July 18, 2014, 11:02 AM

Amazon ups the e-book ante with its Kindle Unlimited subscription offer

The e-retailer announced today Kindle Unlimited, which allows subscribers to read as many e-books and listen to as many audio books as they want for a $9.99 monthly fee.

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Amazon.com Inc. just dealt another hand in its ongoing and increasingly testy poker game with book publishers. The e-retailing giant debuted today “Kindle Unlimited,” a subscription service for e-books and audio books. Amazon announced the service in a video today.

The service, which costs $9.99 a month, opens up access to 600,000 e-book titles and more than 2,000 audiobooks to subscribers with Kindle devices or with Amazon’s free Kindle reading apps for iPhone and Android. As the name suggests, subscribers to the service can read and listen to as many titles as they want. The company is offering a free 30-day trial.

E-book titles include “The Hunger Games,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Audio book titles include a selection from audio book service Audible’s library including “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Water for Elephants.” The subscription service includes a free three-month membership to audible, which opens up the service’s entire library.

The audio books available through Kindle Unlimited are part of the Whispersync service, which links audio books and conventional e-books. A reader can stop reading an e-book and switch to the audio version of the title without losing her spot.

The move comes during a time when Amazon is still in a dispute with book publisher Hachette over the pricing of both printed volumes and e-books. Amazon wants the freedom to discount heavily, in part to make its Kindle e-book reader more attractive, while publishers like Hachette fear low online prices will inevitably lower the prices their titles can command in physical stores and online. After the publisher suggested it was defending its authors, Amazon recently offered to give 100% of Hachette e-book royalties to the authors—an offer Hachette rejected.

The Kindle Unlimited introduction can only increase publisher fears that Amazon will increasingly dominate book sales, and especially sales of e-books. Amazon already commands a 67% share of the e-book market, and accounts for 41% of all book sales by units, including a 64% share of printed books sold online, according to recent research by Codex Group, which specializes in research on the publishing industry.

"I don’t see this as revolutionary, but an incremental niche play pulling yet more value-oriented book buyers into Amazon’s already massive market share, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for total book market ownership," says founder and CEO Peter Hildick-Smith.  

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The increase of tablet ownership is buoying electronic book adoption. 28% of U.S. consumers who read a book in 2013 read at least one on an electronic device, up from 23% a year earlier, according to the Pew Research Center.

But not all retailers who enter the e-reader market are successful. Barnes & Noble announced plans to spin off its Nook business after a holiday season where Nook sales declined 60.5% from the 2012 holiday season.  

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