Sunday, October 18, 2015

Kindle Unlimited – who’s crying? by Renae Kaye

When Amazon announced its changes to KU (Kindle Unlimited) I was confused.  I had no idea what that was – I wasn’t a member as either a reader or writer.  I read some articles, read some long winded groans, but kept mute as I had nothing to add to the debate.

For those who (like I was) don’t know about KU, let me do a quick (but not thorough) recap of the situation.

As a reader, you can join KU.  You pay a monthly subscription and as a result can download and borrow as many books in the program as you want.  For a prolific reader, this sounds bliss.  (Although you don’t get to keep the books – sorry.  If you want to re-read, you have to make sure you’re still a member, and that the author still has the book in the program.)

At the end of the month, Amazon would gather all the funds from the pool of subscriptions, and dole it out to the authors based on which books were downloaded.  Authors were therefore not paid an upfront, agreed upon, set fee per download, for it would depend on the month’s subscriptions and downloads of other books.  The money was simply portioned out evenly to those who were downloaded.

Authors soon cottoned on to the fact that a 10,000 word “short story” would pay as much as a 90,000 novel.  Soon the KU market was flooded with short stories.  Now – one thing that these short story authors never took into account was the following fall-out:
            1.  A larger majority of readers prefer longer stories. (Look, it’s a fact; I didn’t make it up just to hurt the short story authors.  You cannot deny the data that says that readers prefer novels over novellas over short stories.)
            2.  If the only books in the program were short stories which readers didn’t like, then they weren’t going to bother subscribing.
            3.  They weren’t the only ones who had worked out the system, so now the subscription pool of money was shrinking because in order to read 60,000 words, readers were having to download 6 stories, and therefore EVERYONE’S share was reduced.

Now, who knows why – perhaps it was due to complaints from the readers, or from the authors of longer stories, or just someone’s sense of fairdom – Amazon decided to change the system.  The authors would STILL get a share of the subscription pool, but instead of PER DOWNLOAD, it would be PER PAGE READ.

So, if a reader completed your 20 page short story, you would get paid a 5th of what the author of a 100 page story would get for a reader finishing their story.  If you wrote 200 pages and a reader read 100 of them, you would get the same as if an author wrote 400 pages, but the reader only read 100 of them.

That’s not fair! shouted the short story authors.  We should get paid the same.  A story is a story.  Just because you write long winded and take months upon months to finish.  It was the long-story-author’s choice.

True – they did choose to write longer.  But to claim it’s not fair?  A 10,000 word book on regular Amazon is usually not priced at the same price as an 80,000 word book.  Are you demanding that all short stories be sold for the same price?  Doesn’t a reader pay more for a longer story because (a) it took longer for the author to write and (b) it takes longer for a reader to read?  Readers are happy to pay a bigger price, because they get more hours of pleasure from it.

Aha, argue the short story writers. It’s unfair because a reader who used to download six of my books per week will still download six books, even if they’re longer.  But I get paid $2 and the longer-book-authors get paid $12.

See, that’s where your argument falls apart.  A reader downloads books at their READING RATE.  If it takes a reader (for example) an hour to read 10,000 words, and they have approximately one hour per night to read before they turn the light off and go to bed, they will download one short story per day, OR one longer story every 6 days.  If you suddenly start making your books 60,000 words instead of 10,000 words, do you think the reader is suddenly going to have 6 hours a day to read where before they only had one?

The new system is FAIR to the authors who are writing.  You’re all getting paid the same PER WORD.

No! shout the short story writers.  I used to make $4000 a month on KU, and now my pay has been slashed!

Well then, you were making your money at the expense of other authors.

I can’t say for sure, but assuming that Amazon hasn’t changed the pool of subscription money, then for every person who is now losing money, there is another author out there who was previously getting underpaid and is now getting the same paid PER WORD as you.

Now, I can’t say anything with 100% surety, because I don’t have anything on KU and have nothing to compare from the before and after – but it sounds fair to me.

I’ve seen several people start petitions to try to make Amazon change their mind.  They use catchy titles like “Pay Authors a Fair Price” and “Self-Published Authors are Being Ripped Off.”  Some people mindlessly sign, saying “I support authors!”

But watch what you’re signing.  You’re not supporting ALL authors, are you?

I recently followed a link to such a page with a catchy title about how authors are losing income and I read through the person’s reasoning.

Authors deserve a living wage!
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is [removed] and I have been earning my living as a self-published author since early 2011. I personally support seven children with this income, one of which has a serious medical issue that requires treatments every two months that cost thousands of dollars, and an upcoming surgery at the end of this year. Being self-employed, I do not have access to medical insurance for my child. It simply is not affordable. Especially now that Amazon has drastically reduced income for the average self-published author.
Wow – he/she is good.  Seriously.  I mean I only have two children and they are expensive.  To support seven is fantastic.  Really.  And I’m really sorry that your child has a serious medical issue… but should readers have to pay MORE for your books than they do for mine, because you have seven children?  Although my heart is aching, how many children you have has no relevance on how much an author “deserves.”

