Does Amazon’s lending service help or destroy authors?

Amazon Prime members can now borrow a book for free with no due date.

There seem to be mixed feelings among writers about this offer. What does it mean for authors and publishers?

Complaints about this are similar to debates regarding ebook pricing and giveaways. At what point are authors pricing themselves out of business?

Assume that it takes about six weeks for a seasoned author to write a strong first draft of a novel. Depending on the writer’s process, research may come during these six weeks (lengthening this time) or after, when revisions take place. Critique partners read the chapters and make comments. Changes are made. This may take several more weeks, depending on deadlines and other issues.

If the writer already has a publisher waiting, then it’s time to send the work there to be read, marked up, and sent back for final revisions. Tack on some more weeks and hours of work on the author’s part.

If the writer does not have a publisher waiting, then begins the submission process, which can take months or even years to complete successfully. Finding the perfect match in an editor or agent is a notoriously difficult thing to accomplish, and many writers never find that “best fit.”

Count up the hours and weeks/months/years it took the author to write, research, revise, promote, query, revise, submit, revise, and finally realize publication, and then that $0.00 price tag looks a bit low.

But is it a killer for the industry?

Amazon’s new lending service is technically a subscription model, since borrowers must be Amazon Prime members – they must also own a Kindle to participate. This reminds some users of the Netflix structure, where subscribers are able to put some films in their “instant” queues indefinitely. I have over a hundred in mine right now. Some I have watched multiple times.

I also already have an Amazon Prime membership; it gives me deals on shipping and renting films online that I can’t find on Netflix. In addition, I own a Kindle and am constantly purchasing new titles to save for a rainy day. Amazon Prime lending is definitely a service that is intended for a consumer like me.

When I consider the debates surrounding Amazon’s lending subscription, I take the writer’s process very seriously. My YA fantasy finished its contract with its original publisher after a good two-year run, and I decided to indie publish it to keep it out there while I work on other titles.

The opening week cost was a choice I had to make carefully. Should I go for a standard rate of $2-3 for a full-length novel that has been thoroughly edited and vetted by readers and reviewers already? Or should I lower the price to attract new readers who might be willing to take a chance on something when the risk is only $0.99?

For my opening week, I have offered From Light to Dark at under a dollar because I ultimately decided the extra readership is my most important asset. This isn’t the only work of fiction I will want to share with audiences. The larger my audience grows, the better my returns will be – and, consequently, the more I will write.

I wonder whether the Amazon lending service will provide a similar result for authors. It’s worth noting that many of the major publishers have rejected this new borrowing plan and will not offer their books as part of it. Are they making the right decision?

I keep thinking of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which he released for free as part of Creative Commons, and his description of Neil Gaiman’s question to fans:

“Hands up in the audience if you discovered your favorite writer for free ­­because someone loaned you a copy, or because someone gave it to you? Now, hands up if you found your favorite writer by walking into a store and plunking down cash.”

According to Doctorow, it was the freebies that made life-long fans of writers. These people came across a title by paying no money at all, but after that they bought several copies of each title the author put out, some to share with others, and they attended book signings and generally spread the love.

So, readers and writers, what do you think? Are authors pricing and lending ourselves out of business? Or are we taking a loss up front to expand our readership down the road?

From Light to Dark

6 responses to “Does Amazon’s lending service help or destroy authors?

  1. I have to say, I have never found an author due to having a book lent to me or by going to the library. I have never bought a book later after borrowing it from the library. So, I’m not sold on giving away books for free as a way to get readers. For some people it might be, but not for me.

    • Patricia, that’s a good point! While many readers learn about their favorite writers from loans, still many others must learn about them from impulse purchases or reviews. When you have borrowed titles from the library, have you ever then gone to purchase something else by the same author?

  2. Boy, talk about a Catch-22… and a razor thin wire — does it cut both ways? Hmm. Amazon seems to get their $ up front, through Prime memberships. I’m leery if there’s no cut for authors. But I don’t know enough about this lending decision yet. Thanks for opening up the can of worms – and I mean that in a good way, LOL.

    • Meg, yes, it is a complicated structure to explore! It’s essentially an Amazon extension of the library lending program, though the big six publishers (Penguin, Random House, etc.) have opted out. I don’t believe Amazon is all profit on this, though; it seems they are paying a fee to some publishers for the right to do lend, and other books are being paid for by Amazon each time they are borrowed. I’d be interested to know how the fee works for author royalties.

  3. The important thing is to leave lending possibilities in the author’s control. Also, Amazon should give the author a percentage of any money they make by lending out their work.

    My own book about surviving the Marchioness Disaster – Dark Waters – Chronicle of a Story Untold – is available for Kindle and also in hardback and paperback from Amazon and Slow Burn Publications. When I click onto Amazon links to its other sellers, I see the twenty pound hard back being retailed for around eighty pounds by one company. Who buys from them and why are they so expensive? Maybe they deliver to unusual addresses such as the middle of the Amazon jungle or the Kalahari desert?

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