Fiction Industry News – Amazon and Pay-Per-Page

Posted by Chrissey Harrison - 17th August 2015

Amazon KindleLast month the self-publishing community had a little freak out over Amazon’s new payment model for books borrowed through its Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners Lending Library schemes. The initial backlash was disproportionate, due mainly to media outlets failing (accidentally on purpose?) to make clear that it only applied to lending and not retail. Once that was cleared up, attention turned to the implications of the change.

Put simply, Amazon moved from a model based on the number of downloads, to one based on the number of pages read.

The old model

It’s worth noting that the original model did require the reader to open the book and read 10% of the way into the book before it counted for payment, but, after that point, the author got the full payment.

It favoured shorter books for two reasons; firstly, the payment received was not proportional to the length of the work, and secondly, hitting the 10% trigger point was easier and more likely.

The new model

The new model attempts to proportionately reward authors of different length works by paying them per page. Thus a longer book will be worth more than a shorter one, provided the reader slogs their way to the end. Because authors are only paid for the pages read, it in theory also rewards quality over quantity.

The issues that this change raised fell into four broad themes:

The Reader Drop Off Issue

Complaints from those who publish with Amazon focused on the idea of penalising the writer if the reader fails to complete the book. There were a lot of analogies about cake and burgers and other things it would be ridiculous to pay for based on the proportion consumed.

Those whose approach is to work the system for as much profit as possible may very well fall foul of this new model. Using cheap marketing tactics to pitch a lot of quickly-written, mediocre books to a broad, vague market in order to get as many sales (or loans) as possible would no longer be a profitable strategy.

But, for writers passionate about their art, creating stories that engage people and hold their attention to the end is the goal anyway, isn’t it? It’s true, not every book will be right for everyone, but you’d like to think, that if you’re getting the marketing right, you’re targeting the people who will like it. If a small proportion don’t stick it out that’s not the end of the world.

It’s true that a lot of people buy and/or download books they want to read but then don’t get round to them, but this is about loans and subscription services; by definition people use these to choose something from those available to start reading there and then. Of course, I may be underestimating the number of people who stop reading books once they have started them. It’s not something I tend to do… which is the subject of my blog this week.

The Devaluation Issue

Is proportional consumption is a fair way to judge the worth of a piece of content at all? People seem to struggle with assigning value to digital content at the best of times. As mentioned in April’s Fiction News, authors often feel pressured into giving their work away for free because consumers are so reluctant to pay for digital content.

As we discussed in Episode 3 of Breakout on crowdfunding, subscription models in general appeal to those consumers who want as much for their money as possible. Once you’ve paid the subscription fee you then experience the illusion that the content is free.

From the consumer perspective the mechanism by which the content producer is paid is irrelevant, so it’s hard to say what effect the pay per page model will have on the stripping of value that is the hallmark of current trends.

The Stifled Creativity Issue

People are inclined towards a certain moral outrage about the idea of profitability shaping art, but it always does and always will.

Jump back a decade or so to before the onset of digital publishing and the landscape was very different. Between short story and novel was a wide trench of unpublishable lengths. Getting your book out there meant getting it into book shops which meant writing what publishers wanted, not necessarily what you wanted to write.

What influences could a pay per page model have have on the choices writer’s make?

For one it could put writer’s off short fiction; the format which has seen a new resurgence recently. As mentioned above, Amazon’s old model favoured short books, and encouraged authors to churn out as many short titles as they could. It lead to a pattern of authors publishing serialised “chapter-books” less than 10k words in length, in order to take advantage of the system. Indeed it was in response to complaints about this that they introduced the new system to make things fairer.

Clearly this new system is hardly shaping writers choices more than it’s predecessor. But, the removal of an incentive doesn’t necessarily mean the creation of a disincentive.

The advent of digital publishing removed many of the divides between creativity and profitability by making a wider choice of formats, genres and topics viable. This is still the case, regardless of whether royalties are paid per page or per download.

Secondly the pay per page model potentially discriminates against more challenging literary fiction. Evidence suggests readers are less likely to get through a challenging literary work than an easier genre read. This might put writers off writing powerful literature in favour of the fiction equivalent of click bait; fast paced pulp fiction with high entertainment value but less in the way of literary merit.

This is a serious concern, because this suggests the pay per page model could and would stifle the top end of the fiction spectrum. But, let’s keep this in perspective; we’re talking about one retailer and one platform here.

The Sign-of-Things-to-Come Issue

Amazon is a true giant in the world of books, especially digital books. The policies they make can have a massive influence over the market, but they are not the only controlling factor out there.

There was the initial fear that Amazon intended to apply this pay per page model to retail of books, and that fear is still there; what if they did decide to roll out this model to retail books?

If they did choose to do so, the reader would have to be charged proportionately, which would be a logistical nightmare for Amazon, and they too would be loosing a lot of money. If Amazon took the full payment for the book at purchase but only passed on the royalties when or if it the book was read there would be major uproar. I doubt even the readers would let them get away with that; no one likes the idea of the corporate giant taking all the profit and refusing the pass it on to the artist.

The idea of pay per page for individual retail sales is impractical and highly unlikely. However that doesn’t rule out the idea of Amazon switching to a purely subscription model for Kindle, following the trend in TV and music. I still think this is unlikely, but far more possible.

Are you a book lover, either as a writer, reader or both? What are your thoughts on Amazon’s new model? Leave a comment below or drop us an email using our Contact Form.

Read more about this issue:
“Amazon’s ‘pay-per-page’ plan could alter writing as well as royalties”

The Great Escape