From The Atlantic:
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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Link to the rest at The Atlantic