Have Author Payments Ever Truly Been Fair?

Have Author Payments Ever Truly Been Fair?

Honest question: Have author payments ever truly been fair?

It’s a question that bears asking in light of recent complaints about Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. The program has been plagued with problems since its inception–and with accusations of not only treating authors poorly, but creating a monopoly on indie publishing for Amazon.

The Kobo logo.

I mean, who the heck are these guys?

KU functions by allowing readers to pay a small monthly fee–around $10 USD–to access all the books they’d like to read in the KU library. Amazon then takes the funds collected and divides them by authors who were actively read. They use a per-page rate to make their payments. It’s not quite clear what the per-page rate is, but some authors have reported receiving approximately half a cent per page.

The complaints have been triggered by falling per page rates; one author reported the effective rate is now less than half a cent per page–a twenty percent reduction.

Invasion of Scammers

Of course, the other problem has been the presence of scammers. Amazon has famously had to revise the KU payment program a few times to try and combat scammers, some of whom were making thousands of dollars a month simply by posting books that were thousands of pages long, with the content at the back. This scheme forced readers to skip through to the end, often in a single click–which Amazon registered as reading thousands of pages.

Other tricks have included uploading nonsense books and uploading them multiple times, with different covers, blurbs, and under different pen names. The scammers then game the system to get their books to rank in the Top 100. Authors have been complaining it’s almost impossible to break through the KU rankings.

The biggest criticism has been Amazon hasn’t done anything to crack down on these schemes–nor does it seem to care. Not only are legitimate authors getting the shaft, so are readers who download these fake books and find it nearly impossible to find quality content.

Readers Bow Out

It’s probably one of the reason the KU funds have been falling; readers are likely sick of the service and opting out. Personally, I’d rather spend my $10 on one quality book than spend time downloading hundreds of nonsense books and scam products in order to find one book. It’s enough to rock a reader’s faith in the shady-enough-as-it-is indie publishing scene.

But back to the authors. I think we can all agree a half a cent per page is a fairly shitty payout, no matter the reason, be it falling revenue or corporate greed.

The Realities of Traditional Publishing

Here’s the catch though: Traditionally published authors don’t make much more, when you think about it. One author suggested that at a half-cent per page, she made about $1.00 per reader on a 250-page book, provider the reader read cover to cover. (We’ll leave aside those who start a book and never finish for the moment.)

Let’s say you have a trade paperback, issued by a traditional publisher, which retails for $14.99 in print. (Or in eBook, because publishers are kind of silly.) It probably runs around 250-300 pages, perhaps up to 400 pages. Unless you’re a big-deal author, you’re getting this publisher’s boiler-plate contract, which means you’re getting their standard royalty rate.

Royalty rates are usually somewhere between 5 to 8 percent. If you’ve got a royalty rate over that, you’re doing pretty good. So for our $14.99 paperback–whether it’s 250 pages or 400 pages–the author receives royalties of–you guessed it!–$1.04 at 7 percent. If the rate is 8 percent, you get a little more; if you’ve got a lower rate, your author payments will be less.

All right, but indie authors lose revenue on the fact their readers don’t always finish their book. It doesn’t matter if the reader who picked up our $14.99 book finishes the book or not; the author earns their $1.00 royalty.

There’s Always a Catch

Not so fast, though, says your publisher. Many publishers pay an advance, and the book has to “earn out” before they’ll pay you another red cent. So let’s say your publisher gave you a paltry $2,000 as an advance.

Speech bubble with dollar signs.

Let’s talk math for a moment.

You now have to sell 2,000 copies of your $14.99 book before you’ll get any royalties.

Indie authors start earning the second a reader reads a single page, so you can see this balances out somewhat. Yes, if you have 4,000 readers read a single page in your book, you get $100 in author payments. If you have 2,000 readers read 2 pages, you get $100, and so on and so forth.

The traditional published book author needs 2,100 people to fork over $14.99 to earn their first $100. (You could argue they’ve technically earned $2,100 at that point, but most authors don’t count advances as earnings from the book itself, since most advances are actually paid out in order to give the author some subsidy to produce the product–although $2,000 isn’t much.)

So the end result is neither option really results in great author payments. Authors have opted to go indie and small press in order to get better royalty rates–up to 70 percent, depending on the service you’re using–but that usually results in lowered sales (and reduced author payments).

Bottom line? It doesn’t really pay to be an author–not unless you’ve got a loyal fan following who eagerly grabs up your latest book and reads it cover to cover. In that case, any of the publishing models could work for you.

Combating Unfair Author Payments

You can imagine why there’s complaints: Relatively few authors fit the bill as high-earners. Traditional publishing doesn’t give authors a much better shake, however.

The Harry Potter books, pictured, made author J.K. Rowling rather rich.

I mean, I can think of a few high-earning authors.

What can you do? The answer is not much, at least, not in terms of improving royalty rates. Traditional publishers are going to stick to rates they need to break even (publishing is notoriously tough), and Amazon is going to pay what Amazon can get away with paying.

The best thing you can do to improve your author payments is simply build a fanbase. Work at it. Connect with readers; connect with other writers. You want fans.

It’s not easy work. It takes time and effort. But fans are your lifeblood. No matter if you’re indie published, enrolled in KU, working small press, or have a big traditional publisher backing you, you will sell more books if you have fans to sell them to.

You alone won’t fix Amazon. You won’t fix traditional publishing. And you’re not going to convince anyone to work on making author payments more fair (just look at the attitudes of readers sometimes). The only people you can convince are your fans. Convince them to buy your books; convince them to pay you for your hard work.

The publisher might write you a check, but the fans are ultimately footing the bill.

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