Norway’s authors fight to be on more unlimited subscription platforms

From The New Publishing Standard:

Author Jørn Lier Horst moved to Strawberry publishing house Capitana, and went from having titles on one platform to being widely available. He experienced a huge economic upswing. ”It was like a revelation when I saw how much larger market share Storytel had, and what it meant to me.”

Rather undermining the popular myth that authors cannot make money with unlimited subscription services, seven high-profile Norwegian authors have hired a lawyer to ensure their books are on more unlimited subscription platforms to raise their earnings.

The debate strikes at the heart of the faux narrative in the Anglophone publishing arena – and especially among self-publishers – that unlimited subscription means earning less.

. . . .

[I]ndie authors [who sign} up to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and then [complain] about low returns had only themselves to blame. Put simply, by signing up to KDP Select to be in Kindle Unlimited indie authors forego income everywhere else due to Amazon’s insistence on exclusivity. (And that’s before we even begin to think about the need to pay Amazon for visibility using Amazon Ads.)

In Norway it’s not so much a demand for exclusivity as that audiobook publishers are keeping content to their own platforms to attract consumers. For publishers the compromise is that they forego sales/downloads on other platforms, but the sheer volume of titles they field makes that worthwhile. For authors, not so much.

. . . .

Norway is in the unusual position of publishers owning unlimited distribution platforms. Authors with Aschehoug and Gyldendal which owns Cappelen Damm that runs the subscription service Fabel) are having their titles excluded from rival Storytel Norway, jointly owned by Cappelen Damm and Sweden’s Storytel. A third and much smaller player in Norway is Ebok Plus, owned by Vigmostad & Bjørke.

Author Tom Kristensen told Norway’s VG:

Here, there are two major players owned by the largest publishers, and which exclude each other’s authors. They have used us in a competition game. We lose millions of kroner on that. Now that’s enough.

While Unni Lindell said:

Publishers hold back for their authors how much they actually lose by not being on both platforms. They also hold back that they actually have a duty to deliver to all platforms – in the same way as they have a duty to deliver to all bookstores.

This a reference to the Norwegian Book Act that says a book must be available in all bookstores, regardless of ownership of the store.

But according to the Norwegian Writers’ Association only 20 titles have been exchanged between Storytel and Fabel in 2020.

. . . .

[S]everal authors have decided to call in their contracts, if of five years or older. They have had their titles re-narrated and have put them out on all platforms. Jørn Lier Horst, for example, has had 21 old book titles re-recorded.

But the original publishers are not best pleased, are disputing the contract annulations, and arguing they still have audio rights, putting Storytel Norway in an impossible situation. Now the newly re-recorded titles are in limbo.

Storytel Norway Country Manager Håkon Havik told VG that the company was not taking sides, but needed legal clarification to allow the titles on the Storytel platform.

Storytel initially wanted to include these titles – but after receiving information from the Publishers’ Association and their lawyer that this is not legitimate, we chose to wait. Storytel is not a party to the case, but perceives it as a serious dispute over publishing rights.

And in a statement to the Norwegian Publishers Association Storytel has said:

Storytel does not want to get into a situation where we are potentially left with compensation claims for having included intellectual property to which the publisher has no rights, and has chosen this line vis-à-vis both parties in this case. In other words, we do not include the titles in question from any of the affected parties until it has been clarified who the actual publisher is.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

UPDATE: PG was working fast when he wrote the following and relied on outdated information enhanced by a brain freeze. Membership in KDP Select is no longer required in order to receive 70% royalties.

Check the comments for more detail.

PG apologizes for the error.

Begin original post FWIW:

PG was puzzled about the remark concerning indie authors and Kindle Unlimited in an article that otherwise focuses on two Norwegian publishers that apparently have something like a shared monopoly on Norwegian-language audiobooks.

Kindle Unlimited is an optional program. Some indies elect to participate with some or all of their ebooks and others elect not to participate.

KDP Select is the umbrella program that determines whether a book is in Kindle Unlimited or not.

If an author enrolls a book in KDP Select, the book is automatically also included in the Kindle Unlimited program. KU is a part of the KDP Select program. If you’re not enrolled in KDP Select, you can’t participate in KU.

