Revised payment methods for Kindle Owners Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited, like other Amazon services, are author and reader friendly, argues Orna Ross
“Now will you admit that Amazon is no friend to authors?” said my book-loving friend, who had telephoned me from Ireland for a chat. He’d heard a writer on Irish radio talking about what he called “Amazon attack on author incomes”.
“You know, whenever I see what the media writes and says about Amazon,” I said, “I wonder if the information I’m getting about other topics is as skewed and inaccurate.”
“But,” cried my friend, “this poor writer’s income has been totally decimated, overnight. On a whim. They are only paying writers for the number of pages read now, instead of the whole book. Aren’t you worried?”
I do understand that most people outside our business (and some within) are not au fait with the difference between a reader buying an ebook on Amazon vis a vis borrowing it via Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL), or downloading it as part of their Kindle Unlimited (KU) subscription. [Details on these differences, from a writer's perspective, here, if you’d like to know more]
But this wasn’t an honest misunderstanding. This was, once again, a wide strand of the press and reading public refusing to let facts inform the latest chapter in their “Amazon Is A Scary Monster” story.
My friend is a reader who resents ebooks and his determination to diss Amazon over this latest move was echoed in media, old and new, across the world — UK daily newspapers right-wing ( The Telegraph) and left The Guardian, culture press USA (The Atlantic), business press (Canada Business), tech reporting (Gismodo Australia), not to mention among authors online. In all of these articles, and hundreds more, errors, fallacies, and miscalculations flew, laced with howls of protest from self-interested authors.
They confused sales with borrows, did calculations that overlooked how KENP (Kindle Edition Normalized Page) counts are higher than print page counts, overlooked the leap in the global fund from $3 million to $11 million; and generally assumed bad motives and outcomes.
So Why All The Negativity?
You could put it down to the negativity bias to which, psychologists tell us, we are all prone — do you pay more attention to a good review or bad? — but it’s more than that. What we have here is fear.
Amazon is powerful and has flexed that power in negotiations with publishers. It is at the forefront of technological change that has thrown up big challenges for independent publishers and wholesalers, booksellers and authors. And it keeps on ringing the commercial changes in an industry that is conservative and that, quite rightly, values its cultural role as well as its commercial well-being.
So Is Pay Per Read Good or Bad for Authors?
As with most things authorly, it depends.
- If you are an author who distributes all your books through multiple retailers and haven’t given any exclusively to Amazon, it won’t make any difference: business as usual for you.
- If you have one or more books in KDP Select and you:
- write long compelling books, you probably stand to make more money.
- write short compelling books, you possibly stand to make less.
Probably and possibly, because we won’t know the outcome for sure until the first payouts begin in a few weeks. What we do know is that if you are in KDP Select and you:
- write books short or long that do not engage readers, your days (pages) are now numbered.
The move, while restricted to the lending library and subscription service, is the first time anyone in the book business has given readers — more accurately, the act of reading — a say in what gets financially favored. This is a fascinating move and one that we welcome at ALLi.
Who in the books ecosystem is better placed to decide which writing gets rewarded than readers?
But What About Literature?
The Telegraph‘s article began, as many of the articles decrying the move to pay-per-read did, with James Joyce, the ultimate bought-but-little-read author: “How much snappier would Ulysses have been had James Joyce been on a pay-per-page deal?” it asked.
Answer: Not one bit.
Joyce didn’t write for money, or to please readers, or but “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience” of his people. His book was brought to the attention of the reading public by a committed publisher.
Many publishers take great delight in publishing and promoting books of minority interest but cultural importance, like research-driven science, history, poetry, economics or literary fiction.
Commentators on the KU/KOLL move are assuming only popular fiction and non-fiction, packed with hooks and twists and other people pleasers will be bought and read. Yes, the market will favor these works, the market always has, but for every hundred readers who likes to read those, there are a few who prefer detailed description, thought provoking theory, complex characters or finely wrought prose. Such books too will be bought and read.
Traditionally, when we were limited by bookshelf space and territory, they couldn't be bought in sufficient numbers to give an author a living. The question is: are there enough readers on a global scale to keep a writer like that in business now?
Another question is which books die a death under a pay-per-read system? Those bought because they were written by celebrities jump to mind. Also, those that sell a premise they don't deliver (You know, all those Ten Instant Steps to Total Happiness Forever titles).
And indeed, Ulysses.
How many other books fall into the bought-but-never-read category?
Is Amazon Good For Authors?
So back to the original question.
ALLi’s tried and tested answer is yes. We run a watchdog desk and publish an annual guide in which we compare and vet self-publishing services under a wide variety of headings, including service, pricing, contract terms and conditions, ease of use etc. Amazon consistently figures at the top, or in the top three, under every measure.
Full disclosure: Amazon provides grants and sponsorship to many literary charities and nonprofits including ALLi. Our services assessment is, however, completely independent of this grant. Amazon and all sponsors are subject to the same scrutiny and process as everyone else and we do not accept as a Sponsorship Partner, or Partner Member, any company that we know breaks our Partner Member Code.
And ALLi’s standard advice to authors in general (there are always exceptions) is to avoid exclusivity with any one retailer and to make your books available in as many formats as possible on as many platforms as possible.
All of our team, and a majority of our members, favor a vibrant author-publishing market, with a wide variety of good services.
Right now, Amazon is the largest, the most innovative, and one of the most author-friendly services. Maybe this will change in time.
Until it does, if we measure author-love in money, attention, service, respect, or fair dealing, any impartial observer summing up the evidence has to conclude that yes, Amazon does, as much as any, and more than most, love authors.