Should Amazon Charge Authors To Publish For Kindle?

I actually hadn’t planned to post anything about this, but a number of folks have asked me about it and I figured I’d blurt out my opinion, for what little it’s worth.

By way of background, this discussion stemmed from author Rob Guthrie’s post, Amazon Charging For Digital Publication? and a follow-up post. And let me be clear on one thing right up front: I mean no disrespect to Rob or anyone else. This is one of those “differing opinions” things. So if you agree, great. If you don’t, that’s great, too! Just be nice, either way.

Anyway, the premise is that Amazon should charge authors a steep fee (Rob suggests $500 for the first book and $100 for any subsequent titles) to publish their books for Kindle. Right now, the process is entirely free. The premise of the argument has two major planks: one, it would purportedly make Amazon a guaranteed profit up front and that it’s almost inevitable that Amazon will do this, anyway; and two, it would weed out a lot of the crappy books that indies publish (I’m an indie, so I can say that).

I’m sorry, but I think the cases for both of those arguments are failboats.

On the “it would be in Amazon’s best interests profit-wise” to charge $$$ up front, many of the arguments on the pro side revolve around how much Amazon pays for infrastructure and support costs vs. what they might be making from book sales. Basically, are they making a net profit from KDP-published (KDP is Amazon’s publishing arm for Kindle) Kindle books.

While there’s no question that there are costs involved with digital book publishing, storage, and distribution via KDP, the undeniable fact is that none of us outside of Amazon’s budget department have a flipping clue about what any of those numbers really are. And if I hear the old “Amazon is selling at a loss now, and has been for years!” thing again, I’m going to hurl. If that was true for as many things as I’ve heard, Amazon would have gone bankrupt before they moved their operations out of Jeff Bezos’ garage. Or maybe that was Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Whatever.

Yes, storage and distribution costs money, but when you take into account the byzantine rules of business operations like tax deductions (I can’t imagine how many millions Amazon writes off), discounts for services like the 3G for Whispernet connectivity (i.e., I’m sure Amazon doesn’t pay the telecom providers what WE pay for data transfer), etc., this whole argument becomes entirely academic because we simply don’t have any data, and can’t even speculate intelligently.

As far as the profit goes, charging $500 up front would certainly be nice for Amazon’s coffers. But let’s see how the numbers work again. Here’s how many books Amazon would have to sell at different price points to gain that same $500 in terms of gross revenue, vice net profit. Sure, you can argue that there would have to be more sales to account for $500 net profit (which would be what’s left after all the operations costs are subtracted out), which is true, but let’s just stick with this because we actually know the numbers (and this only applies to KDP titles at regular prices, not the Big 6, freebies, etc.):

At $0.99: 777 (65% x $0.99)
At $2.98: 258 (65% x $2.98)
At $2.99: 502* (70% x $2.99 – $0.10)
At $9.99: 173* (70% x $9.99 – $0.10)
At $10.00: 77 (65% x $10.00 and higher)

* I’m assuming an arbitrary delivery cost of $0.10 that goes to Amazon for books in the $2.99-$9.99 range at the 70% royalty option. The bigger the file, the higher the delivery cost. This also means that, in the 70% royalty realm, the author is picking up at least part of the tab for getting the book to the reader.

To some authors, those may look like big numbers. But they’re really not, in terms of the scale that Amazon is looking at. The books that are in the top 100 are selling well over a thousand copies a day. Let’s take a specific example: John Locke sold a million of his $0.99 ebooks in five months. Amazon made $640,000 from those million book sales, and wrote off every aspect of the operating costs to store and deliver them. And yet we’re supposed to believe that they didn’t make a net profit? Pardon my skepticism. I haven’t had my coffee yet this morning.

The most important thing is that all those books will continue making money for Amazon and the author *forever*. $500 up front is peanuts in the long game. Even books with low sales numbers, over time, are going to make some money.

As for item #2, that making authors pay a steep surcharge is going to help filter out the crap…it’s just false logic. For many years, tons of authors paid lots of money, far more than $500, to have garbage printed by vanity press services. Many still do, with some folks paying thousands for the privilege of having a garage filled with boxes of horrible books. The only thing such a surcharge guarantees is that those folks who can’t afford $500 won’t be publishing with Amazon. That would probably account for a lot of undiscovered talent out there, people who don’t have $500 to blow, plus – in Rob’s hypothetical model – another $100 for every additional title.

And the assertion that “If someone’s serious, they’ll find a way to come up with the money” is, again, false logic. Just because you’re determined doesn’t mean you have any talent. In my career at NSA, I saw lots of people who were extremely determined rise through the ranks, but many of them couldn’t find their way out of a paper sack with a blowtorch and a pair of scissors. By contrast, there were many incredibly talented people who, because they were focused on the job and the mission (like most authors good authors are focused on their writing) despised jumping through hoops and never rose as high as they should have in the great scheme of things.

This hypothetical model is the same. There are probably more than a few authors out there now, making money and pleasing readers, who wouldn’t be if they’d been confronted with a major monetary obstacle to being published. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have published had such a system been in place, and for me, writing as a career never would have happened. Or, authors might say, “Screw Amazon! I’ll publish with someone else.” And that is something that Amazon does not want to have happen.

Anyway, this is another one of those things that authors will argue about until the sun blows up, but the bottom line is that – pro, con, or somewhere in between – none of us really know. It’s all pointless speculation, and the word count people are putting into these posts (I just blew a thousand words on this post) and comments are words that we should be putting into the chapters of our next books…

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21 thoughts on “Should Amazon Charge Authors To Publish For Kindle?

