Books Parallel Music Once Again
If there’s one thing that Amazon’s better at than selling books, it might be stirring up controversy.
For those who don’t know, last year, Amazon unveiled a subscription reading service called Kindle Unlimited (KU). For a monthly fee of $9.99, users can download and read as many books as they want, ten at a time. Once you “return” one of those ten borrowed books/stories, you can download another. For voracious readers, the service is a godsend, saving them tens, or even hundreds, of dollars a month on books, depending on their reading habits.
But, where does the author stand on this? While I do have a book that is available for free, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to have all my books available for free. Call me old fashioned, but I’m rather fond of eating and having a roof over my head.
In order for Amazon, or any other subscription service, to have content available to the consumers, they must compensate the content provider in some way. Initially, Amazon chose to utilize a system where, if a reader downloaded and read a book up to a certain point (10% of the text), they paid the author a portion of a substantial “pot” of money each month. That piece of the pot (which started out around $2 and eventually landed in the area of $1.37) was the same for each qualifying download, regardless of length. A short story received the same slice as an epic doorstop.
Naturally, many authors saw this as an opportunity to put out tons of shorter works, be they single short stories or novels transformed into serials. Less reputable folks uploaded short Wikipedia articles and ridiculous non-fiction “books” to take advantage of the 10% payout trigger. Readers began to complain about having a hard time finding something of quality to read. Longer form authors complained about not being compensated fairly.
Now, Amazon has upset the KU apple cart and updated the payout system to a slice of the pot for each page read. Length of the whole work no longer matters. Authors get paid for engagement. If the doorstopper-writer loses the interest of the reader after 20 pages, they earn the same amount as the short story-writer whose 20-page work is read clear through.
Understandably, short form writers are upset by this change. To earn the same $1.37 they got before from one download read to 10%, they have to accumulate approximately 240 pages read — according to the best guess at the pot slice we have at the moment which is $0.0057, or a little over half a cent per page. Novel writers will get paid more than the previous $1.37 if their book gets read all the way through. Writers will now be rewarded for reader engagement.
To all those up in arms about the change, let’s step back and look at the music industry.
Say you hear a song on the radio and decide to purchase it. You see that the artist has a number of other songs available as well. (Us old folks used to call those “albums”) You certainly wouldn’t expect to purchase all the songs for the same price as the one, right?
“Okay,” you say. “But purchasing is different from renting or streaming.”
You’re right, it is. So, let’s look at how artists get compensated for streamed songs.
Spotify is currently paying approximately $0.006 per play (sound familiar?) according Spotify (the artists get much less than that depending on the contract with their label, much like traditionally published authors are paid a small fraction of the money earned from a book). We can argue about whether the number itself is fair or not, but how does this model apply to books?
Think of a page read as a song play. If the listener/reader likes what you have to offer, they’ll listen again (i.e. read more). Then they get to the end of the chapter, or the short story, and think, “Man, this is really good! What happens next?” Just like if you’ve listened to a particular song from an artist a few times and wonder what else they might have available. That performer has made a fan out of you. Our books have the opportunity to do the same thing for readers. If we catch their eyes and engage them with interesting characters and plot, they will come back for more.
Many of you authors out there are probably still not convinced, so let’s look at it from one more angle. Everyone in the equation has to be compensated somehow. Namely, the readers (who get content to consume), the authors (who provide the content to read), and the platform (who creates the method of getting the content to the consumers). Spotify and Amazon have chosen to be compensated directly from the end consumers in the form of a subscription fee and they, in turn, compensate the artists/authors for product consumed.
Another company, YouTube, has taken a different approach. They provide all their content for free, but compensate themselves and the artists through advertising. Imagine if Amazon went this route. Would you want your book to be interrupted every 20 pages by an ad? As a reader, I know I wouldn’t put up with that for very long, even if it was free for me. Take a look at this brilliant info graphic, at the bottom of this article from the Guardian, to see how many more views/listens a song has to have on YouTube for an equal level of payout from the streaming services. It’s quite eye-opening.
What does this all mean? I think subscription services are here to stay. Spotify and Netflix are popular with consumers. The battleground is content and how much to pay those content providers. Scribd’s model for books, while attractive to authors and publishers, is clearly flawed as we’ve seen with them eliminating much of their most-read content this past week. We are only guessing at Amazon’s payout at this point in time. We won’t know what the actual number is until mid-August and the number will undoubtedly fluctuate over the next several months and settle at a point that Amazon is comfortable with. Whether authors will be comfortable with it remains to be seen, but books are only locked into the program for 90 days. If you aren’t happy with what you are seeing, drop out and try other avenues.
I have one series in KU and one not. I’m looking forward to see the dynamics of how all this plays out through the rest of the year. In the meantime, I need to get busy writing. This next book isn’t going to finish itself!
Please let me know your thoughts on KU, Spotify, how much authors and musicians deserve to be paid, or anything else that comes to mind in the comments.