Quality Products and Ethical Practices

Every so often I like to visit The Book Designer to find out what’s new in the world of indie publishing because trends change, people change, yet books are forever, except for when they’re banned, and it’s important to keep up with it all. It is through this channel that I discover not only ways to maximize my social media outreach, but also how to avoid or address problems like predator publishers, “Cockygate,” or anything that convinces me that no one is looking out for my best interest.

Yesterday, I read an article through The Book Designer’s weekly wrap-up about Amazon’s new terms on content-stuffing, or the practice of packing e-books with “bonus materials” that equate to having multiple books in one in an effort to game Kindle Unlimited’s system that pays according to pages read, a practice which may ultimately result in “authors” directing readers to click to the end of the digital brick for some kind of bonus item (and force Amazon to pay the author as much as $15 for the click1, per the policies on pages read, or credited as read, and subsequent payment), and it left me with some opinions. In short, it’s a smart system for lazy people, and one can hardly fault the scammers who figured that out, but it’s also a harmful system for those who are actually trying to make a living on their art. The end result is that Amazon has finally banned this practice, after numerous complaints2, as it is unfair to other, more legitimate authors who want to make an honest buck.

Of course, I doubt fairness is the real reason they banned the practice. At best, responding in fairness may be counted as a positive side effect to the solution to a greater business problem. No, we’re talking about Amazon here. Prevention of bad practices, it seems, stems first from a loss, and losing authors is not the sort of thing Amazon would ever need to worry about. I have a feeling the change in Amazon’s Terms of Service for Kindle products is related more to money than to author servicing, and, in this case, authors are there to make them money (while trying to also make themselves money, which is admittedly harder to do). How well authors make Amazon money is the topic of another discussion, and, well, money in general is the topic of another discussion. What I do want to talk about, however, is service, and, in this case, the product is the service.

When we buy a book, we usually buy it to read it. Sometimes we’ll buy a paperback because we need something for the bus or the beach, and sometimes we’ll buy a hardcover because we need something to keep the door open. But, we buy electronic books, or e-books, because we need something to occupy our time without taking up much of our space. And, Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s exclusive subscription site for indie authors and readers, is a purveyor of electronic books large and small (more large than small) that readers can consume quickly and cheaply without any bookshelf clutter whatsoever, and it provides these books on an exclusive basis, exclusive in the sense that these books are available only on the Kindle platform. For readers who don’t mind reading books by unknowns for a monthly fee (so, not exactly free but close to it), Kindle Unlimited is a great platform. For authors whom these readers read, Kindle Unlimited is an okay platform (if they don’t mind getting paid by the page read, which can be very, very little3).

I understand why someone would want to game a pay-by-pages-read system. It changes the value of the book from a standard cost of purchase regardless of quality to cost of purchase or borrow (and worth) based on quality. Not everyone will have that book that everyone will want to read until the end, as much as we may want to believe the opposite. For me, I’m the type of reader who will generally read a bad book to the end to find out if it gets any better, and because I paid for it, I’m gonna finish what I paid for, dangit. But, if I’m not paying anything but a monthly service, then I’m much more likely to abandon a bad book in favor of searching for a better book, and if I get a bad book for free, well, I’m not reading that one, either. So, if I’ve written a bad book, it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve spent precious time writing that bad book, and I’d still want to get paid for it. Gaming the system to get something for that book is certainly tempting.

But, it’s not ethical, especially if the money is coming out of a pool4 set aside for all authors enrolled in the KU program, especially if those authors are writing good books that deserve to be read and deserve adequate compensation for each page read. If we were to consider the proverb, “Do unto others as we’d do onto ourselves,” then we shouldn’t even be tempted by this practice of tricking readers to click to the end of the overstuffed book, especially if the book is larger than The Lord of the Rings Trilogy because it includes content that can also be bought separately from the tome in question. But, apparently some fake authors haven’t gotten that memo.

My argument goes beyond the ethical issue, however. In fact, I shouldn’t have to explain why this behavior is unethical, or justify any time spent discussing it. The facts speak for themselves. Cheating legitimate authors out of fair compensation by tricking readers to click on a link that takes them to something else lame is just bad all around. No, my issue is with these fake authors’ unwillingness to present a quality book, both in appearance and in content. That’s the real crime. Well, it’s kind of a crime. The fraudulent practice of gaming a system for money is still the worst. But a bad book…that’s nothing to slouch at.

As a consumer of literature, both fiction and nonfiction alike, I want to enjoy the experience of reading as much as I want to enjoy the story itself. This means I want to appreciate the feel of the book in my hands (so, no crappy paper textures, please). I want to find the textual layout pleasing to the eye. Even the typography should leave me with a positive feeling. I’m a fan of the Garamond font, just as I’m a fan of matte covers and embossed titles. I like chapter headings that punctuate the story. I even like chapters that add something extra, like famous quotes, illustrations, or even in the case of The Impossible Fortress, lines of computer code that not only combine to make a functional game but also summarize the plot points of the chapter for a truly complex approach to storytelling. As a reader, I want to like the book I’m reading. As a writer, this means I want to deliver a positive customer experience, too.

When I wrote The Computer Nerd three years ago, I had what I thought were three great ideas: A homemade cover featuring my real-life desk and coffee cup, a computer-based font for the title and chapter headings, and a “post-credits scene” to give voracious readers a special surprise for reading the entire book. As it turned out, my cover was too dark for print and a bit out of standard for a thriller, and the font was way out of standard for a thriller. And that last scene? I never did get feedback on it, which makes me wonder if anyone ever saw it. My first review, most likely from a reader looking for a book on programming, not a marital thriller, came back with a single star. It was nearly the reason why I rethought the story’s entire premise and every “wise” decision I thought I had made about it. The stuff I learned afterward is what convinced me to rewrite the book under the title Gone from the Happy Place. I thought it was time to brand it as a new product. I even want to change the publishing elements to match the professionals closer. I care about my books. I care about my products. I want readers to like them as much as I do, and I want to like them, too. I rushed The Computer Nerd out the door, and the quality, while not awful, still kinda shows. I definitely would’ve done things differently in retrospect. It’s the reason that Gone from the Happy Place is even in-production.

Personally, I think these book-stuffers and Kindle-gamers are hacks. These are not the kinds of people who care about products. They’re driven by the money, but they don’t realize that the money is only as good as the customers’ tastes, and a bad product will lose the customer. It’s too bad that e-books don’t come with return policies, especially in Kindle Unlimited, because return policies force proper customer targeting and the creation of competitive products. This isn’t to say that I like return policies for my products, and I certainly don’t love the idea of including one, but I still think they’re necessary for all content producers, as return policies keep us accountable to our work. If enough people return my books, I’d know there’s a problem with them. Either that, or readers think a store is a library and are basically jerks, too. But, I wouldn’t expect that from my readers. My readers are good people, wink wink.

To get notifications on more articles like this one, please hit the blue “follow” button at the bottom of this page. I try to post a new article at least once a year. Maybe twice in a leap year, if there’s also a full moon.

Cover Image: Pixabay

Footnotes:

1. Nate Hoffelder. “Amazon Updates KDP Rules to Discourage Book-Stuffing.The Digital Reader. July 12, 2018.

2. This is a guess, but probably true, as it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.

3. Derek Haines. “Is Kindle Unlimited Pay Per Page Read Fair For Authors?Just Publishing Advice. June 21, 2018.

4. Nate Hoffelder. “Kindle Unlimited Per-Page Rate, Funding Pool Up in September 2017.” The Digital Reader. October 15, 2017.

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