Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Writing for pennies

Shark shark shark

Amazon strikes again

Just recently I subscribed to Spotify so the artists I listen to would receive a few micro-pennies every time I stream their songs. Add this to my Pandora subscription and the occasional CD or mp3 I buy, and I’m able to say that I support the hard-working artists I appreciate most. I wish I could do more.

When I hear musicians complain about the payments that Spotify metes out, I step away from my self-satisfaction and wonder if this is the future of most of the arts. Including fiction. We’ve already seen some experiments in book delivery with Oyster and Amazon Kindle Unlimited that appear to be modeled on services like Spotify. In other words, the consumer pays a monthly fee that allows her access to as many books as she wants, and typically the service pays the author on the basis of how many pages she gets through — or rather, a “sale” isn’t recorded until she gets past a certain point in a book (often 10%).

(By the way, Oyster also keeps data on where in a book the reader bails out; you know, to help the author see where he failed.)

Now we learn that the Kindle Lending Library, which is part of Amazon Prime, is going to start paying writers on the basis of pages read as opposed to books “borrowed.” It’s an experiment in delivery and payment that raises all kinds of red flags with me, even though I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Catherine Ryan Howard does a nice job analyzing the situation here, though.

Maybe my paranoia has to do with Amazon itself. We all know it’s a fanged juggernaut that seeks only to maximize its control of the entire publishing business. How adorable. But I don’t find it unreasonable to assume that the new program is a prototype Amazon is testing for greater use that will result in greater profits. You can easily imagine a new royalty structure for all KDP books based on pages read as opposed to copies sold. Maybe we’ll have a choice for a while, but if the new structure works best for Amazon then that choice will be taken away. And the upshot will be that writers will adapt by making sure readers keep turning those pages.

Bye bye literary fiction.

It’s hard enough getting people to try indie lit fic, even at bargain prices. Couple low low pricing with minuscule royalties and the only motivation to self-publish is to “keep your name out there.” At what point will it cease to be worth the effort?

I probably shouldn’t worry until there’s evidence on the horizon. But the power Spotify is gathering in the music business makes me think that Amazon likes the model and hopes to translate it to publishing. Micropayments (according to Jaron Lanier) are the wave of the future, and that’s not just for artists and musicians. We’ll all get paid tiny amounts for things we do, so those who are able to modify their behavior to maximize these payments will thrive. It’s like we’ll all be working for the Mechanical Turk.

Let’s keep an eye on the new program together. I have a sneaky feeling Bezos has a surprise or two up his sleeve.


18 comments on “Writing for pennies

  1. sknicholls
    June 29, 2015

    I can’t deny that I’ve already been influenced by market trends. Literary fiction is a category that rarely even gets clicked on at certain advertising platforms, much less purchased. I’m not a fanciful writer. My writing is deep and serious. I’ve tried to lighten it up, but to do so seems forced. It doesn’t flow with the same passion. I haven’t released Naked Alliances yet. That was my first crime novel. 10 out of 12 beta readers loved it. But two couldn’t read it. Those two planted seeds of self-doubt with deep roots. Maybe I’ll get over it and toss it out there some day. The novel I’m into now is dark and deep and I’m back to my old writing style with some improvements, primarily in structure. We’ll see.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 29, 2015

      Yeah, I wouldn’t want to feel pressure to change my style so I could snag a few extra page reads. It’s all part of the commoditisation of books, I guess…

  2. John W. Howell
    June 29, 2015

    Thoughtful post. I am still wondering how your “free” campaign worked. Don’t think I missed an update but could have happened.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 29, 2015

      I plan to write a post about the campaign soon. The gist may surprise you…

  3. kingmidget
    June 29, 2015

    I love me my Spotify, but I also think that it leads to a lot of musicians getting more money from me than they would if I just bought their CD. Why?: Repetitive play. That is the problem, though, with trying to adapt that payment mechanism to books. The vast, vast majority of books are read once. So, I’m waiting to see how this pay by the page works. But, ultimately, what you say about Amazon is what scares me the most — they want total control and with that control they want to drive prices down as far as possible, which just means we get less and less.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 29, 2015

      Well, they can’t get more from you than your $9.99/month, but I take it the real losers are the artists who don’t get many plays.

      Good point about books and how they’re read once. It’d be nice to have our books read all the way through at least once, wouldn’t it?

      • kingmidget
        June 29, 2015

        Most of what I listen to on Spotify are the obscure ones. Very little reason to listen to popular acts on Spotify if I can turn on the radio and listen to their songs played every hour. I really think Spotify has greatly expanded the earning opportunities for a lot of the lesser knowns. And I’d be willing to pay for then $10 a month for the service.

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 29, 2015

        Same here. I love finding new stuff there. Yet, if you listen to their mood lists, they’re chock full of all the usual suspects. Thank God there’s no Taylor Swift on Spotify!

  4. 1WriteWay
    June 29, 2015

    Sounds like another program by which to be “nickeled and dimed” …

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 29, 2015

      Yep. Not very encouraging. Of course, even in traditional publishing the advances are getting very small, so writers are working for pennies per hour there too. Labors of love indeed.

  5. Carrie Rubin
    June 29, 2015

    Pay-per-page is an interesting concept for sure. On the one hand, it perhaps rewards better quality books. (But who’s to determine that? Plenty of high-quality books go unread.) On the other, as you point out, it could alter how authors write in the future, and that risks cookie-cutter fiction.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 29, 2015

      I guess there’s a certain kind of writer who might really benefit from the per-page model. Very long erotica? I don’t know… But I do fear that the temptation would be there to deliver what you know the reader wants instead of trying something different, and riskier.

      • Carrie Rubin
        June 29, 2015

        I agree. And I think the best stuff comes when authors write from the heart using ideas that flood their minds, not what they think people want to read.

  6. ericjbaker
    June 29, 2015

    Bring on the asteroid collision. One that makes the dinosaur killer look like a pebble.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 29, 2015

      That’s your answer to everything!

      • ericjbaker
        June 29, 2015

        It’s either that or I have to come up with the 20 large I owe Big Louie. You think I got 20G lyin’ around? Cause I don’t.

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 29, 2015

        You’re right. Total obliteration of all life is preferable.

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