Every time a reader reads to the end of a 3,000-page book, the author earns almost 14 dollars

Friday, January 17th, 2020

Self-published romance is no joke:

A genre that mostly features shiny, shirtless men on its covers and sells ebooks for 99 cents a pop might seem unserious. But at stake are revenues sometimes amounting to a million dollars a year, with some authors easily netting six figures a month. The top authors can drop $50,000 on a single ad campaign that will keep them in the charts — and see a worthwhile return on that investment.

This has led to some unscrupulous practices:

Book stuffing is a term that encompasses a wide range of methods for taking advantage of the Kindle Unlimited revenue structure. In Kindle Unlimited, readers pay $9.99 a month to read as many books as they want that are available through the KU program. This includes both popular mainstream titles like the Harry Potter series and self-published romances put out by authors like Crescent and Hopkins. Authors are paid according to pages read, creating incentives to produce massively inflated and strangely structured books. The more pages Amazon thinks have been read, the more money an author receives.

The per-page payment model was actually an attempt to crack down on a previous strategy of capitalizing on Kindle mechanics. When Kindle Unlimited was first introduced, authors were paid a flat fee per book that readers “borrowed” through the program. “Those of a kind of a black hat mindset saw the opportunity,” says David Gaughran, a blogger who has been following the phenomenon of book stuffing since 2016. “They started producing these eight-page books … very short, like recipe books, how to lose weight, no-carb diet, whatever.”

Readers, as it turned out, hated checking out books and later finding out that the books were really pamphlets. Shortly thereafter, Amazon rolled out the next iteration of Kindle Unlimited — authors would now be paid per page read.

Many self-publishers, says Gaughran, moved on to producing books that were thousands of pages long. Some of the books would include multiple translations into several languages — all run through Google Translate. Others would include junk HTML code. These methods — blatant violations of the terms of services — weren’t tolerated. Books were removed and authors were banned.

It’s not clear if these early book-stuffers moved onto the self-publishing romance scene, or if some of the self-publishing romance authors began to pick up on these tricks. Either way, book stuffing plagues the romance genre on Kindle Unlimited, with titles that come in at 2000 or even 3000 pages (the maximum page length for a Kindle Unlimited book). That’s approximately the length of Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace.

Book stuffing is particularly controversial because Amazon pays authors from a single communal pot. In other words, Kindle Unlimited is a zero-sum game. The more one author gets from Kindle Unlimited, the less the other authors get.

The romance authors Willink was discovering didn’t go in for clumsy stuffings of automatic translations or HTML cruft; rather, they stuffed their books with ghostwritten content or repackaged, previously published material. In the latter case, the author will bait readers with promises of fresh content, like a new novella, at the end of the book.

Every time a reader reads to the end of a 3,000-page book, the author earns almost 14 dollars. For titles that break into the top of the Kindle Unlimited charts, this trick can generate a fortune.

Of course, you might be wondering if any readers actually read through all 3000 pages. But authors deploy a host of tricks in service of gathering page reads — from big fonts and wide spacing to a “link back.” Some authors would place a link at the very front of the book, to sign up to a mailing list. The link would take them to the back of the book, thus counting all pages read. It’s not clear whether any of this actually works. A spokesperson for Amazon told The Verge that Amazon uses a standardized page count that won’t take big fonts or wide spacing into account. A June blog post by the Kindle Direct Publishing Team assured authors that the KENPC system (Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count) recorded pages read with “high precision” and that the company was constantly working to improve its “fidelity.”


  1. Neovictorian says:

    I see I’ve been doing it all wrong…

  2. RLVC says:

    I can’t find it now, because there are no good search engines any longer, but I once read a very excellent essay by a very excellent philosopher (I think) that repeatedly stated something to the effect that, invariably and infallibly, nothing written for money was worth the paper on which it was printed.

    It was a very old essay, and for some reason its name is stuck in my mind as “On Writing”.

    Kudos if you know the work I’m thinking of. This is going to bother me forever.

  3. John Dougan says:

    “nothing written for money was worth the paper on which it was printed.”

    That seems somewhat ridiculous.

    “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
    – Samuel Johnson

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Know your audience. If you write for a mass audience, you may make a lot of money but you will make nothing else of value. If you write for a select audience or for the betterment of mankind, don’t do it for a living.

    I’m hoping there’s a middle ground and that I can find it.

  5. TRX says:

    “nothing written for money was worth the paper on which it was printed.”

    Sounds like someone who failed to succeed as an author.

    Most of my favorite authors were rabidly commercial; they wrote what the market was willing to pay for. The ivory-tower types never liked that much, which is why you can actually sign up for college hate courses on why Mickey Spillane and Louis L’Amour suck.

    I’m sure their souls were crushed at the slight, but cashing those fat royalty checks probably cheered them up a bit.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    I enjoy pulp fiction. I’m not quite sure why. It just works for me somehow.

    Lately I’ve been undertaking a close reading of classic pulp to figure out how it works. I plan to put my thoughts up on my blog. So far I’ve just got Conan.

    What I simply don’t get is the magazines you see at the supermarket checkouts and in doctor’s offices. They’re utter drivel, in a way that pulp is not.

    On the Web, nearly all clickbait insults my intelligence. Why exactly am I supposed to want to click that? But a whole lot of people out there click it.

  7. Freddo says:

    “If you write for a mass audience, you may make a lot of money but you will make nothing else of value.” Tell that to Shakespeare. I’d say that modern literature is written by mediocre writers for mediocre people so that both groups can think of themselves as an intellectual elite. Hence, that literature being ill-written and obtuse is a feature.

    I recommend the http://www.castaliahouse.com/ blog for their discussion of classic pulp.

