My first response to this news was to snort milk through my nose. I was eating breakfast. My next response was to shake my head and wonder, "Why now?" Why not three years ago? The more I thought about it, the only reasonable answer was that PRH needed the last three years to build an alternative solution.
Having said that, most of me doubts that this is the case. I just don't think PRH has the cojones. More on that in a bit.
The Bookseller reported on January 22nd that Penguin Random House "has withdrawn its e-books and digital audio titles from unlimited access subscription models in a major rebuttal of the business model." It is significant to point out that the article never mentions Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program, or any other platform, specifically by name. For the purposes of this post, I'm assuming PRH isn't trying to pull some crazy shenanigans that would give KU special status.
Kudos to Penguin Random House
To be clear, I respect PRH for making this decision. I think it is philosophically the right one. I've gone on record since before Kindle Unlimited about my distaste for all-you-can-read buffet-style reading services. I think they are an absolutely terrible idea for society, bad for authors, and in the long run will be bad for readers even though they are difficult to resist.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must also state that two weeks ago, I placed one of my books in Kindle Unlimited for the first time ever. Why? Because I get it. I understand the conundrum we are in. All of us are feeling it more and more regularly in our professional and personal lives. This conundrum is expressed most often with language like, "I use Facebook, but I hate it," or "I use Amazon because I can't get away from it!"
If only we had viable alternatives, right? Convenience is worth a ton. Our time has a cost associated with it. Our mental energy does as well. When it comes to making a living from selling stories, it can be done without Amazon, but doing so is harder. These days it is much, much harder, especially if you live in the United States.
The Terrible Conundrum
This is a tough one. I won't play it down. On the one hand, using Kindle Unlimited creates an expectation with your readers. KU readers may not be the audience you want longterm. Then again, some of KU's readers don't want the KU reading experience longterm either.
But I ain't gonna lie, using KU in tandem with Amazon ads is the easiest way to get your writer career off the ground these days. This will not always be the case. I'm guessing by 2021, Amazon ads will be much more difficult for a beginner to crank up. The money necessary for gaining traction will go up and up. We know this from every other ad cycle that has been born in the digital era.
Ideology is fine and dandy until it takes money out of your pocket. This is where we have to loop back around to the idea of viable alternatives. This is where I'm a bit baffled by the timing of Penguin Random House's decision to make a stand against buffet-style reading.
If they are making a purely ideological stand, they should have done it years ago rather than testing the waters and then pulling out. Their current behavior says one of two things to me. Either they tried putting content into these buffet-style models and found them to not be profitable, or they have been biding their time until they could wean themselves in preference for an alternative. Unfortunately, there is a third option that is likely. That option would basically be that PRH isn't the highly organized and efficient organization we would like it to be. And...it took them four years to stand by their ideology or to define it.
What is an author to do?
Transitioning back to our personal author brands and careers, all of this news begs the question, "How can we do the right thing and make a successful living while doing it?" Well, I'll go back to my hopeful assessment of PRH and apply that to us. There are two very reasonable times for us to make the stand of pulling out of buffet-style reading services. The first is to never use them from the beginning. Draw a hardline in the sand and don't cross it. Some authors have been able to do this and be successful.
The second option is to use Kindle Unlimited until the moment you have a viable alternative and then cut bait. Along with this option, I think it is vital to be involved in the creation and emergence of the alternative in any way you reasonably can. Don't just throw up your hands and carry on. Be proactive by being part of the solution you know you need over the longterm. If PRH has indeed spent the last 3-4 years building an alternative to KU, I will thunderously applaud them. I'm not counting on it.
This is why I've written "I Say Publish the Pirate Way." It is why I'm advocating for authors to work together to create a crowdsourced solution that will remain in the control of storytellers rather than retail/ad platforms and information brokers. Signing onto the Pirate Author Code or PAC is one way we can actively participate in the solution even while utilizing the not-so-great tools we currently have.
More and more individuals and companies are recognizing the dark side to the platforms and tools we are currently using. The winds are shifting. We need to be ready to shift our sails and open them up when the time comes. Power to the pirates! Arrrrrr!