by Will Viharo
When Amazon recently announced rather radical changes to their payment policies for authors participating in their Kindle program, there was an immediate and vociferous backlash, along with a lot of high-fiving from industry professionals.
But since Amazon virtually holds the monopoly on self-publishing, despite the proliferation of competing platforms, is there really anything we can do about it? And should we even want to?
Whenever any company dominates an industry, there are bound to be charges of power grabbing by its own clients and consumers. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform has provided free exposure to thousands of authors who either couldn’t get published traditionally or chose not to for creative or commercial reasons. They also gave authors the lion’s share of digital sales, averaging 70%, with virtually zero investment fees.
So what’s the problem with their latest commercially-minded innovation? As usual, it's all subjective and depends on your particular perspective.
Naturally, Amazon pitched the updates as being a positive development for all parties concerned. To quote their notice:
"We're always looking at ways to make our programs even better, and we've received lots of great feedback on how to improve the way we pay KDP authors for books in Kindle Unlimited. One particular piece of feedback we've heard consistently from authors is that paying the same for all books regardless of length may not provide a strong enough alignment between the interests of authors and readers. We agree. With this in mind, we're pleased to announce that beginning on July 1, the KDP Select Global Fund will be paid out based on the number of pages KU and KOLL customers read."
Sounds like a sensible bargain, right?
Well, according to some authors – particularly those that are self-published – this is a cynical maneuver on the company’s part, to reduce their payouts by limiting authors' profit potential, making it subject to an arbitrary metric and the fickle whims of readers already overwhelmed by too many choices.
But the backlash to this program has its roots in previous “policy” adjustments that seemed to benefit Amazon more than its growing pool of authors.
The Kindle Unlimited program – in which subscribers could have free access to hundreds of books, like a lending library, for roughly ten bucks a month - was originally hailed, at least by Amazon, as a win-win for both authors and readers. Readers were able to sample a wider variety of titles, and authors would instantly gain increased “exposure.”
But ask any musician who has played unpaid gigs, where the only compensation was a captive audience: “exposure” is not the same as money. Authors, like any artist, want to be adequately rewarded for their work, in cash. Because, let’s face it – fame alone does not pay the bills. We need the fortune, too.
The new policy Amazon is enforcing means self-published authors won’t receive flat royalties per unit sold like before, but their share will be based on number of pages actually read. Talk about pressure! If writers don’t produce literal page-turners, and readers decide to give up after the first chapter, they will suffer accordingly – not just their pride, but also their pocketbooks.
Selling Out for a Song
To be fair, there are some potential upsides for authors in this new equation. For one thing, they could just write shorter books, appealing to shorter attention spans, which means less work for more money. Some authors may view it as a creative challenge. And readers will only have to pay for what they actually read. It’s basically like downloading a single track, instead of buying the whole album. It’s all very “21st century,” culturally speaking.
But what if your book is the literary equivalent of a “concept album,” meaning every “song” or chapter is integral to its overall impact?
Too bad. Indie authors who stubbornly stick to their artistic guns may find themselves out of ammunition, especially if they expect to get paid for their word-slinging.
All of which means the market may suddenly be flooded with even more mysteries and thrillers than ever – i.e. genres that rely heavily on sustaining suspense - simply to appease these new royalty rules, and keep readers interested in “what happens next,” as opposed to why it’s happening, or to whom. Plot twists will matter more than ever, with deliberate character development possibly sacrificed in favor or rapid pacing. Authors will need to be more inventive – and competitive – than ever before, if they want to survive in this “pay-per-page” era.
Mutiny, or Bounty?
The DIY publishing industry, as largely created and championed by Amazon, may now be entering a new phase where “artists” are forced to treat their trade as a business, not just a hobby, distraction, self-therapy, or creative outlet.
Is it possible to succeed as both an artist with uncompromised integrity, and a shrewd businessperson who knows how to give the people want they want to pay for?
It’s up to you to decide for yourself, depending on your own motivation and agenda as an author. You need to weigh the pros and cons, and decide either to mutiny and jump ship, or keep sailing uncharted waters, especially if your options aren’t more attractive or lucrative. You are still free to choose your own path, equipped with the proper information. But remember: you’re not alone. It’s a crowded field out there, and it just got a bit more challenging.
Let the "hunger" games begin…
As an independent author, how do you feel about these new royalty policies?