What’s This Amazon Not Paying Authors Thing All About Then?

I’ve seen a number of people in the last few days picking up on a controversy that swept through the self-publishing world last week, and almost uniformly people have picked up on the wrong end of the stick.

People are saying “Amazon are only paying authors by how many pages are read! That’s horrible!”

It would be, if it were true, and I would be the first person shouting about it. But this is based on a misunderstanding.

Authors whose books are published by major publishers won’t be seeing any change whatsoever in how they’re paid. Authors like myself, who self-publish and sell ebooks through Amazon, will also see no change to their payments.

What’s happening is that Amazon, as well as selling books, also have a book-rental service called Kindle Unlimited. I’ve written about this, and why I think it is fantastically dangerous for literature, here.

If self-published authors want to be in Kindle Unlimited, they have to make their book exclusively available on Amazon. In return for this, they can make their book available for KU subscribers to read without paying for it, and Amazon set an arbitrary amount (usually in the range of two million dollars) to be shared between all the authors whose books are read. Each author got one share for each time one of her books was downloaded and more than 10% of it read.

Of course, there are many people who see ebooks not as a means of disseminating literature, but as a get-rich-quick scheme. Those people immediately flooded Kindle Unlimited with millions of four-page “books” (often called things like The Da Vinci Codex by Don Brown). The customer would download the “book”, open it to the first page, and the “author” would already have their 10% read.

And as well as actual scams, there were other ways to game the system, which were more honest but which were still not fair. An author might decide to cut her novel up into a serial, and release ten thirty-page books instead of one three-hundred-page one. Assuming the reader wants to know what happens next, that’s ten payments instead of one.

Not only is this annoying for readers, it’s actually unfair to the other authors in the scheme, as it’s hogging more than one share of the fixed pot (of course, it’s only fixed because Amazon decided it should be…). So Amazon have now changed the rules. They’ve set a standard page (so people can’t mess with formatting to set one word per page) and said “from now on, self-published KU authors get paid by how many pages of their books are read” (they’ve also set a minimum time per page, to fix the next obvious loophole).

Almost all the complaints about this come from scammers, because this is actually a slightly fairer way of doing things. A few people are pointing out that this disadvantages short story writers in favour of novelists. To them, I just say “pull out of Kindle Unlimited, stop going exclusive, and you’ll make the money back from all the people you sell to on other platforms”. I can’t have a huge amount of sympathy for anyone who’s decided to build a career on a zero-sum game whose rules and rewards are set by a third party that can unilaterally change those rules at no notice and that doesn’t have their best interest at heart.

But for once, Amazon aren’t being evil. They’re cleaning house. That can only be a good thing.

Why You Will Not Find My Books In Kindle Unlimited

(OK, so I lied about there being no post. I have to do something to take my mind off rubbishness.)

Amazon have announced a new feature, Kindle Unlimited. This feature allows Kindle owners (so far only in the US) to download as many books as they want, one at a time, for a $9.99 per month flat fee — it’s a “Spotify for books”. Authors get paid as soon as the Kindle owner reads more than 10% of their book.

This is, in theory, a great thing, but in practice it’s evil. That sounds harsh, but I think it’s fair. And there are two main reasons it’s evil.

The first is that it requires participation in “KDP Select”, Amazon’s exclusivity programme. If you sign up for this, you can’t have your books available digitally anywhere else. I’d have to pull my books from Smashwords, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and the rest, take down the PDF versions on Lulu, and remove the blog posts they were based on from here.

This would not be too terrible for me financially — I sell barely anything through any of those bookshops, and because I’m not good at sorting out tax stuff I haven’t even collected the money I’m owed for most of the sales (it’s all accruing in my Smashwords account, and I’ll get it eventually).

But it would mean that anyone with a non-Kindle e-reader would be unable to buy my books, making it bad for other readers like me (I have a Nook, and mostly buy from the Kobo shop and smaller ebook stores owned by publishers like Obverse or Baen).

It would also be one more tiny step towards Amazon being the only ebook retailer around, which would be bad both for readers (because monopolies are very bad for consumers) and for writers (because monopsonies are even worse for suppliers).

So I would consider it immoral to be involved — in the sense that the most moral action is the one which, should everyone take it, would improve the world the most, not in the sense of judging authors who decide differently. But that’s not actually the worst thing.

