Publishers Finally Gain a Bit of Leverage in Fight with Amazon

Publishers Finally Gain a Bit of Leverage in Fight with Amazon

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Well, I did it – I signed up for a 30-day trial of Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited service.

I suppose it was inevitable, and really, if Amazon can’t persuade someone like me to give their new subscription-based reading service a spin, it would be an astonishing failure.

The typical American may read only five books a year; I read at least 350. That’s a conservative estimate, but I don’t want to strain your credulity. So anything that promises me a steady supply of reading material is guaranteed to make me very, very, very happy, especially if it doesn’t involve schlepping to the library in a blizzard or paying more than I really want to in order to download my ninth book this month.

Kindle Unlimited promises access to hundreds of thousands of e-books, all for a flat fee of $9.99 a month.

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Intriguingly, this is one time that Amazon isn’t the first mover in its space. Kindle Unlimited’s offerings are akin to what Oyster, Scribd, Entitle and other similar services have already launched on the market, at pretty much the same price. (Scribd is actually a dollar less a month, and Entitle, while it only lets you read two books a month at the basic level, does let you hang on to them for keeps.)

Amazon’s range of offerings is far more extensive — it boasts of about 600,000 books — until you realize that about 500,000 of those are self-published works. So, for every title like Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, there are an awful lot like Forbidden Love with the Marine, Dorset Village Churches and a German book about studying in Korea.

I did find a handful of books that I want to read, but the list really wasn’t that long. Perhaps that’s because what is noticeably missing is content from the Big Five publishers: Simon & Schuster, Penguin/Random House, Harper Collins or Macmillan — and, of course, Hachette, with which Amazon is embroiled in a fierce dispute over the pricing of Kindle books.

Without that content, can Amazon compete against the cluster of vigorous little startups like Scribd and Oyster?

Frankly, I can’t see how.

Related: Amazon Faces Growing Backlash in Showdown with Hachette

Most readers aren’t trapped by their device: To the extent they are reading Kindle books, they may be doing so via apps on their iPad, iPhone or Android device (and yes, perhaps that is a Kindle Fire). So they have some flexibility. And the publishers may finally have a bit of leverage.

If publishers don’t make even their backlists available for Kindle Unlimited but are willing to do so with Oyster and the others (and indeed, some of those others have already struck deals with Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster), that gives the smaller first movers an additional advantage, even though they’re now competing against Amazon, the Goliath.

The content that Amazon is offering up to readers is going to pall rapidly. Yes, it includes The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Life of Pi and a cluster of classics (although I’d note that you can already get free version of those on e-readers anyway, since their copyright protection has long since expired.)

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The biggest beneficiaries of Kindle Unlimited are likely to be readers who love non-fiction: There is plenty of good reading here, and those books tend to be pricier, heavier to lug back from the library and costlier to buy. If you don’t want to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, the works of Michael Lewis or Tolkien, or the publications of Amazon’s own imprints (few of which impressed me), you’ll be counting on Amazon’s ability to strike deals with those big publishers — or its willingness to cut the price of its offering.

For my part, I’ll enjoy the trial run while it lasts. But given the presence of a bricks-and-mortar version of “Kindle Unlimited” with a wider array of offerings — also known as the public library — I’ll be quite happy to revert to buying a handful of Kindle books a year. Meanwhile, I will be watching, with interest, how this new product offering affects the power struggle between Amazon and the publishers.

It may just be possible that Amazon has given publishers a little bit more power — and real power at that, not simply propaganda.

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