Kindle Unlimited

Amazon is changing the way that Kindle Unlimited pays authors. This is a huge issue for some, causing uproar across the internet. Some people think it’s a good idea, some people think it’s well-intentioned, some people think that it is the revelation of Amazon’s true form as the antichrist.

Before going into any of that, some background is required. The basic idea of Kindle Unlimited is that it is a subscription service. Authors include their books in the scheme, and readers (by paying a monthly fee) include themselves in the scheme.  The enrolled readers get to read as many enrolled books as they want, and Amazon distributes the money amongst the authors.

There you have the broad strokes. For a fuller explanation, I rather like this article, which sets out exactly what is going on and how it all works with far more depth and clarity than I am capable of. As an aside, that blog is run by an author I’m not familiar with, but his books seem like exactly the sort of thing I love, so that’s a bonus.

At first, Amazon distributed the money between authors based on how many times readers read 10% of their book. If an author had one book on the service, and three people read past 10% of it, the author got three shares of the money pot. If an author had eight people read 10%, they got eight shares; it was all very simple.

That’s not to say that the system didn’t have problems. The main issue with making 10% the threshold to get paid is that it incentivises authors to publish short fiction. Lots of very, very short fiction. The shorter the text an author published, the faster they got paid – a twenty page story meant that the author got paid after only two pages, a ten page story meant that the author got paid after only one.

The flipside of that is, of course, that an author who published a longer work – a four hundred page fantasy novel, for example, only got paid when someone read forty pages. There were no allowances made for such difference in length and thresholds – once the book was read to 10%, the author got paid one share, no more no less.

All that was not okay, for two reasons. Firstly, it was unfair that a full-length novel was valued the same as a two-page pamphlet copied from Wikipedia. They aren’t sold for anything like the same price outside Kindle Unlimited; pamphlets, in point of fact, are usually free. The system did not give authors or readers what the deserved.

The second issue was that the system filled up with junk. The Kindle store is filled with dreadful books normally, poorly-edited self-published bisexual werewolf erotica drowning out everything else. Kindle Unlimited was worse than that, with authors publishing incredibly short works as frequently as possible in a desperate effort to cash in. An author could publish countless pamphlets and rely on hooking people in for long enough to get the money. Noise drowned out the signal.

And so the change – Amazon has a different policy now. The new payment scheme is that authors are to be paid based on the number of pages that are read – for each page turned by a reader, the author will get a share. Thus a twenty page pamphlet read to the end nets the author twenty shares, and a completed four hundred page book nets them four hundred. If the reader only reads twenty pages of that tome, then the author only gets twenty shares.

To my mind, that’s a dramatic improvement. Hacks won’t get paid (much) for putting junk up there anymore because people will stop reading it after the first two pages. Authors of longer works will still get something, and if their readers stay immersed the whole way through, they’ll get paid in proportion to their effort. It seems generally fairer.

People do seem to take issue with the new idea though. Reddit, never the best place for measured, considered responses, has rather a lot of people on it complaining that this change is somehow bad for authors.

There are two main complaints, the first of which may have merit. Some people seem to believe that Amazon is only enacting this policy so that they can slyly decrease payments under the guise of giving authors a better deal.

It’s possible, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest it as yet. It seems that the money pot will stay roughly the same size, but each share will be smaller. That’s balanced out by every author (presumably) getting more shares; one small share per page versus one slightly larger share per 10%.

Naturally, some authors will lose out – ideally, the purveyors of shoddy short fiction with clickbait titles will experience a drop in income as everyone else gets a raise. They won’t have many pages read, despite their number of downloads. They won’t do as well as formerly.

I can see why they’re upset. On the other hand, I don’t care about them. If you used to make money by flooding the market with junk and relying on length to get paid, then I’m fine with you having to find a new source of income; that you made money from Kindle Unlimited was an accident of the program, not a desired outcome. Such “authors” are parasites, gaming the system rather than actually creating anything of value.

The second main complaint is that this system just creates the same problem again. Short trash is no longer profitable, but assigning profits by pages read will cause a shift in writing habits – to survive in this tough new market, authors will need to write entertainingly, keeping the reader’s attention and interest.

I have little sympathy for this viewpoint. It seems based on two assumptions that are somewhat groundless – firstly, that the reading public is only interested in easy-to-digest trash with cliffhangers and simple messages, and secondly that all the complaining authors, those who will suffer, are serious literary greats akin to Shakespeare and Dante.

Neither of those things, I humbly submit, is true. The first one is, partially – there is definitely a market for guilty-pleasure, easy-reading, simplistic and clichéd fiction, but that isn’t the only market. Lots of readers read things that aren’t as smugly dismissable – complex, original fiction with enough themes and motifs to satisfy anybody.

The second one is both pretentious and ridiculous. I’m not in any way saying that there is no such divide between “good” and “popular” fiction; there are definitely extremely popular books that (I think) are terrible, and brilliant books that languish in obscurity. What I do dispute is that, given current trends in fiction (and knowledge of the people on Reddit’s r/writing), there are that many authors who are both enrolled on Kindle Unlimited and who write in a slower, more “literary” style that reader’s will callously ignore.

It’s particularly clear that such authors are not common because anyone who does write slow-starting yet great fiction is presumably aware that such fiction is entertaining. Trollope is not more boring than Rowling, just differently styled. To make the complaint is to demonstrate that it doesn’t affect you, because it is based on two separate and conflicting beliefs: one, that more thoughtful fiction is unfairly ignored, and two, that more thoughtful fiction is boring. If you think it is boring, then it won’t be being unfairly ignored, so there is no problem. If you think it isn’t boring, then it won’t be unfairly ignored. The complaint is based in sneering and dishonest anti-intellectualism: “the proles won’t read dull writing because they aren’t smart like me”, a statement which demonstrates far less discrimination and intelligence than the aforementioned fictitious proles.

In the end, the complaints boil down to one ludicrous objection: the new Kindle Unlimited profit model requires you to keep your readers’ attention. You can’t demand profits for your writing if your writing is not engrossing – if that’s the case, you don’t deserve profits; you haven’t done anything to earn them.

If your books suffer now, if no one reads them and you stop earning money, the problem isn’t with Amazon, it’s with you. You need to write better. That doesn’t mean that you plunge towards the lowest common denominator, it means that you improve, find a way to engage your audience. It is not true that only bad writing gets readers, and no one who thinks it is should not be a writer.

I could go on, listing the many issues I have with such authors and attitudes, but the bottom line is this: Kindle Unlimited’s new model is a step forwards, not back. It’s a fairer system for authors, one that rewards them for effort and achievement, and a fairer system for readers that limits the amount of dreck they have to wade through. It might not be perfect, but it is a lot better than the previous attempt.

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