The worst thing is that, as with the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (which also requires participation in the KDP Select programme), there is not a flat fee paid to the author for each book read, but instead there’s a pot of money chosen by Amazon (at the moment $2million, as a promotional thing — normally closer to $1million, but offered at their discretion; they could make it ten cents if they wanted) which is split between all the authors according to the proportions in which their books are borrowed.

This is what makes it evil rather than just normal nasty corporate capitalism, because it turns what should be a positive-sum game into a zero-sum one.

If they made payments by number of books borrowed, say a dollar a book, that would be great. I could encourage you to read my book, and I’d get a dollar, and also encourage you to read, say, Andrew Rilstone’s latest book, and he’d get a dollar too.

But with the system where you’re paid by proportion of books borrowed, if I encourage you to read Rilstone’s book, then that means I’m getting a smaller share, so the incentive is for me to discourage you from reading any books by anyone other than myself. It’s a neat and nasty way of breaking any sense of community for authors (and one which would incidentally make collective action much more difficult should Amazon’s terms become more onerous).

This is not only classic divide-and-rule, pitting suppliers against each other, the worst kind of monopoly capitalism, but it’s also a catastrophic thing for readers. One of the most important ways people find new books is when authors reference or acknowledge each other’s work. But if you’re signed up to KDP Select, then you can’t tell readers about those other authors, who might make your share of the pie smaller.

And look at what that pie is. $2,000,000 . Sounds a lot, doesn’t it? But how many subscribers are they going to get at $10 a month? I’d guess quite a lot more than 200,000.

But more importantly, the number of books in the programme is “over 600,000”. Break that down, and that means that the mean payment per book — in this special promotional period where they’re paying more — is $3 per month. Obviously some will get more, but only because others will get even less.

The worst thing imaginable would be if this was a success, undercutting actual ebook sales to the point that it was the only way writers could actually make any money. And I can see that happening if something isn’t done about Amazon’s monopolistic practices (of which this is just one of many).

Thankfully the Big 5 publishers are staying out of this evil, and so long as they are, people will still buy books.

Because I don’t know exactly what the price for my soul is, but I do know it’s more than $3.

A Graphic Illustration Of How Badly The “Long Tail” Sells

As most of you will have seen, I put out a book last night.

Here’s a screenshot of part of the Amazon (UK) page for that book as of just now:

Pretty good, eh? Top thirty in its category, and in the top 24,000 overall books. There are over two million books on Kindle, so that means my new book is, within a few hours of its release, in the top 1.2% of all books available on Kindle! Take that 98.8% of English literature! I are best than you!

And that’s especially impressive given how little promotion I gave it. I only linked it from my blog and Tumblr, and did nothing else. It must be that word-of-mouth thing, right? That must have got me those massive sales.

So let’s have a look at my sales, see how I’m doing, how big a yacht I can afford to buy with my riches…



Oh, right…

Better not send that resignation email just yet then…

On the Rowling/Galbraith Thing, And Why Publishers Are Still Necessary

People seem to be reacting with astonishment to the fact that the book that J. K. Rowling published pseudonymously, through a major publisher, which got decent reviews in some newspapers, had only sold 449 copies in hardback in the last three months.

Those people have obviously never written books.

I’ve stopped looking at my Amazon stats, because to see them requires seeing the reviews, and my blood pressure won’t cope with that, but I looked at them regularly for the first eighteen months or so I published books. My books, as those who read them know, appeal only to a very niche market. They range in sales (or did when I last checked, a few months back) from one or two copies a day on average to one or two copies a month on average (I’m talking here about my proper books, not the little ebooks of short stories).

And (again, last I checked) my books were regularly in the top 10% of books sold on Amazon.

Not the top 10% self-published, or the top 10% ebooks, or the top 10% books analysing the music of the Monkees, or whatever — the top 10% books.

That means that on average, most books don’t sell. At all. On any given day, 90% of the books available on Amazon sell zero copies. It’s entirely possible, though I can’t look at anyone else’s stats, that a majority of them have never sold a copy to anyone who isn’t a close friend or relative of the author.

