The behemoth strikes again. By behemoth, I mean Amazon, the global retailing corporation that also is the world's largest bookstore, and a major force in contemporary (American) publishing. According to a Monday report in The Guardian, the most recent big news in the annals of Amazon's publishing ventures involves its decision to start paying writers based on page turns. Page turns! This policy won't, however, affect all authors whose ebooks are available on Amazon. Yet. Right now it applies only to self-published authors whose books appear in Amazon's Kindle Owner's Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited services. But it portends a shift in publishing that writers may want to pay attention to.
Amazon, as a book publisher, originally paid self-published authors royalties once a customer read 10% of an ebook. This unfairly penalized authors of longer works (compare a 600 page novel to a 60 page novella, or long form essay), who got nothing if readers stopped reading before the royalty trigger. Some authors then decided to start dividing up works into shorter pieces to ensure their royalties, leading to a potential flood of material--or more than already exists--on Amazon's site. So Amazon came up with a new plan to address the problem, as well as a system to normalize the meaning of "page" in ebooks and what counts as "reading it"; think time spent on the page, standardized fonts, and so on.
In The Guardian, Amazon says of its rationale,
We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read. Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it.In other words, if you write that 600 page novel and someone reads it all the way through, you'll be paid more than the author of a 60 page novella. But if a reader gives up 10% of the way through the longer book (i.e., 60 pages), both of you will earn the same. It should also be noted that the payments will come from a limited, dedicated pool of money Amazon calculates on a monthly basis--based on total sales?--so authors will be competing against each other directly for royalties.
As I noted previously in a February post on ebooks and surveillance, this is part of the advancing corporate intrusion into what had previously been for centuries a private experience; since the advent of silent reading of codex books, no one truly knew how much or in what ways you read. With e-reader tracking, this information is readily accessible by all e-book publishers. E-devices, however, can now track you down to how far you get into a book, what you reread, and where you stop reading, as many readers do with many books. These activities are being commodified and financialized, quietly in the cases of the e-reader companies themselves, but overtly now with Amazon's new move.
In my earlier post I also suggested, following the lead of Francine Prose, who wrote about e-reader tracking in The New York Review of Books, that this surveillance and the data resulting from it would begin to reshape how some authors imagined their work, which is to say, their aesthetics. It's a direct line from anticipating, based on data, what will draw readers, to feeling pressure to write based on what will generate page views--and turns--and then from there to publishers' demands to do so. Longer books with each element shaped by data about what keeps readers turning pages...of course this is something some authors may grasp intuitively, and some books that fit this criterion are very well written, and true works of art.
But the write-by-the-numbers approach could also have disastrous effects on literary production, while also further breaking down the already shaky publishing system's financial base. This may sound like dystopian view of things, but we have, as I pointed out, the example of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. If no one ever reads a book to the end or stops halfway through most books, most authors will earn even less than they already do. And as the examples of the journalistic and music industries show, will any but a very few earn a fair and liveable amount for their creative labor? The lure of market-based thinking is a strong one these days. Amazon is a apex predator corporation, and other publishers, especially the bigger ones, will feel the need to follow Amazon's lead.
Put the two together...well, let's write that horror film another time.
Many thanks to everyone who came out to last night's reading at WORD Bookstore in Jersey City! Thanks also to everyone at WORD, especially Caitlin and Zach, for making the reading possible. It was energizing to see a healthy crowd, filled with so many familiar faces, and to be able to share with a live audience something I hadn't yet read aloud--the final pages of "Rivers"--from Counternarratives.
Also, thanks to WORD for having a good number of copies of Counternarratives in stock, and to everyone who bought a copy. I have one more New York area reading, on July 1, before heading off to Ithaca for Image Text Ithaca, so please come out to McNally-Jackson Bookstore, where I'll be reading and participating in a conversation with Christine Smallwood!
If you are in Jersey City, make sure to stop by WORD, which is at 123 Newark Ave., just steps away from the Grove Street PATH station. A few photos: