Welcome to the jungle

Amazon, the world’s largest online distributor of books, decided to make a few changes this year to help continue their domination of the online world. They’ve limited the number of people in a household who can benefit from their Prime membership, and they introduced an array of new products, from the Amazon Echo to their latest reading and streaming devices. One of the most drastic changes, however, is how they pay self-published authors for the exclusive electronic rights to their work.

Authors around the world can sign up to the Kindle Select program and allow Amazon Prime members in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, and India unlimited access to their ebooks. Prior to July 2015, a portion of each member’s yearly fee – (US)$99 – was placed into a pot. Each time a reader enjoyed 10 per cent of a particular book, Amazon would credit the author with a piece of the multimillion-dollar pie.

While many touted this as unfair to authors who had to wait for their fans to read 10 per cent of their work before seeing any royalties, others pulled in the cash. They figured out they could game the system by offering short 10-page stories that would earn them their slice the second someone opened the book, even though said reader may never actually finish that 10-page book. At the same time, the author of a full 400-page novel would have to wait for someone to read 40 pages to earn the exact same amount of money.

‘Amazon’s letter to writers who publish through its Kindle Select program,’ writes Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, ‘explained that the formula was changing because of a concern “that paying the same for all books regardless of length may not provide a strong enough alignment between the interests of authors and readers … Instead of paying the most ambitious, long-winded authors for each page written, Amazon will pay them for each page read.’

Since the new pay structure has been in place for a few months now, authors have had the chance to experience the change in their royalty payouts – sums which have sparked a great deal of debate within the independent and self-published community. Some established writers of longer fiction, like JA Konrath, have done quite well out of the arrangement. As Konrath explains on his blog: ‘in July I made $2892 from Whiskey Sour. I can understand why I made more in [Kindle Unlimited] – this book has gotten over 1400 reviews, and people seem to like it. That means they tend to finish it, and I benefited more from being paid per page than I had being paid per borrow.’

Some emerging fiction writers, like myself with my fantasy novel Power Rises, which reached number 10 on the Amazon bestseller list for its genre in Australia, have seen their returns remain steady with the new program. Another new writer, Stefania Mattana, author of crime novel Cutting Right to the Chase, told me she has noticed that her shorter works have dropped in royalties while her longer ones have seen a marked increase.

When it comes to making money, Amazon knows what it’s doing, and many writers feel that it’s the right thing for self-publishing. Ann Everett, for instance, author of romance novel Laid Out and Candle Lit, says, ‘Authors were smart and noticed they could write short books and get a good loan royalty. Amazon was smarter. They realised they were paying the same for those short stories as they were for full-length novels, so by changing the pay structure, they’ve basically levelled the playing field.’

What about nonfiction?

According to self-published author Amy Foster, ‘If a book has good content and people want to continue to read, the authors get more money. I know social security is a fairly dull topic so I tried to make [the book] as entertaining as possible. Because I can see the pages read now, I know that it worked!’ However, self-published author Jill B. has seen a decrease in her royalties, and voices concerns about giving Amazon exclusivity. ‘While I do not begrudge others to make hay while the sun shines, as indies, the onus is also on us to ensure that we do not put too much power and monopoly in the hands of any one platform.’

She brings up an interesting point, and one that gives rise to the question: what’s next from Amazon? With the continued development of eye-motion tracking technology is it possible that one day Amazon would pay authors by the word? What would that mean for the industry? While many authors enjoy eating from Amazon’s table, as indies, do any of us have enough clout to ask to see what’s going on in the kitchen?

Other authors, such as Jill B, and Gord McLeod, author of An Improbable Journey, feel that being included in the program is limiting due to the exclusivity that Amazon demands for participation. McLeod says he would rather have more control over which platforms provide access to his books through other distributors like BookBaby, Draft2Digital, or through his own site, rather than restrict his work to Kindle owners only.

But at what cost?

While the idea of making one’s work available to a wider audience has its appeal, and a writer may think that by not limiting themselves to Amazon they’ll be able to capture a larger market, looking at the numbers, this may not actually be the case. According to Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest, Kindle accounts for 60-70 per cent of ebook sales, and some estimate that between 75 and 90 per cent of Kindle owners participate in the Amazon Prime membership program.

So by not participating these authors are essentially cutting their work off from more than 50 per cent of their potential audience. Is it better to eagerly devour the meal Amazon serves and hope you get dessert? Or it is worth such a sacrifice to show a huge international company that we will not give in to their demands?


Image: Michael Coghlan / Flickr

RM Willis

RM Willis is an American author of speculative fiction and the owner of an independent press. His fantasy novel, Power Rises, reached number 10 for its genre in Australia. He has had short fiction published by anotherealm.com. This is his first freelance article.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. R.M.,
    Nice article with food for thought. In a world where thousands of books are published each month, authors are faced with many challenges. By sharing info through articles like this, hopefully, it will help us make better decisions.
    Thanks for letting me be a part of your post.

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