Pay per page? Get Outta Here With That Nonsense

The following is my response to Amazon changing the payout terms for Kindle Unlimited borrows from a 10%, regardless-of-length full payout to a pay-per-page standard, as well as my response to the responses.

“Starting in July, if you’ve been loading the system with bits and pieces instead of full-fledged work, you’ll be getting paid for bits and pieces.”
— Porter Anderson from Thought Catalog

Hear that, writers of short works? Those of you who, apparently, are not quite full fledged? See what the industry thinks of you? You’re only worth bits and pieces compared with the vaunted novelists. You’re being thrust back to your rightful place on the pay scale, and you only get that begrudgingly.  A bit of an unfair characterization of Anderson’s words and meaning? Sure. But that comment is also characteristic of many, many more like it. Short works are a racket. You’re gaming the system. What you’re doing isn’t fair. This is a common sense return to sanity.

Even Hugh Howey got in on the act:

“What we should celebrate is that short stories will no longer earn the same amount as a novel, especially since the 10% threshold was much easier to reach on a short story. That system just wasn’t fair. The new system is a vast improvement.”
— Author Hugh Howey

A vast improvement for writers of long-form works who stand to grab a much larger portion of the proceeds. In other words, a vast improvement for the people who are not you. Just the fact that it’s not you is even cause for celebration. Feel the love yet? Another unfair bit of assumption? Certainly. Howey has written some short works himself, and I don’t think for a second he’d want to do anything to knowingly harm any writers. But you see enough of this baked in bias against the short form, you begin to realize how ingrained it is. Even many other writers who work short will fetishize the position of the novel in the hierarchy somewhere above you, if not in stature, than certainly in monetary terms. You might even be doing it yourself right now. It’s everywhere. Peruse the articles and comments on every one of the links here and drink whenever you see some variation of “fairness” or “level playing field” used in describing the new pay scale. I dare you. If you can make it through all of them still lucid enough to read, you many need to have your liver checked out soon. Or join a 12 step program.

As for the suggestion that it was so much easier for short works to reach that 10% threshold, it’s assuming a direct one-to-one correlation of the value of a page relative to the work. Is one page in Kafka’s Metamorphisis (53 pages long in mass market paperback length) truly equivalent to one page in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,424 pages) in effect, import to the story and impact on the reader? Strictly proportionally speaking, there’s 27 pages in that Russain doorstop for every one in Kafka’s “pamphlet”. Isn’t it fair to presume that each page of Kafka’s tale must necessarily have more bearing on the overall than one which has nearly half it’s total length per page to stretch out? (Incidentally, all the page counts I use in this piece will be MMPB for ease of comparison. It’s not perfect, but close enough for my purposes without having to decipher Amazon’s standard page length algorithm. You know, page length for the stuff appearing on a device that doesn’t have actual pages?)

Short works aren’t short novels. It’s a different form entirely, with a different structural makeup and it’s own unique set of characteristics. Was it fair that Leo would have to get a reader through 140 pages while Fraz had only to reach 5 to trigger a full payout? Why not? It’s the exact same relative percentage of the story at hand. And we are talking about stories here, right? Because for a second there, it seemed like we’d veered into suggesting monetary rewards based on the volume in an imaginary container. But  then, that would be silly.

But not so silly if you’re of the mind that the short form is an inherent lesser to the long form, based on the sheer weight of it alone. It doesn’t matter if the underlying story is more effective at it’s own aims. They might even both be equally effective, yet the novel is still granted superiority, more deserving of increased compensation simply because it’s longer. It’s an idea that’s enticing to side with, I agree, if we’re talking about an actual physical book, and all the accompanying costs of producing and distributing one. For an infinitely replicable digital file of near insignificant size displayed on a screen,  however, that complicates things. And if we discount reader bias having been conditioned in many ways to expect more volume at a higher price with, say, a totally digital, essentially a la carte subscription service for a flat rate monthly fee, well, then, we’ve now removed any semblance of a price-based purchase decision from the equation. What we still have, though, are the stories themselves, each in their own forms, existing in much more even economic conditions than maybe ever before. The presumption of the novel’s sheer length deserving additional reward is not quite so clear cut as it may at first appear.

Is there such a natural superiority to longer form work? After all, it is longer. There’s more room in there, so it must generate more value, right? Well, here’s some expert testimony on that subject:

“We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length…as it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading, would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences–resulting from weariness or interruption…by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.”
— Edgar Allan Poe from a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales

Yup, that’s American literary treasure Edgar Allan Poe stating his opinion that the novel’s length is actually a detriment to the story not an advantage. What would Poe think of this new pay scale being implemented by Amazon? I suspect it would be enough to send the lord of horror screaming off into the night. This from the man who basically invented the form, as well as a handful of fiction genres many of us work in to this day. His words just might carry a little weight, don’t you think? And not in “the story needs to be the size of a cinder block to engender fair compensation” sense.