Looking at KU on its own merits apart from other benefits of KDP Select is not useful for indie authors. KU is part of the KDP Select bundle of services.

The principal benefit of KDP Select for most authors is ebook royalty rates that are twice as high.

(The author is dinged for delivery fees for ebooks, which strikes PG as an artifact of a much earlier age. Those will be deducted from royalties resulting in what is effectively a slightly lower actual royalty rate.)

In order for an ebook to be included in KDP Select, an author must set a price for the ebook within a pricing range determined by Amazon – currently $2.99-$9.99 in the US.

KDP Select also requires that an ebook enrolled in the program be offered exclusively on Amazon during the time period of enrollment. For competing ebook vendors, this requirement means they are not able to sell any books an author includes in KDP Select, hence at least some of the dire warnings about the dangers of KDP select that sometimes circulate online.

(PG remembers reading somewhere more than a couple of years ago that this pricing range was determined by Amazon to be the optimal range of prices for ebooks considering how many ebooks readers were likely to purchase at a given price point and the profits generated from each sale for Amazon and, presumably the author as well. But PG’s memory may be faulty about this matter.)

KDP Select enrollment for a book includes a book in the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) program which applies to Amazon Prime members only (PG has read that Prime customers generate significantly more money for Amazon than non-Prime customers.) KOLL pays royalties to the author based upon how many pages of an author’s ebook that Prime borrowers read. No pages read=no royalties. Some pages read=some royalties, calculated on a per-page-read royalty rate.

As mentioned, KDP Select is an optional program. An indie author can use it or not at the author’s discretion.

When an author includes a book in KDP Select, the book must remain in the KDP Select program for 90 days. At the end of the 90 day period, the book is out of KDP Select, exclusivity requirements no long apply, higher royalty rates no longer apply, KOLL inclusion ends, etc.

It is possible for an author to set KDP Select to auto-renew at the end of 90 days, thus continuing to receive the benefits from the program for consecutive 90-day periods until the author turns off auto-renew. When the author turns off auto-renew, KDP benefits and limitations continue until the end of the 90-day period applicable to the books, then stop.

Some authors have suggested that KDP Select can be gamed and the author receive more royalties if, instead of writing a single 60,000 word novel, the author break up the novel into six 10,000 page segments because KU royalties are based on pages read and, if a reader bails on a 60,000 word novel because of a slow part of the story at the 20,000 page point, the opportunity to earn money for pages beyond that is permanently lost. Writing 60,000 words in 10,000 page segments allows an author to end each segment with a cliff-hanger or some other material that will likely to propel an author to the next segment. Hugh Howey wrote a blog post about this strategy in 2015.

PG warns that he’s not certain whether Amazon has changed anything about KU or its rules since 2015 that makes Hugh’s strategy unsuccessful or unprofitable. He suggests anyone planning to use the strategy do some online research on Hugh’s blog and elsewhere to see if the strategy still works.

In PG’s grotesquely-humble opinion, the bottom line for most indie authors is that Amazon is the big dog in all the major English-speaking ebook markets and maybe in other ebook markets as well. Thus most indie authors will likely sell more ebooks on Amazon than anywhere else and maximizing their income from Amazon ebook sales by using all the bells and whistles Amazon offers is the easiest and best way to do so.

Giving up on KDP Select (which includes Kindle Unlimited) means at a most fundamental level, the indie author’s royalty rate on ebooks sold will be cut in half. And any additional income from KU, KOLL, etc., will disappear entirely.

Non-Amazon ebook vendors have their own royalty rates which authors will want to consider, but, if we’re looking at royalties at or near Amazon’s non-KDP levels (35%), an author will have to sell about as many ebooks elsewhere as the author sells on Amazon in order to break even.

PG is happy to have any errors in his perceptions explained by anyone with more knowledge of the Norwegian publishing industry than he has. He would be especially interested in any information about data-hungry authors or publishers who have figured out a way to make their Amazon activities more profitable.

