Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Writing Wednesday: On Authorial Bondage or The High Cost of Success

Last week on his blog, Michael Offutt talked about how money makes slaves of us all.  In a similar fashion, most of us self-published authors are slaves to Amazon.  Most of the time you don't see the chains but then sometimes Amazon decides to remind you.

About a year ago Amazon started their Kindle Unlimited service, which is sort of a Netflix for books.  You pay your $9.99 a month and you can get all the KDP Select books you want.  Some authors have complained about it, but others like me have really profited from that program.  Usually 40-60% of what I make is thanks to Kindle Unlimited borrows.  For example, in May I sold 863 books between actual sales and Unlimited borrows.  350 of those (40%) were actual sales while 513 (60%) were Unlimited borrows.

How you get paid is Amazon puts so much money in the fund for the month and then divvies it up based on how many total borrows there are for all books.  It's usually less than you'd get from an actual sale but my philosophy (especially now) is money is money.

I got some distressing news on Monday that starting next month Amazon is going to completely revise their formula to screw people like me who have profited by writing shorter books.  The new formula is instead of the number of borrows will be the number of pages read.  Which is great if you're Tolstoy or Thomas Pynchon writing 1000-page books.  But considering most of my gender swap books are 50 pages or less (which is high compared to the average) I'm going to get the royal screw thanks to this change.

If you aren't clear on the concept basically each page read is like giving you 1 share of the fund.  Someone reads my 50 page book I get 50 shares.  Whereas if someone reads a 500 page book that author gets 500 shares.  So if someone reads My Wife Changed Me Into a Pinup Girl I get 43 shares.  If someone reads Where You Belong I get 520 shares.  Or to put it another way I'd have to sell 13 of the former to equal what I'd get from one of the latter.  But which book do you suppose gets a lot more borrows?  Hurm.

Now the other caveat that's important to note is it's the number of pages READ.  This is something that should really disturb privacy advocates because it's saying that Amazon will be actively monitoring your Kindle/app so they can calculate how many pages of each book you're reading.  You don't suppose they'd ever do anything else with that information, do you?

The system right now seems fairly easy to keep track of but this new system will be impossible for authors to keep track since we don't have Amazon's NSA-type technology to eavesdrop on the millions of Kindles/phones out there.  But you can take Amazon's word for it, right?  Sure because I should definitely trust the company spying on all of its users.

Of course what I'm really annoyed about is this new system is going to cost me money.  A LOT of money I'm sure.  Because again I have to sell over a dozen smaller books to equal one larger one.  Unfortunately I need money, so this has the potential to screw me over big time.  I'm sure some smarmy person would say, "Well just write longer books."  And my response would be:

I mean really do you have any idea how many books I've written this year?  Crimeny.  But hey just make them longer!  Or I suppose I can start putting 3-4 stories together.  Or maybe I'll start putting in a lot of blank pages.  Like a blank page for every scene break!  Or like Brian Griffin's Wish It, Want It, Do It I'll leave a third of the book blank for people to write their hopes and dreams.

The only other option is to take my books out of KDP Select and start selling them through other outlets.  What's the chance I'll generate the same cash flow on Draft2Digital or Smashwords?  Not a lot I'd bet.

I guess you can say this is more fair to people who write longer books and that's certainly how Amazon was couching it.  I mean why should I get the same amount for a 43 page book as a 520 page one, right?  That doesn't seem logical, does it?  But let's be honest this isn't about "fairness" for Amazon.  What they want to do is divide the pie into smaller pieces.  I mean think of it this way:  right now they might divide the $10 million in the fund by say 10 million books sold.  So that's $1 per share.  But by using pages you split that $10 million let's say 100 million ways so you're getting a penny per share.  People like me will probably end up with a lot fewer shares and thus less money.  Which maybe that's what Amazon wants.  Maybe they want to drive people like me with my short books or people like Andrew Leon with serials out of business.  I'm not sure what that really gains them, but I don't buy the notion that a huge corporation is doing this to be "fair."  And CVS stopped selling cigarettes because they really care about your health.

It's a stern reminder of the chains binding authors to Amazon and how they can take advantage of that.  As I wrote about in a blog entry a while back, Amazon isn't your friend; they're your frenemy.  They want you to be successful--but not too successful.  Though I could remind Amazon that no one said they had to keep adding money to the fund every month.  If they didn't want to pay authors much money they could have just kept the fund at $5 million or so.

Anyway, I guess I really need to find a job.  Even burger flipping for minimum wage is more lucrative than trying to sell books, especially once July comes.

4 comments:

  1. Selling 800+ books in one month is quite an achievement. I'm proud of you, man. Thanks for the shout out too. And I agree, that thing with Amazon is definitely a "slavery reminder" kind of like a performance review is.

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  2. I'm envious of your output and sales, Pat. I think the key to long-term success is building a core group of fans who will always seek out your work. Sales techniques will always changes, but fans are timeless.

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  3. Yeah I'm sure the reading count thing is to keep people from making money off books that no one actually reads. If it's a page-turner you get the full sale, but if it has a great title and weak writing then you only get paid for the first sentence. It's a good way to separate the good writers from the hacks. Of course, it's more demanding on the author, so I can see where it would suck.

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  4. It just seems crazy that a company like Amazon has to resort to counting pages. I found the whole reading past a certain percentage bizarre too. They really need to come up with a better solution. Then (as you mentioned) our Kindles, etc are being monitored. I've heard the main reason Amazon made this change is because there was a lot of short work in KU. I don't know the details, but many authors were putting shorter work into KU and they don't like it. If I were you, I'd experiment. Put some of your books on D2D and see what happens. Maybe one or two at first. See how it goes. Since you mentioned CVS, you should check out the career portion of their website. They always seem to need people and they train managers.

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