What If Authors Were Paid Every Time Someone Turned a Page?

Amazon is about to find out.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

When I recently learned of Amazon's new plan to pay some authors for each page that a Kindle user reads, I remembered an editor who looked at my one of my book proposals and said something along the lines of, “It feels like you've only got 20,000 words of material. You need at least 80,000 words for a book. Can you pad it?"

This was when books were printed on paper and sold in stores. My editor explained that readers wanted to feel like they got some heft, both physical and intellectual, for their money, and no one wanted a scrawny featherweight of book. Big thoughts were heavy and thick tomes telegraphed just how much work went into writing a book—and reading it. I'm slightly embarrassed to report that one of my early books included a fat appendix just so its thickness would stand out on the shelf.

Tablets, such as the Kindle, have started to change that system. Not only did they make it possible to read 50 Shades of Grey on the subway with no one the wiser, but the same is true of reading something thick and important, such as War and Peace.

Soon, the maker of the Kindle is going to flip the formula used for reimbursing some of the authors who depend on it for sales. Instead of paying these authors by the book, Amazon will soon start paying authors based on how many pages are read—not how many pages are downloaded, but how many pages are displayed on the screen long enough to be parsed. So much for the old publishing-industry cliche that it doesn't matter how many people read your book, only how many buy it.

For the many authors who publish directly through Amazon, the new model could warp the priorities of writing: A system with per-page payouts is a system that rewards cliffhangers and mysteries across all genres. It rewards anything that keeps people hooked, even if that means putting less of an emphasis on nuance and complexity.

Currently, to pay the authors who publish through Amazon directly, the company sets aside a pool of cash each month—this month it is $3 million—and divides it among the authors. In the past, Amazon measured the number of "borrows," or downloads, and computed each author’s share of the pool accordingly. In February, one "borrow" of one of my books was worth $1.38. That's not a bad amount for a short book, but it's much less than the royalties that a big book might earn.

Starting in July, Amazon will divvy up the pool based on how many pages are read. This per-page model applies to books published through Amazon that are read as part of the Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Online Lending Library programs. Amazon offers a few different Netflix-like subscriptions to its various collections of books. Access to the “Lending Library” is a perk of Amazon Prime membership (which costs $99 per year), and the Kindle Unlimited service costs $9.99 per month. Both programs claim to offer access to more than 800,000 titles.

While many larger publishers’ offerings are included in these programs, the details of those deals have not been made public. Their authors may or may not be paid by the page. Amazon’s announcement only says that the new formula applies to Kindle Select books that are self-published and distributed through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.

Amazon’s letter to writers who publish through its Kindle Select program explained that the formula was changing because of a concern "that paying the same for all books regardless of length may not provide a strong enough alignment between the interests of authors and readers." Amazon is being clever: While the authors of big, long, and important books felt that they were shortchanged by a pay-by-the-borrow formula, they probably didn't expect that Amazon would take their proposal a step further. Instead of paying the most ambitious, long-winded authors for each page written, Amazon will pay them for each page read.

Can the system be gamed? Authors won't be able to rely on that old high-school trick of using a bigger font, because there’s a new standardized metric, the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC), which kicks off at the "Start Reading Location.” However, the strategy of adding illustrations as filler could pay off. As the documentation notes, "Non-text elements within books including images, charts and graphs will count toward a book’s KENPC."

"We think this is a solid step forward," a spokesperson for Amazon told me in an email. "Our goal, as always, is to build a service that rewards authors for their valuable work, attracts more readers, and encourages them to read more and more often."

Short books have different economics in the digital era. Delivering data is so cheap that there’s no threshold that must be met to cover the costs of shipping and stocking. Paying someone to walk down a warehouse aisle or unpack a book and put it on the shelf—a big reason why the rule of thumb of an 80,000-word minimum evolved—is no longer a concern.

Many journalists have flocked to the form, hoping that they can entice the public to pay for reporting. The New York Times gives away two books each month to everyone who buys a top-tier subscription, and some websites, such as Longreads, publish stories the length of a short book.  (I have experimented in the past few years with writing to the new normal myself, publishing one book with fewer than 10,000 words and another with 99 chapters of several hundred words each.)

There are some advantages for authors. For one thing, short books are quicker to write. My book about cheating on the SAT took me only about two months to research, write, and edit. So, if I sold it for 99 cents to lure the impulse buyers, I could still break even on my time.

But not everyone is pleased. One latter-day Medici posted a review of my book on Amazon complaining that even 99 cents was too expensive for what was just a "blog post." I've often wondered if he was writing that comment in a Starbucks, sipping a $6 cup of coffee that took two minutes to prepare.

The new funding mechanism introduces some important new motivations for writers. Suddenly, there's no reward for producing a big book that no one reads. Many people have joked, for instance, that no one could have read the roughly 700 pages of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, because it was so dense and written for insiders. It was the kind of best seller that people bought because it looked good on the coffee table. For writers who play Amazon’s game, these big, kitchen-sink projects will become even less sustainable unless people start truly reading every page.

But there may not be many rewards for the people who are writing short either. If I work hard to be pithy and crisp in order to keep the reader’s skittish attention, there will be fewer pages to read, and less money to be earned. Writing concisely is an art that takes a lot of time and careful editing. As Blaise Pascal said, "I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter."

The sweet spot in this formula, then, must be books full of cliffhangers that keep people flipping the pages. The answer is now to pack a book with ticking time-bombs, unexplained plans, and lots of secrets to be revealed later. What did she whisper? Hold on, let's jump to a different thread halfway around the globe! (Of course, there’s a fine line between books with needless suspense and books that are simply engaging—the latter will probably sell well in any marketplace.)

As I worked hard to make my short books shorter, I may have shattered the effect that some readers crave, the chance to lose themselves in another world. One of my former editors read one of my short books and told me that he didn't have time to relax. "Instead of a leisurely stroll through a book I felt like I was on a bit of a forced march," he said. The staccato recitation of facts wasn't a nice way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Writers have always had to follow the whims of the market. Amazon’s move is exciting in many ways, especially for those who can deliver the page-turners that the new formula honors. But it will also push aside some writing styles that don’t fit into this modern, ultra-metered system. It’s easy for writers to feel powerless as the one dominant company shifts gears on short notice—and, ultimately, it seems like they are.