Here’s How Amazon Could Fix Kindle Unlimited

Ugh. Publishing stuff. I’d much rather be talking about something else. Anything else, really. Like wombats on hanggliders. Like all the cheeseburgers I have ever eaten. Like this amazing rhubarb barbecue sauce I had last week. Like all of the awesome words you can form just by smashing a mundane word (preferably a noun) up against a vulgar one: cocktrumpet, fuckrelish, jizzglisten, shitnoodles, and so on, and so forth.

But here I am, talking again about Kindle Unlimited.

(Sorry, everyone. Music has Taylor Swift. Publishing has me.)

I do not mind Kindle Unlimited in theory.

In practice, I remain unsold.

Amazon has made changes recently to this subscription program — changes that now say authors in that program will get paid by the page if someone downloads the book through the Kindle Unlimited service. (Note: some articles are going around that suggest that this is how Amazon is paying all authors now, by the page, and that’s just a bag of horseshit that got struck by lightning and is now walking around like it knows a thing or two. It doesn’t.)

This contrasts with how the program originally worked which is that folks reading the book were all paid the same rate once someone read to a certain point in that book (10%). So, if you wrote a 250,000-word epic fantasy brick or if you wrote a 10-page pamphlet on the dangers of ostrich syphilis, when someone reads to 10% of either book, you receive $[INSERT DOLLAR FIGURE BASED ON SOME MYSTERIOUS CALCULATION BASED ON AN OCCULTED ALGORITHM BASED ON THE MAD WHIMS OF WHATEVER INSANE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE THAT RUNS AMAZON.COM]. The payout was once thought to remain steady at a couple-few bucks, but this year hit a new low at $1.33 in March. The guy who wrote the pamphlet gets paid more than a buck if someone reads one page of his syphilitic manifesto. The lady who wrote the bludgeoning weapon known as an epic fantasy book would get paid that same amount if someone read to 25,000 words of the book — roughly the size of a novella.

That sucked and Amazon changed it.

Now, it’s pay-per-page.

I’d argue that this is better. It fixes the weird inequity and stops punishing people who wrote… y’know, actual-size novels. And it stops incentivizing people to write tiny little no-nothing stories, or for writers to break up actual-size novels into hitching seed-spurts of “serial content” (“My novel, THE RAMTHONODOX CONSPIRACY, is broken up into 215 downloadable chapters!”)

So, yeah, it’s better.

I’d also argue that it’s still not great.

Here’s why:

First, the entire program continues to demand exclusivity from those enrolled. Meaning, you still have to be all in with Kindle Unlimited. No direct sales (though some say Amazon doesn’t really watch that closely). No B&N. No nothing. Exclusivity has always in the publishing world been a thing you get paid for — or, should be, anyway. If someone says to you, “I want you to be in with us, and out with everybody else!” then that offer better be an actual offer. It’s not a favor to you — it’s a favor to them. (And it’s why you should be wary of that kind of language inside any traditional publishing contract, by the way. Authors make a living by not being locked down, and if you are a Kept Penmonkey, then you should be paid for that.)

Second, it’s remains based upon some mysterious algorithm. There’s still this “global pool” of KDP Select money which seems to be arbitrary (and going down, down, down), and what you’ll be paid per page every month is not a fixed number. Whether their pool is high but the payout is low due to the sheer number of self-published titles or whether their pool is simply too low to pay those authors well, I don’t know. It’ll probably pay well at the outset and then begin to pay less and less as it goes, which is what happened with Kindle Unlimited. And we have no idea how any of this is calculated going forward. For all we know, there’s a chimpanzee high on DMT throwing darts at a bingo chart taped to the wall. I mean, that’s what I’d do. Hell, that’s what I do now any time I have to make a hard decision. His name is Jeepers P. Montesque, and he wears these frilly suits and fancy boots and — well. I’m digressing.

Third, it takes away the author’s financial independence. So-called “indie” authors (which is in some ways a misnomer because we’re all independent authors, not employees) find power in doing things their own way. It’s one of the reasons I love self-publishing — you have the power to make choices about your book that not every author gets to make. And really, one of the biggest choices is price. The value you choose to assign your book is an author claiming governance over her financial destiny, and she has the power to course correct that price over time. Taking that away from an author is a sin. It robs them of their sovereignty and actually diminishes part of the value of being an author-publisher in the first fucking place.

(Some have noted that this program will also change the way books are written, which is to say, books will become salacious cliffhangers driven toward getting people to turn to the next page. Maybe? I’d argue this is a pretty brittle bone of contention — and I’d further argue books are already written that way. We already want books that are meant to be read quickly and to completion. Books that readers don’t finish are books readers don’t talk about. And books readers don’t talk about are books that will sink and die at the bottom of the ocean. Word-of-mouth matters most above all else, and that means writing books that — gasp — people actually want to read from front to back and then maybe front to back again.)

So, Amazon — you and me, we’re pals. We’re cuddlebuddies, right?

I’m going to fix Kindle Unlimited for you.

I’m going to blow it open and make it awesome for authors.

Ready?

Let’s do this.

a) Remove the exclusivity. Because fuck exclusivity, that’s why. Unless you’re offering me a pony when I sign up for the program, don’t pretend this is some kind of favor to me.

b) Make payouts based on the price that I set for the book. In a perfect world, that means the price I set for my book is the money I get paid when someone completes my book. You can tie it to percentage — so, if they read 15% of my book, I get a 15% payout on the price that I set.

That’s it! Ha ha ha, fixed.

Okay, let’s tackle that second point, because it could present some problems.

It might, for one, encourage high prices — meaning, authors will take whatever books they sell and bump them up to $9.99. Pamphlet about ostrich syphilis? $9.99. Though that’s also a downside for those authors because now their e-books sell for that price, and they have to worry if someone’s going to pay it. Solution to this could be that Amazon could set programmatic limits on the payouts associated with works — meaning, they assert that books that are too short cannot receive the full percentage of the payout. This, probably based on average prices of certain length books — Amazon already calculates that and recommends pricing to author-publishers, after all. So, if your average novella is going for $2.99, maybe it only pays out that much per read.

Another solution would be to pay authors a reduced royalty — a fixed percentage that does not change month to month — of, say, 50% of the price instead of the normal 70%.

The point is that, authors should get to choose their own prices.

That’s always been part of the advantage of being an author-publisher.

And it should remain an advantage, one that cascades through all of Amazon’s programs.

(As a sidenote, some have suggested that Amazon has wonked up the algorithms to help ensure that books enrolled in KDP Select/KU are given more favorable rankings. This is not something easily proven, because again, everything Amazon does behind the wall of their marketplace is shhh seeeecreeeet. For all we know, it’s a hyper-intelligent ant colony deciding what happens. Maybe Jeff Bezos is just a thousand praying mantises stuffed in a skinsuit stuffed in a business suit. UNTIL AMAZON SHOWS US THE TRUTH WE WILL NEVER KNOW.)

Amazon, as always, is a beast to be reckoned with. They single-handedly made independent publishing a bona fide thing. And it’s why I don’t want to see them shitting up what has been ultimately a pretty good deal. Innovation is good. And I think their fix for Kindle Unlimited is a move in the right direction. But it’s still not enough. To me, the program needs to be changed to be more in favor to the authors, and more in line with what traditional authors already get.

*does a sassy version of SHAKE IT OFF*

*crowds run screaming and streaming from the building*

*music cuts short, lights turn on, seats are all empty*

*sad mic drop followed by one lone tear on top*

*bloop*