Does Amazon’s New Payment Scheme Require Literary Surveillance?

Let’s say you go to dinner tonight, but the cook who makes your meal is paid only for the bites you take. How would the restaurant manager know? He’d have to watch you closely, counting the number of times you bring the fork to your mouth.

This week we learned that Amazon will launch a pay-per-page service that aims to replace its policy of paying full royalties to authors whose readers accessed at least 10% of their e-book. Now authors will be paid for the number of “pages” accessed by readers. To help enforce this policy — so that self-published authors can’t just ramp up the size of the text, for example — Amazon has simultaneously launched the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC).

The policy change, which launches in July, will first affect self-published authors who use Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owner’s Lending Library services. Authors will receive their pay-per-page earnings from a fund calculated (clandestinely) by Amazon once a month. In June, the fund was $3 million.

According to Amazon, the change comes on the heels of a realization that the 10% marker was unfair to authors of longer books: it takes less effort — that is to say, less time — for a reader to reach the 10% threshold of a shorter book. Given that the total amount of earnable funds is limited by Amazon, this has meant a strained ecosystem of relatively short, mostly terrible books. And it has meant a market populated by bizarre quasi-literary themes — stepbrother sex novels are huge right now — meant to titillate the reader right up to the 10% threshold.

As usual, though, a shrewd business tactic lurks behind a self-professed act of charity. It’s not as if Amazon cares whether its self-published market is flooded with bad boy romances or dinosaur sex. They’ve known for years that readers (consumers) prefer to read (buy) longer e-books. And that’s precisely why they will export this approach, whenever possible, beyond the limited domain of their lending library.

But, in a slow motion knee-jerk that recalls the frantic reactions of media companies to Facebook algorithm changes, writers everywhere are now speculating on what this means for the future of literary content. Should a writer risk the labor of producing a longer book, just to satisfy Amazon’s new policy, if no one reads it? Or is it less laborious and more cost effect to produce midsized books?

Obviously, if this is the caliber of our thinking, Amazon is doing well. Writers who work this way don’t care about literature (and this is one reason that the “literary” is under attack). It’s a robustly alienated, factory approach to fiction writing, one that satisfies both the fantasies and nightmares of 20th century vanguardism. And it has been here for a while. Amazon merely manages it now.

You can see the refined efficiency of this factory approach, which chops up language into ever tinier bits of senseless trash, in Big Publishing’s renewed lust for the division of labor. Take, for example, Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online (2014), now the fast selling debut fiction of all time. Sugg, known widely in the UK as a Youtube megastar, did not, of course, write the book. It was ghostwritten. But Sugg is the book’s author, if you now understand authorship to mean “personality.” So the author isn’t dead so much as split in twain: now we have an author and a writer.

It’s not that this division of labor is new, but it is newly efficient. We’ve always had ghostwriters, but we’ve never seen such a push for ghostwritten novels. The difference now is that fiction is marked increasingly by this division, one that also cuts in another direction.

Increasingly, and especially by Amazon, the reader herself is treated as a producer of value, not unlike the “user” who swipes on Tinder or posts on Facebook or Twitter (all acts that generate value for the company). We know this, as usual, because — as Bentham and Foucault taught — whenever you find a panopticon, you can be sure that a worker’s body is being watched for efficiency. It turns out that the reader must linger on a “page” for a certain amount of time before the author can be paid for it. So the next time you find yourself paying per bite, or reading on a Kindle, you might ask yourself who is holding the stopwatch.