Kindle Unlimited’s New Payment Terms: An Author Does the Math

By Lynn Messina

When Alex Hern reported on the Guardian’s tech blog in early July that Amazon’s new pay structure for Kindle Unlimited books might amount to authors being paid as little as $00.6 cents per copy, it set off an barrage of grumbling. I’m a grumbler, and, as a female writer who got caught in the chick lit backlash of the mid-aughts, there’s nothing I love complaining about more than the publishing industry. Oh, the injustice! Oh, the double standard! Oh, the small-minded editors who can’t see beyond an arbitrary pink cover!

Seriously, I could go on for hours.

As a champion grumbler, I’ve spent months wanting to get in on the grumbling action over the Kindle Unlimited program, which from the very beginning paid authors less per book than an actual sale. In the subscription service’s first ten months, it paid an average of approximately $1.40 per book, a considerable drop from the $2 dollars an author would make on a $2.99 sale. Clearly, this was an issue rife with unfairness. Oh, the injustice!

To my regret, I just couldn’t work up the indignation. As a refugee from traditional publishing, I’m too in awe of the $1.40 royalty to grumble about it. $1.40 is almost three times what I earned for my last traditionally published novel–a paperback original for teens released in 2010. The book sold for $8.99, and I earned a 6 percent royalty. That came out to 54 cents per copy.

My chick lit novels retailed for more and my royalty rate was slightly higher, but I still earned less than a dollar per book–hardly a princely sum.

This track record is why I couldn’t get my grumble up over Kindle Unlimited’s original metric, which paid a flat fee whenever a book was read passed the 10 percent mark, and why I can’t bring myself to gripe over its new plan to pay authors for every page read. The $00.6 figure seems discouraging, but $1.30 for a 220-page book sounds entirely reasonable to me.

The figure becomes twice as reasonable when one factors in what Amazon’s Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC) algorithm considers a page. The hard copy of my book taps out at 278 pages. The novel was formatted using the industry standards established by Createspace, Amazon’s print-on-demand service. Kindle Unlimited, however, clocks it at 535 pages, which is almost double the book’s actual page count. Going by this metric and Hern’s rough calculation, I’m really being paid $.012 per page, or $3.12 per book. That’s 60 percent more than I’d get for a $2.99 sale!

This means that where a reasonable human being would look and see a 220-page novel, the Kindlebot looks and sees a 440-page epic worth about $2.60. Oh, the ka-ching!

Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, and I don’t doubt that some of the outrage over the new policy is entirely justified. The case for the new metric penalizing cookbook writers in particular seems strong, as people typically don’t read a cookbook from beginning to end. In general, however, it strikes me as a little premature for writers to renounce their craft. It’s at least worth waiting to see how the numbers actually shake out in August before hanging up one’s laptop for good, and if my 535-KENPC book somehow turns out to be worth less than 54 cents per copy, I will be grumbling the loudest.

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Lynn Messina grew up on Long Island and studied English at Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked at the Museum of Television Radio (now the Paley Center for Media), TV Guide, In Style, Rolling Stone, Fitness, ForbesLife, Self, Bloomberg Markets and a host of wonderful magazines that have long since disappeared. She mourns the death of print journalism in New York City, where she lives with her husband and sons.

She is author of seven novels, including Fashionistas, which is in development as a feature film and has been translated into 15 languages.


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