Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Authors Guild Raises Doubts About Amazon's New Pay-Per-Page Policy

With the recent announcement that it will begin paying Kindle Unlimited authors by pages read, rather than borrows, Amazon has set off a spate of commentary, from Fortune to a satirical jab by the Telegraph.

According to the Guardian, self-published authors may see a drop in KU revenue to as little as $.006 per page read, prompting some speculation as to whether Amazon intended to cut back on short works by this maneuver.

Nobody has ever paid authors by the number of pages read. Authors have been paid by pages written, especially when their works are serialized, and they have been paid by the word. But the idea of paying an author for the number of pages a reader actually reads is unprecedented.

There is no comparison to be made in the history of authorship. (Not even pricing books by how much they weigh, or by how large they are.)

The confusion Amazon has generated is apparent in the Authors Guild statement below. In it, the Guild raises a number of questions, largely having to do with logistics (What counts as a page read?), and implications for authors (Will they have to generate cliff hangers? and the eternal, Will quality suffer?)

None of these critiques of a system in which reader attention span determines the economic success of an author addresses the underlying problem with this scheme.

It monitors readers in ways that are highly intrusive.

How much I read of a book, or which pages I read of a book, is none of Amazon's business. Not only should Amazon keep its nose out of my reading habits, it should not draw any conclusions from them. I often read nonfiction books piecemeal. Sometimes, I read works of fiction in snippets. (Short stories, poetry collections.) Should a writer get paid less if he or she wrote only one short story or poem that touched my heart? What if that poem were "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"? If I didn't read any other poem in that collection, would it mean Robert Frost was less beloved in my eyes? Would it make him less well known to the reading public than someone who had written a book of dirty limericks (of which I guarantee every single page would be turned)?

You betcha. And, as a consequence of paying authors via this bizarre system (especially if it catches on) careers will be hampered, talent will go unrewarded, and readers will be served continual crowd-sourced pap - all under the banner of "books readers want to read."

Once again, publishers (in this case Amazon) not only determine what authors get paid, but what readers should like. But unlike industry manipulation of bestseller lists, fixed reviews, and well-placed hype, this is an invasion of privacy with no benefit to either readers or authors.
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From the Authors Guild:

Starting July 1, Amazon will pay royalties to its indie authors based on the number of pages users actually read, rather than the number of times the book is “borrowed.” In its announcement, Amazon touted its unilateral amendment to its terms for self-published e-books enrolled in its Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) e-lending services. The change, Amazon said, is a response to authors’ complaints about the unfairness of its current single rate for all books, regardless of length. Writers of longer works will stand to benefit, provided those books are read in full, but it could slash the earnings of entire classes of authors, such as poets and children’s book writers, whose works tend to have fewer pages. The new regime leaves intact Amazon’s unfortunate practice of paying indie authors out of an opaque royalty pool, which pits self-published authors against one another in a zero-sum scramble for readers. With a finite amount of money to go around each month, one author’s gain is another’s loss.

The royalty adjustment comes almost a year after Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, an e-book subscription service where readers pay $9.99 a month for access to hundreds of thousands of titles, most of which are self-published by members of Amazon’s KDP Select program. KDP Select authors, who are automatically enrolled in both KU and KOLL, agree to make their e-books available exclusively through Kindle platforms, preventing these indie authors from exploring other revenue streams as long as they are enrolled in Select. Authors may, however, drop out of KDP Select by contacting Amazon with the ASIN of the book they would like to remove, according to the announcement.

Under its outgoing royalty structure, Amazon pays a fee for each book “borrowed,” provided at least 10% of the book is read. The fee is the same for short story–length books as it is for a 500-page novel. Some writers quickly learned how to game the system and flooded Kindle Unlimited with excerpts and shorter works, even publishing books in chapters, since once a reader crosses the 10% “borrow” threshold the author earns the same no matter how long or complex the book is. While there are any number of other possible solutions to the problem, Amazon’s solution is to pay per page read. This represents an entirely new way of thinking about compensation for authors.

Exactly how this will impact books in the long run is hard to know, but it undoubtedly will affect KDP Select authors’ writing and the ability of some of these authors to make a living. For now, many questions remain to be answered. Will authors enrolled in the program feel compelled to write longer books? Will they feel the need to make sure every page has a compelling detail or cliffhanger? Will there be more padding (to make a book longer) or less (so every page is read)? If books do get padded, will readers start reading differently and skipping more? What happens to the long works of nonfiction that might take years to write and add greatly to our society’s knowledge base, but are rarely read in full by the lay reader? Will skimmed pages count? How long does a reader have to spend on a page for it to count as “read”? What data will Amazon share with authors and publishers? Will the data it gathers (most likely kept close) give it even greater dominance in indie publishing? Will it share any of its reading statistics with writers to help them have more pages read? Will they eventually foist this payment method on publishers, starting with the smaller ones who have little to no negotiating power?

At first glance, it appear that tying royalties to pages read will only incentivize authors to produce books that compel readers to keep reading. It’s not so clear whether that will result in better books. What is clear is that Amazon’s contracts with its indie authors are non-negotiable terms of use that Amazon can change at any time and which become binding on its authors within 30 days of their posting. Since its Kindle Select terms require exclusivity, this unilateral change in the royalty structure has the potential to disrupt the livelihoods of KDP Select authors with little to no warning. Even with Amazon’s monthly tinkering with the royalty pool, under its per-borrow scheme authors in recent months could at least count on a rate of somewhere between $1.33 and $1.40 per borrow. Writers of children’s books, particularly books for young children, will necessarily see that rate go down significantly.

Announced just weeks before it takes effect, the change is a reminder of Amazon’s power not only vis-à-vis traditional publishers and authors, but also among those self-published authors who have often been the e-tailer’s most vocal apologists. It’s never been more clear that indie authors who publish with KDP Select are dependent on Amazon’s business decisions, including how much money to distribute via the monthly royalty pool.

This is also a sad reminder that traditional publishers—whose unsavory contract terms we’re focusing on as part of our Fair Contract Initiative—aren’t the only ones who offer writers take-it-or-leave-it publishing contracts.

In additional Amazon news, the retailer has come to terms with Penguin Random House, the last of the Big Five publishers to negotiate e-book terms with Amazon after the expiration of the consent decree resulting from the U.S. v. Apple e-book pricing litigation. Neither side disclosed the nature of those terms or what pricing model (wholesale or agency) will govern under the terms of the new agreement.

2 comments:

  1. It's not "all authors." It's specific to authors who are Kindle Select and only applies to loans, not books purchased. There is so much unneeded panic about this when no one has even seen how it will play out yet. Normal book purchases will still get the exact same royalty rate.
    Kindle Unlimited loans were already based on the reader getting 10% into the book before the author is paid for the loan.
    Amazon is even letting authors opt out of Select early if they don't like the new system, penalty free. Most I know are choosing to stay in and see how it works out (those who were already select. I'm not sure the percentage, but a lot of Indies aren't select anyway because they like the exposure of being on other sites).

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    Replies
    1. Just to clarify, you don't specifically state all authors in your piece, but a lot of people don't seem to understand what KU is and how people get into it.
      And even if you are a Kindle Unlimited author, your royalty hasn't changed when someone buys the book, only when it is loaned.
      How this affects a writer depends on how much of their income is based on loans and how much is based on purchases (mine is about 50/50 with the current system) . . . and how often readers read through and how much is put into the system and a bunch of other things we can't really predict.

      But KU has never been guaranteed income. It's always been sort of a "bonus." And if you don't like it, it's really easy to opt out.

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