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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a time of triumph, it was a time of disaster, it was the publishing industry in 2014, just after mighty Amazon fired a new salvo in its war on traditional publishing by announcing its $10/month Kindle Unlimited book subscription service. At first glance this might have seemed useless and ridiculous

…given the absence of any books from the “Big Five” publishers. But, according to Author Earnings,

self-published authors now account for 31% of total daily [Amazon] ebook sales regardless of genre … self-published authors are now earning nearly 40% of all ebook royalties on the Kindle store

meaning that Kindle Unlimited is unlikely to be a complete flop. Which is all that Amazon wants from it, for now; it seems clear that their long-term strategy is to slowly ratchet up the pressure on traditional publishers until they give in and accept a model like Amazon Video, wherein consumers can either purchase individual episodes/shows/movies (Instant Video) or join a subscription service (Prime Instant Video.) That’s the same model that Apple has adopted for music: iTunes for purchases, Beats for subscriptions.

I have been banging the drum for subscription services myself, largely because, as Danny Crichton points out, we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends:

The plot remains the same: The traditional publishers of content defend their business models against the assault of the Internet. There’s some suspense, and then the Internet wins … But unlike up-and-coming artists in video or audio, the plot twist for books is that there are almost no alternative revenue sources for writers.

…or are there?

I am currently in the midst of a multi-month sabbatical from my challenging, interesting, and lucrative software job to write a new novel on my own dime, presumably because I am insane. I say this even though I am, well, a real writer, if you’ll pardon the condescending phrase, who has previously had a clutch of novels and graphic novels published by Big Five publishers, DC Comics, etc. (The new book is near-future utopian/dystopian science fiction, since you ask.)

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I’m beginning to think that treating books like music or movies might be bad for us all.

Authors don’t get performance revenue unless they are already at the top of the heap. But we want good authors to be paid well, because if there’s no money in the literary talent pool, it will get very shallow indeed. So maybe we should focus on what books do offer that music and movies mostly don’t; the intimate, personal, long-term connection between author and reader, forged over many hours.

It seems to me that asking people to pay for a book before that connection is forged is kind of crazy, if you want to maximize revenue; and asking people to pay for books that don’t connect is just plain wrong. So I’m somewhat amazed that no start-up or e-book platform has, as far as I know, yet tried a model wherein readers pay for books after they read them.

I’m not talking about “read three chapters and pay for the rest” or any irritating nonsense like that. I’m talking about giving entire e-books away for free and then asking their readers to pay for them immediately after they finish reading them. The single moment when readers most want to give authors their money is the moment they finish a book that has transported them to another world or revolutionized their view of this one. It seems senseless not to take advantage of that, now that technology makes it possible.

In theory authors can ask this already, of course, but there’s copious evidence that if you make paying for things even a little bit difficult, the vast majority of people will let that stop them. For this model to work, it would have to be built into the e-book platform itself: a call-to-action screen that pops up immediately after the last page of the book, and/or from time to time thereafter if ignored, and asks/allows the user to pay as much as they want in as little as one click. Think of the tip buttons in Square terminals.

It’s true that asking for money after a performance is currently perceived as both much less lucrative and much less socially prestigious, like passing the hat after busking rather than selling tickets to the concert in advance. But even those tickets are essentially payment for previous entertainment, too; how many people pay to see musicians they’ve never heard of whose music they don’t know?

This model would mean bad books won’t make any money; I’m very OK with that. It’s true that readers may be reluctant to give as much to authors known to be zillionaires; I’m OK with that too. And obviously it implicitly puts an enormous amount of trust and faith in the average reader; again, I don’t see this as a problem. Note also that it could complement other business models–for instance, it would be added to any subscription service–and it would be an obvious way to monetize a site such as Wattpad.

While I don’t think much of the dinosaur publishing industry, I have no illusions about Amazon’s altruism either. If books are to thrive despite (or because of) that great leveling bulldozer called the Internet, then we authors need to leverage what books do that other media does not. It seems to me it would be worth at least experimenting with paying after reading, as counterintuitive as that may sound.