July 21, 2014

The Big Five haven’t signed on — so where did Amazon get 600,000 books?


library shelvesOh, look, you still have both eyes! That means you didn’t stab them out yesterday when the phrase “Netflix for books” was used another hundred thousand times, this time describing the official launch of Kindle Unlimited, an ebook subscription service that costs $9.99/month.

Kindle “Unlimited” is, actually, limited to 600,000 titles at the moment, and it’s being launched before any of the Big Five have signed on. In whispers, we hear Amazon has approached many publishers in the last six or so months, but none have made a deal.

Most subscription services secure deals with publishers before they launch. Scribd offers 400,000 titles, including those published by HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster; Oyster offers 500,000, also including books from S&S and HarperCollins, as well as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (not to mention some notable indies, such as Melville House). Their prices are slightly different, but all around $10 a month. But none of these houses has signed on with Amazon.

This isn’t the best time to have that conversation: Amazon’s talks with Hachette aren’t going so well and the company also recently began talking with Simon and Schuster (who knows how those talks are going). And publishers usually get a big fee up front, plus a reasonable limit on the newest titles. The Amazon phone is coming in September, and Amazon must want a book subscription service available on it. Or else the video they leaked on Wednesday wasn’t intentionally leaked.

At Forbes, Jeremy Greenfield suggests Amazon is launching the program just in case subscription services are successful:

If the company launches its own version of an ebook subscription service, it can head off the disintermediators and reap some of the rewards of the transition to subscription consumption….

Should the model take off and users read more ebooks the same way they watch movies and shows on Netflix and listen to music on Spotify, then it will be a horse race between the leading services — and Amazon wants to make sure it has a thoroughbred in the field.

So where did those 600,000 books come from?

Most are from Amazon’s own publishing program, and Kindle Direct Publishing. If you’re a KDP select author, your book is automatically enrolled, and you will be “payed [sic] if someone reads 10% or more of your book.”

Laura Hazard Owen reports that Abrams, Algonquin, Workman, Open Road and Bloomsbury have signed on. They appear to be participating “via direct agreement,” according to Publishers Lunch.

The Unlimited list does include some recent titles, and blockbuster series like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We spotted titles published as recently as three months ago.

The program is separate from Amazon Prime (interestingly, Amazon Unlimited, which some speculated would be part of Amazon Prime actually costs $20 more than Prime). It also includes about 7,000 audio books. Since it probably worked well for Amazon Prime, Amazon’s offering a free thirty-day trial that ends with automatic enrollment.

Over at the Huffington PostDino Grandoni asked why Amazon wanted users to pay $120 for a “glorified library card.” Until Amazon makes a deal with some publishers, the selection isn’t even competitive with your local library.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.