The Great Amazon Hysteria… Part 31 Amazon Publishing

ChickenLittleAre you scared yet? Because you should be scared. Something really bad is about to happen. It affects all of us.

Our livelihoods are at risk. The ability to support our families. It’s just over the horizon. It could happen any minute. It’s coming for all of us!

WE ARE DOOOOOOOOOMED.

Ahem.

I’ve been around for long enough to know that authors can be a skittish bunch. Probably something to do with our over-active imaginations, with an assist from that old writers’ favorite: the whiskey brunch.

More seriously, we are going through a period of unprecedented change so it’s perfectly normal for people to be a little fearful. I think the disruption we are all experiencing is greater than that which has been faced by similar industries. In fact, I think the transition from print book to e-book is akin to going straight from vinyl to MP3, with all that entails.

So, change. Lots of it. And change can be scary – even if you seem to be benefitting from the changes that are happening. I get that. However, at this point, we should all know enough to treat media reports on Amazon (and publishing in general) with the requisite amount of skepticism. As in 100% skepticism.

Patient Zero in this latest outbreak of Amazon Hysteria appears to have been The Atlantic who ran a piece on June 20, headlined: “What If Authors Were Paid Every Time Someone Turned a Page?”

The rather important distinction that this new payment system only applied to some self-published titles – those enrolled in a wholly optional program called KDP Select – wasn’t made until PARAGRAPH EIGHT. And even then the distinction wasn’t super clear and floated the wholly baseless idea that this could also apply to traditionally published books:

While many larger publishers’ offerings are included in these programs, the details of those deals have not been made public. Their authors may or may not be paid by the page. Amazon’s announcement only says that the new formula applies to Kindle Select books that are self-published and distributed through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.

Next up in this steaming pile of hot takes was this article from The Verge on June 21. The original article has been amended (but still contains huge inaccuracies) so I can’t quote from it, but the correction appended underneath clearly shows the problem:

Correction: The original version of this article conflated Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and KDP Select. The new royalty system only applies to KDP Select authors, who have their books offered on both the Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited as part of the program. In addition, the $3 million pool number quoted was for this month, not May as originally stated. We regret the error.

It’s amusing that the correction contains another error (the pool is actually $10.8m for May), but I digress.

The panic then spread to the newspapers, starting with this Telegraph article on June 22. Headlined “Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read,” it opened with the following:

If you are an author whose book fails to grip in the opening chapter, it could prove costly. Amazon is to begin paying royalties to writers based on the number of pages read by Kindle users, rather than the number of books downloaded. If a reader abandons the book a quarter of the way in, the author will get only a quarter of the money they would have earned if the reader stuck it out to the end.

Sounds scary.

Of course, it’s completely inaccurate. As you should all know by now, this new payment system only applies to titles enrolled in KDP Select – a completely optional program. That rather crucial distinction is only made in the fifth paragraph, and isn’t made either in the click-bait headline, or the shamefully inaccurate, fear-mongering sub-headline: “Amazon"s new system will cut the royalties for self-published authors who fail to hold a reader"s attention until the final page.”

And then after skipping over the most crucial piece of information – that this new payment system only applies to self-published titles that are enrolled in a particular, optional program – the Telegraph moves full steam ahead into panic-manufacture mode (what the UK papers do best), quoting all sorts of despairing authors. Sigh.

The article leaves out a rather important bit of context. Authors getting paid little or nothing for readers ditching a book that doesn’t grab them is nothing new. For years now, customers could read the first 10% of pretty much any book (print or digital) on retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble without paying for it. These free samples are actually great and help drive sales. I love them both as a reader and a writer.

Also, for the last twelve months Kindle Unlimited/KDP Select has had a similar system in place where payment to authors for books borrowed via Kindle Unlimited wasn’t triggered unless the reader went beyond the 10% point.

So there’s nothing new about the concept that a slow opening could cost you. And it’s not like readers don’t browse books in physical stores – reading a page or two before ditching it – without being charged and without the author getting paid. This is all normal stuff. It’s just a little less controversial when you aren’t actively trying to describe it in sensationalist terms.

GooglenewsAnd the story is still spreading, as you can see from the screenshot on the right. Most of these articles fail to point out that this new payment system only applies to an optional program for self-published titles. Many also fail to point out that it doesn’t apply to traditionally published titles at all.

The result, of course, has been widespread panic. Writers completely losing their minds all over social media. It’s not their fault per se, this erroneous message was spread far and wide by journalists who were either lazy, ill-informed, clueless about self-publishing, actively engaging in click-bait, or a combination thereof.

This is nothing new, but the question I want to ask is this: why do we react to it? We’ve been down this road many, many times before. Two recent examples:

  1. In January 2014, the media went completely nuts over Mein Kampf being a “digital bestseller.” It turned out that it wasn’t a bestseller at all. It had sold very few copies… until the media made it one with this huge, rolling coverage of a completely erroneous article on Vocativ.
  1. In June 2014, an author wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times decrying how little money being a “digital bestseller” had made him. The media took that story and ran with it… again without checking the facts. It turned out that, like Hitler, he never was a digital bestseller at all, until the ensuing media storm, and the money he made was very much as expected, given the book’s actual sales figures, and the fact he went via a publisher (who took their own cut).

And I didn’t even mention The Great Erotica Panic of 2013, the extended (and tiresome) Amazon-Hachette dispute, or the unprecedented imbroglio over Macmillan’s buy buttons getting removed from Amazon a few years back… when the whole thing was a smokescreen for five of the Big 6 publishers engaging in an illegal price-fixing scheme with Apple.

The point is this: don’t believe everything you read. Think twice before helping spread panic. Before commenting on something publicly, or sharing it with your friends on social media, perhaps consider doing some basic fact-checking.

Because the journalists sure as hell aren’t doing it.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.