There’s been a lot of stuff happening in the book world recently that’s kind of sort of turning things inside out and upside down. It’s big enough that it warrants a post (warning: it’ll be long), so I’m going to address two things I’ve seen floating around: #Cockygate and the recent blunder by Amazon. But first, a disclaimer: Everything in this post is my observation and opinion. I will not be linking external sources because I trust that those who want to know more will find ample sources all on their own, and I don’t want to add to the viral nature of this mess. Basically, I’m chiming in, but urging everyone to do their own homework and not take my word for it.
So here we go…
Yes, this is a thing. And if you look for the hashtag you will find way more than you ever wanted to know about it. But here’s the gist of it. An Indie author filed for and received two trademarks on a commonly used word in connection with her romance book series. She then proceeded to contact authors who use this word in their book titles to retitle their books, as they are now in violation of her trademark. As a result, Amazon began pulling down books using the word in titles or series names, as well as in the metadata keywords. They have also, allegedly, removed book reviews using that word. The Indie community responded with a wave of justified outrage and there have been posts, tweets, and videos published by both sides. Industry professionals have also gotten involved, with designers offering to redo covers for those who are retitling their books, authors offering a platform and support for those affected by this, and the RWA getting involved and contacting an IP attorney for consult, and asking Amazon to stop the book massacre happening there.
The problem with the trademark is that it covers not just the stylistic version of the word as it appears in the author’s branding (which uses a font whose creator allegedly had not given approval for her to do this), but also the word itself, in any style or font (which technically should not be allowed, or so I hear). Popular opinion is that this will never hold up to scrutiny and paperwork has already been submitted to cancel the trademark, but the problem is that process of review will take weeks or months, and in the meantime, affected authors are going to massive expense to rebrand their books, and losing royalties from their books getting removed.
My take on it is that this is, in a large way, a publicity stunt, and the author in question is milking the attention for all it’s worth. They do say that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and it appears that her strategy has been effective in one regard: her notoriety has skyrocketed seemingly overnight and her name now actually is as well-known as she’s been claiming. Millions of people (including myself) who had never heard of her before know exactly who she is and what she writes now. But whether or not it’ll work in her favor is yet to be see. So far, it looks like she’s created a great deal of ill will toward herself and her books, but I have seen claims that her readers and supporters are sticking by her, and even claims that there is now a 1-star war happening, where people are flooding books with 1-star reviews in retaliation. I have no hard evidence for either side, so take it with a grain of salt.
Related Unrelated Note: On the heels of this, another trademark of a common word came to light, this time from the gaming world, and originating in the UK. However, unlike the first instance, in this case, the trademark owner appears to be aware that issues might arise and is proactively trying to limit the reach of the trademark to just the brand. Story still developing.
Amazon and the KU Scam
This is a complicated issue that’ll take a few paragraphs to explain…
Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a subscription program that allows readers with a membership to read as many enrolled books as they want. A great deal for readers, right? From the author’s side, it’s a little murkier. In order to make a book available in the KU program, an author has to make some massive concessions:
- The eBook must be published exclusively through Amazon for a minimum of 90 days.
- The royalties are paid out of a communal fund based on subscription fees received.
- The royalties are paid on a per-page basis, which often sums up to far less than the book would have received at its regular price.
What this means is that an author who opts into the service is locking a book into it for 90 days, during which they agree to give up any royalties they might have received through other sources. Per Amazon’s Terms of Service, however, this exclusivity does not extend to other formats, so it’s technically still possible to distribute the book widely in print and audio format.
The program is not without its problems. Fraud is prevalent, with unscrupulous authors “stuffing” their titles with other content (which is against the TOS, but extremely difficult to enforce, and something Amazon has been very slow and reluctant to move on–because who doesn’t love a surprise freebie?), and using bots and farms to artificially rack up page turns to get a larger portion of the pie. And that is precisely the biggest problem with this entire program: there is one pie, and authors have to share it among them. More authors means a smaller piece of the pie for each author individually, so when someone defrauds the system, they are effectively stealing from every other author in that system–not Amazon, because they get their share before the fund size is set, just the authors. So Amazon’s financial interests are protected and, because readers love freebies, they are all for this program and have no reason to complain.