So what brought about this alteration of pay by Amazon? In their own words:

“One particular piece of feedback we’ve heard consistently from authors is that paying the same for all books regardless of length may not provide a strong enough alignment between the interests of authors and readers.”
— statement from Amazon

Here’s how I put it in a tweet immediately after reading of the change:

“WTF does length of the work have to do with anything? Just some whiny ass novelists bitching on wanting paid extra for their fluffed up nonsense.”

and this one:

“Pay by the page? In a fucking ebook? Sure, that’s not some backwards ass nonsense to appease a bunch of overly verbose squeaky wheels.”

I was a bit annoyed, apparently. But Amazon’s own words say basically the same thing. Many complaints from writers that equal pay for stories doesn’t align with their interests. “My story is longer than yours so I deserve more money for that factor alone.”  Sure, they were a tad more polite about it, but whatever. Writers of long form work didn’t like actually being on a level playing field in an open market based on nothing but the story itself. I can’t really blame them. That’s never been the case at any point in any of our lifetimes. This brief period of Kindle Unlimited has been the only time short works have existed in absolute parity commercially with long works that I have ever seen. And writers of long works didn’t like it one bit.

To borrow a concept from the social justice crowd, I’m calling this “novelist privilege.” They’ve had advantages (largely based on nothing more than cost effectiveness for printing and distribution) for so long that they don’t even see them as advantages anymore. And whenever something comes along to actually counter those advantages, we get a bunch of complaints about how unfair it all is, quickly followed by numerous characterizations that the previously disadvantaged class is somehow stealing what’s rightfully theirs. It never crosses their mind that, all this time, they may have been the ones unfairly siphoning away resources from others. Don’t even get me started on poets, writers of children’s books, novellas or non-fiction reference works. You folks are getting shafted by this just the same, if not worse. To be fair, you non-fiction reference folks were getting boned by the old system, too.

So what happens when you point this out? Here’s a comment I left on The Passive Voice the other day in response to all this talk of “fairness”:

“Except it’s not leveling the playing field. It was level. This is slanting it back in favor of novel length work, a trait that been SOP in publishing for about 75 years now, if not longer, and largely originating in the cost effectiveness for printing certain length stories, something that should have little or no bearing on a digital subscription service. Not to mention, pay per page? That’s regressive and backward thinking, in my opinion. I would argue with your statement that a writer deserves to be paid more for a longer work. Do you pay extra for longer songs? Do you pay a premium ticket price for a longer movie?”

This illicited a couple responses, needlessly to say, none of which were in an any sort of agreement. Here’s one:

“This is comparing apples to oranges to ask about long songs or movies. For decades, writers have been paid more for longer stories. Short stories were sold in collections or in magazines which effectively reduced the royalty per story, and then with the arrival of ebooks, a short story has almost always been priced lower than a longer novel, meaning the author earned less…Before KU, writers of short stories were almost always paid less than writers of longer works. This is a return to something along those lines.”
— Nirmala, commenter on The Passive Voice

No, I’m not comparing apples to oranges. The commenter is the one comparing apples to slightly different varieties of apples and calling them oranges. A differentiation, as pointed out here on the Dear Author blog that is becoming more irrelevant by the day. Of course, that piece also included some consternation on what this “means for the book” and a couple of thinly veiled shots at short works as being gimmicks. I’m telling you, this stuff is everywhere.

Other than that, this response basically consists of little more than saying, “You should be paid less because you’ve always been paid less.” Let’s try this one on the equal pay for women advocates. I’m sure they’ll find that reasoning very compelling. Ten minutes worth of human history should be enough to invalidate any arguments based on the premise that we should simply continue doing something because that’s how it’s always been. Especially considering that what we’re discussing here is the pay scale in a digital only subscription service for written works that’s only existed for one year. Always seems to have gotten a lot shorter. Here’s a good example of the destructiveness in that kind of thinking

“Much of that ‘standard’ (publishing contract) language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it. But even contracts negotiated by agents and lawyers often include longstanding ‘gotchas’ that live on only because ‘it’s always been that way'”.
— from the Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative preview

This may be the first time I’ve ever quoted The Authors Guild and not immediately followed it up with some concerns for the collective IQ in that group. But it just goes to show you, conditions change around us every day. Because it’s always been is no answer at all. It’s the “because I said so” of responses for folks with no actual comeback.

