The Truth About Kindle’s New Pay-Per-Page Plan

This superfluous post is partly in response to a recent piece on the Guardian book blog with the alarmist title: Amazon ‘pay-per-page’ plan could alter writing as well as royalties, as well as other equally dumb pieces I’ve read about this topic.

I say superfluous because Amazon darling and inspiration to self-published writers everywhere, Hugh Howey has a nice sane post regarding Amazon’s recent correction to to its payment plan for authors who participate in its lending library and streaming service. Howey’s post seems more geared to people who already were involved in Kindle Select. Mine is for any reader or writer with or without prior knowledge.

This really only applies to self-published books as the terms for participation are probably different for publishers, and I don’t know anything about that. Unlike most people on the web, I don’t write about the stuff I know I don’t know.

Any idiot can upload a “book” onto Amazon’s Kindle Digital Platform (aka KDP) where it will be on sale in the Kindle Store and listed as a “book” on Amazon. There is no fee for doing this, but smart authors will make sure their book is well-formatted, proofread, edited etc. Authors may charge 99 cents or more to sell their wares.

Books that are on sale for less then $2.99 give authors a 35% royalty. $2.99 and above is a 70% royalty (may be less in some countries) minus a very small file transfer fee. Similar terms exist at Barnes & Noble, the I-Bookstore, and other places. Amazon does not demand exclusivity. You are free to upload and sell your ebook in other places.

Despite some alarmist headlines NONE of that has changed.

Amazon offers SP authors some benefits if they CHOOSE voluntarily to go exclusive with their ebook on Kindle. This does not affect where their print book may be sold, and if you go for it, there’s no obligation to make ALL your books exclusive. You can opt in or out for one book or all of them. You can opt out of the program after a 90 day period.

Why might authors choose to make their books exclusive?
While it might seem to make sense to have your book widely available on a number of platforms, Amazon continues to outsell all other ebook sellers by far, and this is even more true when it comes to self-published titles, so you’re probably not giving up many sales, and the benefits might (far) outweigh the risks.

What are the benefits? Mostly the benefits are that you can make your book free for up to five days in every ninety day period, or lower the price in a special sale and still retain the 70% royalty rate even if the price is below $2.99. These are proven ways to help get your book into circulation and boost sales, so a lot of people go for the exclusivity if only for a short time when the book first comes out. Another benefit is that in some countries – India, Japan, etc. you can only get the 70% royalty rate if you’re enrolled exclusively on Amazon. So if you sell a lot of books in India or Japan, that could be another reason. There’s another aspect to this that some writers consider a benefit and others a deal breaker. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The VOLUNTARY program to make your ebook exclusive is called: Kindle Select. Got that?

If your book is in Kindle Select, then it is also automatically available to people who are enrolled in Amazon’s streaming program – Kindle Unlimited (KU). Kindle Unlimited has a $9.99 monthly fee (with a free 30-day trial). Enrollees can borrow up to 10 books at a time and read them “free” on the device of their choice. Most of the available books are self-published cheapies, though a few more expensive titles are on the list. Your books are also automatically available to readers participating in the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL). That’s a program open only to people who have Amazon Prime AND own a Kindle device and/or Amazon Fire. Readers in that program can borrow one eligible book at a time for free with no due date, but they can only borrow one book per calendar month.

If you voluntarily make your book available to Kindle Select, you CANNOT opt out of the the two above lending programs. The good news is, you (probably) wouldn’t want to because you will get paid for these loans.

The new thing that has led to much virtual ink being spilled, is that Amazon has changed the way it pays authors for loans through these programs. The payment was always subject to change because funding was based on the pot of money coming in from Kindle Unlimited. Authors were only paid if readers actually opened up the book they downloaded and read 10% or more of it. Because all books no matter how many pages they were got the same flat-rate for 10% or more, a lot of authors gamed the system by writing EXTREMELY short “books.” (Like 5-page books!) Customer satisfaction was not high.

