June 27, 2015

Talking Shop: Braving the Amazon Trail

Imagine for a moment that you work the pro shop at the gym.

You like working at the gym. Exercise and training is your passion. You know everything there is to know about the fitness equipment, nutritional supplements, and workout gear in your pro shop, and how your customers can best enjoy their workouts. You love working with the people who come to the gym. You enjoy being available to them and talking with them about equipment, exercise regimens...

Look, you really like working at this gym, okay?

Now think about all the people who sign up for a gym membership each day. Let's not talk about "each" day, actually: let's talk about one day. New Year's Day. The day when everybody and their mother decide to go on a diet, eat right, exercise, and become a gym rat. On that day hundreds of new folks come to your gym and apply for one of those "one week free" trial periods. And this is great! You have the chance to show all these new folks all your favorite equipment and the best classes to take and best of all, everybody is happy to listen because they're sampling your gym for free!

Then a week later all these new folks sign up for their brand-spanking new gym membership. 

And then, of course, a few of them--even though they signed up--start losing their motivation. They come less and less...they eventually start forgetting to come for weeks at a time. They keep up their membership--they pay their dues every month--but only because they want to keep the option open to come in and work out. And some of them go months and months without ever popping in.

That's okay, though, right? I mean it's their choice to pay their dues every month even if they're not coming in regularly. You've got plenty of other people to talk to and help out and show around and get excited.

Now imagine your boss at the gym comes to you one day and tells you they are changing the way you are paid. From now on, your salary will be determined in proportion to the number of paying gym members who are actually showing up.

Mind you...the gym isn't changing the cost of membership. It's not changing what members are paying. Each and every member of the gym is still paying full price whether or not they are coming in and using the facilities. The gym is not making any less money.

But they've decided you only deserve to be paid if paying customers are actually physically coming in to the facility and working out.

Then imagine when you complain this new system is unfair to you, you're told "Well, it's totally your choice to participate in this new system. It's completely voluntary. But if you don't want to be paid this way, we can't allow you to be part of the free sign-up promotions, or to approach the customers to offer them any perks. You'll have to stand in the corner over there and if someone comes to you, you can be paid your regular salary for helping them."

The name of this gym is Amazon.

You may have heard that Amazon is changing the way it pays self-published authors who are enrolled in their Kindle Unlimited program.  From now on, authors will be paid royalties only for the portion of their books which are actually read. If a customer purchases a book and then leaves it on their Kindle queue for a while, doesn't read it in the allotted lending time, or forgets about it, the author does not get paid at all.

Maybe this doesn't seem so unfair. Why should an author be paid for a book that isn't read, right?

Wrong. I’m sorry…once a product is paid for, what happens to it from there, as long as it is legal, is not the business of the author or distributor.

Readers, back me up here: we buy lots and lots of books. If you give us an opportunity to pay one low monthly price for unlimited borrowing of books, we're likely to one-click our way into piles and piles of books that we probably won't get around to during that month (or whatever allotted time we'll have for that month). Heck, we even buy print books from physical bookstores, bring them home, and they end up on the shelf for years.


It doesn't stop us from being interested. It doesn't stop us from one day getting around to them after all. It doesn't mean the book is not good. But Amazon seems to believe readers who have paid for their service must read the book in the allotted KU lending period in order for the money they paid to be valid, and for the author to receive any royalties.

Again... Amazon is not receiving any less money from their subscribers. They are still being paid in full whether or not the books are read and no matter how much of a book is read. Yet they believe the authors—the creators of the books Amazon makes money on—should only be paid based on the proportion of the fully paid service that is utilized after it has been fully paid for.

"Stop complaining, it only pertains to the books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. Your regular books are still earning their regular royalties."

Did you know that Amazon requires self-published authors to enroll in KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited in order to participate in advertising and promotions? If you are not enrolled in KDP Select and KU, you cannot set the price of your book to anything less than $0.99, and you cannot offer it as a free read for promotional purposes. So all of those promotional posts you see from Indie authors offering their books for free for a limited time? Authors don't get to do that unless they enroll in these programs.

Once you do enroll in KDP Select and KU, Amazon requires you to list your ebook exclusively with them. So while that author is only getting paid a proportion of the royalties for books listed in KU, they cannot list it anywhere else where they will be paid based on the sale itself rather than what happens to the book after the sale.

For enrolling in KDP Select and KU, you commit your book to exclusive availability for 90 days. During that time you may list your book for 5 days, free.

So for the privilege of promoting and advertising my self-published title on Amazon, I have to commit my book to being available at a lower royalty rate already, take it down from any and all other sales sites, limit those promotional days to 5 every quarter, and now I will only get royalties based on what happens with the book after it is in the hands of the customer (who has already paid Amazon in full for their membership to this program).

