Payments by the Page

In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph there was an article “Amazon to Pay Authors by How Much We Read”.  It said that Amazon will begin paying royalties based on the number of pages read by Kindle users, rather than the books they download.  This system will begin on July 1 and “initially” applies to authors who self publish their books via the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select), which makes books available to download from the Kindle library and to Amazon Prime customers.

The article said that if a reader abandons a book a quarter of the way in, the author will get only a quarter f the money they would have earned if the reader had finished the book.

Amazon claims its method is a fair way of rewarding authors who write lengthy books but have previously earned the same as someone who crafts 100 pages.  “We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payments with the length of books and how much customers read”, the company said.  “Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it.”  To prevent authors beating the system by enlarging the type and spreading our their work over a larger number of pages, Amazon has developed a “Kindle Edition Normalised Page Count” which standardises the font, line height and line spacing.

The article mentions Unfinished: Kindle’s most difficult books:

Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty:  2.4% completed

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking: 6.6% completed

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman: 6.8% completed

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg: 12.3% completed

Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis: 21.7% completed

Also mentioned in the article was data released by Kobo, the Kindle rival, which showed that only 44% of readers finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, which was one of the biggest sellers in 2014.

Hari Kunzru, the award-winning author of The Impressionist, said the system “feels like the thin edge of a wedge.”

Peter Maass, a writer and editor, said on Twitter: “I’d like the same in restaurants – pay for how much of a burger I eat.”

Kerry Wilkinson, whose Jessica Daniel crime series propelled him to the top of the Amazon bestseller list as a self-published author, believes the system is fair.  “If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages, why should the writer be paid in full?” he said.  “If authors don’t like it, they don’t have to use KDP Select.  It’s opt in, not opt out.”  But Wilkinson found it “eerie” that Amazon was keeping tabs on what – and how – you are reading.  Even if it’s anonymous, that’s a lot of data mining.”

To Kunzru’s comment, there is no reason this system could not be extended to all Kindle editions, so that whoever holds the copyright (usually the publisher) would be paid on the percentage of a title that is read.  And, of course, other e-books (like Kobo) could adopt the same system.  So, it definitely sounds to me like the thin edge of the wedge.

I think the system sounds fair for mass market books which are intended for a broad group of readers.  I suspect that readers of crime, thriller, romance, historical novels (and other genres) generally finish the books they have bought.  But I also suspect that non-fiction books (such as self-help, political, business, nature, science, environment, etc.) are probably not finished in many cases.  Does this suggest that their authors deserve a lesser reward?  I don’t think so (only one of my published books – from long ago – is in one of the latter categories).  A reader may buy a non-fiction book, read 25% of it, and still be pleased with the book: s/he may well feel that s/he got her money’s worth, and in such a case shouldn’t the author get the full royalty?

The other concern I have is about works of top-class, leading edge fiction.  The Hawk comes to mind.  I suspect that quite a few readers decided that the prose or the subject matter was not for them.  This may also be true of works by Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Franzen, where the writing just went over the reader’s head.  I suppose that one could argue that if a potential reader had to pay only say 25% of the cost of a book to try it, that would provide the reader with an incentive to buy it and at least try it.  And, it would provide the author with at least some compensation.  I’ll be interested to hear what the top-class authors have to say about the Amazon scheme.  I don’t think they’re going to like it.  After all, they’re probably selling a lot of books that end up on the I Once Tried to Read This shelf.


Amazon: Friend or Foe?

An article entitled: “Amazon: Friend or Foe? A Simple Question with a Complicated Answer” is in the June 2015 issue of the Independent, the monthly journal of the Independent Book Publishers Association.  It is written by Mike Shatzkin, who is CEO of The Idea Logical Company and a publishing industry consultant.  His blog, the Shatzkin Files ( is the source of the article. I think it is worth summarising Mr Shatzkin’s points.