With the new system, the percentage of the book read no longer matters. While the amount of money in the pot may change based on the number of subscribers and participating authors, it most recently was .0057 per page. The good news is that along with the new payment plan, Amazon has instituted a new page system that’s much more generous than print pages. For instance, my novel, Blood Diva, which is 347 print pages including all the front and back matter is 569 “Kindle Edition Normalized Pages” (KEMP). So with that KEMP count, at .0057 per page if a reader borrowed my book and finished it, I would get $3.24 which is about 50 cents more than I get at the 70% rate on the novel which retails for $3.99. My novella, Schrodinger’s Telephone is also enrolled. Schrodinger’s Telephone has a print page count of about 75 pages, but a KEMP count of 137, which means that if a reader finishes it at the .0057 rate, I would get 78 cents. That’s more than double my present 35 cents for a 99-cent-to-own book.

Frankly, I think that’s a pretty good deal. Some writers panicked because they were still thinking about the percentages and saw the inflated KEMP count as an Amazon trick. It’s not. Other people who are “anti” Kindle Select exclusivity see this borrowing business as a bad thing. Their argument goes: “If I don’t finish my ice-cream cone, I still have to pay for it.”

This is true for ice-cream cones. But that’s because whether you finish an ice-cream cone or whether it falls to the ground, no one can use it after you. On the other hand, if you rent a car for a day or a week, it costs a tiny fraction of what you’d pay for the car. If you rent your home, you don’t have to come up with a downpayment. Please, let’s stop comparing apples to oranges.

Here’s the truth: If my book is available “free” to borrow through the streaming program (KU) AND to Kindle Owning Prime Members (KOLL) then people who are mildly interested but never heard of me are more likely to give it a try. I doubt I’m losing sales. I can promote the book as “free” for people who are enrolled in KU and/or KOLL. I will make a higher royalty on the borrow (if people finish or come close) than I would on a sale at $3.99, and I get to take advantage of the other promo options that Kindle Select offers.

My main problem with the program is that I don’t have a lot of borrows, and I haven’t figured out a great way to get more. I did recently do five days of free for Blood Diva, which has led to a few paid borrows, but I don’t know how to keep up the momentum or increase this number. Personally, as a reader, I don’t think Kindle Unlimited is the greatest deal in the world since the title selection is limited and most self-published books are inexpensive. However, I am thinking a lot more about getting Prime to take advantage of the lending library, which with Prime’s other benefits, might be worth it.

Now, to get back to the Guardian piece about the end of the world as we know it: The author of the post, Samantha Shannon seems concerned that the new system will “penalize shorter reads.” May I just say that writing a novel is a hell of a lot more work than writing a short-story or even a novella? I’m not suggesting novels are “better than” shorter works, but they are more work. They are structurally much tougher. There are more storylines that need to gel together, more characters to keep track of, more to organize, and by far more labor involved. It’s rare to see a novella in print as a stand-alone. Even something as famous as A Christmas Carol, is often bundled with another Dickens’ work in print. Aside from that, Amazon did this in response to consumer complaints that there were too many ridiculously short and sloppy works enrolled in the program to make authors a quick buck. This may give consumers a better experience (which is potentially good for authors as more consumers might enroll.)

Shannon then offers a what if: What if Amazon made this the model not just for loans but for all books? She talks about difficult books that readers might never finish. You might as well offer a hypothetical “What if ponies could fly and were unicorns?” Amazon isn’t anywhere close to doing anything like that. While Shannon acknowledges how unlikely her scenario is, she then goes on to criticize the system even quoting Peter Maas who made the argument using a hamburger analogy. She talks about the “right” of artists to be paid fairly for their work, and the idea that the digital future to come will be a cultural-dystopia where “books are their parts, and not the sum of them.”

Actually, that’s the way it is with the previous payment plan where writers benefitted from chopping up their books, ensuring that any reader who opened the book would get to the magical 10%.

