Letters: ‘All of Us Authors Are in It Together’

Readers weigh in on Amazon’s self-publishing model.

George Rose / Getty

The Authors Who Love Amazon

In July, Alana Semuels wrote about how the e-commerce site has enhanced the possibilities for profitable self-publishing.

Amazon has done a service making self-publishing within reach of everyone. But Alana Semuels’s essay, starting with the subtitle (“The e-commerce giant has finally made self-publishing lucrative”), misleads readers about the true state of things. While self-publishing is a great model for some authors, for many others it is not an option. In particular, journalists, nonfiction writers, teachers, and academics need advances in order to write a book, because they have to take time off from work. Only a traditional publisher gives authors money up front to help them research and write.

Amazon self-publishing is not the panacea Semuels suggests. There are apparently more than 3 million self-published titles up at Amazon, and the majority, by my estimate, make very little money. (Amazon conceals its statistics on these points, so nobody really knows.) And Kindle Unlimited is anything but “highly lucrative” for the 99 percent. Amazon tracks how much of that borrowed book is actually read by the borrower and pays the author a fraction of a cent a page. For almost all authors that amounts to a pittance. Amazon requires authors to sign nonnegotiable contracts, demands strict exclusivity for its Kindle Unlimited authors, and penalizes authors with a lower royalty rate if they price books outside of its recommended range. The Authors Guild represents a growing number of indie and Amazon-published authors, and we are fighting for their rights as well as for traditional authors.

But what is most disheartening about this essay is Semuels’s framing the issue as if traditional and self-publishing were mutually antagonistic. She can barely conceal her satisfaction at what she claims is the “everlasting free-fall” of the conventional publishing business. However, revenue and earnings have been increasing for some time. The problem isn’t traditional publishing versus self-publishing. It’s the fact that many superbly talented authors struggle to make a living, regardless of how they publish.

All of us authors—traditional and self-published—are in it together, and we should be supporting each other in a world that is increasingly indifferent if not hostile to books, reading, and the thoughtful life.

Douglas Preston
Member, The Authors Guild Council
Round Pond, Maine

I found the essay about Amazon and self-publishing fascinating. As a writer, I have won multiple awards, have had three agents, and have worked with successful writers who encouraged me. Yet when my novels failed to find a place in lucrative publishing houses, they reluctantly (and understandably) suggested gently that I try smaller publishing houses or university presses.

As I had already spent a fortune and many, many, many hours, I decided to self-publish a book of poetry after receiving a small grant. This met my self-imposed standard that I would not pay for publication. The money I made on the book of poetry enabled me to publish myself the novels that had been sent back and saved me the agony of going through the whole process again.

I would love to have had my novels published by a commercial publisher, and I am always slightly embarrassed that they weren’t— though as a result of getting them out there, I have had them read. I still hope for a more traditional publisher at some point. Even having secured agents does not offer the legitimacy that most authors crave, with their egos an electric, pulsing tangle of confidence and despair.

Wanda Fries
Somerset, Ky.

I enjoyed your recent article about Amazon and self-publishing and thought I’d share a couple of thoughts about one of the issues with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) that rarely gets discussed.

As you mention in your article, KDP pays a royalty rate of 35 percent for books priced above $9.99, and 70 percent for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99. That’s actually a really remarkable thing: It essentially punishes people for publishing books worth more than $9.99.

This doesn’t usually matter to people who are self-publishing novels, since (partly because of what Amazon has done) people expect to pay $9.99 or less for self-published works of fiction. But what about self-published books that are not novels?

At Leanpub (I’m a co-founder) we specialize in “in progress” publishing, encouraging authors to start publishing their books before they’ve finished writing them. Of course, serial publishing has a long history in fiction, and we’d love it if people used us to publish more novels, but in our case, this process has proven more popular with people writing prescriptive nonfiction, particularly technology or computer-programming books.

That has happened for a number of reasons. First, as an author, when you’re writing about a subject that is very new or is subject to relatively rapid change, if you follow the conventional-publishing model, your book might be obsolete by the time you publish it.

Second, readers of prescriptive nonfiction have material needs they are trying to meet, like learning a new technology or skill to solve a problem they are facing in their work. They don’t care if a book is finished when they buy it; any amount of content, even just 10 percent of a planned book, is worth buying if you really need it.

The thing about these books is that they are worth more than $9.99 to their readers. Reading a book like this can actually make you money, since, for example, you can put a new skill on your CV or, if you’re a consultant, you can potentially bill yourself out at a higher rate.

We let people choose what to pay for Leanpub books and people often pay more than they have to. Sometimes when they’ve finished a book, readers will actually buy the book again, to give the author more money.

One reason this works is that we pay a high royalty rate of 80 percent. We actually show customers how much the author is going to get, and customers will sometimes base their pricing decision on how much the author will be paid.

With its royalty decision, Amazon has essentially made KDP hostile to people publishing prescriptive nonfiction, where the prices people are willing to pay are naturally higher than for most fiction books, and certainly higher than $9.99.

Of course, everyone still sells on Amazon anyway, because that’s where all the eyeballs are. And in any case, people conventionally associate self-publishing with fiction, not nonfiction. Maybe those are the main reasons why this issue doesn’t seem to get discussed too often.

Len Epp
Victoria, Canada

Alana Semuels replies:

I understand and respect the authors’ perspective that Douglas Preston represents above. As a wannabe author—a few years ago, I wrote a YA novel, found an agent, but then never found a publisher—I may understand more than most people how important it is to find a publisher who supports an author’s work and does what it can to get it into readers’ hands. Those people who can make a good living writing books are, in my opinion, some of the luckiest in the world. But the reality is that the traditional model of publishing excludes many authors. Publishing houses accept a tiny fraction of the books pitched to them, and before Amazon, there was really nowhere for unpublished authors to go to get their books to a giant audience of readers. Many of the authors I interviewed for my story said traditional publishing houses had no interest in their work. I am not happy that the publishing industry is struggling, but I do think it could have taken a page from Amazon’s book and innovated some. Rather than just rejecting many of the works that come in, traditional publishing houses could have launched their own self-publishing platform, which would have allowed them to keep an eye on promising authors as Amazon now does, as Mark Coker of Smashwords pointed out to me in a section of our interview that didn’t make it into the story. I hope to be able to write, in a few years, about how publishing houses pivoted as technology changed and made the wonderful world of books profitable for published authors and less popular ones. But at the moment, Amazon seems to be one of the few companies actually democratizing the publishing world.