And this is why self-publishing is, ultimately, not a sustainable business model for writers, any more than sticking your albums up on bandcamp or CDBaby is for musicians. And it’s because record companies and publishers aren’t really in the business of selling music or books. The business they’re actually in is using money earned by huge sellers to subsidise those who don’t sell. Almost no writers (or musicians) earn out their advances — but some of those who do make *staggering* amounts of money. And that’s enough to offset the advances paid to the loss-making authors (most of them). And those advances are — for people who sell not all that many more books than I do — enough to live on.

And this is why, for all that I self-publish, I think the current trend of vilifying publishers and record companies as “unnecessary middle-men” is counter-productive (though the record companies don’t exactly make it easy on themselves by insisting on ever-greater monopolistic copyright “rights”). I self-publish because my stuff is *incredibly* niche, and there’s no point in even asking if a major publisher wants to put out something like my Seven Soldiers book.

This is, incidentally, why I’ve set the bar so incredibly low on my current Kickstarter — because the audience for *any* book these days, except huge bestsellers, is tiny, to the extent that if all my Twitter followers were to buy my next book (the Beach Boys one, which should be out in a couple of weeks) in the same week, it’d make the Sunday Times top ten for non-fiction.

The inefficiencies in the publishing system are the only reason that anyone under a very small handful of writers makes a living writing. As those inefficiencies disappear, we’re going to need to find a new way to fund writing, unless we want a world where J K Rowling is the only writer making a living at all.

Anyone have any ideas?

Publishers Hate Money, Clearly

I quite want to read Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow’s new book, The Rapture Of The Nerds.

I’m not hugely interested — I like some of Stross’ work a lot (basically the Laundry series and the near-future-Edinburgh police procedurals, all of which I adore), but other than Glasshouse his singularity-based stuff (Accelerando, Singularity Sky, that kind of stuff) does little for me, and I have no interest at all in Doctorow’s work. So I’m guessing there’s a sixty-forty chance I’ll enjoy the book — but if I enjoy it I’ll enjoy it a lot.

I had a quick look at it in Waterstone’s today, and it also looks like a short book — I’m guessing 40-60,000 words. Long novella/short novel length.

It’s currently available as a twenty pound hardback, which is much more than I’d pay for a shortish novel that there’s a decent chance I won’t like. It’s available on various US ebook sites for a more reasonable price, but not available on any UK ebook sites, because all of them insist on imposing regional restrictions — even though Tor own the rights to it throughout the English-speaking world.

However, because Stross and Doctorow are also good sorts, it’s *also* soon to be available (within a day or so), as a *free* ebook download from Doctorow’s site. Stross and Doctorow believe — rightly, in my opinion — that making books available as free creative commons works doesn’t stop people paying for them. Certainly, in my case, I actively sought out ways to purchase the ebook and give money to the authors and publisher even though I knew it was going to be available for free.

But I’m not going to pay twenty quid for it in a format I don’t want to buy it in, either (I reserve buying paper books now for books I either believe I’ll want to keep and reread many times, or books that aren’t available as non-DRM’d ebooks). So I’m going to get it for free, this time.

(Note that I would not download the book for free illegally. I have occasionally torrented books, in order to check a particular author’s work out, but always buy legitimate copies afterwards if those are available to me).

Note that this isn’t the fault of this particular publisher — Tor are publishing the book in multiple countries simultaneously, they’ve allowed the release of the free CC-licensed download, and they make all their books available DRM-free now, they’re doing The Right Thing here — but of the whole system of regional restrictions in copyright licensing, and ebook sellers being overly-restrictive as a result.

I understand exactly why this system exists, and it benefits the authors in many ways, as well as the publishers, but it’s becoming ever more clear that the system no longer works the way it should. Actively preventing customers from giving you money is never going to be a good long-term business strategy.

The question is, as with so much to do with ‘intellectual property’ these days, what do we replace it with? If I could figure that one out, I’d probably have a lot more money to spend on books afterwards…

Why We Still Need Publishers

There’s a big storm at the moment over the US Department of Justice going after several of the biggest publishers for alleged price-fixing of ebooks, which they allegedly did in order to prevent Amazon having a monopoly on book sales. Charles Stross has the best summary I’ve seen of the expected effects, here.

Now, a lot of people are cheering Amazon and hoping for the destruction of these publishers, because they see selling self-published ebooks as being a better option. I disagree, for most of them, even though I self-publish myself.

