Amazon Tweaks Its Kindle Unlimited System. It Still Sucks For KDP Select Authors

Now that I’ve returned to the US and have parked myself in front of the computer again, people are asking me what I think of Amazon’s plan to tweak the way its Kindle Unlimited system pays KDP Select authors. In the past, Amazon would designate a certain amount of cash ($3 million this June, according to this Verge article, although in the comments Annie Bellet quotes a higher figure) as a payment pot, and all KDP Select authors participating in Kindle Unlimited would get a small bit of the pot if someone who downloaded their book read more than 10% of it. This predictably led to authors making short books in order to get to the 10% mark as quickly as possible, and equally predictably diluted the effectiveness of the tactic. It also made authors of longer works complain quite a lot, as they had to compete with bite-sized books for the same tiny bit of the pot.

As a result, Amazon is now tweaking its system so that instead of getting paid when one reaches that 10% marker, KDP select authors will get paid for each page read — a move that will, within the context of the KU system, at least, address the “small book vs. big book” disparity. The system will also define a standard “page” so fiddling with margins and type size won’t fool it, and somehow track how much time you spend on each page, so just clicking through all the pages as quickly as possible won’t do the trick (this makes me wonder what Amazon defines as a decent amount of time to read a page). The short version is: You get paid for what your readers read. If your readers don’t read the whole book, you don’t get paid for the whole book.

I have a lot of questions about how this will play out in theory — will an author get paid if you re-read a book? What about if you go back and re-read a page? Does that count? Doesn’t this mean that authors of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books get really screwed? Not to mention any author who is writing anything other than a page-turning narrative? — but ultimately any objections or praise I might have for this new Amazon model is irrelevant, because of a simple fact:

Amazon is still making KDP Select authors compete against each other for a limited, Amazon-defined pot of money, and no matter how you slice it, that sucks for the authors.

Why? Because Amazon puts an arbitrary cap on the amount of money it’s possible to earn — and not just a cap on what you, as an author, can earn, but what every author in the KDP Select system participating in Kindle Unlimited can make. Every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited can not, among all of them totaled up, make more than what Amazon decides to put into the pot. Why? Because that’s the pot. That’s how much Amazon wants to splash out this month. And the more pages are read in the month, the smaller any bit of the pie that you might get for your pages read becomes. It’s a zero-sum game for every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited. Next month, who knows what the size of the pot will be? You don’t — only Amazon does. But whatever amount it is, it’s an amount designed to benefit Amazon, not the individual authors.

This is a bad situation for the authors participating — bad enough that ultimately the minutiae of how the money is allocated is sort of aside the point, because the relevant point is: You will never make more for your work than Amazon wants you to make. And yes, just Amazon, as the work KDP Select authors put on Amazon are exclusive to Amazon.

I’m not one of those people who believes Amazon is glowy-red-eye evil — I remind people again that I’ve rather happily had a fruitful relationship with its Audible subsidiary for a number of years — but Amazon is looking out for Amazon first, and when it does, it’s not an author’s friend. There is no possible way in this or any other timeline that I would ever, as a writer, participate in the sort of scheme that Amazon runs with its KDP Select authors on Kindle Prime. I don’t approve of putting a cap on my own earnings (particularly one I have no say on), and I don’t approve of being in a situation where my success as an author comes by disadvantaging other authors, or vice versa. In the system in which I currently participate (i.e., the open market), there is no limit to the amount I can make, and no limit to what any other author can make. It’s a great system! I support it, and so should you.

So, yeah: By page, or by percentage, KDP Select authors on Kindle Unlimited still can’t make more than Amazon says they can. That sucks, and that’s the long and short of it.

Just Putting These Here So They Can Be Part of the Permanent Record

From the day itself:

And then from the next day:

It’s been interesting watching Dylann Roof be, in himself, the very best rebuttal against all the (almost entirely white) people who were desperate for his massacre to be about anything other than what it so very obviously was: racism and racial hatred. All the scrambling and denial, from presidential candidates to news networks to Twitter commenters, all undone by Roof’s insistent, persistent desire to hurt black people. There was no rationalization that stood up to that simple hatred.

Not that there probably still aren’t people who are willing to try to pretzel themselves into arguing it’s something other than racism or racial hatred. So, you know, again, and to be clear: If you are arguing that a white man who clearly held racist beliefs, going into a place where he knew he would find black people, waiting an hour in pretend fellowship with them, announcing he was there to shoot black people, shooting them while spouting racist comments at them while they begged him to stop killing them, reloading several times, and then when arrested declaring that the reason he was killed all those innocent people was to start a race war, wasn’t motivated by racism and racial hatred,

a) you are so very laughably wrong;

b) you are being as racist as you can possibly be.