Lawyer Note: PG uses the term “sold” with respect to ebooks in a generic fashion. Technically, ebook vendors license ebooks to readers under varying terms and conditions (don’t make copies and try to sell them or give them away, etc., etc.) and do not sell ebooks to readers.

17 thoughts on “Norway’s authors fight to be on more unlimited subscription platforms”

  1. PG, I found your comments about halving the author’s royalty rate if not in KDP Select a bit odd. I understood that, as long as the rules re prices were met, the 70% rate applies to non Select sales so that there was no penalty in going “wide” (save in Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and India where the 70% rate does only apply for titles in KDP Select). This is certainly what the KDP eBook Royalty Option page seems to say:

    https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200644210

  2. Uh, PG, unless things have drastically changed lately, Amazon’s ebook rates don’t depend on being in KDP Select. The difference is between Indie and Tradpub.
    You can go wide and still get the full 70% payout.
    What you’re trading away in going wide is participation in the third largest ebook market–KINDLE UNLIMITED. Which may or not result in a net gain, depending on your fanbase.

    Legacy authors from before the ebook era are almost certainly best served going wide because it gives them a better chance to reach their *existing* fan base.
    Newcomers are almost certainly best served going Select because it lets them concentrate their sales and hence raise their visibility in the three largest ebook markets so they can *build* a fan base. Which is where KU exclusivity pays off: it keeps *out* the established authors with big fanbases, the legacy tradpubbers, hybrids, and most successful Indies.

    Select is not intended for everybody; KU is big by now but its total size is still smaller than the US or UK discrete sales at the Kindle store. Amazon does not want to cannibalize sales in favor of rentals, but rather increase the visibility of newer authors and increase the number of successful Indies as a counter to further coordinated actions by the BPHs. The more Indie sales Amazon makes (wide or exclusive) the less vulnerable they will be to Collusion 2.0 when it comes. And come it will, sooner or later.

    As for Norway; my guideline whenever somebody trots out a small scandinavian country as an exemplar of what to do in *anything* is to break out the salt shaker. Because those same people are invariably missing the matters of scalability and homogeneity.

    In this specific case, consider how traditional publishing works in Norway:

    https://newrepublic.com/article/117337/norway-best-place-world-be-writer

    Specifically, how the government subsidizes publishers by buying for libraries a thousand copies of every book published unless it is singularly bad. No need to price books reasonably since in a country of 5M (about the size of Houston) that is about the size of most print runs this side of the top sellers.
    The government can afford to do this because their North Sea oil revenues which are well managed and invested in a massive Sovereign Wealth fund of over a Trillion dollars or around $200,000 per inhabitant.

    Of course, that guaranteed sales floor is also something of a cap so publishers have resorted to subscription services and exclusivity to capture the revenue of non-library readers. Which is what the OP talks about.

    Finally, there’s the matter of the total book market; 10,000 new books a year in 2015, good for €320M vs €25B in the US.

    Assuming a typical tradpub royalty rate author revenue looks to average out at around €5000 so “don’t give up the day job” looks to apply over there, too. Which explains the OP.

    Not much like tbe US market is it?
    Hence the need for hefty doses of salt when considering “what to do” prescriptions out that part of the planet.

  3. Just a minor amplification – you can participate in Select and thus KU at any price point. It is only the royalty rate that depends on the price. The way you phrased it, PG, it sounded like you have to fall within the “magic range” to even be in Select.

    Otherwise – Felix is exactly right. Going wide is for established writers with an existing market. When you have that fan base, the word of mouth (the main way that new buyers are enticed into your market) is worth it for those on other platforms or media. Without it, the extra income is very marginal – and almost always a net loss for the non-established writer.

    Oh, and I don’t think that Amazon worries very much about those who build their fan base on Select, and then drop it – the majority of sales will still be going through their platform, at a far lower royalty. A successful writer will make them more money, period. (Even if they don’t manage to entice them into their own imprint.)

    • “… Otherwise – Felix is exactly right. Going wide is for established writers with an existing market. When you have that fan base, the word of mouth (the main way that new buyers are enticed into your market) is worth it for those on other platforms or media. Without it, the extra income is very marginal – and almost always a net loss for the non-established writer.”