Mike Shatzkin

Mr Shatzkin begins by saying that Amazon has profoundly changed the publishing industry in three ways.  First, it has consolidated the book-buying audience online and delivers it with extraordinary efficiency.  For most publishers, Amazon is their most profitable account, if volume, returns and cost of servicing are taken into account.  Since this fact is almost never acknowledged, it is “one of the industry’s dirty little secrets”. For this reason, he says that Amazon must feel justified in trying to take more margin, an effort which the publishers resist because they don’t know where the demands will cease.  At the same time and in spite of the profitability of the Amazon account, many publishers feel more comfortable with a whole range of customer accounts.

Secondly, “Amazon just about singlehandedly created the e-book business”.  They made an e-reading device with built-in connectivity for direct downloading; this was done in pre-WiFi days so that Amazon was taking a risk that connection charges could destroy margins.  Amazon had the clout to persuade publishers to make more books available in e-versions, and they had the loyalty of book readers who bought e-books.

Finally, the success of the Kindle made self-publishing attractive.  E-books could be produced cheaply and sold at low prices with high margins.  It facilitated the process by creating an easy-to-use interface and efficient self-service.  Amazon represented a ready market for self-published e-books.

Shatzkin says that the first two of these three changes made Amazon a friend of the traditional publishing industry, while the third puts them more in the category of foe.

He goes on to say that Amazon’s data policies make them a foe: they do not share information.  Amazon does not use the industry standard identifier, the ISBN, for the titles that it publishes: it uses the ASIN and does not report on the volumes or the categories of ASIN’s.  There is a black hole in the data.

Amazon also does not report on its sales of used books.  The used book market may help publishers sell more new books as the used book market offers a means for buyers to get a portion of their investment back.  But at the same time, when used versions are available almost simultaneously with new books, they represent a downward pressure on new book prices.  Over time, as demand for a given title decreases and the volume of used copies for sale increases, the price of used copies will decline.  But only Amazon has the useful data about the used book market.

Traditional publishers have no idea how large Amazon’s proprietary book publishing business is.  What volumes?   What categories?  How will recently published Amazon titles affect the prospects for titles under consideration by traditional publishers?

Shatzkin says that Amazon never saw the book business as a stand alone business.  Rather, it was focused on creating “life-time customer value” across a broad range of products.  While it clearly dominates the English-speaking book world, language differences mean that book markets will remain ‘local’ for a long time and strong local players will be hard to dislodge.

He says that the Kindle and Amazon Prime are powerful tools to retain customer loyalty.  Once one subscribes to Prime, all shipping charges are waived, removing the incentive to buy from others.  And, of course, Amazon has the world’s largest selection of printed and digital books in one place.

Looking ahead, Shatzkin sees the subscription services, such as Scribd, Oyster, 24Symbols and Bookmate (as well as Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited) as pulling customers away from á la carte book buying.  Most of these sales will come out of Amazon’s hide.

His conclusion: Amazon will remain dominant in most of the world for the foreseeable future.  Although, with the next round of marketplace changes, Amazon will be challenged as it will dominate a small portion of the overall market.

Professor Harold Bloom

On its ’10 Questions’ page at the back of Time Magazine, May 11th, there was a series of responses from Harold Bloom, who is a literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.  He comes across as an iconic, contrary, interesting figure, and while he was teaching at Yale while I was there, I never met the man.


In the ‘interview’ he makes several points about literature which interested me.  (He also discussed students and Yale and Naomi Wolf: of less interest.)

He was asked whether he was ever tempted to write a second novel, after The Flight to Lucifer.  His response was that on re-reading The Flight to Lucifer, he decided that writing fiction was not for him.  He was then asked what qualifies him to be a critic if he isn’t a novelist or a poet.  His answer was that he loves books.  To my mind, that’s a good answer.  To be a competent critic, one does not need to be a writer, but one must be an educated, insightful, voracious reader.  Good writers do not necessarily make good critics, and good critics can be poor writers.  What good writers and critics have in common is a love of reading.

He also says that ‘we live in an age of visual overstimulation’ and that the ‘pernicious screen’ destroys the ability to read well.  I’m not sure that it destroys our ability to read, but it certainly can distract us from reading, and I think this is particularly true of young people.

