Is Amazon Good or Bad for Authors? 10 Ratings from the Publisher of She Writes Press

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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(with a caveat that I am not for the ramifications on bookstores)

 

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Comment by Brooke Warner on September 29, 2013 at 6:03am

Hi Karen, there are some major issues with the affiliate program and depending on what state you live in, it's been discontinued. It's not available to California residents anymore, for instance. I can't remember all the backstory to this because it's been a while, but it had something to do with tax issues. I just Googled it and it looks like maybe there's some ways around this, but I would recommend not waiting for Amazon and trying to find some discussion groups to get some help on this front. Good luck! Passive income is another Amazon positive. :)

Comment by Karen Szklany Gault on September 27, 2013 at 9:51am

Awesome, detailed blog post, Brooke! 

As usual, I have learned much about marketing my gardening book. I am using this time to practice all of my marketing skills so that when my next book is ready for release, I can do all of the right things to give it a better chance. There is much I didn't know when it was published in 2010 that I have learned through SheWrites...and many opportunities to grow as a writer that I have learned about here, too.

Since I set up my Author's Page on Amazon before setting up my affiliate account for my book, my affiliate's product link for my book does not appear on my page. I asked them for help with that, but to no avail. I think they have a policy that says "oh well," basically. At least I did get them to help me post an RSS feed of my WordPress blog to my Author's page.

I hope that the next book I publish will be linked to my associate/affiliate account from the beginning. I still believe that buying copies of my gardening book from my publisher at a 55% discount and selling them at a 20% discount allows me to earn more for my writing than on Amazon, but for earning "passive" money, it's better than not earning anything, it just takes much longer to reach the payout threshold.

Comment by Brooke Warner on September 27, 2013 at 8:36am

Thanks for the comments, @Maria, @Urenna, and @Jennifer!

Comment by Maria Olivia Perez Patiño on September 27, 2013 at 6:25am

Your article is packed!  Thank you for listing your professional insights.  You helped me with many questions.  Sometimes, we cannot avoid who to work with nor can we disavow their part in publishing our work-what a dilemma or challenge.  I will revisit your article.  Thanks.

 

 

Comment by Urenna Sander on September 26, 2013 at 2:54pm

Brooke, Thank you.

Comment by Jennifer L Myers on September 26, 2013 at 12:49pm

Great! Very informative Brooke! Thank you. I agree, Amazon isn't going anywhere & I think we should make the most of it.

Comment by Zetta Brown on September 26, 2013 at 11:48am

Amazon may be a necessary evil, but Bezos could turn into another Rupert Murdoch--and that ain't good. I don't care how much money you have it doesn't give you the right to buy everything in sight. The only one who benefits from a monopoly is the one who owns it. It just amazes me that some people think they can still own the world and that 1) no one will notice and 2) their life will be trouble free.

I shop at Amazon frequently, but I would be very angry if all my purchases traced back to them, regardless of what outlet I use.

Consumer knowledge is important. Generally speaking, 99% of the reading population could care less who/how/what published their book as long as they can get it. The other 1% (those of us in the industry) may see the writing on the wall but find it difficult getting others to read it. ;)

Comment by Brooke Warner on September 26, 2013 at 10:47am

@Cardyn, yes, I have the same concerns. I saw Jeff Bezos on GMA yesterday saying that he believes print media will one day become a luxury item, and I'm sure he's right about that. I think that he's interested in investing in all sorts of random things, because he can. I'm not sure what his interests are in owning the Post, but I kind of got the impression that it was akin to investing in a curiosity. But I don't know. Maybe he has a grand plan!!

Comment by Cardyn Brooks on September 25, 2013 at 5:30pm

Very provocative, Brooke.

 

What are your thoughts about Amazon's ownership of Library Thing, Goodreads, and Jeff Bezos's personal purchase of The Washington Post? As a writer and a reading addict, Amazon's business model benefits me in terms of profit, access, value and convenience. It's the long-term effects of consolidation under the Amazon/Bezos banner that concerns me because the broader and deeper a successful corporation's reach becomes, the more homogenized its offerings become over time for reasons linked to productivity, efficiency and profit margins.

 

For all that Amazon has reconfigured the publishing industry into an e-book focus, it still recognizes the enduring sensory appeal of traditionally printed books. (Ex. Amazon's Montlake Romance imprint and their recent TV commercials for Kindle where all the featured readers are over 30)

 

Philosophically, my only beef with Amazon is its unapologetic mission to become a publishing industry monopoly. Monopolies often crush diversity and civilized dissension; they can create tyrants. 

 

 

 

Comment by Sharon Cathcart on September 25, 2013 at 3:30pm

@Brooke:  Yep.  To date, I've done ten books in the way I described below.  I have been very pleased with my results with Smashwords.  Amazon?  I'm there because I kind of have to be if I want to walk my own talk about discoverability.  There's no denying that it's a behemoth in the bookselling industry -- but my sales there are just not what they are in other outlets.

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