Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Page by page

Good morning!

A few hours ago, I spoke on BBC Radio 4's Today Show about Amazon's new pay-per-page policy for certain self-published authors. The programme's interviews are bite-sized and author Kerry Wilkinson was also being interviewed, so I was only able to speak for a few minutes – but I thought it was worth teasing out my thoughts a little more on here, as it's an interesting topic for both readers and authors.

Yesterday's headlines on Amazon's new payment method were easy to misread. The Guardian's message was ‘Pay-per-page: Amazon to align payment with how much customers read’, while the Telegraph's was ‘Amazon to pay authors only for pages read’. It gave the impression that this would apply to all self-published authors whose books are available on Kindle, and that those authors would have their royalties brutally cut if readers didn't get very far into the book. At first blush, it looked bad, and my first reaction was anger. The reality, however, proved to be slightly more complicated.


What's the fuss?

This new method of payment applies to Amazon's KDP Select programme, not to purchased books. KDP Select is opt-in or out, and allows self-published authors to earn a cut of the KDP Select Global Fund, an amount set by Amazon on a monthly basis. (For June 2015, it's $3 million.) This naturally puts a cap on author's earnings, as they can never earn more than the fund allows and are competing, within that fixed amount, with all the other authors on the programme. A reader can borrow the book as part of Kindle Unlimited, which allows for – you guessed it – unlimited reading of KU books in exchange for a subscription fee. Amazon used to start paying royalties on the borrowed book once a reader got to the 10% mark.

However, the 10% ‘trigger’ was proving unfair on authors who wrote longer books. A reader perusing a short book reaches the trigger point much faster than one reading an 800-page tome. The result of this was a flood of very short reads as authors spread their writing over as many books as possible.

Amazon's answer: the new pay-per-page method, ‘in response to great feedback [they] received from authors who asked [them] to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read’. From the Start Reading Location (SRL), payment is made every time a reader turns a page during their first read. The precise meaning of ‘page’ is set by Amazon via the Kindle Edition Normalised Page Count (KENPC) to ensure that inflated fonts, wide line spacing and big margins won't fool the system. You also need to spend a particular amount of time on a page before it counts as read. (I won't linger on the surveillance point, as I think that's a slightly different issue.)

On the surface, it makes sense not to punish those who write longer books, and much of the controversy seems to have stemmed from misinformation and confusing headlines – but questions remain.


Data and creativity

Amazon's new system has solved one problem, but it may yet spawn another. Instead of penalising long books, the system could penalise shorter reads – assuming the amount paid per page is the same for any book, regardless of length.

We all know that quantity doesn't equal quality, especially not in the book world. In the traditional publishing industry, books of all different sizes are sold at the same price. Case in point from my bookshelves:


  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman (pb) – 640 pages – £8.99
  • The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (pb) – 512 pages – £7.99
  • Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (pb) – 177 pages – £7.99

No author is noticeably penalised or rewarded for the length of their book. However, in Amazon's case, this may now lead to authors writing significantly longer books in order to maximise profit. This means that Amazon's digital publishing could have an impact on the way authors write their books. TechCrunch summed it up beautifully: ‘the ecommerce behemoth is deploying economic levers to shape creative content in the interests of eBook selling’.

Some authors may see this as a perk of the digital publishing age. Assuming they can access to the data from their readers, they may find it useful to see where people are dropping out of the book, how much the average person is reading, and if they're making it to the end. They might want to learn from their readers' habits and apply the knowledge to their next book – in short, to use the data to write ‘better books’.

But now we're getting into murky territory. It is impossible to write a book that every reader will enjoy. Every book has at least one 1-star review. If you change your writing to suit one reader, it will inevitably disappoint another. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, close to 800 pages long, failed to keep many Kobo readers engaged all the way through; data showed that around 55% of readers did not finish it. Yet The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Does the data prove that Tartt needs to learn from her readers and write a ‘better’ book next time, despite being awarded one of the highest literary honours in the United States? Should she take into account the pool of readers who didn't finish, rather than the 44% who did? Should she follow the numbers, or does she remain true to herself and write the books she wants to write, and that many people want to read?

How do we define quality in our art, and is it something that anonymous data, harvested by a corporation, can ever quantify?


Precedent?

The major controversy surrounding Amazon's announcement was the shadow it cast over the future of publishing. What if Amazon rolled out this method of royalty payment for all of its books, not just borrows? Does this set an ominous precedent for the publishing industry, already beset by the challenges of a digital world?

I should start off by saying that I think it's extremely unlikely – Amazon would alienate too many content creators – but let's roll with it, in theory. Let's say that Amazon decides to pay authors only by the page, and that the reader could potentially never pay the full price for a whole book they've downloaded, or even get a refund for pages they haven't read.

‘If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages,’ Kerry Wilkinson is quoted in the Telegraph, ‘why should the writer be paid in full?’ Here is where I respectfully disagree.

On a sentimental note, I've read books that have taken a while to get into and ended up loving them. If I'd given up after six pages, I would never have experienced that. But, sentiment aside, you do have the right to give up on a book. If it isn't not holding your attention, you are free to stop, to move on, and never look back. I'm not going to argue that you somehow owe your time to me if you purchase my book.

