Saturday, July 4, 2015

What Amazon Knows

Digital vs. Print

The experience of digital reading is not fundamentally different from reading on paper, especially if you read on an e-ink device.  But digital purchasing is different.  If you walk into your local bookstore and put cash on the counter for the latest best seller, the retailer has no way to track who you are. With ebooks, the retailer always knows the buyer, because the transaction happens online and involves a credit card.

I don't know much about other ebook readers, because I have had a Kindle since 2007 (that's my latest, the new Kindle Voyage in the photo below), but Amazon has been adding features ever since they came out with the original Kindle. After they created Kindle apps, which works on phones, tablets, PCs, Macs, etc., one of the things they did was to allow you to sync your books across your devices. That is, if you like to read on your phone with a Kindle app while you're on the bus to work, and then switch to reading on your Kindle when you get home, Amazon keeps your place for you. Even audiobook versions are supported by this function, if you buy them from Amazon.

Amazon as Big Brother

Of course, for syncing to work, you have to be connected to Amazon's cloud. When you turn on the wireless connection (or in the new Kindle parlance, you turn off airplane mode), the function of checking for new new items also syncs. As part of that, an enormous database tracks information on every Kindle title you ever bought. Amazon records what devices you sent the books to, where you are in every book or document on every Kindle or app, what text you have highlighted, and any notes you have made. 

Keep in mind that Amazon isn't actually psychic. They don't really know what you have read, only what you have looked at. If you were to open a brand new book and use the Go To menu to go to the last chapter, that would mark that page that as the "last page read." On the Home screen (in List mode), the little dots under the title that track your progress in the book would jump almost to the end, even though you haven't read a word. Likewise, if you finish reading a book and go back to chapter one before connecting, Amazon's database will be marked as if you have just started that book. Of course, a reader usually has no reason to do this, which is why I feel confident in saying Amazon doesn't bother tracking every keystroke.

Further, Amazon only knows the new information after your Kindle has connected. E-ink Kindles have great battery life, but only if wifi and/or 3G are not on, so most people read with in airplane mode. Of course, with tablets and phones, people are used to charging them often, so they're usually connected all the time.  However, even with e-ink Kindles, sooner or later, the reader will need to connect to get a new book, and at that point, the cloud will database will be updated. 

Borrowing ebooks

This need for connectivity means that ebooks can easily support borrowing. Amazon can loan you a book, and then take it back later. In fact, they have two separate borrowing programs. The Kindle Owners Lending Library is an added benefit for people who a) pay the annual Prime membership fee and b) own a Kindle or a Kindle Fire (not just an app on a phone or a tablet). These folks can borrow one book a month, but only books that participate,

The second program is Kindle Unlimited (KU), which is Amazon's ebooks subscription service. KU readers pay a flat fee per month. They can use any Kindle device or app to borrow as many KU-participating books as they like but they can have only 10 out at once. This program is especially popular with romance readers, many of whom go through books like winos go through Two Buck Chuck. In fact, Scribd just pulled most romance titles from their subscription program for being too popular.  They weren't charging enough to be able to pay the authors, and let the readers get all the books they want. I don't understand why they didn't create a second program for romance, or make the first program multi-level, with a higher tier price for voracious readers. Amazon probably has a similar situation, but they took a different approach. 

How the author gets paid for borrowed books

When Amazon started  Kindle Unlimited, they decided that they would pay participating authors a sort of royalty as soon as a borrower got through 10% of the book.  I say "sort of royalty" because the fee was unrelated to cover price or length, and was determined after the fact by dividing up the pot of money Amazon had set aside for that purpose.  These rules meant a novella of 100 pages paid the author the same after the borrower read 10 pages as a 1000-page novel paid after the borrower read 100 pages.  

Guess what? Amazon has changed the rules. They have announced they will pay a per-page fee, based on the actual number of "Kindle Edition Normalized Pages" (KENP).  This shifts the compensation paradigm on its head. Now longer works will make more for the author (still regardless of cover price).  Some people have pointed out that this rewards authors for writing page-turners, which I think is true, and is not a bad thing.

As someone whose only Kindle Unlimited book is a full-length novel, I am fine with the new model. I do wonder what the fee will be. Since the old system paid about $1.40 per borrow, it would have to be at least $0.0028 per page to reward the author of a 500-page book at about the same level as before. There is speculation that it could be higher, and pay out twice as much as before, when the entire book is actually finished. I also wish Amazon would tell us how many copies are being read at once. Right now the report shows only total page count per marketplace (US, UK, Germany, etc), without any indication of how many readers are being counted. 


Amazon knows way more than who is buying which books. They know which books are read immediately, and which wait to be opened; which books are read slowly, and which are devoured on the same day they're purchased; which are abandoned midway through and never finished at all. This is information that print books can never provide.

You can think of Amazon as Big Brother, if you like, but they are far from alone in the corporate world.  We needed a new toilet recently, so I used Google to find photos and info online, so I would know what models the plumber was talking about. I now have toilet ads all over my Facebook feed. Google is pretty much the ultimate Biggest Brother, but they don't seem to be that good at selling ebooks, at least not my ebooks. On the other hand, the commenters on this post seem to have had some luck with Google Play; I wish they had mentioned their genres. If anyone out there has any info on how Google Books is doing generally, I'd love to know.

The writer, as usual, gets left out in terms of information sharing, However, I do like the thrill of checking the new Amazon report and seeing that someone is reading my book!

No comments:

Post a Comment