Subscription Model Squabbles

So, authors, you’ll all remember when, in the middle of the Amazon-Hachette spit-fight, I noted that Amazon isn’t your friend, it’s a business entity with its own goals, which may only tangentially align with yours (and the same goes for Hachette)?

Surprise!

Authors are upset with Amazon. Again.

For much of the last year, mainstream novelists were furious that Amazon was discouraging the sale of some titles in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette over e­books.

Now self­-published writers, who owe much of their audience to the retailer’s publishing platform, are unhappy.

One problem is too much competition. But a new complaint is about Kindle Unlimited, a new Amazon subscription service that offers access to 700,000 books — both self­published and traditionally published — for $9.99 a month.

It may bring in readers, but the writers say they earn less. And in interviews and online forums, they have voiced their complaints.

Part of the issue, as I understand it, is that the payment Amazon doles out to many self-published folks who participate in Kindle Unlimited comes not from the percentage of a sale price, but from a slice of a pot of money Amazon decides to offer, called the KDP Select Global Fund. Here’s how it works, from the Amazon FAQ on the matter:

We base the calculation of your share of the KDP Select Global Fund by how often Kindle Unlimited customers choose and read more than 10% of your book, and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library customers download your book. We compare these numbers to how often all participating KDP Select titles were chosen. For example, if the monthly global fund amount is $1,000,000, all participating KDP titles were read 300,000 times, and customers read your book 1,500 times, you will earn 0.5% (1,500/300,000 = 0.5%), or $5,000 for that month.

However, as Amazon gets to select the size of the pot, and the share of the pot is contingent on performance relative to other titles, how much that cut is can fluctuate substantially, as is noted in the article. The article also notes that as the cut is the same for any read (i.e., a short story and a Rothfuss-sized epic novel are the same in the eye of the Kindle Unlimited clicker), authors are chopping up larger books into several files, or writing books as serials (looks like The Human Division was on target for that model).

Given the nature of the payment game here, this is a rational response, but it’s a short term solution at best, as it explodes the number of titles in Kindle Unlimited (and commensurately the number of titles read). As more authors catch on that particular trick, the less useful it will be for everyone. And while Amazon says it will tweak the size of the pot “to make participation in KDP Select a compelling option for authors and publishers,” inasmuch as self-published authors are already griping about how much revenue they’ve lost, the question becomes whether it will ever become a genuinely compelling option.

(Note well that these terms are as I understand it currently only for the majority of self-published authors. Publishers, who have more leverage on Amazon’s business, and certain (very few) high-profile self-published authors, are able to make deals that resemble traditional payment/royalty deals. They are not in the same payment pot as the hundreds of thousands of self-published authors, and they are not enjoined by exclusivity, as the majority of self-published authors are. Which if my understanding is correct is certainly an interesting point of data for those self-published authors.)

Does this make Amazon’s subscription scheme, or Amazon itself, evil? Nope. It does reinforce the point that Amazon has its own plans, which are not really about helping authors, per se. Its plans center on being the one single place everyone buys anything, ever. A $9.99 all-you-can-eat reading subscription plan with titles exclusive to Amazon is a fine way to lock consumers in the Amazon ecosystem. That’s Amazon’s job: to get and keep consumers’ business. It’s also the job of Oyster and Smashwords and other places that are also trying to make a go of the all-you-can-eat book subscription thing. What’s also their job: Getting the product that will enable them to reach their goals, and getting the product as cheaply as possible.

That said, the thing to actively dislike about the Kindle Unlimited “payment from a pot” plan is the fact that it and any other plan like it absolutely and unambiguously make writing and publishing a zero-sum game. In traditional publishing, your success as an author does not limit my success — the potential pool of money is so large as to be effectively unlimited, and one’s payment is independent of any other purchase a consumer might make, or what any other reader might read.

In the Kindle Unlimited scheme, the pool of money available to authors is strictly limited by a corporation whose purposes, short- and long-term, are not necessarily aligned with the authors’, and every time someone with a Kindle Unlimited account reads another author’s work, every other authors’ share of the pot  becomes that much smaller. In the traditional publishing model, it’s in my interest to encourage readers to read other authors, because people who read more buy more books — the proverbial tide lifts all boats. In the Kindle Unlimited model, the more authors you and everyone else reads, the less I can potentially earn. And ultimately, there’s a cap on how much I can earn — a cap imposed by Amazon, or whoever else is in charge of the “pot.” As an author, I won’t be able to ever earn more than Amazon wants me to (especially if Amazon requires my title to be exclusive).

So: Evil? No. Good for authors? Let’s just say I’m not entirely convinced. And neither, it seems, are these self-published authors. Good for them. I genuinely wish them the best of luck getting Amazon (and others) to pay them what the market will bear, and not just what Amazon wants to pay.

The Top Ten Whatever Entries for 2014, Plus 2014 Traffic

So, which entries on Whatever were the most popular in 2014, how was traffic to the site, and how was my general online reach? These all have interesting answers, or at least interesting to me. Let’s delve, shall we.

First, here are the top ten most-visited posts on Whatever in 2014, according to the WordPress stats package (caveats on that stats package to come). The entries with the asterisks are ones that were written before 2014.