Dylann Roof is a racist. His attack was a racist attack. The denial of his racist attack being racist is racist. There were an appalling number of people being racist in the aftermath of this fundamentally racist act. And despite everything, there are people continuing to be racist about it now. I am continually amazed at how difficult it was, and is, for people to recognize that this was a racist attack, by a racist. I’m continually amazed by everyone who still has a hard time admitting that this country is still racist as hell, and especially toward black people.

All of the above is stupidly obvious. And yet some people choose to be stupid about this. This willful ignorance embarrasses me as an American. I was in the UK when all of this happened. No one over there had any doubt what it was about, as far as I could see. And when it was made clear to them that I wasn’t intentionally stupid about it either, the attitude I received the most was: Sympathy. The UK has its own social crosses to bear, to be sure. They easily enough recognized the one my country bears.

I’m very sure most of us knew immediately why Dylann Roof did what he did. It’s just that so many the people who argued so very hard against the obvious are those who want to control the levers of our politics and discourse. It’s embarrassing to me that so many very clearly intelligent people worked so mightily to pretend this killing was something it was not. It’s ironic how difficult Roof made it for them, and gratifying that this very fact exposed their mendacity for what it is: Ridiculous, risible, and racist.

Note to WSFS Members: Killing the Best Novelette Hugo is a Terrible Idea

(Note: Hugo neepery follows. But not the usual Hugo neepery! This is entirely new Hugo neepery! However, if you’re bored with Hugo neepery in general, then avoid this.)

Every year at Worldcon, there’s a business meeting where World Science Fiction Society members may, among other things, offer up amendments to the WSFS constitution. A very active set of amendments relate to the Hugo Awards, as might be expected because the Awards are the most public-facing thing the WSFS does, arguably excepting the Worldcon convention itself. This year there are four proposed amendments relating to the Hugos, for example.

One of these proposed amendments is for “Best Saga” (You may see the proposed amendment, as well as all the other proposed amendments this year, here. The “Best Saga” proposal is “B.1.3”). The amendment proposes to create a Hugo category to award continuing series of works whose total word counts exceed 400,000 words; any series with a new installment in any particular calendar year would be eligible for consideration in that year. So, for example, if the Best Saga Hugo already existed, then the Old Man’s War series would be eligible for the 2015 calendar year award, because the whole series clocks in at over 400,000 words, and I’ll have a new installment this year (The End of All Things).

I have thoughts about the desirability and necessity of a Best Saga award, but independent of that, the creators of the “Best Saga” amendment would “make room” for the Best Saga Hugo by rejiggering the short fiction Hugo categories, notably by paring them down from the three current categories (Short Story, for stories up to 7.5k words; Novelette, for stories between 7.5k and 17.5k words; Novella, for stories between 17.5k and 40k words), to two: Short Story (up to 10k words) and Novella (10k to 40k). This snips out the novelette category entirely.

Speaking as someone who writes very little novelette-length fiction, and could very obviously personally benefit from a Best Saga Hugo category, I very definitely oppose this proposed amendment. Let me explain why.

1. It is unnecessary to get rid of the Best Novelette category in order to “make room” for the Best Saga category. I’m unaware of the need in the WSFS constitution to limit the number of Hugo Awards given out; it’s not a zero sum game. Speaking as someone who has both emceed the Hugos and sat in its audience, I understand the desirability of not having an infinite proliferation of Hugo categories, because the ceremony can be long enough as it is. But that’s not a good enough reason to give one fiction category the axe at the expense of another, nor can I think of another good reason why the inclusion of the “saga” category requires the doom of another fiction category. It is, literally, a false dichotomy.

This false dichotomy is bad in itself, but also offers knock-on badness down the road. For example:

2. It privileges novel writing over short fiction writing. Bud Sparhawk, a writer and human I admire rather a bit, complained to me once (in the context of the Nebulas) that calling the Best Novel award “the big one,” as many people often do, is an implicit disrespect of the art of short fiction writing, and of the skills of those who write to those lengths. You know what? He’s right. Speaking as someone who finds writing novels relatively easy and writing shorter lengths relatively harder — and as someone who has needed more time to write a shorter-length work than I needed to write a novel because of those native skill sets — I’m well aware that the skills required to write short are no less impressive than those required to write long.

Also, speaking as best novel Hugo award winner: Would you argue to me that I am more essential to the field of science fiction and fantasy than, say, Ted Chiang, who is inarguably one of the pre-eminent SF/F writers of the 21st century, and who has not published a novel? Am I more essential than Eugie Foster, whose all-too-short canon of work is in short fiction? Or any other of a host of brilliant contemporary writers who write to shorter lengths? Do I and my work somehow trump grandmasters like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg, whose many Hugos come not in the novel category but in categories of shorter works?