You have a right, as a paying customer, to do whatever you like with your purchase. You can walk out of a cinema if you're not enjoying a film; nobody is forcing you to invest your time in it. If you buy a piece of cake and take a bite out of it, only to discover you don't like the taste, you are welcome to throw it away. Nobody will force you to finish it. However, you can't hand it back to the baker and ask for a refund. Similarly, if you've paid for a ticket to a motivational speech, and by the end it hasn't motivated you, you can't expect the speaker to waive their fee for their time and expertise. Your opinion is subjective. You may have decided its value for yourself – ‘that was a horrible cake, not worth my money’ – but that doesn't negate the cake's objective value. The cake represents the cost of its ingredients, the baker's salary, and so much more. The cake's value does not depend on what you, the customer, think of it. And no matter what you to with it, its creators have the right to be paid for it in full.

If there is something objectively wrong with your purchase – if the cake has a fingernail in it, for example – then yes, you have the right to a refund, and power to you. But there can be nothing objectively wrong with the written content of a book, or the visual content of a film, or the sound of a song. It is, as we've established, impossible to quantify the value of an author's writing. So the argument that the creator should not be paid the full price for a download, based on an individual's taste or what they do with the product, is weak. All art forms are subjective. You could argue that the very subjectivity of a book means that nobody can put a price on it – but you might be forgetting its objective value. As a cake has ingredients and a baker, books have the people that put them together.

A book, no matter what your personal opinion, does have actual value. This is all too easily forgotten on a Kindle, where a book can be mentally reduced to little more than a Word document. ‘It didn't cost them anything to make a digital copy,’ it's easy to say – but that digital copy represents a body of work. Even if you ignore the cost of printing, the author has still invested time and effort into what appears on your screen. So has the editor, the commissioning editor, the cover designer, the copy-editor, the proofreader, the illustrator, the publicist, the literary agent, the marketing team, the person who formats it for your eReader – literally hundreds of people can be involved in the creation and promotion of one book. A book, even in digital format, is the culmination of hours, weeks, months, even years, of actual, objective work. And everyone who works is entitled to be paid for it, no matter how much they love the work they're doing. (This bleeds into a much broader argument about the value of art in society, and the idea that art is somehow cheapened if the artist receives a fair wage.) All of that is what you're paying for when you download a book – not just the content.

For now, this is all hypothetical. But in this digital age, we do have to work hard to maintain the value of what can be easily distributed for free online, as Taylor Swift showed when she stood up to Apple and asked for her fair pay. Music, film and books are three particularly vulnerable areas. If we allow each individual person to determine the value of art, its overall value – and the price we're willing to pay for it – will slowly decay, and with it, its creators.

In conclusion, I think Amazon could be nudging us towards a world where books are no longer considered whole, finished objects, the complete product of people's very real work. Where they are small, fragmented units of data, measured separately to determine value. Where books are just the parts, and not the sum of them: pages, percentages, bits and pieces to be cherry-picked. As Peter Maass said, we don't get to pay only for how much of a burger we eat.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting read, although wouldn't it actually be as if the consumer pays a (e.g. burger) flatrate price but the producer only get pays for what the consumer really ate/read/etc? Nothing changes for the consumer and his/her behaviour most likely won't be influenced by this. The change is all on the producer's side.

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    1. I think it would only affect the consumer if you were refunded for parts of something you didn't like. If not, I doubt it would affect consumer behaviour too much – mostly the producer, like you say. Although a change in the nature of creative content would eventually change the way readers interact with books.

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  2. Hi Samantha!

    I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts about this in my email--I first heard about this pricing system from your blog (sent directly to me since I subscribe).

    I did some exploration about Amazon's new pricing system, because as a self-published author, it was something I definitely wanted to explore for myself.

    I'm pretty sure this system *only* applies to self-published authors, since we are the ones enrolled in the KDP program... I am unfamiliar with trad-pubbed authors and how the system works for you guys with KU and such.

    What I *do* agree with regarding their system is how it will encourage self-pubbers to produce GOOD work, as in, not chopping their books in half, or serializing for no reason other than to have a giant backlist, or publishing a book riddled with errors. That's one thing I've really hated as an indie author--that others were gaming the system and taking advantage, as well as producing poorly written/edited books that continue to give indies a bad reputation.

    What terrifies me about all of this is Amazon's power, as you mentioned. This was a giant reminder of how much we are all "at the will" of this giant distributor. If Amazon wanted (and please, God, no), they could simply decide to change royalty rates for indie authors (and I'm sure for you as well) tomorrow, and we could do nothing about it.

    Or, as you said, change it from "borrowed" books to "purchased" books ... though I would hope that never comes to pass. As Hugh Howey mentioned regarding this, his beliefs are that Amazon is ultimately considering the consumers needs. So whatever is best for the READER is their goal, which means that us as the artists/authors could suffer for our work in the process.

    All I know from all of this is that it scares me as an indie, and reminds me to really consider pursuing traditional publishing for (hopefully) more protection from these sorts of radical decisions. But then again, it sounds like trad-pubbed authors are possibly just as much at the mercy of Amazon as indies are.

    Ashley R. Carlson
    www.ashleyrcarlson.com

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