I have a friend who can type at double the speed I can.  Do I deserve more for my writing because it took me twice as long to get the word count as she did?

I tell you this because I am not the only one in a similar situation. There are hundreds, if not thousands of authors who earn all, or at least a hefty portion of, their income through self-publishing. Some of these people are my friends, and they all have their own personal struggles.
Yes, we do.  But do we deserve more than the guy next door?  Does someone who self-publishes deserve more than the person who traditional publishes?  Does the person who struggles to write because English is not their first language deserve more than the person who has English as their first language?

Okay (I thought to myself) perhaps I’m being unfairly harsh.  Let us read on.  Blah blah, some stuff about KU’s exclusivity contract and then:

…with the introduction of Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program … authors could get paid for borrows from all those members. Income skyrocketed.
Each borrow ended up making nearly $2 in the beginning, but that number gradually slid lower and lower until each borrow was worth only around $1.30. Still, this was a huge income boost for authors. Plus, each borrow counted as a sale, helping boost visibility by putting those books getting borrowed a lot on the bestseller charts, boosting visibility even further.
Yes, because that’s how a subscription program works.  If you have the same number of subscribers, but they download more books, then everyone’s pay goes down.  Amazon is not a magician.  They do not create money from thin air.  There is a finite pool, and you take your share.  

Let’s read on…

Along the way, people started to realize they could release shorter works and get the same rate per borrow. People started writing short deliberately, because it takes a lot less effort and time to write 10,000 words than it does to write 40,000+ words, and by releasing 4x 10,000 word stories, you'd get four times the number of titles to potentially draw in readers. But some people were writing short stories long before the program came into existence.
Of course, this led some people to be unhappy. Those who write more for art's sake, or for passion's sake, or who write very long books that take months to write, got upset that short story writers were making a lot more than they were. Not necessarily overall, because some of those people made a lot of money. But on a per-publication basis.
No, no, sweetie.  Now you are being mean.  Of course short story writers always existed.  But their short stories were never sold at the same price as a novel.  Short story writers would usually package about 10 stories together into a book in order to get someone to pay for it. Because the readers don’t want to be ripped off.

Would you pay the same price for two fries at McDonalds as you would for 50?  Would you eat your two fries and still be hungry and be happy that you have to go back and order another two and another and another until you got your 50, the same as that person in the line next to you got for the same price?

To say longer stories are written for art’s sake, or passion’s sake sounds a little sanctimonious to me.  I write at different lengths depending on who I’m selling my work to.

And of course longer-story-authors got upset short story writers were making a lot more money than they were.  Because the system was unfair.

I sometimes go to McDonalds and I order the fries.  They are thin and crispy and I get about 30-40 fries in a bucket.  Then, because I love chicken, I sometimes go to Red Rooster and order their fries, but they call them chips.  However I only get about 15 in a bucket, because Red Rooster does fat chunky chips.  The overall weight and amount of potatoes used is probably the same – so the two servings are priced about the same.  I don’t demand Red Rooster gives me more.  It’s a slightly differently packaged product with a different name – one is fries, one is chips.  But at the end of the day, they are still sliced potatoes fried in oil.

Amazon used this as an excuse to drastically slash payments to short story writers by paying per page read instead of per borrow. Some writers have seen their income drop so low they can no longer pay their bills, despite writing more than ever. 
**Sigh** This is where I hate it.  I feel SORRY for you.  Yes.  Everyone should have enough money to pay their bills.  But writing is one of those things that you need to be aware of that is not a set income.  If you want a set income, you need to go and get a job at your local Walmart or something.  There you will get paid a set wage.

Amazon pays authors based on words.  That is fair.

Starting in 2014 I wrote a book called You Are the Reason.  (Now I know this next bit because I keep a track of my daily writing, and I just counted how many days I spent working on that book.) It took me 66 days to write and sits at about 82,000 words.  After I finished writing that book, I opened up another document and wrote a story called Hard Feelings.  Its word count is 10,000 words.  It took me 3 days.

So not counting editing time or anything, one story took me 3 days to write, and another took me 66 days to write, and you wish Amazon and all the readers to treat them equally?  One book takes the average reader about 45 minutes to read, and one takes around 5 hours.  And you want the reader to pay the same amount for their time and pleasure?

Heck!  If I was going to get the same amount of money for them, of course I would be writing a book every 3 days.  Wow.  I would make a million dollars in my first year.  Literally.

You see, exclusivity wasn't such a big problem in the beginning. If you didn't care about getting the occasional (and pretty rare for most people) borrow from Amazon Prime members, or the little boost of visibility putting your book free for a few days would give, you simply didn't put your books into KDP Select. Then you were free to put your books on other websites and make money there.
The program was, initially, truly voluntary. It's still technically voluntary, but if you do not put your books into the program, your chances of making money with your books are reduced to nearly nothing.
I’m lost.  Now we’re talking about exclusivity?  I thought we were talking per borrow?

