For most of Prime Day, Amazon’s annual sales bonanza, an unfamiliar face topped the site’s Author Rank page: Mike Omer, a 39-year-old Israeli computer engineer and self-published author whose profile picture is a candid shot of a young, blond man in sunglasses sitting on grass. He was—and at the time of this writing, still is—ranked above J.K. Rowling (No.8), James Patterson (No. 9), and Stephen King (No. 10) in sales of all his books on Amazon.com. His most recent book is ranked tenth on Amazon Charts, which Amazon launched after The New York Times stopped issuing e-book rankings, and which measures sales of individual books on Amazon. (The company does not disclose the metrics behind Author Rank, which is still in beta.)
Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative. While he may not be as familiar a name as the big authors marketed by traditional publishing houses, and may not have as many total book sales, Omer is making an enviable living from his writing. Sales of his first e-book, Spider’s Web, and its sequels, allowed him to quit his job and become a full-time author. Now, he makes more money than he did as a computer engineer. “I’m making a really nice salary, even by American standards,” he said.
After the success of Omer’s first book series, Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, published his most recent book, a mystery called A Killer’s Mind, which was also promoted on Amazon’s First Reads, a new subscription service in which the company recommends a handful of books and allows subscribers to download them before their official publication date. Omer told me he has now sold more than 10,000 books through Amazon, and that his books have also been borrowed more than 10,000 times on Kindle Unlimited, the subscription service in which readers pay $9.99 a month to access over 1 million titles on Amazon. “What made this possible is Amazon,” he told me. “It can expose me to millions, or tens of millions of readers.” (Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder of Codex Group, which consults with the publishing industry, told me that Amazon’s rankings and sales information are not reliable because they also count books that are borrowed, like Harry Potter books, which are consumed in a different way than books that are bought.)
For decades, self-publishing was derided as an embarrassing sign that an author couldn’t cut it in the “real” publishing industry—“the literary world’s version of masturbation,” as Salon once put it. And Amazon, the world’s biggest e-commerce site, with its bookstore-beating prices, was painted as an enemy to authors. But now its self-publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), has made it easy for people to upload their books, send them out into the universe, and make money doing so. Its store has created a place for readers to go and easily find inexpensive self-published books. The site that got its start by radically changing where books are sold is now reshaping how books are published and read.
This is, of course, threatening to the traditional publishing industry, which seems to be in a state of everlasting free-fall. Industrywide, self-publishing is gaining readers as traditional publishers are losing them, according to Author Earnings, a site produced by an anonymous marketing analytics expert who calls himself Data Guy. The self-published share of paid US e-book units increased to 46.4 percent from 44.7 percent between the second quarters of 2017 and 2018, Data Guy told me in an email, while the traditionally published share of paid e-book units decreased to 43.2 percent from 45.5 percent. (His data takes into account self-published and Amazon imprint-published books, which many traditional data sources do not.)
Central to Amazon’s gambit—and authors’ pay—is Kindle Unlimited. Launched in 2014, the feature was a response to other companies that were trying to create a Netflix for books, such as Oyster, which shut down in 2015, and Scribd, which is slowly gaining acceptance from the Big Five publishing houses. Authors can choose to participate in KDP Select, which automatically puts a book into Kindle Unlimited, and which can be highly lucrative. Amazon sets aside a pot of money every month that it divvies up among KDP Select authors, based on how many of their pages have been read each month by Kindle Unlimited subscribers and readers from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which allows Prime members to borrow one book a month for free. The payment ends up being a little less than half a penny per page, authors told me, but those who are read the most can also get monthly bonuses as high as $25,000. Last year, Amazon paid out more than $220 million to authors, the company told me. Regardless of participation in KDP Select, authors who self-publish on Amazon through KDP also earn a 70 percent royalty on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and a 35 percent royalty on books that cost more or less than that.
Kindle Unlimited works in the same way as Amazon’s other big subscription service, Prime: Just as Prime users often think of shipping as free, even though they’re paying a monthly or annual fee for it, Kindle Unlimited readers may begin to think of books as free, even though they’re paying a monthly fee, because each additional book they read in Kindle Unlimited doesn’t cost them anything extra. This can be a boon for new authors: Readers who might not be willing to pay outright for books by unknown writers will read those books on Kindle Unlimited, where they feel “free.”
“I truly believe that people would not read as many of my books were I not on Kindle Unlimited,” Samantha Christy, who decided to try writing romance novels in 2014, told me. Christy’s Amazon writing career has been so successful that it supports her four children and husband, who quit his job two years ago to manage her IT, taxes, and publishing business. Christy, who typically writes three books a year, talked to me from Hawaii, where she was vacationing with her family before they were headed to Comic-Con International in San Diego to speak on a panel about self-publishing.
Kindle Unlimited has its downsides. Amazon demands exclusivity from its KDP Select authors, meaning they can only sell their books on the Kindle Store, and not on any other digital bookstores, or even on their own websites. The payment structure means that authors who produce a lot of pages, even if they’re not particularly good pages, earn more money than authors who write succinctly. Almost since the launch of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon has been battling “book stuffers,” authors who publish hundreds of pages of content in Kindle Unlimited, some of which is gibberish, some of which tricks readers into flipping to the last page of the book, so the book will count as read and they’ll get paid. Self-publishing on Amazon’s platforms benefits authors in some genres—including romance and mystery, where readers tear through books and writing them might not take a long time—over those who spend years writing novels, or who do deeply researched nonfiction books, Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Author’s Guild, told me.
And authors on Kindle Unlimited have to work hard to promote themselves and attract new readers in a crowded marketplace; one, I.T. Lucas, told me she works 12-hour days, seven days a week. Part of that is writing—she has published 21 full-length novels in three years—and part is marketing. “You have to be willing to run a business at the same time,” Rasenberger said. Christy tries to answer every message she receives on Facebook, does a lot of free giveaways, and frequently holds Q&As and other events. Many authors buy ads on Amazon, effectively paying their employer to get more customers.