Amazon’s unlimited eBooks for $10/month is a raw deal. An American man of letters breaks it down.


I’m an author, and I’m okay with eBooks. First of all, I get about a dollar more from eBooks, even though they cost much less. Fair to the readers and fair to me.  Second, at the end of the semester you can’t sell my eBook on Amazon for $0.01.  Quite frankly, at full-price there are some states that earn more in sales tax from a book sale than their authors do in royalties.

But still, I didn’t spend years at a desk alone while my classmates got advanced degrees to write eBooks. I wanted to write books. For my purposes here: I would like to make the simple distinction that books are hardware and eBooks are software. And we haven’t worked all the bugs out of eBooks yet.

Kindle Unlimited is all smut—it’s to publishing what “discreet plain brown-paper wrapping” was to porn mags.

Last week, Amazon began offering 30 days of its Kindle Unlimited service for free.  After that it’s $9.99/month: The same price as one eBook. Among authors, we were all aglow, sitting in our secret, authors-only underground library sipping brandy and browsing beach-house catalogues when news hit that we would get full royalties after a KU reader read 10% of any book. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a share of an unspecified pot, managed by Amazon.

See, Kindle Unlimited has extreme limits:

It’s all smut. For all its advances, the Kindle is to publishing what “discreet plain brown paper wrapping” was to porn mags. Now you can sit in a waiting room reading erotica, and there’s no pink cover of some chiseled guy in a kilt. Of the Kindle Unlimited titles, 44,000 are Romance. And 11,000 are science and math. This is true in traditional publishing:

Zero curiosity factor. Okay, let’s go with it. I’m an American Man of Letters. Am I going to stock my handmade oak bookshelves with 50 Shades of anything other than linseed oil? No. But I have Kindle Unlimited and might want to check it out. When I search “50 Shades” in Kindle Unlimited, it comes up “SEARCH 50 SHADES IN KINDLE STORE?” and brings you to the full-priced book. It would be like if the Spotify Top 100 were just links to the iTunes Store. (n.b. A search for “50 Shades” in Kindle Unlimited brings up 344 — 344! — parodies and spinoffs of 50 and not the real deal. It makes me wish Christian would tie up Jeff Bezos sometime.)

It squanders their “Amazon is good for authors” pitch. “When Amazon picked me up off the slush pile in 2011, my decade-long, five-book career was effectively dead,” says my friend (and Made Man contributor) Neal Pollack, one of the original McSweeneys authors who had previously appeared on the cover of Poets & Writers Magazine. He found a niche publishing deal directly with Amazon for a healthy royalty. Hard to tell where that money will come from now. “It’s not like they never say “no” to my ideas. They’ve certainly stopped a couple of sure disasters from happening. But they’re generally happy to indulge my manias and seem to believe that I’m actually a good writer. That’s what I’m looking for in a publisher.”

 Imagine if your high school library were stocked with off-brand titles by amateur authors.  That’s the majority of the Kindle library.

Same with Kindle Singles authors. About the coolest thing Amazon invented is “Kindle Singles.” Not quite a longread, not quite a book, but a great way to check out a new writer. I went on and downloaded every eBook by my friend Mishka Shubaly. He’s a great writer and we worked in the same dive bar together once upon a time. That time being before he made more than $200,000 writing short “Kindle Singles” for Amazon. But how much of that will go directly to the author? Before Kindle Unlimited, Singles authors could earn 70% royalties, meaning that an author like Mishka can earn more on a 20,000-word story for $1.99 than JK Rowling earns on a $14.99 hardcover at 7-10%. “It’s still so new that I don’t have a ton of data on it. All the Kindle Publishing stuff has been heavily canted in the authors’ favor, though, so I’m optimistic.”
No browse. You’re out with friends. Someone mentions a book you’ve been meaning to read. You can’t Shazam it. So you pull out your phone…only…you can’t add it in Kindle. Can’t search it in the Amazon app and read it on the way home.

It costs more than Amazon Prime. Here’s where it gets weird. On Amazon Prime for $99 a year, you can get free two-day shipping and access to 600,000 Kindle titles if you own a Kindle. (It doesn’t work on your Kindle iPad app.)

Their recommendations are terrible. Amazon knows way too much about my reading habits since 1998, and their recommendations are terrible. They also now own Goodreads.com and should therefore be able to recommend books my friends like. This, in my mind, is the whole point of giving away all of your data.

Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on. Imagine if your high school library were stocked with off-brand titles by amateur authors. That’s the majority of the Kindle library. Although I applaud the way this opens up new venues for writers that would fall between the cracks, it’s just not worth $9.99.

Zero discovery factor. There’s a great line from Fahrenheit 451 (echoed to great effect by Rage Against the Machine): “You don’t have to burn books to keep people from reading them.” The great part about Netflix and Spotify and the like is that it’s a network of great titles for you to discover. Are they all winners? No. But I can finally watch and listen to all those titles people have been recommending for so long.  You can “binge” on Bob Dylan in peace without your friends from freshman year chiming in. On Kindle Unlimited, you can read Vonnegut but not Zadie Smith. Life of Pi but not Cloud Atlas. Plus, if one of these authors opts out: the book is gone.

Libraries and the volunteer fire department are the two best links to our gentleman adventurer heritage.

This is the company store. Napster worked because people liked listening to MP3s. Spotify because people liked organizing their music on their computers and listening to it on their phones. Netflix Streaming worked almost entirely because Netflix mail order didn’t (long waits, broken disks, etc). Now Amazon is hoping that Kindle Unlimited works … because some people want to read a small amount of the selection found on Kindle?

Also, it just charged me. I’m sure this bug will get worked out. But I’m on my free trial and it still charged my credit card full price for the eBooks I barely want, but wanted to borrow for the month. This is my free month ($9.99 otherwise) and my bank account has been charged $49.  That’s the cost of the first six months (with 30 days free) of Kindle Unlimited and I still didn’t get the books I wanted.  Christian, when you’re done with Jeff Bezos, I’m next.

The solution: get a library card.  For free. Download any book you want to your desktop, tablet, eBook reader, etc on Overdrive.com. Right now the big tech companies want us to believe we’re in the Wild West. No rules! I know we Americans are supposed to be a ragtag group of robber barons and pirates. But look: Libraries and the volunteer fire department are the two best links to our gentleman adventurer heritage.

You can read my book that way.  If you feel bad about getting something without contributing and you want to support the author: go ahead and leave a review on Amazon.