There has been a whole lot of uproar and outrage out there in the books world in the past few days, ever since Jeff Bezos announced a new way of paying authors who participate in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs. The new system (which, by the way, applies ONLY to e-books that are borrowed from Amazon, and not to e-books that are bought outright), is to be launched in August.
The outrage has largely been fuelled by media coverage such as the item above from The Guardian, where the contents of the article are accurate but the headline misrepresents the nature of Amazon’s initiative. The dismay has been spread by those who read only headlines and then react — on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere – without reading further, and by people with a hate on for Amazon and Jeff Bezos in particular and self-publishing in general, due often to their loyalty to traditional publishers. (The dust from the Hachette fracas is a long way yet from settling.) Now I am seeing comments that denounce Amazon’s new method for paying authors for their borrowed books from people who don’t know the first thing about self-publishing, and may never have bought a single thing from Amazon, much less signed up to participate in its lending library.
In truth, Bezos’s announcement should be welcomed by every writer with any self-respect. Those of us who are writing books of fiction and non-fiction that we want people to read and find satisfying (or at least find to be of enough interest that they will finish reading them before they rip them to shreds), are the ones who will benefit from this new initiative. Those who will lose money are those who are churning out “book products” – page after page of illiterate crap that people download onto their computers but discard after the first sentence or first page.
Here is what you need to know in order to assess the new payment method that Bezos has announced:
- The new royalty payment plan applies ONLY to books that are enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs. Writers who have self-published their books in paperback or e-book format for direct sale on Amazon do not need to participate in the KU and KOLL program. It is optional.
- Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a program for which readers can register for $9.99/month, and subscribers can then can borrow as many e-books or audiobooks as they want during the month. (If you’re in Canada, this is the link.) After the month is up, the e-book is removed from your device. Until now, the authors of those books got paid a portion of the kitty collected from KU whenever their books were downloaded, whether the books were ever read or not. If a reader read the first page or first five pages, hated the book, and never picked it up again, the author still got paid. Or if a reader felt like downloading several books but never got around to reading any of them before the borrowing time was up (as some of us do at the library, sort of like trying on clothes at home and then deciding we don’t like/need/want them, and taking them back unworn), the writer still got paid.
- The Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) is available to members of Amazon Prime. KOLL operates in a similar way to KU, except that there is no “due date,” when the e-book is automatically removed from your device, but you can only borrow one book a month. Again, many readers were downloading books, discovering they were not of interest to them and/or were unadulterated crap, and never picking them up again. The writer still got paid.
- The money that is available to authors who choose to participate in KU and KOLL is called the KDP Select Global Fund. Each month a percentage of it goes out to authors. Currently, the money that Amazon makes available to this fund is divided equally among all books that are borrowed via KU or KOLL. Those authors with more books have the potential to make more money.
- Under the new system, the money will be divided on the basis of the number of pages “read” (or accessed, to be exact) when a book is downloaded. There are downsides to this if you are a poet, or are writing genius flash fiction: these writers may chose to triple-space their text in future:) . But the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for most books and most genuine writers, because now payments will be made to authors who have written books that are of sufficient merit that readers want to keep reading — either because of the quality of the writing, the page-turning nature of the writing, or for other reasons (e.g., the reasons that made the Fifty Shades book sell so well, which still elude me). With her best-selling novel The Goldfinch coming in at 771 print pages, Donna Tartt would have been ecstatic about this new plan if she’d had the foresight to self-publish.
An Attractive Option
While it is optional for authors of e-books on Amazon to make their books available on Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select) — where they become eligible for KU and KOLL – there are definitely advantages to participating, such as a higher royalty rate on books that readers purchase outright from Amazon. This makes sense: Amazon wants to encourage readers to participate in KU and Amazon Prime. But it is still a choice: we can sell our e-books and our paperbacks on Amazon without participating in the KDP Select program. I personally have made almost as much from the KU/KOLL program as I have from outright sales since I enrolled in it.
Sorting Wheat from Chaff
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a whole lot of crap out there in the self-publishing world. I have seen “writers” on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere who laugh at those of us who ever write a second draft of anything. To them, revision is a waste of time. These people measure their output in the number of words written in a day (5,000 being a typical minimum) and work to attain those numbers like those of us with FitBits do to acquire steps. It’s not that they write inspired first drafts: I’ve checked out several of them. Quality is not an issue: the number of books (products) on the market is all that matters. Those self-described writers have been doing very well with KOLL and KU as it currently exists — who cares if people read your book? All that matters is that they download them.
Those who are the modern versions of Charles Dickens — who, given his deadlines, must have churned out readable first drafts — will continue to make money under the new system. But they are in the minority.
Those of us who have sweated over every single word we’ve written, and after much revision (usually taking several years, not several weeks) have ended up with a few books that we find of sufficient quality to publish — and then, before we dared to self-publish them, have hired editors and book designers to make the “package” a quality item in which to deliver the quality writing — are the ones who are going to win under the new system.
It has long been my belief that the new gatekeepers for books — those who decide what books other people should read — will in future be the readers, rather than the agents, publishers, booksellers and traditional reviewers who have dictated the confines of our reading decisions in the past. This new approach from Amazon brings us one step closer to that reality.