For a more pointed response, Hugh Howey then gave his thoughts on my point:

“Wait. So writing a novel takes the same amount of time as writing a short story? No, this system is far more fair than the old one. If it takes me 6 months to write a 100K novel, and it takes you 6 months to write 10 10K short stories, then we should get paid the same per page (or time spent reading), not per item.”

When did I say anything about the time it took to write a story of any length? But since he brought it up, I’ll bite. The Goldfinch, rather famously, took eight years to write. Is he implying that Donna Tartt deserves eight times the compensation for one read that another author who penned an identical length book in just one year deserves? And what if it took me six months to perfect just one 10,000 word short story (different form of writing, remember)? Poe himself was rather famous for pouring over every word of every story over and over and over again, to get the desired overall impact described in his own words above. That takes time. Or better yet, is this a suggestion that a novelist who finishes a book in two months should only be entitled to 1/6 of the pay per one read that a novelist who took a year to write a similar sized one? It’s a moot point anyway because, even with this new change in pay terms, the time spent writing the work is totally irrelevant to any ultimate compensation, only its length.

I already addressed the same pay per page point earlier. It presumes a false equivalency of the value of one page amongst a variety of very different story forms. All pages are simply not created equal. Howey also mentions time spent reading as a metric deserving additional pay. Set aside for a moment that one page of a short story may be “worth” 10 pages (or more) of a longer work in impact on the reader. Under the new terms, Amazon doesn’t care how that time is spent. They’re payout is the same if the reader goes through one 500 page novel or ten 50 page short stories. Their only concern, and the driving impetus behind this change, is complaints from longer form authors unhappy with their stories competing on an even keel with other story forms. The time spent reading now matters to Amazon only in its totality, not its granularity. And where are all the complaints from readers? What I’ve seen is a lot of authors complaining that readers might not like it, but little or none from actual readers with those issues. Amazon’s own words reference only the complaints of authors. Silence on any such concerns from readers.

Under the old system, a short work and a long work would trigger a payout once a reader passed precisely the same percentage of the story itself, however long that story is. But now, 1/500 of a novel generates the exact payout as 1/50 of a short story, using a 500 to 50 page comparison basis. That constitutes fairness? Not from where I’m sitting. In fact, the only point I’ve seen to defend this is simply the longer work deserves more pay because its longer. Even taking into consideration that authors only get paid for what is read, that same 50 page short would need five different full reads to reach the same compensation as one person who only read half of the 500 word novel and couldn’t even finish it. How’s that fair again, in any other consideration than sheer, context-less volume?

Let’s do a little experiment. Stephen King’s The Stand checks in at a whopping 1,472 pages (I’m using the expanded version because that’s the one I actually read). By the way, I think they call it The Stand because you can use to stand on and reach stuff on high shelves. What could I have read that equals what King would get from one read of that monster? The Maltese Falcon (196 pages), Lord of the Flies (208), The Haunting of Hill House (174), And Then There Were None (208), I Am Legend (159), Animal Farm (140), Fahrenheit 451 (179) and War of the Worlds (224) combined would trigger exactly the same total payout by Amazon of The Stand. King’s bloated apocalyptic mess would generate the exact amount that Dashiell Hammett, William Golding, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, Richard Matheson, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells would have to share amongst themselves.

Let’s go a little further. Are you a Sci Fi fan? It would take six mysteriously appearing replicants of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris to equal one Stand. You would need seven wicked somethings coming this way for Bradbury’s dark carnival tale to get equal pay to King. It would take 13 trips up the Congo for Conrad to reach the heart of pay equivalency with The Stand. The horror, indeed. If short stories are more your thing, Shirley Jackson would need 122 tickets for her masterpiece 12 page short The Lottery to pay out the same as King. Or how about Poe himself? He’d need nearly 150 Houses of Usher to collapse in on him just to equal the pay generated by one read of The Stand. How, in the name of all things good and holy, can a system like this possibly be described as fair? Are we seriously going to argue that one page taken from any of the above mentioned works is so equivalent to one page of King’s that it should be the end-all determining factor in how compensation for written work is doled out within this platform?

I’m not arguing for the relative merits of any of the above stories, nor the relative demerits of King’s. These are a variety of works I have read fully, at one time or another. Taste is totally subjective. Any reader could make a list like this based upon their own personal taste and still, I think, reach a similar conclusion. Per page pay is nonsense that directly benefits writers of longer works above all others, for no other reason than length. Even if readers don’t finish the longer works they start, it still takes multiples of full reads for writers of short works just to catch up with compensation for partial reads.

I’ve read quite a lot over the past few years from many independent writers of novels about how old school publishers simply don’t like competition to their stories on a more level playing field. Apparently, so it seems, neither do a great many of them.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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