Self-publishing is definitely better for some people. It’s better for me, because I write stuff for a niche audience, among whom I have some kind of name recognition, which simply wouldn’t be of interest to a major publisher. It’s also better for a writer like Dean Wesley Smith, the most articulate and level-headed of the self-publishing advocates I know of, because he’s extremely prolific, writing roughly a dozen novels’ worth of prose in the average year, and he writes in a variety of very commercial genres and has experience running a publishing house.

I’m not sure it’s better for writers or readers, and I have two main reasons for that.

The first is that we’ve been here before. I’ve been in a couple of bands, and around 2000 one of them was putting MP3s on sites like Mp3.com, listensmart.com and dozens of other sites which no longer exist. These worked *exactly* the same way ebook and POD sites work, and they also had message boards, and those message boards were saying *exactly* the same things about music in 2000 that people are saying now about publishing in 2012. Substitute “the Big Six” for “the major labels”, “Amazon KDP” for mp3.com, and you can see the same types of people saying the same types of things. “Hooray for the death of the evil corporations that turn my genius down!” “I’m going to give all my work away for free so I’ll get exposure and become a millionaire!”, “Anyone want to swap reviews? I’ll buy yours if you buy mine, so long as it’s not over a dollar!”, “Aargh! My stats have gone down since ten minutes ago! Must promote more!” and so on.

Twelve years later, all those people who hoped to get rich quick are still nowhere. Bypassing the major labels *does* work for a number of artists — just like bypassing the major publishers works for some writers — but the head of Universal Music Group is not sat on a street-corner with a sign around his neck saying “will be a middleman for food”. Because musicians aren’t generally also cover designers, video directors, PR people and all the other skills that are needed to get music into people’s hands.

So I suspect something similar will happen with publishing. The reason I hope so is that I want writers to get paid.

Because most writers don’t actually earn enough to live off through book sales. I know this because I sell more than most, and I don’t.

I currently average around £100 per week from sales of all my books combined, through all channels (physical books through Amazon and Lulu, ebooks through those plus Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and half a dozen smaller bookshops). That’s tripled in the last couple of months, incidentally, and quadrupled since September — there definitely *is* a self-publishing boom going on.

Now, we’ll be as fair as possible to the anti-publishers here and say that income *only* came from my five full-length books. That makes £20 per book per week. We’ll be doubly fair to them and pretend *all* that income came from Amazon. Amazon make up around 25% of the total books market, so if my books were selling *everywhere*, then they could be up to an average £80 per week.

Now the thing is, my books sell *significantly* better on Amazon than the average. All my full-length books are in the top 50% of all books on Amazon at the moment. On average they’re in the top 25%. My best-seller (the Monkees book) is in the top 2%. And that’s on print sales — I rank higher on ebooks. Significantly higher.

Think about that for a moment. I have a book that is selling better than 98% of all books — not ‘all self-published books’ or ‘all books about 60s pop groups’. *Better than 98% of all books*. And yet I’m nowhere near earning a living wage from my writing. Even if we assume all sorts of weird things — pretend that books sell hugely in their first week then never sell again or something, and I’m the only exception — that suggests that the vast majority of writers don’t make very much from their writing.

So how do they live?


Like record companies, publishers pay an advance on royalties. This means the author may get, say, $5000 up-front for a book, and a 15% royalty on sales, but only start getting the royalty once it’s gone past the up-front $5000. Of course, $5000 is not a huge amount of money, but many advances are much higher than that, and it’s possible for many (not all) writers to write four books a year. Put that together, and you can make a living from selling books that never earn back their advance. Which is good, because most don’t. (I’ve seen all sorts of figures bandied around — obviously, publishers don’t want to say when they’ve lost money on a book, so it’s difficult to get reliable information — but none of them say that more than 50% of books ever earn out their advance).

The reason this works is the same reason that many people scream about the publishers — they keep most of the money. If you’re an author who’s making money, that sounds like a bad idea. But essentially publishers exist to be a redistribution service, taking money from the Dan Browns and JK Rowlings of the world, and giving it in the form of advances to less successful writers.