  8. Kirk says:

    Shakespeare wasn’t a writer; he was a playwright, and when you start looking into things, it’s not all that clear that he actually wrote all those limpid lines of prose and poesy–The majority of his stuff is preserved from the scripts, which likely included add-ins and improvisation from the actors.

    It’s entirely possible that everything we ascribe to Shakespeare is actually at least partially the work of the entire theater company, which makes sense of how a rustic from the country managed to come up with all the erudite and sophisticated stuff that’s in those plays.

    We really do not know who authored that stuff, because we have nothing direct from Shakespeare’s hand. There’s no definite truth, one way or another, to be quite honest.

    And, to the point I meant to make, starting out–Shakespeare was hardly seen as the “Immortal Bard” at the time he was writing–There were others, long-forgotten, who his contemporaries would have named first, when asked for the finest playwright of the time.

    One generation’s mediocrity is the next ones poet laureate–Look at Melville, and the history of Moby Dick. Then, examine exactly where we place one of the most well-known authors of his time, Bulwer-Lytton. Today, Bulwer-Lytton is the punch line to a joke, and the namesake of a contest for bad writing. Back in his time, he was a respected and popular author.

    Time’s verdict ain’t always what you think it will be.

  9. Isegoria says:

    For those not familiar with Bulwer-Lytton, he coined the now-cliché opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…” and the phrases the great unwashed, pursuit of the almighty dollar, and the pen is mightier than the sword. He’s also responsible for vril. (Follow the link.) His “dark and story” 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, has spawned a contest “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

  10. Harry Jones says:

    Shakespeare counts as a pop writer and as a legit artist, but he is from a very different time. The economics of distribution have altered radically. The only filter is in the mind of the audience – the attention economy.

    Still, I think his technique is at least as worth studying as that of Mickey Spillane.

  11. Kirk says:

    @ Harry & Isegoria,

    Interesting link between pulp fiction and the comic books that I wasn’t aware of…


    I’d never heard of this gentleman before today, while skimming through Cracked.


    Bunch of “connect-the-dots” stuff, there. Organized crime, Superman, and a bunch of other things I did not know about.

    Worth looking at, if only for an understanding of where a lot of modern pulp culture comes from, and its shady underpinnings.

    And, for our resident anti-Semites, there are even a few Jews getting screwed over by gentiles, so there is something for everyone!

  12. Freddo says:

    You can also go with Sturgeon’s revelation “ninety percent of everything is crap.” But I stand with my original point: if you think commercial writing is bad, wait until you get a load of committee approved, state subsidized literature.

    On the positive side self-publishing has never been easier, and authors have alternative means of supporting themselves through platforms as Patreon or Kickstarter. Although I’m also very happy to let others do the hard work of finding the nuggets .

  13. RLVC says:


    “Antisemitism” is a silly concept, and I mean that sincerely.

    If you’re interested, I can probably hook you up with one of the most “connect-the-dots”-est websites of all the websites.

  14. RLVC says:

    After a great deal of searching I finally found the essay.


    Harry Jones, I feel just the same. Nearly everything on the web insults my intelligence. Certain recommendations algorithms — YouTube, in particular — have gotten so bad that they’ve crossed from “pathetic” into “electric-shock” territory. I really mean that. And it isn’t just the censorship or the transparent boosting of MSM on any topic even vaguely political. All recommendations everywhere are much worse than I remember.

    Take the above essay for example. I originally thought that it was by Schopenhauer. I made several queries on three search engines and scrolled through several pages. Top to bottom, it was nothing but commercial services and empty SEO “content”, revealed proof that money is the root of all evil.

    The number nerds in Silicon Valley are optimizing for engagement. In doing so, numbers are leading them around by the nose. But numbers can only suggest to us what is, not was ought to be.

    The blind-numbers approach may have worked when the average Internet user had an IQ of 120. This is no longer the case, but there’s no reason that I shouldn’t be able to pretend that it is. I demand control over my recommendations. I want to tweak the settings. I mean to twist the “sophistication” dial to 150 and flip the political and clickbait circuit breakers to the “off” position.

    Unfortunately, this will never happen, because these companies are monopolies that owe their monopoly position to government regulation such as the DMCA and other laws that protect them from competition and make software a ludicrously profitable industry.

    Imagine a world in which scrappy and nimble upstart companies could provide adversarially interoperable products, source code wasn’t a secret weapon, public and private de facto wiretaps weren’t a mundane fact of everyday life, and non-profit Wikipedia wasn’t the only useful website on a search results page 9 times out of 10.

    I dare say we’ve had quite enough of the private profiteering and rapacious centralizing hegemony of Internet Capitalism, thank you very much.

    It’s high time to return to the open protocols, decentralized networks, and privacy-respecting Internet Communism of yore.

  15. Graham says:

    I must admit I never understood what was so wrong with “It was a dark and stormy night…” as an opening line.

    It could be a bit more vivid, more colourful word choices, but that’s a lovely scene setter.

    OTOH, by the time I knew its origin I’d seen it used as the opening of countless novels by Snoopy in Peanuts cartoons, so I’d absorbed the idea that it’s a cliche.

    I’m currently reading Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I half expected it to be turgid and painful in a very Edwardian way, even as pop fiction, but it’s vividly written with good characterization and setting description. I’m zipping right through. Best free reading I’ve ever done on Project Gutenberg.

    I once tried on serious literature of that era in response to a girl’s promptings [she was an English major]. Henry James. Good lord was that torture.

    Every sentence need not be Hemingway, but Jesus that James was a gasbag.

    Modernity is not so different. One can read Mickey Spillane and see some more effective use of words to convey things than in all sorts of same-era blatherings about some middle-aged writer’s waning libido.

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