And I have no idea where she’s getting her figures from.  Only 10-11% of my sales come from sources other than Amazon or my publisher’s site.  If you’re not making money on Amazon, you’re making 10% of nothing on any other site.  (Must read on…)

But when they created Kindle Unlimited, exposing millions of readers to the possibility of reading more without paying for individual books, everything changed. Suddenly it WAS worth going exclusive, because the extra income AND the massive boost to visibility made it worth it.
Now that they are paying authors effectively a half a cent per page read, the exclusivity requirement no longer makes sense financially. The program HURT actual sales, because everyone wanted to BORROW books instead of BUY books. This means that if you're not in KDP Select, your sales will suffer terribly. 
How much are you expecting to be paid?  I calculate that a reader pays around $5 for a 230 page book?  Yes?  So they pay 2.17c per page, of which the author (at 70% royalties) gets 1.5c.

And that is to OWN the book, not borrow it like it is on KU.  Do you understand?  A READER is not going to pay an author MORE just because the author says they have bills.  The reader wants a bargain too.  So how do you figure Amazon is going to get more money to the author per page read in a subscription program?  Hint: more subscribers.  How?  Hint: get more books that they want to read.  Which ones? Hint: longer ones.

I'm asking you to sign this petition because Amazon has self-published authors backed into a corner. We have to be in the program to have any chance of being seen by readers, because sales alone can never push an author into the bestseller lists unless they already have a massive following that will buy anything they put out. But because they're paying drastically less to the average writer, they need to be able to put their books onto other stores to make up for that lost income.
Wait, what?

“…sales alone can never push an author into the bestseller lists…”

So how do I get on the bestseller lists, please?  Which Amazon executive do I need to bribe?  Newsflash for you: authors get on the bestseller lists because they are the bestseller.  They’ve done the hard yards.  They’ve written the good books.  They’ve churned out the decent stories.  They’ve grown their reader base.  They’ve done the publicity.

If you suggest that any author out there doesn’t deserve to be on that list because they have a fan base, I seriously think you need to re-evaluate your own self-worth.  Are we back to the “I have more kids and deserve more readers” thing?  Every single author that you are trying to leap-frog over, earn more than, get more exposure than has just as much right as you.  Yes, I believe that authors should be paid a fair wage, but not at the expense of other authors.

Let's send a message to Amazon that authors deserve to earn a living wage just like everyone else. Most writers cannot get by getting paid a half a penny per page read. (And that number has already dropped from approximately $0.0057 in July to approximately $0.0051 per page in August. It's only likely to drop more from there, just as the rate per borrow steadily declined.)
Okay – now I’m getting angry.  Where is Amazon going to get the money from to pay you more than that rate?  They can only squeeze a certain amount out of the reader before they are turned away.  The drop in payment per page reflects the subscribers leaving because they’re not getting what they want from KU.  As discussed previously, if you write what the reader wants, then readers will pay more.  And you should get paid the same rate as everyone else.

Amazon: Stop your predatory business practices. Remove the exclusivity requirement from KDP Select so that authors can put their books on other stores and have a chance to make up for the income that's been taken away by your new payout structure. If you won't pay a fair, living wage to self-published authors, at least give us the option to place our books on your competitors' websites where we can earn some additional income without having to severely reduce our income on Amazon by removing ourselves from Select.
See – lost again.  We’re talking exclusivity?  I don’t have my books on KU and I earn what I consider is more than a decent wage.  I get paid per sale.  The more books I sell, the more money I make.  It’s as simple as that.  You need more money?  You need to do two things:  write more, and write better.  Want your books on the best seller lists?  Write better books and find yourself readers.

So what did I learn from this?  I learned that some people squawking for authors to be paid fair, are only really asking for themselves to be paid more at the expense of others.  There are TWO SIMPLE facts that no author can deny:
            1.  You must write what the public wish to read.  If you wish to make a living as an author, you must capture the audience’s attention.  Writing is not a set wage for set effort occupation.  The people who sell better than me, make more money.
            2.  No one forced anyone to put their books on KU.  I didn’t put my single self-published book there, and yet it made me a nice little pay day.

Buyer beware, and signer be doubly aware.  This is not a petition I will be signing.  There are many things that Amazon does that I’m not happy with, but paying authors equal amounts (per page rather than per download) is something I support Amazon in doing.

How to contact Renae:
Twitter:  @renaekkaye


  1. Thanks for this article Renae!

    There's also a quality issue here my publishing friends are mentioning. If a system is set up to pay out a flat rate when a reader reaches 10% of the total read on a story, and you dash off a 10 page story that's quite crappy, well hey, you only have to keep readers until page 2 to get your pay out. The new system rewards authors that are putting time into editing and story structure, and keeping readers until the end of a book. With any system, there are people who will try to "game the system" - to take advantage and make the most money. I've heard self pub authors discussing what a relief this new system is because it's no longer rewarding those kinds of people.

  2. I'm a KU reader and I agree 100% with you. I get so sick of the short stories that are obviously longer works split into a few chapters. I figured there was a reason for it. I also buy hard copy books and kindle books. I read very fast so I go through a great deal of reading material. I would much rather read quality material and to me it stands to reason that, if an author is going to be paid fairly they are going to take the time to write better books.