"Authors requested this change because some authors were scamming the system."

Yes, some authors scam the system by breaking up one longer story into smaller chunks, so that it takes more downloads to get the full story (and therefore more royalties paid at a per-download rate).

Some readers scam the system as well, by purchasing a book, reading it, then returning it for a full refund.  In these cases the author gets no royalties, and Amazon does nothing to mitigate these abuses of the system. 

It's interesting to note that when it comes to calculating an author's royalties, Amazon is capable of monitoring the number of pages read on any Kindle, but when it comes to determining if a reader has fully read a purchased book before returning it for refund, this option has never been exercised. It would seem it would benefit Amazon more to monitor this behavior, since a full refund means neither Amazon nor the author gets paid. But hey, who am I to judge?

And ultimately, I think anyone with half a brain can come up with a more suitable solution for preventing these abuses than punishing the entire indie author population.  Just off the top of my head, why not require KU titles to be a minimum length, instead of letting authors publish titles as small as pamphlets or single chapters? The solution has its own drawbacks, such as requiring authors to write longer stories or combine shorter stories...but it at least doesn't turn the abuse back on them by devaluing their work unjustly thanks to the actions of a few.

"But some authors get paid (proportionately) more for shorter stories than the authors who write longer stories."

First off, don’t fool yourself into believing Amazon actually cares about this.

Secondly, yes, some authors are going to be paid higher royalties, proportionately, than others. Self-published authors on Amazon set their own prices for their work. If authors are really contacting Amazon to regulate this problem, and if they really want to address it, the answer is for Amazon to set submission guidelines and prices based on the length of the story, taking the freedom out of the hands of the authors.

And I don’t think any of us wants that.

So if you are an author who actually wants Amazon to start paying by-the-page—and I seriously doubt there are many of us out there who actually want this, once the full situation is made clear—you really need to start submitting elsewhere, where your prices and the prices of authors around you are regulated. I don’t think it’s fair that EL James has made millions of dollars on terrible books, while I struggle to sell more copies of my books every month. Sadly, that’s the industry. If you enjoy the freedom to write your material free of submission guidelines, and set your prices based on what you feel others should pay, you have to live with the fact that some others will be making more. Some are making less, too.

"Is it really that big a deal?"

Hell yes it is.

We are authors, and artists. This is our work, and we take pride in it. What we create is meaningful to us and represents hours of investment of creativity and thought. Most of us also work day jobs to pay the bills so we use our free time, our coffee breaks, our weekends, and our vacations to put out the work we really love.

By changing the royalties policies to pay us only when they deem our work legitimized in their eyes, Amazon treats our time, creativity and personal investment as illegitimate. They reinforce the perception that independent and self-published authors are not real authors, and don’t deserve real recognition in the market. They treat us like children playing in a sandbox rather than creative minds producing a valid work.  They reduce us and our work back to the days of “Vanity Publishing”.

Furthermore, by treating all self-pub authors like the unethical few who cheat the system, Amazon brands us all as cheaters and liars. 

This entire change is really one big middle finger to the indie author community. It’s insulting, demeaning, and divisive.

Amazon’s Part in Publishing

It’s true that Amazon helped pave the path for new authors to self-publish without the prohibitive costs once associated with it. The Kindle Direct Publishing option does make it much easier for us to put our work out there.

But do you know what Amazon actually contributes to the creation of the book they then profit from?

Here is what the author and sometimes an author’s team contributes to the creation and publication of the book:

  • Writing the book.
  • Editing the book (often at the cost of hiring an editor)
  • Proofreading the book
  • Creating the cover art (often at the cost of hiring an artist)
  • Managing the layout of the book (including front and back matter)
  • Setting the price of the book (it’s harder than it sounds)
  • Promoting and Marketing the book

Here are the self-publishing services Amazon offers through KDP to help the author put the book out to the world.

  • Formatting the book as a .mobi file for Kindle (this can also be done through other free layout services like Draft2Digital, which never charges author for the service even if they take the layout and distribute elsewhere)
  • Cover Creator (if you do not have or cannot pay a cover artist, this very basic tool will help you create a basic cover. I don’t really recommend it though, if you have a choice…it’s very rudimentary and doesn’t result in very dynamic covers.)
  • An Amazon Marketplace listing.

As I mentioned earlier, you don’t have access to “Advertise and Promote” through Amazon unless you make your books available exclusively through KDP Select and KU.

Amazon may have opened the door to put ebooks in the hands of readers more easily…but they have almost and sometimes nothing to do with the actual creation and promotion of a book.
So pardon my outrage at the notion that they get to decide when my book “legitimately” earns its royalties.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?