Amazon’s new policy

Writers who publish their digital books on Amazon’s platform have long had to make a choice on whether or not to enroll in Kindle Select. If the author chooses to enroll, the book becomes available for borrowing by Kindle customers who are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (KU) or Kindle Prime, which accesses the Kindle Online Lending Library (KOLL). KU customers paid about $10 a month for unlimited borrowing. Amazon Prime members pay less and are limited to one borrow per month, plus other benefits like free shipping on other items. It’s a very similar arrangement to Netflix DVD rentals with its different levels. Up until now, authors whose books were enrolled were paid on a per borrow basis. The concept is simple enough. Amazon would add up all the money garnered from the KU and Prime customers, maybe add some extra money to sweeten the pot, take out their cost plus profit share and split up the remaining pool among all authors based on how many borrows of their books occurred. It is much like pari-mutuel betting. An author would not make as much money from a borrow as from a sale, but he or she may get more readers by making book(s) available on a lending basis. Whether or not to enroll was a strategic decision; some authors chose to use Kindle Select, while others did not.

As Kindle authors now know, the formula recently changed. This has caused great consternation and discussion among authors, especially self-published ones. Everything remains the same except for the method of dividing the final pool of money. Now it is divided on a per page read basis. Yes, that’s right, on the number of pages the borrowers actually read, not just downloaded. Kindle readers and apps have a way of determining whether the borrowers have actually read (or at least paged through) a book, and communicating that back to Amazon HQ.

There are many issues raised by this change. First off, what is a “page” in a Kindle book? Amazon has created something called a Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count or KENPC. I don’t know the details of the algorithm, but for authors of purely text-based books, like me, the formula seems generous. My books’ KENPC have all turned out to be more than twice what the print edition page count is. I upload my books as a Microsoft Word document and the size of a KENPC page is probably based pretty strictly on the number of words. Authors with heavily graphic books, like art books, children’s books, graphic novels, etc., on the other hand, typically upload their books as pdf format. They have found that one print page equals one KENPC page. Other authors whose print books use small page size or a larger font or wider margins than my books have their normalized page counts somewhere in between. So under the old formula, a children’s book author with a 20-page (print) book containing graphics on every page who had one borrow would make exactly what I make from one borrow of my 423-page novel Cached Out. That novel now has a KENPC of over 800 pages, so assuming all the pages are read of both books, now I would get 40 times as much for a single borrow. Then again, the child may download and read 40 such picture books a month, while my novel may take a month to read. Fair or unfair? That depends on your view of the work involved in writing the two books, the value to the reader (e.g. hours of entertainment), the profit to Amazon, etc. Someone who spent three years traveling the world to produce a book of spectacular photographs isn’t going to look at it the same way I do.

What about those who download but don’t read? Remember, these books are free to the KU and Prime members. KU members especially can just download everything. I know for a fact that some people are “hoarders” whose only goal is to download as many as they can. They typically have tens of thousands of unread books in their collections. Even normal people might download a book, read the first five pages, and if it didn’t catch their interest, move on to the next one. Others might accidentally borrow one book thinking it’s something else, return it unread when they realize it, and download the one they actually wanted. Amazon had a policy to deal with all those people in the past. A book had to be read at least ten pages before it was counted as a borrow. Now, however, a page read is a page read. If someone opens up the book to verify it downloaded okay, but sees nothing beyond the title page, that is still one page read for an author. It also means that a book that holds the readers’ interest all the way to the end gets more compensation than one that readers don’t finish. This strikes me as fundamentally fair.

This new formula took effect July 1. The royalties for July won’t be paid until the end of August, so we really don’t know how this will play out until then. I suspect there will be a number of authors who leave the Select program. Amazon has a neat tool that shows an author on a day-by-day basis how many pages have been read. The first week I had a low of 1 page one day and a high of 709 pages on another. In fact, it updates hour by hour. There is a certain Pavlovian addictive quality to that tool. I find myself checking it several times a day and it is gratifying to see more pages have been read each time. Still, in terms of royalties, it is probably not going to make much difference. Borrowing has always been the smaller slice of the pie and will probably remain so. I’m pretty sure after the first couple of months, I won’t pay it any attention at all.

So will we find authors gaming the system? Will there be entrepreneurs who form KU downloading companies that for a fee will have its legion of employees download your books and page through every one? Time will tell. In the meantime, do me a favor will you? If you’re a KU member, please download all of my books and page through them to the end.