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.

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