October 6, 2016
Amazon pulls 1,700+ e-books from Japan’s Kindle Unlimited program
by Chad Felix
A few weeks back, we wrote about how it’s really no surprise that Amazon doesn’t seem to care how its activities in Japan are regularly violating the nation’s “saihan seido” policy, which prevents retailers from reducing the prices of cultural items like books, newspapers, and CDs. In that post, we noted that one new way that Amazon is circumventing that policy is through Kindle Unlimited, which was launched there in August of this year.
At launch, Kindle Unlimited advertised unlimited downloads of over 120,000 ebooks for ¥980 per month. That’s just $9.53 a month, about half the cost of one trade paperback, for unlimited access to a huge number of books. It doesn’t take an expert economist to see how this flagrantly violates saihan seido. Predictably, the program was an immediate, even overwhelming, success — at the very least among the consumers who were suddenly somehow saving a whole lot of money on things they weren’t technically supposed to save money on.
As a result of that success, Amazon’s position as the place for discount books in Japan is secure, if only because smaller, more honorable businesses cannot, and are not willing to, flout the law so simply. But, still, Amazon is unhappy with this position, as are some of the program’s participating publishers. Yuji Nakamura and Grace Huang of Bloomberg Technology offer an explanation as to why:“Because the Seattle-based company incurs fees whenever a book is read, there’s a risk that the service may not be profitable if too many people sign up and access books.” The company faced this reality almost immediately, and so “sought to renegotiate its contracts with [publishers] Kodansha, Kobunsha and Shogakukan in September, and amid discussions decided to remove their titles from Kindle Unlimited.”
This did not please the publishers. Amazon removed over 1,000 of Kodansha’s top-ranked titles from the service, including many in-demand manga series, as well as novels by Haruki Murakami. Similarly, Kobunsha watched as suddenly 550 of their books were made unavailable. Shogakukan lost 180.
Amazon took the defense by noting that, as with similar subscription services, “titles regularly rotate in and out of the catalog.” Which, okay, this may be true. Without a good, hard look at the various contracts they’ve signed, it’s impossible to know. But one thing is for certain: the affected publishers are not taking Amazon’s actions lying down. Tomoyuki Inui, a spokesman for Kodasha, promises to be tough on Amazon and relent only when they “reach an agreement that’s good for readers and authors.”
Here’s hoping it comes to that. Cross your toes, too, on account of the shaky legal ground that the whole damn party is standing on.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.