Should Self-Published Authors Get Paid by How Much You Read?

The Internet, that great and glorious money-making venture, has done some amazing things for the humble self-published author.  As a marketing platform, it is unparalleled in scope – and with the help of e-commerce giants like Amazon, self-published authors have gained the ability to publish, promote, and sell their properties with ease and professional finesse.

But as we are all aware, the Internet comes with a darker side…and I’m not just talking about that weird subreddit you came across late last night.  You know which one I mean.  The World Wide Web has allowed online companies to come up with some really creative ways of squeezing dollars and cents out of their customers, and our old friend Amazon is trying a new tactic that may or may not be good for the self-published among us.

Amazon makes a lot of money off its independent authors.  We provide it with its milk and meat: it gets its products from us by selling our work through the KDP marketplace, and it gives us back between 35 and 70 percent of the royalties for the privilege.

On the other side of the equation, Amazon book-buyers tend to get a good deal out of the whole Kindle thing.  They get a wide choice of content along with the instant gratification of beaming novels right to their smartphones or tablets.  And self-published authors often underprice their works or offer them for free to get noticed, which book readers love.

Amazon doesn’t love that kind of underpricing quite so much, despite spending a lot of time expanding its free Kindle offerings.  Authors can enroll their books in KDP Select, which offers a five-day free promotional period and Kindle Countdown Deals in exchange for 90 days of exclusivity to Amazon.  It also provides automatic inclusion in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) programs, unless you opt out.

KOLL promises authors a piece of a monthly global fund based on how many readers download and read a portion of the book.

“We base the calculation of your share of the KDP Select Global Fund by how often Kindle Unlimited customers choose and read more than 10% of your book, and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library customers download your book,” Amazon says on its FAQ site.

“We compare these numbers to how often all participating KDP Select titles were chosen. For example, if the monthly global fund amount is $1,000,000, all participating KDP titles were read 300,000 times, and customers read your book 1,500 times, you will earn 0.5% (1,500/300,000 = 0.5%), or $5,000 for that month.”

That sounds great, right?  Sounds like a good reason to swallow the 90-day exclusivity contract in hopes of making some serious cash.  In April of 2015, the global fund was a whopping $3 million, and that’s a nice pie – if you can grab a piece of it.

The problem is that free books are often downloaded, but very rarely read.  That doesn’t do much good for anyone.  So in “response to author feedback from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read,” Amazon is ditching the ten percent metric for Kindle downloads and changing the system a bit.

Starting on July 1, “we’ll switch from paying Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) royalties based on qualified borrows, to paying based on the number of pages read,” the website says.  “As with our current approach, we’ll continue to set a KDP Select Global Fund each month. Under the new payment method, the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read instead of their share of total qualified borrows.”

Here’s how Amazon explains it in its own words:

If the fund was $10M and 100,000,000 total pages were read in the month:

The author of a 100 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $2,000 ($10 million multiplied by 20,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed 100 times but only read halfway through on average would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

Now, first thing you have to remember is that the monthly fund isn’t anywhere near $10 million at the moment.  It was $3 million just a few months ago, right?  So let’s not forget to cut all these numbers by a third.  Second of all, these download numbers are for superstars only.  Very, very few self-published authors earn that much money off of their Kindle products.  I certainly don’t.

The good thing, I think, is that Amazon does not mention any new threshold for payment to replace the 10 percent mark.  It appears that you can get a (tiny) share of the money if a reader browses just one page, which means the change might actually put a few fractions of a penny into the pockets of more writers.  But it’s probably only going to benefit people who write really long books.

What do I mean?  Let’s take…oh, I dunno.  Me?  I’m less likely to hit a 10 percent threshold with my typical fare, such as a 580-page opus like The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, than I am with Salt and Oil, Blood and Clay, a short story collection that only clocks in at 65 pages.

For The Spoil, I would want to get paid for each download and by the individual page without the burden of meeting the 10 percent threshold.  Fifty-six pages is a lot to slog through if you’re not committed, and even if the book was downloaded a lot more often than it is, my readers rarely hit the ten percent finish line.  For Salt and Oil, where ten percent of the book is only 6 and a half pages, I wouldn’t benefit much from the new per-page system at all.  I might even make less, depending on how the calculations work out.

For more on the actual numbers, you should read this great post by C.E. Kilgore, who’s done all the calculations for us.

amazon-kdp-grTo alleviate concerns over variable formatting affecting page count, Amazon is introducing a standardized system called the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC v1.0).  But it seems to indicate that only consecutive pages starting with Chapter 1, as determined by the Start Reading Location, will count towards pages read.  That begs the question: are you out of luck if you’ve written a non-fiction book or academic text and your reader is only interested in one or two chapters somewhere in the middle?  I’m not really sure how the Start Reading Location thing works on a technical level, so I don’t have an answer for that one.

For my own part, I don’t really see a lot of benefit from KDP Select, and I’m letting my last few titles age out of the program in July.  I don’t plan to enroll any of my works again, since I’m looking into selling some international rights (a topic for another blog post), and I’m hoping to get a lot more out of that adventure than I do out of KDP Select.  I generally don’t like the idea of exclusivity, either, just on principle.

I think in general, the changes won’t massively affect the majority of low-earning, low-expectation authors, and I’m not sure that I’m really all that put out about it.  Do I like the idea of getting paid based on how much my readers get through?  Yes and no.  On one hand, books are no longer exclusively physical objects, so why should we sell them as such?  If I write boring books, I shouldn’t get paid for making my readers drool on their keyboards when they fall asleep after page three.

On the other hand, Amazon isn’t charging book-buying customers any less for only reading half the book.  They still pay the same flat fee, on top of their Prime subscription fee, and it’s only the authors who are getting the (potentially) raw deal.  Amazon may end up keeping more of the profits – probably otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it.  And that doesn’t seem right.

Do you think Amazon is being fair about this?  Do you think it will hurt self-published authors?  Do you think it requires an advance degree in mathematics to figure it out?  Let me know in the comments, because I’m truly undecided!

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4 thoughts on “Should Self-Published Authors Get Paid by How Much You Read?

  1. Pingback: Hey, Traditional Authors: Self-Publishing Isn’t the Easy Way Out | Jennifer Bresnick

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