Amazon's About to Change How Budding Authors Write

Dickens acolytes can rejoice.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

"Dickens Dream" by Robert William Buss

The Kindle was already a boon to people who like reading giant novels but hate carrying giant books, and now Amazon says that it wants to reward authors who are putting in the time to write those really long books.

There's a kernel of truth to the old joke that long-winded authors like Charles Dickens were writing like they were getting paid by the page: sometimes, that was exactly what was going on. But what's more, Amazon's announcement may be the latest chapter in the long history of how publishing and author payments change how books are written.

On July 1, "in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read," according to its website, Amazon is introducing a new method to pay self-published, Kindle Select authors. Rather than a flat rate for their book being taken out of the "Kindle Owners' Lending Library" or read as a part of "Kindle Unlimited," authors will be paid based on how many pages of their books are actually read.

As with any change to books, and increasingly whatever Amazon does, this announcement was met with some handwringing. Peter Wayner wrote at The Atlantic that "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."

Under Amazon's old system, authors were only paid if a reader completed 10 percent of the book, so Wayner's concerns could be put to a test if Amazon were generous about its data. If anything, the 10 percent rule created an incentive for shorter books, because the Tolstoys or Franzens of the world needed people to read nearly 100 pages of their tomes, while the author of 250 page book needs only a quarter of that to be paid. While the author of the 200 page book and 100 page book used to be paid the same amount, in theory, the author of the 200 page book will now have the potential to make more money by going on longer.

It sounds nice to imagine that pedestrian concerns like the means of distribution—and means to get paid—never affect how art is made, but history says otherwise. Take the Great American Art Form of the pop song: Songs are two to four minutes long because that's how much music the record technology of the time, wax cylinders, could hold. The intro and outros are timed so that radio DJs can give station letters, or traffic and weather reports.

Likewise, novels from different eras carry evidence of how they were published. Alexander Dumas and Charles Dickens weren't really novelists so much as they were serial writers, pumping out The Three Musketeers and David Copperfield, respectively, to be published in a series of installments, rather than all at once.

Both of these authors ended up producing really long books, once the serialized installments were collected, hence jokes about Dickens being paid by the word. In reality he was really paid by the delivery of 32 pages of text. This was good for the publisher, who started making money off of the work right away, and good for the author, who was getting paid regularly too. Yes, David Copperfield now has a staggering word count of 357,489, while The Great Gatsby, which wasn't published serially, has only47,094. But that's sort of like comparing a season of television to a feature film. Reading David Copperfield as a novel is sort of proto-bingewatching.

This comparison seems to support Wayner's prediction, that nuance and complexity could lose out in favor of quicker narratives and more cliffhangers. The Three Musketeers was the blockbusting action adventure, the Jurassic World of its day, compared to the nuanced The Great Gatsby, at least in part because novels had a very different role by the time Gatsby came out 81 years later. Movies and radio dramas could deliver the rollicking entertainment, so Fitzgerald instead delivered symbolism in the form of colored lights.

While serialized, mystery and adventure novels are still around, "literature" holds someone like Fitzgerald higher than Dumas and Dickens, but it's not like those authors are ignored or without merit. Self-published Kindle books, freed from academia and traditional publishing houses, attract novels that aren't capital L literature already, genres where being a "page-turner" is a good thing. It's unlikely that Kindle Self-Publishing is going to produce the next Fitzgerald or Dickens, but it's not like we need either one. What will be interesting is to see what succeeds under the new model. Get used to this feeling of anticipation.