  • @Lovinglf

    As a prolific reader the idea that a bar should be put in place to discourage Indie authors really troubles me. I’ve read all kinds of books which includes just about any genre, both classic and contemporary. What many of those books had in common was that a publisher had selected that specific book for publication. So instead of being able to personally decide what books and what type of writing appealed to me, some corporation made that decision for me. For less favored genres like science fiction and fantasy it meant that many, very good books never saw the light of day. One just has to look at the problems J. K. Rowling encountered when trying to publish her first book to understand that publishers are not the best at determining which books will be successful.

    What digital publishing by Indie authors has meant to me is that for the first time I get to choose what appeals to ME. I’m no longer confined to content that someone else has deemed commercial and worth publishing. Granted many of the Indie books have editing issues but what they also have in abundance is a lack of conformity.

    I’m suddenly reading books with highly imaginative ideas, plots, world building etc. that don’t follow a formula and I absolutely love it. I savor well-written books and read them often but quite frankly I favor quality of imagination over quality of writing. A book that excites my imagination, that challenges my concept of the world, that introduces me to new possibilities and new ways of thinking is far more valuable to me than a beautifully written book. I have found several such gems from the Indie authors I’ve read and if anything I’m sad that it took this long to find books like this.

    I’ll read anything but I overwhelmingly prefer to read science fiction and fantasy. So I’m beyond thrilled that now I have so many varied offerings to choose from and so many new favorite authors to follow. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. There is only one thing I wish for now, and that is the time to read and enjoy all the thousands of books on my Kindle and my Nook.

    Having said all of this I do support better editing of Indie books if only for the reason that impressionable children (and some adults) are being exposed to horrible grammar and inexcusable spelling errors. I do feel that this issue will eventually work itself out as the poorly edited books are generally also poorly rated.

    • Justin

      I couldn’t have said it better myself!

      If you can ignore all of the verbal sparring in the blogosphere about free online publishing flooding the market, the truth is that the online world is very good at coming up with its own system of sifting the wheat from the chaff. Amazon’s rating system is only one example of how well the online community separates the mediocre and drab from works that truly shine. I pay very little attention to a piece of work after taking a moment to check the rating and top comments. Most people I know are similar in this regard, and I don’t think putting a price tag on creativity or dedication is going to help this sorting process in the least.

      Thanks for supporting a more open publishing community!!!

    • Nikkita Pierrottie

      This comment. This right here! This is why I love what the internet has given us, what self-publishing has given us. I’ve read any book I could get my hands on since I was little (including dictionaries, math texts, and dissection manuals!). At some point I realized I was not finding (interesting) new books to read, and I had already mauled classic literature. I was at a loss. I didn’t get into reading ebooks or self-published endeavors until recently! And it opens a whole new world. No longer are we limited by what someone else thinks is enjoyable or educational. We as the reader can now choose. We as consumers can now choose to support things we enjoy more freely. It’s a beautiful time, if a little hectic.

      As an author, my “work” situation is a little out-there, but I’ve heard there are quite a few like me. I am mentally disabled you see, and unable to join the workforce. Because of this, I do have more time privileges and a small stipend that allows me to live while I write. Because of my situation growing up, I’ve never harbored thoughts of writing for a living. Instead I only hoped to write for myself and for sharing it with others. And despite a lot of the jabber about Amazon, they’ve allowed me to do that on a broad scale (the first copy of my ebook that went to Japan, my brain melted). I understand the argument I receive sometimes (if I don’t want to make money, why do I self-publish at all?). Honestly? It was the simplest way to give myself a printed copy of my work. Others can decide if that’s what they want. But I am one of those people who do not have the means to drop $500 dollars to print a book. $500 dollars would involve me not eating for three months, much less anything else! Above all else? I am pleased to see someone say that we don’t have the numbers/data to validate the profit argument.

      I fully agree with the issue of grammar in regards to the quality of what’s being self-published, however. For my first book, I scoured over it repeatedly, handed it to friends who were willing to dedicate a little time, people I knew to be avid readers and grammar-holics. As a schizophrenic, I sometimes have very odd errors, if not grammar-based ones. I treated them for their support, and the final product is something I am proud of. I don’t honestly understand why some books get published in such condition. Do they not have people willing to edit? People capable of it? Are they unaware of the errors and the need for a second eye (and third and fourth?)

      I really do wonder what is happening that such rampant grammar errors exist! It gives one a headache. Would if I could, I would totally try to arrange free workshops for people interested in improving their skill. My local library does provide such tools. What I do honestly believe is, should you see something with potential but correctable errors, do not hesitate to let the author know your opinion. If we are to be masters of our craft, we need to hone it. We need to shape it. To realize when we’ve made errors and learn from them and come out the other side even stronger. With any luck, the end result will be rewarding for reader and author alike! Let’s enjoy our freedom in this beautiful time for literature.

  • @Lovinglf

    Kathy Lynn Hall that’s an excellent argument. A great example of that argument for me is the fantasy writer Terry Brooks. It took me years to get through the first third of his first book “The Sword of Shannara”. The writing style was initially heavy and hard to read but as he continued writing, his style smoothed out. The only reason I stuck with the first book was because his ideas were intriguing. I’m glad now that I made it through that first novel because I’ve read and enjoyed every single one of his many books since then. If I had dismissed him based on a sample of his first book I would have missed out on an incredible author. So no, you really can’t write someone off on the basis of their initial work.

    To go a little further, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another as you’ve observed in reviews. I’ve read and enjoyed books that did not have the best rating and that was possibly because my expectations were different. I’ve also read highly rated books that I did not enjoy. Writing is a form of Art. Just like everyone finds themselves drawn to certain styles of Art, they are also drawn to certain genres, ideas and styles of writing. I’m with you on this one. Let the market decide.