      Glad to hear that I made the right choice (in sticking with Amazon Select/KU). While I was a known quantity in my nonfiction field, I was a nobody in Historical Fiction/Fantasy/SciFi. My gut told me to go all in with Amazon, and I haven’t regretted it. Just looked at my royalties, and I’m running almost 1:1 in income from Sales:KUReads (and 10:1 for EBKs:PBKs). I’ll keep barking with the big dog for now.

  4. There is a technical fly in the ointment for the “rental” market calculations of per-page reads, though I can’t tell how significant it is.

    Those who are serious about retaining the ebooks they have bought (for their own private use) and not having them be subject to withdrawal by Amazon based on rental rules have ways of simply copying the files into products like Calibre where Amazon can no longer reach them. From there, they can load files onto ereaders of any kind/brand in any format, for their convenience.

    Ebooks read in this way do not send data back to Amazon about pages read. They are OUTSIDE the Amazon-controlled environment. That means the KU books read in this way do not produce any author royalty. Only if they are read within the Amazon environment in the original format using Amazon products like Kindle can page counts be tracked and credited to the author.

    People who operate outside of the closed Amazon Rube Goldberg technical world for pages-read tracking are not intending to defraud KU authors of their royalties which are after all paid by Amazon, not the buyer (renter). But it is an inescapable technical consequence of “I bought it, I get to use it (privately) how I want, including backups”. Rentals for long-term usage items, like books, are alien to many people’s expectations. Personally, I have 1400 boxes of (paper) books. I may be an outlier, but people can be possessive about the books they “buy” — they think in terms of one-time costs and permanent access, not as captives of one commercial provider. (Video and music suffer from similar expectations, but not on the scale of books — hence the persistence of a market for CDs/DVDs despite the convenience of one-time streaming.)

    Right now, it’s not completely trivial to set up this process (Calibre has a learning curve, and the DRM plugins need to be maintained and updated), and, yes, it IS a rental agreement, not a purchase agreement, which is a deterrent, and thus I imagine the “leakage” is minor. But all the trends of digital convenience and ownership tend in this direction for anything with an expectation of permanent availability, aided by the ability to shop outside the Amazon world for ereader platforms and devices.

    Most people are too short-sighted to envision situations where the companies they rely on for availability and service are as mortal as they are, and usually shorter-lived. Some prefer to control the things they paid for and not be vulnerable to loss of their investment. When your life already covers experience with 78 rpms and V8 tapes, you swear to never again be format- or vendor-vulnerable (to the degree possible), and books have a far longer history of similar concerns.

    • 1- Have you ever checked the download count of the DRM-removal tools? Don’t know if they still keep track but the one time I got curious time the plug-ins had a count in the low 4 figures. DRM is a lot like the weather; lots of people gripe but few bother to do anything. As Eric Flint said long ago, ebook piracy is like candy shoplifting. A trivial annoyance. Most ebook pirates were never going to buy anyway. Most don’t even read a fraction of what they hoard. Not something you’ll hear from vendors of anti-piracy services, though.

      2- Every once in a while some “smart” newbie pops into Mobilereads asking how to configure the (independently developed) plugins to work with Library ebooks. The usual answer is it can’t be done. The tools only work with the purchased ebook DRM. On purpose. The stated intent is to protect buyers from the vendor closing shop and leaving users with no backup. (Which has happened. B&N and Amazon both did it in the years before Kindle so the tools developers aren’t just paranoid.)

      3- Even if it were possible, the cheapskates would first hit library rentals instead of a paid service. Plenty of tradpubbed content from big names.

      4- When it comes to removing DRM, it is the ADOBE ePub DRM that is the easier to remove. As of earlier tbis year, Amazons latest is yet to be cracked.

      As pointed out repeatedly, obscurity is a bigger problem for authors than piracy. There’s too much stuff out there for pirates to bother with folks just ramping up their careers.

      9 Years ago, CNET’S David Carnoy was “backhand bragging” about getting pirated:

      https://www.cnet.com/news/kindle-e-book-piracy-accelerates/

      Somebody somewhere tbought his book was worth the effort to buy and spread around.

      Yet, again: the biggest economic impact from ebook piracy comes from the vendors profiting by selling anti-piracy services.

