Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) book subscription system has been a laboratory of unintended consequences since it launched in July 2014. If you don’t subscribe or don’t know how authors are paid, my 4-part series on it may be useful. I’ll summarize very briefly: Each time a work available on KU is borrowed and at least 10% of it is read, the author is paid from a payment fund shared by all such borrows in a given month. The amount of money in the pot changes from month to month, as do the number of borrows. So the payment per qualified borrow changes from month to month. It’s been converging on $1.30 for some time. The length of the work doesn’t matter: Read 10% of a 150,000 word novel, and the author gets $1.30. Read 10% of a 1000-word short story…and the author gets the same $1.30. (For another another few days, at least. Stay with me.)
Care to guess the unintended consequences? Authors of novels pulled their works from KU or never opted in to begin with. Authors of short stories suddenly started making significant money. Authors of flash-length erotica (basically, isolated sex scenes) began making a great deal of money. And scammers began posting the same (very short) story on multiple author accounts, and Wikipedia articles as original works.
I could have guessed all of that except maybe the erotica, since I don’t read erotica. I had actually begun turning my individual short stories and novelettes into separate ebooks, figuring that $1.30 was way better than the 35c that 99c ebook shorts earn.
Alluva sudden, wham! Everything changes.
On July 1, a whole new KU payment system comes into force. The new system essentially pays authors by the amount of the book read. Read the whole book, author gets X. Read half the book, and author gets X/2. Read 10% of the book (perhaps because it was so bad you wanted to throw your Paperwhite at the wall) and author gets X/10. In general terms, when you read some arbitrary number of pages, author gets a pro-rata per-page payment. This is true (and evidently the payment will be the same) whether the book in question is a kids’ bedtime story, a romance novel, or a calculus textbook.
As in the current system, the per-page payment changes every month, depending on the size of the money pot and the number of pages read during that month. The two big variables are the per-page payout and the number of pages in the book.
Wait a sec…pages? In an ebook?
Yup. And this is something completely new. Amazon has addressed the fact that ebooks are not divided into pages by creating the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC) algorithm. As best I understand it (details are sparser than we’d like) the KU servers will examine each book posted by an author, and impose a standard page layout on the book’s text in a buffer. (It will not actually change the layout in the published book.) It will then count how many “pages” exist in the book when expressed by the KENPC algorithm. I have seen no reliable description of what will go into this standard layout. It’s obvious that they’re trying to keep people from padding out margins or tweaking fonts to turn less text into more pages. They’re also trying to equalize the differences between devices with vastly different screen sizes. KENPC takes into account photos, tables, and technical art somehow. Again, details are sparse. However, I’m happy just knowing that they’re going to some effort to make a page on one device more or less equivalent in terms of content to a page on another device. I’ve seen some grumbling about page metrics for children’s books, but since that’s a genre I have no experience in whatsoever, I can’t say much. It does seem a little unfair that a 30-page kid book will only earn what 30 pages in a 500-page novel earns.
Pages will only pay off the first time they are read. Reading a book a second time on the same borrow will not generate any additional revenue. Nor will going back to reread a chapter generate additional revenue. Swiping/tapping rapidly through a book will not pay. Some sort of timer runs while a page is displayed, and if the page isn’t displayed long enough, the page will not be considered read. Countable pages begin with the book’s starting point, so dedication pages, review excerpts, and indicia will not be paid.
Now, what can authors expect as a per-page payment? Nobody knows yet. People are guessing somewhere between .8c and 1c per page read. We’ll find out soon.
Any system like this is a basket of unintended consequences. These are the ones that immediately occur to me:
- Authors of art-heavy children’s books will bail.
- A lot of that flash-erotica will vanish. (This may be an intended consequence.) Or maybe not. A nickel is a nickel.
- More previews of other books will appear at the end of a book.
- Reference books will bail. This may include computer books, which are rarely read from cover to cover.
- Page-turners will dominate. Difficult books (fiction or nonfiction) will bail.
This last point bears discussing. Some books are bought to be seen in buyers’ hands or (more often) on their coffee tables. As Megan McArdle points out, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century is purchased a great deal more than it is read. I think this is true of a lot of literary fiction as well. Authors will have to understand that they’re no longer selling books. They’re not really selling pages, either. They’re selling page turns. To make money on KU going forward, each page will have to compel the reader to move on to the next page, and repeat until EOB.
This is bad news for James Joyce. This is good news for George R. R. Martin. And, I suspect, me.
It may also be bad news for writers who just don’t know what they’re doing. To pay by the page-turn, Amazon will have to report how many pages were turned. How much detail those reports will provide is still unknown. It would be terrific to know how many pages were read per title rather than in aggregate across all of an author’s titles, but I don’t think Amazon will be doing that, at least not right away. However, if you have ten 300-page books on KU and get paid for 67 pages, the reader base is telling you something.
I suspect that this is a fully intended (if unstated) consequence: to improve the readability of the material on KU. Fistfights break out frequently over whether readability and quality are strongly correlated. This is the dotted line where literature is separated from fiction, especially genre fiction. But consider what KU is: a mechanism allowing maniacal readers to get all the books they can read for ten bucks a month. If you’re a normal human being, Finnegan’s Wake will take you most of a month to bull through, and you can get ratty copies for a penny plus shipping online.
No, it’s going to work like this: If you can keep a reader up all night with your hard SF action-adventures, you can make money on the new KU. Write page-turners, and put previews of all of your page-turners in the backs of all of your page-turners.
That’s certainly what I intend to do. I will make money. Watch me.