Kindle Unlimited changes are good for readers and bad for content churners

This month Amazon announced a change to the Kindle Unlimited payout system. Effective from July 1st, authors will be paid based on pages read. At present, authors are paid per book, where a reader has read at least 10% of the book. This change is going to have a significant impact on the incomes of authors, with some seeing an increase and others seeing a decrease, but it was also change the kind of content readers see included in the Kindle Unlimited scheme.

What is Kindle Unlimited and how is it changing?

Kindle Unlimited is an ebook borrowing system whereby readers pay a monthly subscription to then be able to read books signed up for the scheme for free. Authors are then paid per book, if at least 10% of their book is read, and what they are paid is an equal slice of a very large pie, with the size of each share determined by how many books were borrowed that month. Under this arrangement, though, a 6,000 word short story and a 120,000 epic adventure are paid the same, provided they are both at least 10% read. What that means is that if a reader downloads both books, reads a few pages on both, then decides they don’t like either book, the short story’s author will get paid, whereas the novel’s author won’t. The result has been that the Kindle Unlimited marketplace has been flooded with short stories and non-fiction essays, and authors have split up longer works into multiple volumes. With shorter works having a double advantage over longer works – same payout for less effort, and more likely payout even for low quality as the 10% threshold is more easily met – they’ve become commercially valuable. The new system will pay authors by the number of pages readers read. If a reader bought both a 6,000 word short story and a 120,000 word novel, and read both to the end, the author of the novel would be paid twenty times as much as the short story author for that reader, because their book is twenty times as long. If the reader reads 5 pages of both books and then stops, both authors will be paid for 5 pages each. This means that authors of a longer work are rewarded more than an author with a shorter work for a reader who completes their book. It means, also, that a book given up on half way through sees a smaller payout than a book of equal length which is read to the last page. Length and quality are rewarded; short works and those of low quality penalised.

How will this change what’s available?

Novels

Under the existing payment arrangement, it made financial sense for authors to split a novel into several volumes, as they could then get paid several times for the story instead of just once. The effort put into their stories was better rewarded through serialisation than merely publishing as a complete novel. This will no longer be the case. In fact, it’ll be reversed – keeping readers reading will be the priority, and that’s more easily done if the book continues into the next chapter than if the reader has to find the next volume. With longer works being more profitable under this scheme, one change I expect to see would be an increase in wordiness. A lot of stories of the last few decades are quick-paced and sharply written, with no unnecessary verbiage. While I don’t expect to see those kinds of stories vanish, I think authors with a more loquacious style might find it profitable under the new system. Quality, of course, is still needed; if a bored reader stops reading, then the author stops getting paid. Purple prose gains its author no advantage if a reader can’t stand to read it. But provided the author can keep their reader interested, then there’s less of a drive to pare the words back as harshly in editing.

Short stories

With longer works more profitable than shorter works, I expect to see short stories getting longer. Not, perhaps, significantly longer – after all, empty filler could well leave a reader bored – but as with novels, short story authors might well feel more free to be more expansive in writing and less strict in editing. They may decide to add (or keep) more plot or another character and expand their short story to a novelette. Some short story authors will find it advantageous to bundle their stories up and list them as collections instead of individually. This works on the same principle as the reversal of serialisation of novels: a reader will be more likely to read the next short story if they don’t have to go through any additional effort to obtain it.

Low quality content

With the existing payment method, some publishers (and I use that word in its loosest sense) have taken advantage through the mass publication of short, low quality works, including both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve seen it on Elance myself – where people list jobs to write anything from romance and erotica to an essay on the rules or cricket or the history of honey, expecting to pay $40 and under for 10,000 words. This isn’t a pay rate that encourages quality. With the copy written, the publisher would promptly publish it, sign it up for Kindle Unlimited, and wait for some poor sap of a reader to be intrigued enough by the title and blurb to download it and read the first two or three pages. With the new system, this business model is undermined. These content churners will see a drastic reduction in income, since most readers will stop reading quickly enough that they’ll only get paid for a few pages each time. With this business model no longer making nearly as much money, they will likely stop the whole process fairly quickly. Quality and length are what will make money in the new system, and many content churners won’t be willing to pay for it. They might try to improve what they have by hiring proofreaders to eliminate errors, but removing typos and fixing grammar won’t hide poor research and poor writing. With Amazon now working out payouts based on pages read, content churners may instead turn to works where the page count is high but the effort put in is low and the opportunity to spot low quality is limited. I expect to see shorter paragraphs, including paragraphs just a sentence long and an increase in dialogue. I expect, too, an increase in subheadings within content churner works, maybe a subheading for every two to three paragraphs, since a subheading is a paragraph all by itself and will help bolster the page count. The result is that readers will see fewer books enter the marketplace – and the overall quality increase. There will be more full length novels and fewer serialised stories of novel length. Books may get longer, and bundles of short stories will be more common. There will be fewer low quality, hastily-produced works, and those that there are will at least have fewer errors in them, but also shorter paragraphs and more subheadings.

How will the changes affect people – readers, authors, publishers?

Readers

Initially, readers won’t see much of a difference. They still pay a subscription to read unlimited books within the scheme for free. Over time, though, they’ll start to see the changes outlined above – and have access to higher quality books, more bundles of short stories, and different approaches from those seeking to exploit the system.

Short story writers

Those who predominantly write short stories will see a reduction in income, as now instead of getting a flat rate per book they’ll be paid per page. For short story writers whose work is good quality and who have several stories in the market, income will still likely go down, but not as much as for the lower quality, less polished works. Volume and quality is rewarded under the new payment scheme, so if you’ve got a lot of good quality short stories available, people will still borrow and read them. To take advantage of the changes, bundle up short stories as it makes it easier for the reader to keep reading. Make sure your stories are well-polished and error-free.

Novel writers

Novel authors will likely see an increase in income, simply because a longer work will be paid more than a shorter work if it’s read all the way through. Authors who previously split up a novel into several volumes would be advised to return them to their original format. As stated above, it’s easier for a reader to keep reading if they’re just turning a page than if they have to go back to the store, find your next book, and download it.

Content churners

Content churners will see their income dry up. With low quality and short works available, their only defence is the sheer number of works they have available. With a far larger slice of the pie going to novels and other longer works, though, payouts even for what few pages they can get people to read will mean their total income will become a fraction of what it currently is. To adapt, they will have to produce higher quality works and will likely use shorter paragraphs and more headings. They may increase length of works or bundle several related topics or stories together into one book, in the hope that anyone who borrows it might read to the end. Alternatively, they might seek out longer works to purchase. If they find their profits unrecoverable, though, they will likely leave the market altogether and seek other options.

Conclusion

Overall, the changes are a positive thing. Payouts to authors will be fairer and low quality, short content will cease being profitable. Readers will see an increase in quality and a reduction in the number of low quality content churned works. Authors of longer works will see an increase in income. Content churners will be driven out of the market. This good comes at the expense of short story writers, but there are ways they can mitigate the effects (and besides, they were at a significant and unfair advantage to begin with).

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