Anna over at Herding Cats & Burning Soup has a discussion-starter post about whether Kindle Unlimited is hurting authors’ sales, or whether the problem is just market saturation. I started to reply to her post, and realized I was writing a whole post of my own… so here it is.
I used to work for a bookstore chain, some 25-30 years ago. And there were a fair number of books coming out per month (not that we carried them all). Nonetheless, it does seem to me there are more per month now – in some areas (YA, anyone?) a lot more. So yes, in part the drop in sales that some authors are seeing may be due to market over-saturation: there are just too many books, as Anna suggests in her post.
But in part it’s also a factor of easier access. I know, that doesn’t seem to make sense, but hear me out. 25 years ago, when you wanted a book, you went to a bookstore, where you could browse only what they had in stock – far less than the number of books actually available. Unless you were a professional and got the publisher catalogs, you heard about new books by seeing them in stores, or in the library, or reading a review in a print publication. So readers didn’t really <i>know</i> about all the books, or even all the books in our areas of interest. We only knew about the ones we actually came across, so those were the ones we bought and read.
Today it is so much easier to find out about new books, as well as to buy them. Amazon, B&N, and Kobo all make recommendations. Goodreads makes recommendations. There are tons of book blogs making recommendations. And if the local bookstore doesn’t have a book in stock, you can order it online. If you have a Kindle, the recommendations are constantly coming right into your device. Of course our wishlists or TBR lists are longer now – we are exposed to a lot more titles per month. And for a lot of us, that has translated into buying more and more books.
As Anna points out, that’s overwhelming; she can’t keep up. She has so many unread books already that she only buys what she is going to read right away – in other words, no more stashing for the future. I think a lot of us – bloggers certainly, and possibly non-blogging avid readers as well – are in the same boat. “Too many books, too little time” will – must! – eventually result in a near-moratorium on buying books.
I know I’m at that point, or at least I should be. I have two whole bookcases of print books I haven’t read yet (mostly bought used), and that’s not counting what’s in my Kindle. I’m at the point where I’m starting to delete Kindle freebies I’ll probably never read, and pruning the physical books, both read and unread. And I’m trying to be more careful about buying Kindle books just because they are on sale and I might want to read them someday. (I’ll let you know when I actually succeed!)
But getting back to why authors are complaining that Kindle Unlimited is hurting their sales: As I indicated above, I’m sure market saturation plays a big part in sales or the lack thereof. But the authors may also be seeing a real phenomenon. Some of them can point to a drop in sales immediately after their books became available on Kindle Unlimited, which rather suggests they might be on to something in blaming KU. I’m curious whether there was a similar drop when their books were available on Oyster or Scrib’d. (It would probably be smaller, because I’m guessing those services have fewer subscribers, but it should have been noticeable.)
I think it remains to be seen whether the subscription model as it currently stands has a long-term, measurable effect on author income. But I won’t be surprised if it does. Some musicians have noticed the same thing with the proliferation of services like Spotify and Pandora – which pay less than pennies per song. And music isn’t like books – you would expect someone who loves a song might eventually purchase it, because people do listen to their favorite songs over and over. Far fewer people (other than me) read their books multiple times. Books are a one-time thing for the most part, which makes a subscription service much more attractive to readers – and much more likely to affect an author’s overall sales. If you’ve read a book via subscription, why bother to buy it?
For now, I haven’t signed up for Kindle Unlimited. Between my own books, ARCs, and the library, I have more than enough to read without it, and anyway, not all of the authors I want to read are available through it. Which brings me to another thought: People who do have KU (or Oyster or Scrib’d) will probably look there first when they want something to read. Unless they want to read a specific book that isn’t available through the service, they may read from the service rather than buy a book on a whim. If enough people do that, it drives down sales across the board. So that’s another way in which authors’ sales might be affected by subscription services: fewer books being bought overall translates to fewer books sold by any given author. Again, that’s only a hypothesis; it will probably take a few years of data-gathering and -crunching before we know for sure. But I can see why authors are worried.
It’s both an exciting and a scary time to be an author, because things are changing so much. Some of the changes help authors, if they can take advantage of them – like using social media to promote their books. Other changes may be detrimental. I think the jury is still out on whether subscription book services is one of them.