NEW YORK — One big argument for “all you can eat” music, video, and book services is that they encourage people to sample new artists and ultimately develop a deeper relationship with a few of them. You listen to songs you have never heard before because there is no additional cost, and then maybe you go to the concert and, perhaps, buy a T-shirt. Artists are rewarded at the end of the process, not in the beginning the way they used to be.
The case against the services, made most eloquently by Taylor Swift, is that they teach people that culture is not worth paying for online. As a result, artists must earn their keep with something more than their art — those T-shirts, perhaps. If artists do not want to or cannot interact with their fans, they might be out of luck.
Traditional book publishers have been reluctant to participate much in reading-subscription services, for fear that individual books, their authors, and the editors who shape them will be devalued. But self-published writers, also called independent or indie writers, many of whom have just begun their careers, see little to lose. They are trying to move up the food chain, while established writers have been trying not to move down it.
Indie writers, despite their name, must rely to a greater or lesser extent on Amazon, which felt it needed to start its own all-you-can-eat service, Kindle Unlimited, to remain competitive with startups like Oyster and Scribd.
Kindle Unlimited opened in July. In the six months since, the amount of material on it has increased to 700,000 books from 600,000 — nearly equivalent to the entire amount of material available for Kindle e-readers shortly after Amazon introduced them in 2007.
Kathryn Le Veque has self-published 44 works of fiction since 2012. Her audience is primarily on Amazon, which means that when Kindle Unlimited came along, she either had to give up or make it work. So far, she has been able to adjust.
First, some background: Le Veque, 50, was born and raised and still lives in Southern California. She has been writing since she was 13 and has been rejected by traditional publishers since she was 28. Her favorite setting is English medieval, which she calls a “sub-subgenre of historical romance.” Her first work appeared on Amazon in May 2012. Within three months, she was able to quit her day job as an executive assistant.
Before Kindle Unlimited, she said, she sold about 6,000 books a month. Since the novels were generally long, she set her prices at $4 or higher. At the moment, Kindle Unlimited pays $1.39 for each book that is borrowed and read. To turn those borrowers into buyers, Le Veque dropped some of her prices to as low as 99 cents. The result: She is moving three times as many books a month as she was before Kindle Unlimited. Her annualized revenue has gone up about 50 percent.
In the old days, as artists became more popular, consuming their works got more expensive. You could hear a guy singing at the local bar for the price of a beer; when he became Bono or Kanye West, a ticket to see him would cost hundreds of dollars. Writers would begin writing cheap paperbacks and then graduate to pricier hardcovers as the acclaim built.
But Kindle Unlimited is pushing Le Veque in the opposite direction. She is getting more popular by becoming less expensive, which is making her more popular. She is the embodiment of Amazon’s argument that “lowering e-book prices will help — not hurt — the reading culture.”
To her, however, Kindle Unlimited is “a double-edged sword.”
For one thing, as she readily concedes, not every writer is equipped to do what she did. She has a huge supply of work from all those years she was unpublished.
“I am able to drop prices and, by sheer volume of sales, increase my income,” she said. “Most authors can’t do that because most of them don’t have 50 novels for sale.”
When asked why people buy works they can borrow, she says: “Most readers like to read their favorite books over and over. I’m getting a crowd that not only borrows my book, but will then buy that same book to keep.”
Also, she says, some of her books are not available in Kindle Unlimited, “so there are some they must buy in order to read.”
To keep up with the demands of the marketplace, Le Veque now has a part-time editor and two part-time assistants. But she has to consider things that writers never used to think about.
“I am worried that I will have to drop my prices more to stay competitive,” she said. “I watch prices literally daily.”
That, at least, she has control over. But she has no control over the payment for books that are borrowed in Kindle Unlimited, which changes every month.
“It started very high and has fallen,” she noted.
She also has to worry about the service embracing more and more work. A higher number of books in Kindle Unlimited “is not what we want to see as authors, because that drives down the royalty even more,” she said. Or so it seems. Amazon has not explained itself to the writers’ satisfaction.
So Le Veque keeps working, sometimes producing as many as 12,000 words a day.
“When I’m in the full swing of writing with a deadline, I’m writing 18 hours,” she said. “My poor husband is a bachelor.” But, she added: “It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like doing something I love.”
That’s good, because, as Mark Coker, chief executive of the e-book distributor Smashwords, said: “We’re still in the very early days of the self-publishing phenomenon. There are a vast number of potential writers out there that haven’t started writing yet.”