Bloom says that writers should read ‘only the best and most challenging and traditional’.  I don’t agree with this.  I think writers, as readers, need to experiment.  I find that when I read a book that is not one of the ‘best’ or is not ‘traditional’, my horizons are widened.  I can see mistakes that were made, and I can evaluate new approaches and techniques.  This is part of my learning process; sticking to the best, traditional literature narrows my vision.

Time asked Bloom whether he is familiar with ‘websites that provide reviews by common readers’.  Bloom’s response: “Their effect upon the mind is not good.  They do not enlarge and make the mind more keen and independent.  Reading is not in that sense a democratic process.  It is elitist.  It has to be elitist.”  What a lot of bullshit!  Bloom comes across as a dedicated elitist who wishes to protect his own sublime position as a critic.  While it may be true that many of the reviews posted on, for example, are cursory and less than insightful, it does not follow that such reviews should be deplored. Many readers have a desire to express their views on what they have read; to deny them the opportunity to express those views may take away part of their incentive to read.  Besides, a sophisticated review reader can find the wheat amid the chaff.  Reading is not a democratic process?  That’s a ridiculous statement!  If he meant that literary criticism is not a democratic process, I would agree.

Someday, I would like to meet Professor Bloom.

Review: Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo

As a participant in the Reader’s Favourite book review scheme, I had to select a book from among those that had been submitted for review. Nearly all of the books submitted are in electronic format. I prefer hard copies, so I selected the book I wanted to read and bought it on Amazon.

Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo interested me for several reasons: It concerned the Second World War in the Pacific, and there were elements of Buddhism and Japanese culture. (I read much of the book while on a recent trip to Japan.)


The author is John Oliver who has a Batchelor’s degree in Political Science and Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara.  He was working in Hawaii when he met John Provoo and decided to tell his story. The book is therefore an autobiography; as it is written in the first person.

According to his ‘testimony’, John Provoo grew up in San Francisco, having been born in 1917. He was attracted to Buddhism and believed in the sanctity of all life. In March 1940, he went to Japan to study for the Buddhist priesthood.   He returned to the US in May 1941 under the threat of imminent war, and enlisted in the US Army. He was sent to the Philippines where he worked as a clerk in Army headquarters in Manila. He was captured by the Japanese in the Battle of Corregidor and became a prisoner of war. Much of the book concerns his time as a Japanese prisoner. Because of his fluency in Japanese and his understanding of Japanese culture he often had to deal directly with his captors. This led simultaneously to somewhat more lenient treatment of fellow prisoners and suspicions by the same fellow prisoners that Provoo was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. When he returned to the US, he was accused of collaboration with the enemy, was acquitted and re-enlisted in 1946. For most of the next ten years, he was pursued by the US Justice Department for treason, and underwent several trials, during which his homosexuality was used against him. Eventually, he was acquitted and went to Japan to complete his Buddhist training and to Hawaii, where, as a high level Buddhist priest he lived the rest of his life, dying in 2001.

One has the sense, in reading the book, of an honest re-counting of history, and, as such, it makes very interesting reading: in particular, the conflicted position in which a Japanese-speaking Provoo found himself as a Japanese prisoner of war; the shameful conduct of the Justice Department in mounting a hugely costly campaign against him and in using his homosexuality against him. It appears that John Oliver undertook a considerable amount of independent research to complete this book, and that he did not rely only on what Provoo told him.

There are several areas that are worth mentioning. John Provoo was clearly a very complex character, but one does not get a full understanding of this complexity in the book. Rather, the emphasis is on the historic (what was done) rather than the psychological (why it was done). Might it have been a more interesting piece of literature if instead of being entirely in the first person, the author had intervened as the narrator now and then? In the latter part of the book, there is too much name dropping (who the various interested parties were), and on exactly what they said. I think it would have been sufficient to summarise the key points, and use footnotes where essential. While the writing is good and effective, there is very little description of the various environments in which Provoo found himself: again the emphasis on history rather than literature.

That said, Nichijo, (Provoo’s name as a Buddhist priest) is quite an interesting read. I enjoyed it.