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Amazon's Pay Per Page Deal Is No Big Deal

Just read the fine print

M y social media feeds went all a-flutter again this week, with people I don’t know posting Amazon’s new financial terms for its self-published authors, as if to say, “See? See? I told you that Amazon was evil.” Then I looked at the terms, and I wasn’t sure. I’m still not.

Let me try to explain, as best I understand the situation. After Amazon introduced its Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Lending Library program, which allows subscribers to pay a lump sum for unlimited books and not pay a lump sum for unlimited books, respectively, they had to figure out a formula wherein writers could get paid. The initial plan, which only applied to the self-published authors who made up the vast majority of the program, paid per borrow. The Author’s Guild, whose mission is “to support working writers” but which has never done a darn thing for me, estimates that writers were getting paid $1.40 per download, which is pretty good for a borrowed book.

Self-published authors took advantage, uploading as many “books” as they could write into the system. Some of the books were little more than chapters, less than 10,000 words, and they charged $1.99, $2.99, something in that neighborhood. Most of these writers produce pulp romances or thrillers, which Kindle readers slurp up like Big Gulps. The authors were getting paid as close to full price as possible. Keep in mind that if someone who isn’t a Kindle Unlimited subscriber buys a $1.99 10,000-word “book,” the self-published author is getting paid 70 percent of that anyway. The system, seemingly, was rigged in their favor.

Now Amazon is going to pay authors on whether or not their book gets read, not purchased. This may or may not harm the 10,000-word chapter book authors, because if they produce the same amount of work that they were producing, then they might end up getting more royalties, not fewer. Or they could end up getting fewer royalties, not more. No one knows. It all depends on Amazon’s inscrutable algorithm. Again, this doesn’t apply to books purchased outright, only to books read through the lending library and subscription programs.

To further complicate matters, Amazon caps the amount that all its self-published Kindle Direct Publishing clients can earn, combined, at a little more than $3 million a month. So if some self-publisher goes all 50 Shades nutso and the people of the Internet respond with repressed erotic fervor, then the rest of the self-published authors are crap out of luck. No $1.33 bonus because someone in Topeka read all the pages of your self-published historical romance for you! Still, considering that the vast majority of self-published ebooks sell almost no copies, the Amazon $3 million pool seems like it might be enough money except maybe occasionally.

Even to those of us who care, it’s hard to say whether or not this will be good for writers. On the one hand, people are getting paid because their books are getting borrowed from a library. That has never before happened in human history. On the other hand, Amazon’s evil scientists are watching us through our Kindles, laughing at us cruelly and collecting data as we all contribute to the great Royalty Kerfuffle of 2015.

I have more of a direct connection to this situation than most, and yet I have no idea how it affects me. Amazon has been my book publisher since 2012. They have released four books of mine, and a fifth is on the way. One my books is on sale right now for $2. The rest are all on sale for $3.99. I only see royalties on the first one, because that was a republish deal for which I received no advance. The rest of them are creeping, penny by penny, to earning back my low five-figure advances. None of them have sold great; a couple, like Jewball and Downward-Facing Death, have done okay. All my books are available on Kindle Unlimited and in the lending library, but yet the recent deals don’t apply to me.

Though I’m not a self-published author, Amazon is allowing me to experiment as though I were one. I’m free to explore my creativity and I don’t have to sit around and wait all year for approval, much less for publication. I’m staying with Amazon because even though the revenue stream is a trickle, at least a revenue stream exists, one that I can actually track daily, sort of.

Maybe, though probably not, I could have gotten better terms elsewhere. But I do know that one else would have allowed me to publish two serialized yoga detective novels in one year, and no one else would translate one of my novels into German and then sell hundreds of copies of that novel for five Euros, applying my share of the profits to my advance. To expect to make an endless fortune off such shenanigans would be to claim a whole Fort Knox’s worth of fool’s gold. Still, it might add up to something at some point.

Terms stink for every book writer, in every situation. Unless you are Stephen King or Bill O’Reilly or one of about 100 other writers, you’re not making any money off your books, downloaded, borrowed, or otherwise. I recently did a reading at my local independent bookstore. Because Amazon is evil in their eyes, they would only sell my books on “consignment.” This meant I had to buy an entire box of 40 paperback books and bring them to the store so the store could sell them there. According to their standard deal, I would then get 55 percent of the sale. If they sold all the books—and, as of this moment, they have sold half the books—I would make a $30 profit. Not per book. Total. That is exactly .75 cents a book, not a good deal. Compared with terms like that, getting a buck and a quarter or whatever per 100 pages of borrowed ebooks or bundled Unlimited books or self-published fan fiction pirate novels can score you on the Kindle Store seems like a fortune.

When it comes to publishing books, we’re all soldiers in a war that we can’t win. We’re not actually fighting anyone except for each other, but not even that, really. With very few exceptions, everyone loses money when any book is published anywhere. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep pushing the rock uphill. This digital pulp model seems like my best hope right now. Maybe I’ll get paid a little bit someday if someone actually reads something I write.