  1. Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is*
  2. Being Poor*
  3. Amazon Gets Increasingly Nervous
  4. Apologies: What, When and How*
  5. The Four Levels of Discrimination (and You) (and Me, Too)
  6. An Anti-Feminist Walks Into a Bar: A Play in Five Acts
  7. 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing*
  8. You Never Know Just How You Look Through Other People’s Eyes*
  9. How to Boycott Me, I Mean, REALLY Boycott Me
  10. An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping*

This year’s top ten entries result is interesting to me, as I think this year is the first when the majority of the most visited posts were from previous years. “Being Poor” and “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know” are perennially popular pieces, but most of the others are newish as repeats.

I think the particular archive pieces that made the list reflect that for internet culture generally, 2014 was a year where sexism and other bigotries were a thing. This hypothesis is augmented by the 2014-native popular entries as well, as well as reflecting my own personal writing interests this year. It also suggests that a lot of the power of Whatever, and the scalzi.com site in general, resides in its archives. More on this in a bit.

If I included only the pieces written in 2014, here are the six other pieces that would have made the top ten:

Again, a lot about sexism, and/or writing and publishing. It was that kind of year, it seems.

Moving along to general traffic statistics, the WordPress stats package notes that (minus the last three days and 18 hours, which have not happened yet), Whatever received 5.768 million visits, or roughly 15,971 visits a day. This is down rather a bit from 2013, in which the site got 7.572 million visits, averaging about 20,700 visits a day.

Additionally my 1&1 stats package, which tracks everything on scalzi.com that’s not on WordPress (including archived versions of Whatever that were on Moveable Type, etc), and which has no real overlaps with the WP stats package, recorded 4.188 million visits, which is also down from 2013, when it noted 6.13 million visits (The 1&1 stats, incidentally, are why you should take anyone else’s estimation of the traffic to this site with a fairly large grain of salt).

Some of this decrease I chalk up to me posting a bit less here this year, primarily due to travel schedules, and writing less about certain clicky subjects like politics, about which I wrote almost nothing this year at all. And some of it might be ascribed to blogs generally declining. And, of course, more specifically, maybe I’m just less popular as a blog writer than I used to be.

That said, there are other things to note here, not the least of which is that it appears that more of the reading of the content of the site is done off the site proper. A large portion of Whatever’s readership has always been through RSS, which is not noted by the WP daily reports (although if you dig you can find that information — for now, anyway, as the newly updated iteration of the WP stats package doesn’t seem to list that information anymore).

(Update: In the comments, it’s noted that Feedly, a leading RSS service, lists 8,000 Whatever subscribers. Which goes to my point nicely.)

The new WordPress stats package also notes something I didn’t know before, which is that that Whatever has (as of this moment) 12,242 WordPress followers, i.e., people for whom Whatever content is pushed to via WordPress, so they don’t have to visit the site to read it, which means they’re not recorded in the WP site stats. I also push Whatever content to Tumblr and Facebook, so people can read it there. I even have email subscribers (768 at last count).

Without discounting the decrease in visits to the site in 2014, it’s interesting to me that the decline of visits to the site does not necessarily mean that the posts themselves are not being as widely (or even more widely) read. If the decline in visits to the site proper is being compensated for by people following me via WordPress or other outposts, then I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m not like I’m pushing advertising on the site and losing money if people don’t show up there.

But it does also suggest that my Web site stats are becoming increasingly like my Bookscan stats. Bookscan, for those of you who don’t know, is a book sales monitoring service that tracks how many books get sold — but only at specific retailers, and only in specific formats. So, for example, Bookscan captured only about 20% of the total sales of Redshirts in its hardcover run. Bookscan, in other words, isn’t the whole story of a book’s sales, it just points in the direction of the whole story.

Shorter version of the above: Remember how I always note caveats when talking about site stats here? Those caveats have become even more caveat-y. It’s clear to me that the site states don’t offer a clear picture of how things of mine get read online, or by how many people. This is something I’ve already noted this year, mind you. Whatever is the starting place for much of my online presence. It’s clearly not the ending point.

Outside of Whatever, my primary social media presence is on Twitter, and it was a pretty good year there; I started the year with 55.2k followers and ended up with 76.1k, most of them, as far as I can tell, real live humans. According to ThinkUp, a service which tracks this stuff, I tweeted roughly 22,400 times, the most popular tweet of which was this:

Which got about 216,000 impressions, that being the Twitter term for views. It should be noted that most tweets I write get seen by less than the number of people who follow me, which makes sense if you think about it, since no one is on Twitter all the time, including me, and not everyone sees everything I tweet when they are online — they might be below the scroll, as it were.

Anecdotally, and not counting the tweets in which I am replying to someone (which tend to be seen by exponentially fewer people), a typical tweet of mine tends to garner about 15,000 impressions over the course of a day, with the especially retweetable ones pulling in 25k – 50k or so, and with occasional spikes of over 100,000 impressions (this one, from the other day, got 167k). I’d need a more complete set of data then I have to get more granular about it.

All told, an interesting year for me online. Let’s see what 2015 holds.