It’s exclusively authors who suffer. While it would be easy to say, “It’s their own fault for opting into the program in the first place, no one is forcing them!” that’s not entirely true. Amazon now controls such a huge part of the eBook market, it’s become the main source of royalties for authors, and the KU program, even with its problems, is still an effective way to get eyes on a book. Also, because of the way the system is set up, it…
- incentivises readers to read through KU because it’s cheaper
- incentivises authors to enroll books in KU because that’s where readers are
- penalizes authors who do not enroll in KU with KU-centric algorithms
all of which creates an enchanted black hole that pulls in books and readers and doesn’t let them out again without a massive fight. It’s also worth noting that authors who have spent time, effort, and money on building a readership exclusively on KU have little to no brand recognition outside of it, so many who do leave are immediately hit with a lack of sales through other channels and are forced back because, hey, a writer’s gotta eat, too.
Authors are fighting a steep, uphill battle against not only Amazon, but their own readers who, used to the convenience and affordability of KU are not only reluctant to purchase books outside of it, but resentful of authors who hold strong and refuse to enroll. Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
That’s the background to this story. Now onto the story itself…
Recently (as in, the last few days), it appears Amazon has begun to take steps to correct the imbalance. They have activated an algorithm that is meant to detect fake page turns and put a stop to them. Only it seems to have backfired in a spectacular way. It has targeted authors who ironically paid for ads on Amazon for the specific purpose of increasing page reads and, as a result…
- their royalties for those page reads got stripped from their earnings report
- their books got flagged
- and their accounts got frozen
However, despite the fact that these authors now have no access to their books on Amazon, those books still appear to be actively available on the website, which means the books are selling, but authors are not getting paid for the sales. These authors are calling and emailing Amazon, and reaching the point where they no longer feel it’s worth it, or a good business practice, to list eBooks on Amazon at all, whether in the KU program or out of it.
Granted, I have only seen a couple of instances of this so far, but it’s still huge. It’s getting a response from not just other authors, but also readers who are now learning just how much this is all affecting the authors they love and want to support. Whether or not this will have any effect on the Amazon ecosystem is still unclear. It could just be a drop in the bucket, a tiny little ripple that will fade in a day or two. After all, this came about as Amazon’s response to author complaints and doesn’t appear to have been intentional. The fact that they are acting at all could mean a healthier, fairer KU system on the horizon. Maybe (and this is purely wishful thinking on my part) one day in the future the KU program will drop its exclusivity clause all together.
It could also have a much bigger impact, if it undermines the prevalent indifference about the KU program, which relies exclusively on Indie books, and at the same time takes advantage of Indie authors from every possible angle. My personal opinion is that exclusivity is never a good business decision, and everything I have seen since the KU program was born has reinforced that opinion. I think the book world would greatly benefit if Amazon had more competition, but that will only happen if both authors and readers start supporting other outlets by distributing to them and purchasing from them.
Am I saying authors and readers should boycott Amazon completely? Emphatically no. It’s still too big and too influential. Am I saying authors and readers should boycott the KU program? Not necessarily. If managed correctly, it can be a useful tool to introduce readers to new-to-them books and authors. What I am saying is that there are ways to mitigate the negative effects of KU on authors.
If you’re an author exclusive to Amazon, consider taking one or more of your books out of the KU program and publishing them wide to test the waters. You might find a captive audience through Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo, or any other retailer, and most established distributors such as Smashwords or Draft2Digital will make your book available worldwide. And when you do distribute wide, promote those buy links! 🙂
If you’re considering enrolling a new book in KU, strategize before you take a plunge. Make sure you understand what you’re getting into. Remember, KU is not permanent, no matter how easy they make it for you to believe it is. It’s a 90-day stretch, and you can opt out of automatic renewal. Try it for 3 months and see how it goes. You can always get out of it if it doesn’t work for you. And nowhere is it written that you have to enroll all of your books. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. And again, promote a wide range of buy links, so readers can find you. 🙂
If you’re a reader exclusively reading through the KU program, please consider supporting your favorite authors with a full purchase. We all understand financial hardships, and authors in general tend to be very supportive and generous, but they sometimes face those same hardships, and purchases aren’t just a bump in royalties, they also affect sales rank and visibility.
If you want to support authors more vigorously, first of all, thank you. 🙂 There are a few things you can do:
- Purchase books at platforms other than Amazon, especially the publisher’s/distributor’s website, which will have all major formats available.
- Leave a review, or even a star rating. It does help, more than you know.
- Recommend your favorite book to your friend or loved one. Spreading word of mouth is still the best way to help an author reach a wider audience.
- If you find your favorite authors on social media, stop by to say hello. We love interacting with our readers and welcome any feedback on our work.
And if you found this extremely long post helpful and would like to support my own writing endeavors, I invite you to check out my books at my author website: http://aliannedonnelly.com.