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June, 2015:

Paying by the Page Turn

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.

Odd Lots

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss

Frank&VickieDuntemann Bill Prendergast Wedding 11-21-1964-500 wide.jpg

Father’s Day. I’m not sure what I can say about my father that hasn’t been said already. If you’ve read this entry from 2009, you know most of his history. Maybe it’s time to lay out some more.

Frank W. Duntemann was, by his own definition, a successful man. He had a gift for aphorism, and he told me more than once: “Success means being at no one’s mercy but your own.” He wanted me to be successful as well, and did everything he knew how to urge me along. Straight As were a requirement at our house, and I delivered them. So were courtesy, respect, and correct English. He taught me how to teach myself things–good lord, it took me decades to appreciate the value of that lesson alone. He told me life was hard work, and so what? Successful people worked hard. They were also careful, and made smart choices. He summed it up with another aphorism: Kick ass. Just don’t miss.

In other words, weld enthusiasm to discernment. I had plenty of enthusiasm. Discernment came later.

And he worried about this. Much of my free time (at least free time that wasn’t spent reading) I spent banging on my grandmother Sade Duntemann’s cranky old Understood Standard #5, which she had given me when I was ten. I was writing science fiction stories. I showed him the ones I considered good, and he agreed. They were good. They were maybe a little too good, especially for a 14-year-old. My high school had teacher conference nights, and my parents always went. One of my English teachers told him something that made him proud, and evidently scared him (as he might have put it) shitless: “Jeff is an absolutely amazing writer. You should encourage him. I’ll bet he could make money with his stories!”

It was assumed that I would follow in his footsteps and become an engineer. And it’s true, I was always tinkering something up in the basement. But as my high school years passed, I spoke more and more of getting published, and not just writing, but being a writer.

He was gentle about it, but firm: Writing was not a good way to make a living. Trying to make a job out of writing was a good way to starve. Better to be an engineer, and write in your spare time…

The lessons stopped in the fall of 1968, when my father was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer caused by his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I was 16. My mother was completely devoted to caring for him, and my sister and I more or less grew up on automatic. I was accepted at engineering school, and bailed after a single semester. I didn’t fail out, exactly, but I could tell it wasn’t going to work.

Alas, I had no clue about what would.

I enrolled at DePaul University’s Department of English, figuring I could always be a teacher. After all, I was good at explaining things. Again, I got straight As, and in the fall of my senior year I sold my first SF story, to Harry Harrison’s anthology Nova 4. I got $195 for it. My father pointed out that it was a good start, but I really needed a backup career. I still had no idea what to do with my life. After I graduated I took a job as a Xerox machine repairman, continued to teach myself electronics, and continued to write. I taught myself programming, and built my own computer out of loose parts. On a whim I began writing articles about home-built computers, and sold them, mostly to Wayne Green but later to Byte, and much later to PC Tech Journal and others. The money was thin, but over time it began to add up.

Frank W. Duntemann died on January 11, 1978. I was 25. Very weirdly, when he died I was under general anaesthesia at Evanston Hospital, getting a hernia fixed. Even more weirdly, while I was under I had a dream: I stood alone in space, gazing at a titanic wall of books on shelves, thousands upon endless thousands of books, extending to infinity in every direction.

People don’t dream normally under general anaesthesia, which is, after all, an artificial coma. I was hallucinating, surely. Or had my father taken a quick detour on his way to the Beatific Vision, and, figuring he had time to stick only one image into my head, chose an image that his weird nerdy writer son would understand?

If so, I think I know what he was saying: Go for it, dammit!

I did. That day was what writers call my “dark moment.” It passed, as dark moments do, and my life began to fall into place. Within a year I’d gotten a huge promotion and a transfer to a programming job at Xerox HQ. Within two years I’d sold three more SF stories, and within three years I had two nominations on the final ballot of the Hugo Awards. Within five years I nailed a contract for my first technical book. Within ten years I was Editor-in-Chief of a technical magazine with 217,000 readers. Within twenty years I was co-owner of Arizona’s largest book publishing company, and had a quarter million books in ten languages kicking around the world with my name on them.

I kicked ass. I didn’t miss. The kickin’ just took a little longer than either of us expected.

I wobble between two extremes on Father’s Days. The sentimental, mystical part of me assumes that he’s somehow gotten word that his kid done good–and the hard-bitten, rationalist part wants to wring his neck for checking out before I could prove him wrong and rub his nose in it.

Here’s the moral, as I see it: Fathers, believe in your sons as they create their own futures. Sons, cut your fathers some slack. They couldn’t see your futures while you were creating them…

…or could they?

Bad Timing

First of all, a hearty welcome to all the new readers who’ve posted in my comments here, and a fair number more who’ve left tracks in my webstats. I’ve had a number of links posted to my Sad Puppy Summary and Wrapup from some sites a great deal bigger than mine, including John C. Wright’s, Mike Glyer’s File 770, and Monster Hunter Nation, egad. Now you’re all probably wondering why I haven’t posted anything new since May 31. I don’t post as often as I did ten years ago, but two weeks away is unusual for me.

It’s just bad timing, timing we did not control: We got a decent offer for our condo outside Chicago, and accepted it. That meant we had to drive 1,100 miles, empty it out, clean it up, sort the garageful of artifacts transported to Carol’s sister’s house, complete the paperwork (which was complex, as there were multiple owners including a trust) pack a Durango and a half’s worth of artifacts into a single Durango, and then drive 1,100 miles back home. The process included some brute-force moving of furniture, many trips to Goodwill, and considerable exercise of my tessellation superpower in order to pack way too much stuff into way too little space. Forgive me if I’m exhausted. I’ll be turning 63 in two weeks, and feeling every nanosecond of it.

So give me a day or three to recover. There’s much to write about, most of it concerning writing, especially my plans for the coming year. I should be posting The Cunning Blood for sale on the Kindle store some time in July, for the princely price of $2.99. “Drumlin Boiler” will go up shortly after that, for 99c. “Whale Meat” is already there, for 99c. I still need a cover for my novella “Firejammer,” but the ebook is otherwise complete. Are you artist enough to draw a stone castle / warship sailing on an ocean of molten lava? I pay reasonably well for covers.

The big deal happens on January 7, 2016, when I’ll be releasing Ten Gentle Opportunities on Kindle, with paperbacks from CreateSpace. I have a cover contracted for that, from the dazzling Blake Henriksen, but I’m thinking of buying some interior art as well from other artists. Interested? Contact me. It’s my first new novel in ten years, and I’ll be putting my back into the launch.

In the meantime, I have to develop a Web presence for my fiction around the domain that I registered twenty years ago and never figured out what to do with. I’ll need some art for that as well, and I have a great deal of studying to do on WordPress extensions and internals. January 7 seems like a long way off. It’s not.

So hang in there. More stuff coming. As preface, you might go back and reread my New Year’s Eve 2014 post, which will be relevant to coming entries. Ditto my series on Sarah Hoyt’s Human Wave idea, at least until you get to the Sad Puppies part, at which point you can stop. I’ve already said most of what I want to say about that, and need to get on to other things.

It’s time to go take another Aleve, but man, (he said zenily) I haven’t felt this good in a long time.