When I first heard that Amazon was going to start paying its Kindle Unlimited authors according to the number of pages in their books that actually get read, I wondered whether there might be an opportunity for an intra-Amazon arbitrage scheme that would allow me to game the system and drain Jeff Bezos’s bank account. I thought I might be able to start publishing long books of computer-generated gibberish and then use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to pay Third World readers to scroll through the pages at a pace that would register each page as having been read. If I could pay the Turkers a fraction of a penny less to look at a page than Amazon paid me for the “read” page, I’d be able to get really rich and launch my own space exploration company.
Alas, I couldn’t make the numbers work. Amazon draws the royalties for the program from a fixed pool of funds, which serves to cap the upside for devious scribblers.
So much for my Mars vacation. Still, even in a zero-sum game that pits writer against writer, I figured I might be able to steal a few pennies from the pockets of my fellow authors. (I hate them all, anyway.) I would just need to do a better job of mastering the rules of the game, which Amazon was kind enough to lay out for me:
Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it. … To determine a book’s page count in a way that works across genres and devices, we’ve developed the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC). We calculate KENPC based on standard settings (e.g. font, line height, line spacing, etc.), and we’ll use KENPC to measure the number of pages customers read in your book, starting with the Start Reading Location (SRL) to the end of your book.
The first thing that has to be said is that if you’re a poet, you’re screwed. That page-normalization deal is going to kill you. I mean, Walt Whitman might do okay. But Mary Oliver? Totally hosed. So that manuscript of dense, trimetric verse you’ve been fussing over for the last twenty years? Shred it.
Now, turning to prose, where the prospects are brighter, it’s pretty clear that the key is to keep the reader engaged without challenging the reader in any way. To maximize earnings, you need to ensure that the reader moves through your pages at a good, crisp, unbroken clip. You want shallow immersion. Any kind of complication or complexity that slows a reader down is going to take an immediate bite out of your wallet. What you most want to avoid is anything that encourages the reader to go back and re-read a passage. Remember: you only get paid the first time a page gets read. If you inspire the reader to read any of your pages more than once, you’re basically burning cash.
So: You want fairly simple characters — no Russian names, no introverts — with transparent motivations, and you want them to proceed quickly through a plot that takes lots of unexpected turns without ever being at all baffling or disorienting. And you don’t want to write too well or try to get too “literary.” You don’t want the reader to savor your words. You want the reader to gulp your words down like bar nuts. Hemingwayesque is probably okay. But Faulknerian is a no-go. Really, you’d do best to follow Suzanne Collins’s lead. Lusty teenagers killing each other in workmanlike prose: that’s the ticket. Jackie Collins would also work pretty well as a model. In fact, you really can’t go wrong mimicking any writer with the last name of Collins. Even Billy, if you’re still dead set on the poetry thing.
My first instinct, to be frank, was to write a seventeen-volume series called Tales of Ripe Naughtiness consisting entirely of sex scenes packed together like sardines in oil. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that sex is tricky in a pay-by-the-page world. Moments of passion need to be handled delicately. You want a certain degree of titillation to keep the reader tapping away at the screen, but you need to be careful not to overdo it. You don’t — how should I put this? — you don’t want the reader to linger on any given page. There’s no money in that. The bodice can’t be ripped. The bodice has to be unstitched, thread by thread, over the course of, say, forty-five pages. And then, when the bosom heaves, you want to cut immediately to some other characters in some other setting. Patients playing dominoes in a nursing home, perhaps. But don’t stay there for more than three paragraphs: too depressing.
I just realized that I’m giving my entire strategy away. I need to learn to curb my sharing instinct. I’ll end by saying that I’m starting to see real possibilities in this idea of getting paid by the page for a book. I confess that in the past I’ve had my doubts, but now I’m convinced that Amazon has had the best interests of writers and readers at heart all along.