      • The issue isn’t unwillingness to pay.

        The “I want to own it permanently” crowd is happy to pay for product. They just don’t want to be at risk of not being able to back it up, of having Amazon yank it at will (which they have done before), or of being locked in to Amazon’s technical ecosystem (e.g., MOBI/AZW files).

        Certainly the Amazon DRM has been continually cracked — some of us have for many years been buying primarily from Amazon (both full-priced and KU ebooks) and have no difficulty creating non-DRM files which can be output as MOBI, EPUB, etc., for our private use.

        In fact, as an author myself, I feel guilty for not triggering the page-read count (as an inadvertent consequence) on a book read after Calibre treatment on my Kobo reader. If Amazon offered two options — free to buyer for KU, or a very moderate price for KU, I would pay the latter, just to see royalties flow to the author. (This is no doubt an altruistic minority viewpoint…).

        (I don’t try to get library ebooks permanently for free.)

        Now, certainly, only a handful of motivated techies are doing alternative management of ebook files today, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t significant pent-up demand of the technical burden if products like Calibre and its DRM-removal plugins were reduced. Behaviors which start as specialized tech work-arounds have a habit of spreading.

        • “Behaviors which start as specialized tech work-arounds have a habit of spreading.”

          Sure.
          Napster.
          But those things don’t happen by themselves. They need an irritant as a driver. And they go away when the irritant goes away.
          When digital music was all ripped CDs, you either bought the full CD and learned to do it yourself or you pirated. Once reasonably priced digital singles appeared, piracy declined and when subscriptions emerged it declined even more.
          Grannies pirating music is an amusing story of an earlier time when piracy was easier than going legit.

          Once upon a time eBook piracy of tbe scan-and-ocr kind was the only reliable source for many kinds of ebooks, especially backlist and midlist. After the Kindle took ebooks mainstream that has most withered.

          As long as the eternal backlist is real and reasonably priced there is no real need to go to the trouble of risking the darknet to find classics. And subscription services are even more enticing to avid readers. People will pay when offered a good product at a fair price.

          Anything is possible (Amazon dropping the Kindle store, commercial ebooks going away) but not everything theoretically possible is actually likely.
          Whether its worth spending time and resources fretting?
          That’s a personal preference.

          Me, I think life is too short.

            • Oh, then sorry.
              Who is doing that in ebooks?
              That would be an interesting development. Useful in breaking the walled gardens. Unless I’m misreading again?

              The closest thing I see to sanctioned personal control of content is DRM-free music downloads, Indies doing DRM-free, and the odd tradpub here and there.

              An alternative would have to be a universal, transportable DRM which is what ADOBE wanted ADEPT to be but Apple and the agency conspiracy torpedoed that. A better one would require a neutral authentication system, with user transfer controls to allow lending and resale, maybe blockchain-based, but how we get there from here isn’t clear. The problem there isn’t the tech but the businrss case.

              Would be nice but it’s not coming soon, I don’t think.
              Not without Amazon and why would they even bother? Corporations think of themselves as immortal.

        • Behaviors which start as specialized tech work-arounds have a habit of spreading.

          I recall being lectured for years by activists that any nine-year-old can crack DRM. Waiting…

    • Most people are too short-sighted to envision situations where the companies they rely on for availability and service are as mortal as they are, and usually shorter-lived.

      Short-sighted? Why?

      It’s perfectly reasonable that two people may both have excellent knowledge of a situation, yet each chooses a different path. The fact that someone else does not follow my path tells us nothing about how short-sighted they are. Nor does it reflect on their ability to envision various scenarios.

      I agree “some prefer to control the things they paid for and not be vulnerable to loss of their investment.” I don’t, and I fully understand the situation. However, their disagreement with me doesn’t make then short-sighted.

      • A friend of mine is an avid reader; several books a month. Before Kindle his bookcase was tiny. He’d buy a book, read it, and drop it off at the library donation box.
        When the first Kindle came out he jumped on it; the books were cheaper and he didn’t have to drive to the libfary to get rid of them.

        It takes all kinds but us re-readers are a minority.

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