Authors should embrace Amazon’s plan to pay them by pages read

The e-commerce giant is bringing the rigour of real usage data to everything, including what people actually read

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with a Kindle in the background

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiling a new line of Kindles in 2012. (David McNew/Getty)

Amazon is causing trouble again, this time by changing how it pays self-published authors via its Kindle Direct Publishing Select program.

Announced last week, the shift will introduce a pay-per-page system where authors will receive royalties based on how much of their e-books readers actually get through. As Amazon puts its:

  • The author of a 100 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).
  • The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $2,000 ($10 million multiplied by 20,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).
  • The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed 100 times but only read halfway through on average would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

Previously, KDP Select authors would get a royalty payment if a reader made it past the 10-per-cent mark of their book.

Given its rocky relationship with authors and the publishing world, Amazon tends to catch flak whenever it does anything regarding books, and this effort is no different.

From pronouncements about the “death of literature” to predictions of shorter books, the pay-per-page system is being roundly criticized. Some suggest the system will force writers to “trim the fat” or fill their works with Dan Brown-esque page-turning schlock.

It may or may not happen, and it’s arguable about whether some of it will be for the better or worse. The more interesting arguments, however, centre around the idea of books as products.

Samantha Shannon, writing in The Guardian, for example, suggests that as with other goods and services, consumers should have to live with the e-books they buy:

You have a right, as a paying customer, to do whatever you like with your purchase. You can walk out of a cinema if you’re not enjoying a film. If you buy a piece of cake and take a bite out of it, only to discover you don’t like the taste, you are welcome to throw it away. Nobody will force you to finish it. However, you can’t hand it back to the baker and ask for a refund unless there is something objectively wrong with it—if the cake has a fingernail in it, for example.

Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily true. In many cases, movie theatres and bakeries will in fact provide a refund even if the only thing wrong with their product is subjective. The value of keeping a customer satisfied in many cases outweighs the loss on the returned purchase, which is why consumers can generally ask for a refund on just about any purchase—and usually get one.

This applies in the digital sphere as well. Even iTunes issues refunds for unwanted purchases, voluntarily in some jurisdictions and because it is required to do so in others.

Changes to this payment-return scheme are inevitable as digital products shift toward subscription models, where the value of an individual piece of content is relative to how much it is viewed or otherwise consumed.

If a particular author’s book is just one of thousands available to a subscribing reader, for example, the idea of a refund doesn’t apply anymore because there’s no individual purchase being made. You can’t, for example, ask Netflix for a refund just because you didn’t like Orange is the New Black. Netflix has data on all the other things you may have viewed and can prove its value to you otherwise.

In that vein, what Amazon is doing is consistent with what’s happening elsewhere. Netflix, for example, doesn’t just count how many times viewers start a show or movie when determining whether or not to license or create more of it. The company also assesses whether they actually make it through and whether they spend any time with it.

The pay-per-page system actually makes a lot of sense because it provides for an objective way of assessing an e-book’s value to its readers, and authors get payments accordingly.

In the past, you could go to the bookstore, buy a book and read it, then quickly return it and ask for a refund, claiming you “didn’t like it.” The pay-per-page system, unfortunately, has the real goods on you.

In this light, purchasing something and then asking for a refund because it didn’t meet subjective standards sure seems like an outdated method of buying and selling, given the encroachment of real data. Perhaps that’s what the critics are really worried about.