‘What This Means For Authors Is Debatable’
Yesterday’s news (15th June) that Amazon is changing its payout structure for Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select lending scenarios — that’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) — has been met with somewhat muted reactions. And this is good to see. Some mature, prudent thinking is going on.
And not that we need to assert that anybody has been dog-paddling, surely something that doesn’t reward a pamphlet as generously as it does a full novel is a splash in the right direction. Or is it, as Philip Jones writes at The FutureBook, “A boon for serial writers, a nightmare for poets”? Starting in July, if you’ve been loading the system with bits and pieces instead of full-fledged work, you’ll be getting paid for bits and pieces.
In past years, the self-publishing community, when impacted by this kind of change, tended to be whipped pretty readily into overreaction. Today, while in some quarters I’m sure that hair has been torn and teeth gnashed, there’s less of what the author Hugh Howey refers to in his reaction as “knee-jerk reactions from authors [who aren’t] considering…pros and cons.”
A point of clarification: while written correctly here, some conversations about this online are failing to specify that the coming changes affect only Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select authors. These are the indie writers who, in order to participate in the lending programs KU and KOLL, commit to exclusivity with Amazon. This is a highly controversial element of the agreement, although, as we will see*, Amazon says that the exclusivity requirement does not appear to be running off authors.
In fact, if anything, I’d say that there’s an air of cautious joy in Mudville, Casey, at the news of this change.
- Until now, the two great loan-based programs operated by Amazon for KDP Select authors have paid each author a certain amount per book, once that book was read to 10 percent of its length. In short, an author was paid by the qualified borrow.
- At the top of July, those two programs, KU (the all-you-can-read for $9.99 per month scheme) and KOLL (the Amazon Prime-based free-loan program), will begin paying by the page read.
This represents a sea-change in the calculation of how independent authors of loaned materials — not bought books — are compensated. If you’re buying a Kindle book, nothing has changed. (And you’re still buying a license to read that electronic copy, of course, you do not technically “own” that copy as you would a paper copy.)
In fact, despite intense controversy around the exclusivity required by Amazon for its KDP Select programs, Amazon presents them as solid earning engines for writers who, according to one of these data points offered in its statement, are largely faithful to its sales formats. Quoting the statement:
KDP Select authors are on track to earn over $60M in the first half of 2015 from books read in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.
Total royalties across subscription and a la carte sales earned by KDP Select authors in the US are on track to more than double in the first half of 2015 compared to the same period last year.
*Authors have continued to renew their titles in KDP Select at rates in excess of 95% each month since Kindle Unlimited launched.
The reasons that this new per-page approach can cause significant shifts, certainly in how authors place material into service and probably in how their payments add up, are several:
- There has been a tendency among some writers to write short, quick books; to release new books as serials; even to break up larger books into smaller chunks — all in order to create more short products on these programs that then would pay more, and pay more quickly. If a user read only 10 percent, the “book,” however short, would pay a standardized fee for the month of the rental from Amazon’s KDP Select Global Fund. With a 25-page “book,” an author could get the same money when 2.5 pages were read that another author might get when 40 pages of her 400-page book were read. Per-page payment makes churning out all those short “books” moot.
- A longer book could, starting in July, bring an author more money because it simply has more pages to be read. (Payments still will be paid for from the Amazon KDP Select Global Fund. The total number of pages drawing from that fund in a given month will determine how much a page is worth.)
- Worried that people change their font sizes on Kindles, so your page 25 of a book is not my page 25? Don’t be. Amazon has devised what it calls the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC — I know, so many initials). This is simply a standard setting. Whatever you or I might do to our page settings on our own Kindles — me on a cardio machine at the gym or you much more sensibly in a comfortable chair at home — the system in Seattle will be measuring how many pages are read based on a single standardized setting.
- Concerned that authors will start padding books with lots of “front matter” to add pages, as one person has suggested in the hundreds of comments logged about this? Don’t be. Amazon’s initial information tells us that the machines will track a reader “starting with the Start Reading Location (SRL) to the end of your book. Amazon typically sets the SRL at chapter 1 so readers can start reading the core content of a book as soon as they open it.”
You may already be familiar with this “Start Reading Location.” It’s why when you open a new Kindle book, you don’t see the cover, you see the start of Chapter 1 or the prologue or whatever. I don’t care for this, myself, and I always back up to the cover. I like covers. It sounds, however, as if covers won’t count in the payment plan. Nor will copyright pages, dedications, perhaps tables of content, anything ahead of that “Start Reading Location.”
One of the first to respond, Howey in New KU Payout Structure, has hailed the new approach, which comes into play after the first year of Kindle Unlimited’s controversial life. He writes:
I love this change. It’s one many of us have been clamoring for and even expecting. If anything, I’m surprised it took this long.
