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Amazon to pay writers to keep readers’ attention

Books were the original “sharing economy”; Ben Franklin founded the first American lending library before there was even a United States to found it in. Amazon has brought this into the 21st century with Kindle Unlimited, which lets you borrow and read a certain number of books at a time. Participating authors are paid from the pool of subscription funds (about $3 million last month) according to how popular their books are.

Now Amazon is changing the model to pay: by the page, not the book. I don’t mean by the book’s length, which would favor tomes padded with abstract, abstruse adjectives — Amazon will actually pay by the number of pages read. This won’t affect books that Amazon sells outright, only the books that are borrowed through Kindle Unlimited or the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. But it’s still a big deal.

This fixes some of the problems with the old system, such as someone who wrote a novelette getting the same pay as someone who spent years writing a 500-page monster. But this will inevitably affect how people write for Kindle Unlimited – and if that becomes a bigger part of the book market, that means anyone who wants to write a book.

Consider Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The book was a huge bestseller. But when the Wall Street Journal did a quick-and-dirty analysis of the book’s top Kindle highlights, it found that Capital may be one of the least read books ever, topping even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It is instead the sort of book that people like to be seen reading, or to think that they will read.

Kindles already elevate certain kinds of book sales higher than they otherwise would be — it’s hard to imagine Fifty Shades of Grey becoming such a massive bestseller if people could see you reading it at the coffee shop or on the subway. It’s easy to predict that as e-books become the dominant form of reading, “trash” will sell better and “serious” books will sell worse, since your purchases will no longer be on display.

But this new pricing model in Amazon’s lending library exerts a different sort of pressure:

▪ Serious books may actually be borrowed more frequently, because you don’t have to plop down $30 on the off chance that you might suddenly become interested in quantum physics. On the other hand, most people will discover they’re not actually interested in quantum physics, so few pages of these books will be read and reimbursement for the authors will go down.

▪ People will actually read less of those serious books than they did before, because once you’ve paid $30 for something, you feel duty bound to at least try to read it.

▪ Fiction writers will fight two opposing temptations: the temptation to pad, and the temptation to make it as readable as possible so people will read it all. It’s unclear how this will be resolved, though we do know what happened when serialization took off in the 19th century: Writers padded like mattress salesmen.

▪ How did fiction writers keep people plowing through all that prose? Cliff-hangers and tearjerkers! Characters spend as much time as possible stranded in difficult situations that do not resolve for many chapters. They will linger with diseases. What happens to those people? You'll have to read on to find out. Perhaps to the very last page.

▪ Agonizingly crafted writing will be at a serious disadvantage. If you get paid by the page read, you cannot afford to spend three months crafting a chapter unless what you end up with is the opening sequence to Bright Lights, Big City. We'll see something like what has happened on the Web: higher productivity, less craft.

▪ Reimbursement for writers overall will probably go down. This is essentially unbundling the pages from the book. And while you should theoretically be willing to pay as much for the pages you actually read as you were for the whole book, we’ve learned from music that this perfectly sound economic theory does not work in practice. People buy singles instead of albums, and not enough to compensate for the lost album sales. Spotify doesn’t pay artists anywhere near what they’d make on the singles. At some point, if sharing becomes the dominant business model, there will be a lot less money for writers.

▪ Episodic fiction, on the other hand, will probably do very well. Think Law and Order: bite-size bits that don’t require vast understanding of the pre-existing universe and can be consumed in one sitting. This might be the twilight of the novel and the golden age of the short story.

In some ways publishing – which depends on a few revenue streams, all financially challenged — looks even murkier than the still-mysterious music industry.

But that’s far in the future. For now, the good news is that writers will be getting paid on what seems like a fairer model: whether they keep their readers reading. In the long run, it may not be good for a lot of writers, or readers who favor labor-intensive prose styles. But it’s still probably a good thing for all readers in the short term, and for most even over the longer run.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.

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