How The Big 5 Publishers Hobbled The Amazon Unlimited Launch

Amazon Unlimited was dubbed the Netflix of books. That is correct as long as you imagine a Netflix consisting of an endless array of low-budget indie releases and some major small-studio films. In truth, Amazon’s new $9.99 all-you-can-read service features no books by “big 5” trade publishers, an issue on which Amazon has remained mum.

I’ve asked Amazon for clarification but haven’t heard back. However, if you look at the list of popular titles on the Unlimited list, all of them are either published by smaller publishers – “smaller” being a relative term – or independent entities. Take Life Of Pi, for example. It comes from Mariner Books, part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, an educational publisher. Michael Lewis’ The Flash Boys comes from W. W. Norton & Company. And the real draw, the Harry Potter canon? That is owned by Pottermore Limited, J K Rowling’s business venture. In short, the big guys sat this one out.

In fact, most major publishers have been working hard to create and invest in other partners. Oyster Books, for example, is a beneficiary of this anti-Amazon sentiment while houses like Zola Books are funded by publishing insiders. Whether or not these services will bear fruit – or cash – is a different question.

Again, as an indie author I know that what Amazon is doing for the long tail is important. To be able to get paid by people who want to “try” your book is a good thing. However, the hullabaloo regarding Amazon’s move is still premature. With the Hachette war still raging and the Big 5 now realizing that Amazon is far less a friend than an enemy, things don’t look good for general, popular books on Unlimited. However, as evidenced by Netflix, a few blockbusters up front and a long list of mildly popular titles that warps off into infinity is a solid business model.

Anecdotally, the service is a boon for kids who want to explore reading on electronic devices. My son, for his part, has already downloaded a few dozen Minecraft ebooks written, it appears, by robots or grade-schoolers. One book consists entirely of Minecraft memes taken from the Internet. Incidentally he still doesn’t want to read Harry Potter, even while it’s free.

That fact should give the Big 5 pause. If Amazon can’t line their pockets, it’s willing to spread some of the wealth further afield and that means smaller paydays for the winners of Oprah’s Book Club.