So the net result of the loss of publishers would be the loss of writers as a professional class. We’d have a few bazillionaires, because the Browns and Rowlings would be keeping 70-85% of their money, a handful of people like Dean Wesley Smith who manage to be fast enough to get an absolute ton of product on the market, a few peiople like me who find a comfortable niche or two and maybe manage to scratch a living, and a whole load of amateurs writing in their spare time with minimal or no editing. What you wouldn’t have is the vast swathe of stuff in the middle, all the mid-list writers who manage to earn a steady living from writing one or two good books a year.

So even though for me as a writer the big publishers disappearing would be a good thing, because I’d lose most of the competition for readers’ money, as a reader I’d quite like people to keep getting paid for writing books I want to read.

(On the other hand, if you want to stick it to The Man and give all your money to independent publishers, you can buy my books from Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords. I am nothing if not greedy. Down with The Man!)

How To Get Your Books On Sale

I’ve been talking with a few people recently about self-publishing, and some of them are vaguely confused about what you need to do in order to get a book out if you’ve written it and want to publish yourself, so I thought I’d do a semi-comprehensive guide. This is for full-length books of 40,000 words or more – short stories are a slightly different beast.

First, you need a word processor that will output in both .doc and .pdf format. Microsoft Word will do both these, I think, and I know that LibreOffice, AbiWord and OpenOffice.org will. I actually use LyX, because it produces beautifully typeset work and you don’t have to fight it the way you do MS Word. If you use LyX, the book Self-Publishing With LyX (free PDF version) is a godsend.

First, we’ll look at print publishing. Export your book as a PDF, with all fonts included in your file – if you don’t do this, there may be typesetting errors with your finished book. Most typesetting advice will tell you to use a ten-to-twelve point serif font, but I use a fourteen point sans serif. This is because my wife is visually impaired, and she finds this much easier to read. I suspect this will be the case for other visually impaired people, and I don’t want to exclude anyone from reading my books. So long as you use a simple, plain font for this, not Comic Sans or anything equally horrific, your book will look professional enough.

You will want to set fairly generous margins on your pages in the PDF, to allow for the pages to be trimmed. I use the margins suggested in Self-Publishing With LyX – Top: 2.5cm, Bottom 2.5cm, Inner: 2.5cm, Outer: 2.0cm . If you’re using Microsoft Word or one of the Wordalike Free Software word processors, lulu.com have a template you can use that will make your pages the right size, but when I used this (on my first two books, before I discovered LyX) I found it extraordinarily fiddly to use with LibreOffice, and next to impossible in AbiWord. I don’t have a copy of Microsoft Word, so I have no experience with that.

Once you have your PDF, you next need your cover. If you can’t draw yourself, you have a couple of options. One that some writers take is to browse stock photo libraries, and pay a small amount (usually in the tens of pounds) for rights to use a picture. You can, however, also search Google Images for images that have been freely licensed for commercial reuse.

One thing to remember, as well, is that all images created by branches of the US government are automatically in the public domain, so lots of military, scientific or space photographs, as well as photos of various politicians and so on, are completely free to use.

Now create an account with a print-on-demand publisher. I have heard very, very good things about CreateSpace, but I use lulu.com myself. This is partly because CreateSpace are an Amazon company, and I don’t want Amazon to have a monopoly or to put my eggs in one basket, and partly because Lulu also offer very good quality hardbacks, and I like to have nice copies of my books.

Once you have an account, click ‘start a new project’ and follow the steps it tells you. You will want your book to be available as a trade paperback (this is a normal paperback of a standard size – Lulu also do larger, coffee-table style books), as a hardback, and as a PDF (don’t add DRM to your PDF – DRM doesn’t deter so-called ‘pirates’ and does deter actual readers). Lulu have an easy-to-use cover designer that will take your image, resize it to the right dimensions, and let you add the title, author name, back-cover blurb and so on. You will get a PDF copy of this completed cover – take a screenshot of the front cover and save it as a JPG, and you can use it for your ebooks.

While Lulu do publish ebooks in non-PDF format, I’ve had nothing but horrendous experience with them in that department, so don’t put your ebooks out through them, other than PDF versions.

You can either buy an ISBN for your book or get one assigned by Lulu. There is no reason I know of not to use Lulu’s. Once you have an ISBN assigned and have bought and approved a proof copy of your book, you can choose either Lulu’s ‘ExtendedReach’ service (which is free, and gets your book on Amazon and into bibliographic databases so other stores can choose to order it) or their GlobalReach service (which is expensive but gets you onto other sites like Barnes & Noble). Interestingly, they seem to be experimenting with merging these two services and making them both free, but I don’t know if that will be going ahead.

