October 29, 2014

Kindle Scout launches, immediately corners pitbull-themed sci-fi market


The future of publishing would like to go for a walk.  Image via Wikipedia.

The future of publishing would like to go for a walk. Image via Wikipedia.

While we like to snipe at Amazon pretty regularly on this blog, we can be gracious in defeat, magnanimous when we see them trounce traditional publishing in new and undreamt-of literary categories. This week, we’re eating the humble pie of being bested to the pitbull-themed sci-fi market, which Amazon is currently dominating with Pit Bulls Vs Aliens by Neal Wooten on the “Hot & Trending” list in its newest venture, Kindle Scout.

Kindle Scout, which Amazon has been leaking hints about for a while, is a slightly more (or differently) curated version of Kindle Direct Publishing. As we wrote about here in September, authors submit their novels to Kindle Scout, which then posts a few pages on their site and invites readers to vote for or against the book being offered a publishing contract. Lucky winners get $1,500 for the ebook and audio rights, a 50% royalty, a 5-year term, reversion options, and possibly some promotional help.

It launched on Monday, accepting submissions in the genres of Romance, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Mystery, Thriller & Suspense. Coverage is starting to trickle in: Darrell Etherington at TechCrunch writes that it’s a “potentially industry-changing idea… as the system provides a way to give books a stamp of approval that can cut out the noise and sheer volume of self-published titles out there, and yet it manages to provide a better deal to authors than most big publishing house deals.” Russell Brandom at The Verge is more skeptical, pointing out that “it’s unclear how much support individual authors will get from the Amazon Store,” and discoverability is by far still the biggest problem for ebooks.

And James Cook at BusinessInsider, which Jeff Bezos is an investor in, wins for sheer unadulterated spin, writing that:

Here’s the exciting thing: The readers who prove to be the most skilled book scouts, spotting the most titles that go on to be published, will be rewarded with free book credits, as well as e-book versions of the titles they previewed and voted for.

In other words, it’s a game! A game in which you donate your time and judgment for free, in return for which Amazon strokes your ego and gives you some free ebooks. Because that really is the most offensive part of this operation: sure, the pitbull book sounds weird, and the site has got its share of bizarre titles (IdempotencyHorse Paint, KimJongilia?) and sometimes ungainly prose. Sure, it obnoxiously co-opts the language and imagery of protest movements, referring to itself as “reader-powered publishing,” with a header image of many ethnically diverse hands holding Kindles aloft.

But these are superficial quibbles—after all, if your dream is to write books about pitbulls fighting aliens, your dream is far loopier than the average and even kind of wonderful and I’m glad there’s a place for it. What’s not admirable in any way is the idea that Amazon is farming editorial work out to unpaid readers and collecting the profit. And passing it off as some kind of radical exercise in democratic decision-making.

It’s true that what Amazon is doing is different in degree, and not necessarily in nature, from the way other parts of publishing work: interns work for free; book reviewers are often paid with not much more than free books; and there are sites like  Red Lemonade which also solicit community input on editorial questions.

But just because publishing is a business where passion and personal ambition and the desire to contribute to the conversation lead people to work for free, and also a business that, in certain cases (small publishers, literary journals), generates relatively little money to pay people with doesn’t mean that this model is right. And certainly not when it’s a multimillion-dollar company like Amazon doing the asking.

After all, it’s probably only a matter of time before Kindle Scout has a bestseller on their hands, like Anna Todd‘s Harry Styles fanfic novel After on Wattpad. And when that happens, all those readers “powering” Kindle Scout’s searches are going to realize that this is not an equal exchange: the glow of communal pride that might come from helping to discover a writer is no substitute for being fairly compensated for your part in that success.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.