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Amazon’s turn up for the books

Amazon’s latest idea, to pay authors on the basis of every page users read is as provocative as it is interesting, and provides further proof of the extent to which an industry can change when it adopts a new technological development.

In truth, this isn’t such a radical change, and it’s not something that is going to be applied to all authors and all books overnight: it will start with writers who publish their own books using Amazon and who work within the Kindle Unlimited or Kindle Owners Lending Library.

The two formulas still have a limited reach. The first, available in many countries, is a reading club where subscribers pay around ten euros to access a repository of more than 750,000 titles. The second, available for the moment only in the United States, allows Kindle owners to borrow titles free of charge, one per month, for an unlimited time. Amazon puts aside an amount of the money it makes on this for authors, and the idea is simply to allocate the money each author receives on the basis of the number of pages that people actually read of the books they borrow or digitally take out. As a case study in disruption, this is fascinating stuff.

What does Amazon’s move tell us? The first thing is that in the electronic age, the concept of the book has changed completely. How many books are bought and never read? How many books are bought simply to show how clever, up-to-date, or as a warning to others that we are mighty clever and not to be messed with? The electronic book means such practices no longer make any sense, as nobody can see the cover (which is fine if you like reading porn or trash). But the days of “carelessly” leaving a book of the latest collection of essays by some French philosopher on the coffee table, or sitting in a café pretending to pore over some literary magnus opus in the hope of impressing somebody requires buying the paper edition.

But this becomes a problem for an Amazon that wants its services to become sticky: because the idea isn’t so much to have Kindles all over the world or a lot of services that allow people to fill them in different ways, but instead to offer a service that people appreciate and value.

For Amazon, whether as a publisher or a distributor, it’s much better if its authors write books that people are hungry to read. Not to own, which is now an outdated practice, and neither simply to have them on their devices because they can. The real money is to be made from authors who get people to pay for their books, who write books that are literally page-turners, books that are used and circulated, because the real sustainable competitive advantage comes from having clients that consider Amazon’s service to be essential, and one that they are prepared to pay for.

Does Amazon’s initiative mean that more writers will be prompted to write pulp fiction, cliffhangers, bonkbusters, pot-boilers, and other works destined to be read and then forgotten? Or will we simply see “serious” literature adapt to these new formats? For one thing, books no longer have to be any particular length; the important thing is that they are worth reading, which is one thing that will never change. Aside from new genres or formats more appropriate to electronic books, such as Kindle Singles, or at least without the bias they faced before e-publishing, Amazon’s move could open the door to new opportunities for writers who know how to create content people want, that will make them turn the page.

To make sure that everybody is playing by the same rules, Kindle has come up with its Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count. Illustrations are allowed, but I imagine measures will be taken to prevent them being used to beef up the page count.

What Amazon has done here is to come up with an initiative that really reflects the fact that e-books are a new way of reading, rather than a way of saving paper. In the same way that some of us no longer read paper versions of books, magazines or newspapers, because the conveniences far outweigh the inconveniences, we will all soon start changing the way we read other works.

Amazon’s move is much more than simply about incentives to read and could have major repercussions. Electronic books long ago ceased to be a “substitute” for paper, and instead have created a whole new world of possibilities and genres. If a large enough number of authors pick up the glove Amazon has thrown down and come up with new creations to take advantage of it, rather than simply waiting to see what happens, then we could well see literature reinvented in the digital age. Now wouldn’t that be a turn up for the books?

(En español, aquí)

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