Now you’ve got your physical book sorted, it’s time to think of your ebook. For this you’ll need your book to be in Word .doc format. (If you have a choice of which .doc versions to output as, choose Office 2003. DO NOT choose either Windows 95’s version, which doesn’t have all the features you need, or docx, which the major sites don’t yet support). There are many programs that will allow you to produce your own good-quality epub and mobi files, but if you want to get on the major sites you actually want them to convert the files for you at the moment.

Read through the Smashwords Style Guide (free ebook in various formats here) and follow its instructions precisely, paying special attention to the section on Table Of Contents. Then create an account with Smashwords and upload your correctly-formatted .doc file. Smashwords will then convert your book into every format in which you wish to sell it. Select all formats except .mobi (the Kindle format, which we’ll deal with separately) and PDF (Smashwords’ PDF copies look horrible, sell PDFs through Lulu instead).

Smashwords will assign you a free ISBN for your ebook, and will sell DRM-free copies through their own site, but their real advantage is that they will get you onto other online bookstores. They’re the only simple way to get on iBooks, Kobo, Diesel and Sony’s bookstore. They’re also the only way for people outside the US to get on Barnes & Noble’s Nook ebookstore. (People in the US can use Barnes & Noble’s PubIt). These sites between them account for something in the region of 20% of the ebook market.

Smashwords will claim that they offer distribution to Amazon, but they don’t. Disable this option just in case this changes, because you’re going to put your book out through Amazon by yourself – no reason to give Smashwords a cut.

You will want to price your book on Smashwords at between $2.99 and $9,99 – this is not because of anything to do with Smashwords itself, but because Amazon price-matches with other sites, and that’s the price range in which you get the best royalties on Amazon.

Smashwords is a great service, but has two major disadvantages. The first is that they pay quarterly in arrears – so if they receive money from a sale on Apple’s store in February (and Apple take their time to pay Smashwords), you won’t see it until June. The second is that for non-USians they require you to jump through a lot of hoops in the US’ insanely complex tax system if you don’t want to lose 30% of your money, and this takes time. The combination of these two things mean that even though I’ve had books up on Smashwords for a year, I am yet to see any money from them. But when it does finally arrive it’ll be a substantial chunk.

Finally, you’ll want your book to be available on the Kindle. This is the simplest of all these options by this point. Take your Smashwords-formatted .doc file, remove the line about ‘published on Smashwords’ that you inserted to meet Smashwords’ requirements, add page breaks at the end of each chapter (Kindle like page-breaks, Smashwords don’t). Then create an account at kdp.amazon.com and upload your files.

Amazon will try to get you to join a program called KDP Select with your books. DO NOT JOIN THIS. It is a very bad deal for actual writers (as opposed to delusional fools who want to strike it big with a single bestseller), it limits what you can do enormously, and some of its provisions (like turning the money made from lending into a zero-sum game in which you have to compete with other authors) are actively evil.

You should price your book between $2.99 and $9.99, as outside this price range you only make a 35% royalty, but you get 70% if your book’s in that price range. Some people will advise you to sell your books for 99 cents to ‘get noticed’. This was possibly good advice two years ago, but when there are literally millions of books selling at that price (and people giving books away as part of the KDP Select programme), any advantage the low price may have had is gone, so you might as well charge an amount where you’ll see some money. (99 cents is, however, a fair price for a short story if you’re publishing those).

Do not enable DRM – all DRM does is put customers off, it doesn’t deter illegal copying. Enable text-to-speech unless you hate blind people and want them to suffer.

Finally, get an Amazon Author Central account. You will, in fact, want to set up two of these, one on the US site and one on the UK site. From a reader’s point of view, an authorcentral page allows you to see everything an author’s written in one place, as well as a bio of the author (see my page for an example of how this works) – useful if you’ve written multiple books and people want to find them all. From an author’s point of view, it gives you some extra tools to manage your books.

And that’s it. Once you’ve done this, post a link on your blog or website saying your book’s out, then forget about it until the money comes in, and write the next one, and the one after that.