make from my work? The uninformed may fulminate about how publishers are parasitic middlemen, but in point of fact my publisher does a lot of work for me: Editing, copy-editing, art and design, marketing and publicity and distribution. I argue with my publisher on what my cut of the takings should be (these are called negotiations) but there is an exchange of services. So what is the exchange of service a subscription model would offer me? Does it offer enough to compensate for another potential slice to be taken out of my income? Does it offer enough to replace or at least augment the distrubtion model which already exists, and from which I benefit?
If it does — and it might! — then that’s great. Let’s get to it. If it doesn’t, however, then we have a problem.
(This line of inquiry does not consider at all whether a subscription service might be good for readers. It may or may not; I suspect the answer will entirely depend on how many books one actually reads a month. Be aware that buffets make money because they charge you more for the food you eat than you the amount of food you can on average consume, and that this is a buffet, with books instead of crab rangoon. Also be aware, in the case of Amazon in particular, that the long term plan is to make it so you never ever have to go anywhere else to buy anything, ever, and that running Kindle Unlimited at a loss for a while would be fine if it serves that long-term goal. Neither of these things are particularly good or evil in themselves — once again Amazon (and other subscription services) is acting in its own self-interest, as businesses do.
However, none of that conversation is of interest to me when I have my “working writer” hat on. My immediate focus is my own interest — whether a subscription service is good for me, and my business, and my ability to make a living. And you may see this as immaterial or even selfish, especially if you like the idea of drinking from the book subscription firehose. But I gotta tell you, if the amount I can make writing fiction falls through the floor, so will the amount of fiction that I write, as my time will have to be spent doing things that pay my mortgage. We do not live in a glorious socialist paradise here in the US; I have to make money. So do other writers.)
The flip side of this is that every new distribution model offers opportunities tuned to that particular model of distribution — the question is whether one is smart enough to figure out what the strengths of any distribution model are, and then saavy (and lucky) enough to capitalize on them. For example, I think a subscription model might be a very fine way to make money from shorter works: short stories, novellas, less-than-book length short fiction and so on. That’s something I could definitely see pursuing aggressively, while (if necessary) keeping longer-length work in distribution channels that are more profitable for it.
The key is not seeing any distribution model as a threat, even as you’re looking at it critically, but in finding the way it can work for you, and how you can take advantage of it. Right now, I’m in the “still looking at how it can work for me” phase of things. We’ll see how it goes from here.