What this means for authors is debatable. Those who write shorter works designed for KU may see a drop in income, while those who provide full-length novels may see a rise in income (depending on how many pages readers enjoy). My guess is that the vast majority of authors will earn about the same amount as before. That doesn’t mean their income won’t fluctuate, only that this change won’t be the reason for most fluctuations.
‘They Simply Don’t Rest’
Among the smarter, practical notes I’ve seen is one author’s observation that reference material — say, a cookbook — has a lot better chance of paying its author something instead of nothing. Do you sit down and read 10 percent of a cookbook? No, you find the recipe you want and deal with the pages on which it lies. Those pages now will pay. Whereas, in most cases, such reference books may not have paid a thing because readers didn’t use 10 percent of them.
Another just-as-smart and practical but less-happy probability is raised by a commenter at Howey’s site: “I write for kids. This will probably not shake out in my favor.” This may be correct. Kids’ books are normally shorter and the new format may, as this commenter writes, “lower the payout structure for kids’ authors” unless some calculation is at work to balance that material in a different way against adult trade books.
At the Independent Publishing Magazine, Mick Rooney questions “why Amazon has suddenly decided that free-flow ebooks actually have ‘pages’ after all and they can decide where each page ends using Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC v1.0). It’s difficult to gauge the response from authors so far until those first sales statements come in after July.”
His pickup of the “v1.0” designation on the KENPC standardized-page factor is probably apt. The fact that there’s such a version designation on it from the outset suggests that the Amazonians may expect to need to produce more versions of that standard as they see how it all works.
Comments at David Vandagriff’s Passive Voice clearing house are typically all over the map but, again, less hysterical than might have been seen in the past.
I’m hearing from folks who echo this kind of sentiment from the chatter:
The more Amazon fiddles and shifts with its experiments, the uneasier we feel. So now Bezos realizes that KU is sinking into a morass of chopped-up chapters, short stories and other workaround gimmicks to maximize authors’ earnings and yikes! we can’t have authors earning more or adjusting their system in response to whenever Amazon games theirs, so now…But it’s still a way to stop paying 70% of net book price to hardworking authors and to undercut our visibility on other platforms, especially overseas, where Amazon KDP [Select] is hardly king.
This represents an interesting dynamic: some authors, hardly all, see almost every adjustment in the mechanisms by which Amazon sells and pays their work as a challenge. It seems hard for them to recall that before Amazon created a viable publishing-and-distribution system, their work might never have seen the light of a reader’s eye at all. When the system reacts in ways that might close one or another loophole, the company is blamed for being hard on writers.
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” my father would have said, Lear-ing at us with a wink.
One writer bemoans the fact that people putting out 25-page “books” won’t be able to get around $1.30 for each of those “books,” the same as full-length novelists. Instead, those people will get 25 (pages) times the going price a page pays that month: if it’s a penny a page that month, those 25-page “authors” get 25 cents.
At Publishers Lunch, Michael Cader flags another qualm some authors bring up, writing that the new system “also underscores to customers the extent to which their reading is being monitored and analyzed at all times.”
That’s an interesting observation by authors and by Cader. How ready are many readers to accept such electronic observation of their reading patterns? Seattle can track them very competently right now, but if the audience becomes more cognizant of this, does that create a problem? Let’s just stand by and find out, shall we?
I think this modification highlights one of the big reasons Amazon dominates its competitors: They simply don’t rest. They aren’t afraid to change course. They aren’t afraid to fail, and to learn from their mistakes. From what I can see, as a reader and a writer, KU has been a huge success already, with the amount of money going to authors and with the increased participation readers are having with independent literature. With this change, KU only stands to get better, for both parties.
This change factor is reflected as a key consideration in many comments I’ve read. Several regular bloggers in the space have written to the effect of “just about the time we’d sorted out how to estimate payments on the old system…” boom, another change.
But if anything, I’d say it’s surprising that the changes don’t come more frequently. Amazon, taken at the highest view, has gathered the most spectacular library in history. Further, it is — unless I’m missing something — working with the largest number of producing authors ever, having enabled that very production through its deployment of digital publishing tools. Managing what happens when everybody runs into the water? — yeah, it’s going to take some adjustments at times. Everybody gets pretty wet. It’s not like we’ve been here before, is it? These waters are uncharted.
And for now, what’s interesting is that the word merit pops up from time to time in the writings about this. Great concept, merit. A reader-friendly idea.
What if you have to write so well that your readers stay with you to the end?
Not that I’ve ever heard of someone letting their manuscript go to hell after the first 10 percent, there is, one assumes, some real value here in making sure that every page counts in terms of quality, attraction, oh, gosh, maybe storytelling, you know? — holding a reader may now be more important than grabbing a reader.
Don’t I want to be grabbed? Keep your hands to yourself, buddy.
As a reader who likes good books more than I like many books, I think the per-page payout looks like an interesting dash into the surf. Let’s see how it floats.