Novels aren’t inherently better than shorter works; I’m not at all convinced they need another category at the expense of those shorter works.

3. It privileges the established writer over the newer writer. Almost by definition, the authors who are eligible for the “Best Saga” award are very likely be writers who are already successful enough to have a long-running series and the ability to publish in those series on a recurring basis. It’s theoretically possible to have someone toiling away on a series in utter obscurity and suddenly emerge with a knockout installment that would pop that writer up into “Best Saga” consideration, but as a practical matter, it’s almost certainly more likely than not that the nominees in the category would be those authors with perennially popular series — people, to be blunt, like me and a relatively few other folks, who are already more likely to have won the “genre success” lottery than others.

Meanwhile, short fiction continues to be a really good way to find new writers and new voices and new perspectives. For many of these new voices, award consideration and recognition continues to be a fine way to raise their profile in the field. Culling out a short fiction award to benefit an award for series is very much offering an advantage to the successful few at the expense of the emerging many. I think that’s wrong.

(NB: The “Best Saga” proposal points out anthology series like “Wild Cards” are eligible, but I don’t know if offering up an example edited by the current most successful novelist in all of science fiction and fantasy actually invalidates the point, especially if in those cases the Hugo goes to the anthology editor rather than the (numerous) individual authors, as I suspect it would. As a practical matter, I see this benefiting the already-successful more than the up-and-comers by a considerable margin.)

4. It ignores the fact we are living in a new golden age of sf/f short fiction. Aside from the traditional magazines that already existed for short work, think of all the venues for short fiction that have blossomed online in the last decade and a half. Think of all the anthologies Kickstarted or otherwise crowdsourced, and all the writers using Patreon or other direct-compensation systems to connect with fans. Think of all the micro- and mini- and indie publishers putting out short fiction anthologies and collections. Think of all the writers self-publishing and taking their short work directly to fans and readers. Think of the wide breadth of voices and stories and writers that have come to market in the last several years.

Now, right now, is without question one of the best eras for short fiction in the history of the science fiction and fantasy genre… and we’re proposing to cull out an award available for short fiction so we can give another award to novels? That’s not just silly, it’s almost breathtakingly short-sighted. It would be a community turning its back on one of its greatest engines of creation.

Finally, I have this problem with the proposed amendment:

5. It feels like a sneak attack on short fiction, under the cover of an unrelated proposal. I don’t suspect that those who proposed it meant it that way — I’m sure they were simply trying to craft a proposed amendment that would attract the most votes. Even if that were the case, however, as a practical matter this proposed amendment, under the guise of doing one thing (creating a new Hugo category), is in fact doing other things (disposing of a short fiction Hugo category and reorganizing the remaining short fiction categories in ways that don’t necessarily make sense for storytelling purposes) and doing so in a manner which suggests that of course it would have to be done this way in order to make space for their new Hugo.

Well, no, it doesn’t. If you want to propose a “Best Saga” Hugo, then do that. If you also wish to get rid of the “Best Novelette” category, then you can do that too. But these are two separate things, and each deserves a separate argument on their respective merits. There is no systematic reason to combine the two proposals. Moreover, as a matter of rhetoric, the way the current “Best Saga” proposal is built makes it seem like the proposers are trying slip under the table a move to hollow out the Hugo’s ability to honor short fiction, by distracting the potential voters with another issue entirely. It’s a bad way to do things.

For that reason, even if I were inclined to consider a Best Saga Hugo award, I could not and would not endorse this particular proposal for its creation. Whether it was intended to be or not, it is an attack on short fiction, on the merits of short fiction as a class of expression, and on the writers of short fiction. It’s not worth creating a Hugo to benefit the relative advantaged few, if it means taking away a Hugo from a much larger pool of people who could benefit from a nomination — or a win.

This is a bad proposed amendment, and I hope it fails.

(P.S.: If you’re interested in my thoughts on a “Best Saga” Hugo on its own theoretical merits, I’ll put those into the first comment in the comment thread.)

Back in the US: A Housekeeping Note

I’m back home after a long, lovely week in London with my bride on the occasion of our 20th anniversary. More on that later.

Housekeeping notes:

1. The comment threads, which I had trimmed back to being open only for a couple of days whilst I was away, are now open to their usual two weeks length, so if you wanted to leave a comment on a post from the last week but were temporarily limited, go to it.

2. I’ve taken down my “I’m on vacation” email autoresponder, so my mail situation is now back to normal (i.e., the usual haphazard “why do I have so much email whyyyyyyyy” state of affairs).

3. That said, you might want to give me a couple of days to get completely back up to speed, because of the whole “returning from vacation and dazedly reintegrating back into the real world” thing. Tuesday! Tuesday would be a fine day to assume I’m fully back in the swing of things.