Love it or hate it, publishers and authors can’t live without Amazon—and they know it. Earlier this summer I participated in digi.lit. in San Francisco, LitQuake’s one-day digital conference that highlighted a number of interesting panels. For me the most interesting, perhaps not surprisingly, was the publisher panel (“The Future of Publishing”), featuring Charlie Winton from Counterpoint; Isaac Fitzgerald from McSweeney’s; and Jon Fine from Amazon. (You can read more about it here.)
The room-silencing moment came when Winton accused Amazon of using thug-like tactics in their negotiations with publishers. Winton has been in the industry forever, so he gets to say things like this, even on a panel with the guy whose job it is to make Amazon look good.
Back when I was working for Seal Press, I didn’t give much thought to Amazon. They were one of many accounts for us, and they usually took moderate buys on our books. With the advent of digital books, Amazon started to gain a major edge. We sold a lot of ebooks, and most of them were via Kindle, and by the time I left Seal, profits on ebooks were higher than print books. (Note, this was only for Seal and is not reflected across all publishers.)
Now, as Publisher of She Writes Press, I give a lot of thought to Amazon. I’ve thought about them every day since June 2012 when Kamy and I first launched the press. Here are ten things I’ve discovered, along with a ranking for authors—thumbs up (good for authors), thumbs down (bad for authors), or thumbs sideways (doesn’t make a big difference either way for authors).
1. Because Amazon doesn’t really care about making money off of books, and just wants to own the market, it can afford to price books so low that they take a loss on them. Authors are always freaking out about how low their books are priced on Amazon, but they always take the same percentage—50%-55%—of the retail cost of your print books, and they pay you the same amount no matter how heavily they discount your book.
2. Amazon’s method of price fixing your ebook between $2.99 and $9.99 (by taking 30% of your profits if you land in their sweet spot and 70% if you don’t) means that they are effectively devaluing intellectual property (to borrow a phrase from Winton). The very fact that we think we should pay less than $9.99 for an ebook is Amazon’s influence, and the trickle-down effect for authors is that we keep lowering the cost of our ebooks and decreasing our own profits.
3. If you self-publish, Amazon should be your best friend. In essence, Amazon wants to put publishers out of business. They want to have one-on-one relationships with authors, and they do a pretty good job of catering to individual author’s needs. They have created lots of opportunities for authors to get more visibility through Author Central and other programs, like KDP Select, where they allow for promotions, including listing your book for sale at zero cost. Though it’s arguable that putting your book up for sale at zero contributes to the devaluing of intellectual property, it also gets more eyes on your book. And for first-time and self-published authors, visibility is critical. (It’s important to note here that there are other ways to get your book up on Amazon at zero cost—including pricing it at zero on iTunes, and forcing Amazon to match it.)
4. The amount of money you make off of books sold through Amazon is basically the same as books sold through any other trade outlet. However, programs like Amazon Prime incentivize people to buy through Amazon and drive sales away from bookstores. Yes, Amazon is putting bookstores out of business, AND it’s responsible for a whole new culture around books. The downside of this is that we’re losing bookstores. The upside is that it’s easier to get books that your local bookstore may not carry. For those authors who aren’t the blockbuster sellers, Amazon is getting you attention for your book that you most likely otherwise wouldn’t receive.
5. KDP Select (mentioned above) requires you to make your book exclusive to Amazon for 90 days. (Only self-published authors qualify for this.) While there may be many benefits to doing so (disclosure: I’ve done it), it’s also a way that Amazon monopolizes content and effectively controls what people see and buy. Mark Coker of Smashwords has written about why you shouldn’t make your book exclusive to Ama... I totally agree with him, and yet I couldn't help myself from giving it a go when presented with the opportunity. The result of my three-day giveaway was 2500 free books downloaded. Since then we’ve had SWP authors who’ve had nearly 20,000 downloads. One of the best things I can see that’s come of this is more Amazon reviews, but it mostly hasn’t bumped up sales the way that some people claim it will. (Note: Because of our move to IPS, SWP authors will no longer be eligible to participate in KDP Select.)
6. CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing platform) lures many self-pubbed authors with a promise that your book will get more attention on Amazon, and that it will be quicker to get to market. However, the quality of these books is far inferior to other POD platforms, like Lightning Source/IngramSpark. I’ve seen poor paper quality, smudging, and bad binding, which is the result of low-cost production. And buyers need to beware.
7. Amazon forces its terms on publishers, which is more problematic for publishers than authors per se. But the cost of good visibility on Amazon is high, making it the case that those publishers who have deep pockets benefit while smaller publishers suffer. This is a counterpoint to #4, where I said at least any book is findable on Amazon. But being findable and being promoted or highlighted are two different things, and the latter comes at too high a cost.
8. Amazon reviews are a platform-builder. Publishers pay attention to Amazon reviews. Authors who have a lot of 4- and 5-Star reviews look good to agents and editors, and if your book is well-reviewed on Amazon, you can use that to your advantage.
9. It’s so easy to publish a Kindle ebook that anyone who hasn’t needs to get on the ball and do it now. Again, it’s another easy platform builder, and it allows you to have an Author Central page and to try to solicit reviews for your book. It gives you a product and, while not as powerful as a print book, it’s a pretty good calling card.
10. Amazon is controlling, because they can be. You do what they say or you pay. They want you to price your book a certain way, you do. They take away a privilege you’ve been putting time and resources to (like the LIKE buttons that disappeared earlier this year) and oh well, too bad. You want to try to publish a book and not have it on Amazon, you don’t even exist. This kind of control in the marketplace, in my opinion, is dangerous. And it can only get worse from here.
So we have 4 thumbs down; 4 thumbs up; and 2 neutral. Amazon’s not going anywhere. I don’t have it out for them either. Their practices, however, are disconcerting, and we as an author community need to keep our eyes open. One of the primary reasons for seeking traditional distribution was to be able to better manage our metadata, and that was absolutely all about Amazon. Because it’s such a powerhouse site, and a go-to shopping mall for books, authors need to take advantage of everything Amazon has to offer.
So get your reviews. Work on your ebook. Take advantage of everything Amazon has to offer, and—of course—give your readers an option to go elsewhere. Treat Amazon like you would a friend who doesn't totally have your back.
What does the community think? Love? Hate? Experiences? Questions? Concerns?
*Scale image from BigStockPhoto.com.