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'The end of the publishing business as we know it'?

4 August 2014

Amazon's launch of a subscription model for ebooks with its Kindle Unlimited has caused dismay amongst both publishers and agents. There has been a debate about whether this would be a sub-licence or a sale, with some agents insisting that it is a sub-licence and Amazon arguing that it is a sale. Authors will get a tiny amount of royalty.

The way subscription models work is different though. Oyster, the ebook subscription service with half a million titles, and Scribd both launched last year but their primary target is corporate users. Both focus on backlist titles, as Amazon seems to be doing at the moment, as that's what you get access to for your $9.99 monthly subscription. Amazon also seems to be assuming that many of the people who sign up for Kindle Unlimited won't actually take that many books. But presumably if the system behind the subscription service is set up properly it won't actually cost much to deliver the ebooks anyway, it's just another automated transaction.

For authors though it may be much more serious, along similar lines to this week's Comment, 'Ripped-off author, 'where D J Taylor is worrying about piracy and authors' declining incomes. Just how much will authors earn from Kindle Unlimited? This will affect traditionally published authors as well as indie writers. No-one seems sure but Robert Gottlieb, Chairman of the big New York agency Trident Media Group, said: ‘The great danger is that publishers allow frontlist titles to go into these subscription services, because that will be the end of the publishing business as we know it... With consumers, if they spend a penny [on a product] in one place, they're not willing to spend a dollar on the same product in another place.'

These are dire words from a senior person in the publishing industry. Very low prices have affected book-buyers' willingness to shell out a higher price, to the long-term detriment of authors' earnings, which seem to be threatened further by this latest development.