She worries that writers like Donna Tarrt who write difficult books that readers don’t always finish will be penalized by the page count. She even cites “data” that shows that 55% of readers who buy haven’t finished Tarrt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch.. So let’s get this straight, Shannon is worried about an imaginary future where Donna Tartt won’t get paid to write books that people don’t finish? Really? Yes, Samantha, some books are difficult. A lot of people have copies of Moby Dick or Ulysses on their shelves and will never finish these books. Perhaps, in 100 years, The Goldfinch will be considered that kind of prestige classic, but for now, it’s a book that became a bestseller (in print) based on reviews, awards, and the love many readers have for Tarrt’s first novel. Fortunately, for Tarrt, she got paid a big advance and has a secure university job. The Pulitzer Prize counts for something too. I’m not worried about the Donna Tarrts of the world. Personally, I write difficult books as well, but if I found out that 55% of people didn’t finish, no matter what kind of award I’d won, I’d be a little worried.

But Shannon insists that how Amazon pays a group of mostly SELF-PUBLISHED authors who sign up for one of their programs, is somehow going to kill literature in favor of page-turners. She quotes Tech Crunch “The e-commerce behemoth is deploying economic levers to shape creative content in the interests of ebook selling.”

I had to look at the article to see if this was maybe out of context. Why on earth would Amazon need to encourage people to write books that people actually want to read? It’s another bit of theorizing based on ideas pulled from the poster’s butt. The context for the quote is the idea that Amazon’s new “page-turner” payment plan will encourage writers to write those kind of books  and this will be awful! Writers who write the kind of books that a lot of people like to read – genre novels for instance – have ALWAYS made more money than people who write more “serious” fiction. Even serious fiction writers aspire to write books that might reach a broader audience. Amazon isn’t “shaping” this. Page-turners have always been bigger sellers than difficult (but arguably worth it) fiction. Besides, seriously? Has the poster ever tried to get an agent for a first novel that’s literary fiction? Agents and publishers have already shaped creative content. Go into a bookstore. Look at what’s displayed and what’s selling. Look at the bestseller list. Thus it is and thus it will always be. Sheesh.

Some self-published writers complain that Kindle Unlimited has cost them sales, and they were getting less per book on the borrows than they were on the buys. For writers of longer works, the new system may correct this. Certainly writers of full-length novels going for 99 cents (and there are many) will make more. For writers who are just getting started or whose sales aren’t that great, it may help expand the audience. But primarily the new payment plan was simply a correction to one that rewarded authors for separating their longer works into tiny bits, so they could get paid ten percent per bit. (Think of how much of our classic literature was serialized.) That has nothing to do with the “creative content” of the books, but may help improve the reader experience of them.

Here’s the future: Print books will be with us for a while. However, more people will be reading books digitally because that’s what’s already happening and what happened with music, movies and television.You can’t apply the same marketing rules to print as to digital. The music industry tried. It didn’t work out so well. Subscription services for ebooks are likely to become more, not less popular with readers. Amazon didn’t create the trend. It’s simply getting on board. We are less an “ownership” society when it comes to everything. If you are of a certain age, you probably have a box of videotapes and no VCR, or no VCR that you can hook up to your television, or no television machine. Yet, you can probably find most of your favorite programs with a couple of mouse clicks. Some might be free with commercials. Others you might have to pay a fee to rent, or a larger fee to “buy” if you think you’re going to watch them again and again. Some may be “free” with your subscription to Netflix or Hulu or whatever you subscribe to . That’s the way it is. And strangely, television in this brave new world, has gotten better, not worse.

Amazon has introduced a lending system which doesn’t so much reward writers for writing longer works, as it rewards writers for writing engaging work, that keeps people turning the pages. It’s an experiment, and participation is completely voluntary. It primarily involves writers who couldn’t even get published by mainstream publishers. There’s already competition in the subscription model. If publishers were smart, they’d make their own deals with their writers and come up with their own subscription plans – just like some of the television networks are doing. Artists will always struggle to get their work before the public and to get paid fairly for their work. For many writers, especially those unaffiliated with a publisher, Amazon has offered remarkable opportunities. Of course, it behooves us to watch what they do and to move elsewhere if they are being unfair. We can choose to participate in their schemes or not to. Some, like me, will experiment, making some works available to KS, and some works non-exclusive. But to decry Amazon for being the driving force changing content from quality to page turners is beyond hyperbole. It’s click-bait plain and simple.

(If this post made you curious about my books, you might consider signing up for your 30 day KU trial and reading Blood Diva and/or Schrodinger’s Telephone for free!)