The War Continues: Amazon Throttles Legacy Publisher Sales

Oh look, it’s happening again. Amazon has removed buy buttons before, in 2008, 2010 (twice) and 2012, and now they’ve decided they’re going to try again and see if people allow it, AGAIN.

Goddammit.

My grief with Amazon has been documented a few times before, and I’ll never apologise for it. However we must realise that what we have been prophesying as an industry for years is rapidly coming to pass. Today author Sam Sykes announced on his Facebook page that Amazon has removed preorder and buy buttons from Hachette authors in order to bully the publisher. James Patterson announced on his blog that:

Currently, Amazon is making it difficult to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central, which affects readers of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, me, and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales. What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers. It certainly doesn’t appear to be in the best interest of authors.

Hachette, Little, Brown and Grand Central are not small publishers in themselves, and they also belong to the biggest publishing houses in the world. This is a clear message: Amazon is taking on big publishers once more and expects to win. These are the warning signs that have been discussed nervously by all of us in the book industry, be we publisher, author or bookseller. Amazon made it known ages ago that they wanted to become publishers, beginning with their purchase of Createspace in 2005, creating Direct to Kindle Publishing, and their institution of the godawful Kindle Worlds.

For my money, Amazon’s end game is to control the entire ebook publishing industry, either by buying up authors or driving publishers out of the digital publishing game through these strongarm techniques. To begin printing and editing their own books would take more capital, human resources and intellect than Amazon is willing to spend, but what they already have is a monster of a self-publishing industry producing hideous books at a fat margin to them. No publisher getting a cut, and the author is not much better off trying to flog their stories in a trough of self-published stories the size of the Mariana trench. The Kindle is their outlet, their store in readers’ hands, essentially circumventing the need for them to get off their asses and walk into a bookstore.

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It isn’t digital that’s going to kill the book industry. There’s no reason authors and publishers can’t use the ebook to leverage sales of hardcopies. JK Rowling, far ahead of the curve, controls sales of her ebooks, while her publishers manage the huge sales of her hardcopy books across the world. Better use of DRM might help publishers sell more ebooks. The ebook can prevent books from disappearing when they go out of print. People can take their ebooks on the train and keep their beautiful hardbacks at home. I don’t have a problem with ebooks, but I have a huge problem with Amazon. Amazon is a thug, with no respect for authors’ rights, for publisher overheads, for customer autonomy. They own your ebooks, they’ll yank them from your kindle and delete your entire library without blinking. Their sudden deletion of buy buttons on authors’ books on their store is not a surprise, and it is not unprecedented, but it is still unpleasant.

The only way this will change is if customers vote with their wallets. Buy Nooks or Kobos, if you must. Use a Note or an iPad to read, and for the love of all that is written, please support bookshops, indie and chain. Buy directly from authors’ websites where possible. Buy from Humble Bundle and support authors directly. But please: don’t support Amazon.

UPDATE: How the war between publishers and Amazon will cause a brain drain of talented writers and editors, from Slate

The full text of James Patterson’s speech at Book Expo America – a passionate call to talk about this important issue facing our industry

Neil Gaiman weighs in: I’m Obviously Pissed at Amazon

The superb Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds reminds us that Amazon is neither savior nor underdog.

An author that found his fame with Amazon defends them, and asks umcomfortable questions about why authors are defending the traditional publishing model: Sympathy for the Devil

Traditional versus Self-Publishing

Let it be said that the current publishing model, as a whole, doesn’t work perfectly. Great writers don’t make it, mediocre ones do, and the idea of nurturing an author into a bestseller is a part of the past. With eBooks, agency pricing and antitrust cases and debacles around author rights, the system is far from perfect. On some days, it barely functions. As a bookseller I am on the receiving end of a number of publisher fuck-ups, whether it is non-existent stock or ridiculous price-fixing or jacket treatment so abysmal that no one will pick up the book. (A notable example is the impending awful re-jacketing of the incredible Song of Achilles). As a reader, I am appalled at the number of spelling errors and formatting issues that are in final, proper copies.

But there’s still a great deal to be said for the publishing industry’s worth. It is a system of checks and balances, where there are proofreaders and graphic designers, editors and marketers. This is the machine that an author gets access to when a publishing house selects their work. Granted, the machine works better for the AAA authors, but once upon a time they all were bottom-list authors, the ones that the book reps advise booksellers to take 5 of. Very few get massive coverage and support from day one. The only example I can think of from last year was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus. It paid off: it was one of the very few books to enjoy a number one slot longer than 7 weeks on the 2011 bestseller list. It still sells well through word of mouth.

But it is hard to get published. Its nearly a full-time job in and of itself. It is very much like a job: compile a CV (the book itself, because outside of non-fiction no one will accept anything less than a full manuscript) and write a cover letter. Research all the publishing houses to find the right person and the right imprint. Then send those cover letters according to the specification of the website. (If they will even accept an unsolicited manuscript or directly from the author and not an agent.)

Each publisher will want a different set of things. Some will want a blurb and first 3 chapters. Some will want the whole manuscript, a blurb, a synopsis and any other qualifications one may have. Then there’s the usual three to six month wait for an answer, if one comes at all. Mostly, it doesn’t. Mostly, the work will sit on a slush pile amongst thousands of other manuscripts. Or it will get rejected immediately because the formatting is wrong, or they aren’t looking for any new authors or the cover letter was terrible.

Getting published is hard, and a lot of work for anyone who doesn’t have an agent or a contact inside a publishing house. Sure, lots of people get published every year. This year, 342,975 books have been published so far. It sounds like a lot, but there are 7 billion people on the planet. A little rudimentary maths tells us that is about one book per 20,490 people. Then consider how many of those might be from more than one person. There some authors that produce hundreds of books in their lifetimes. Patterson currently publishes two titles a month, for example. 24 books a year is no mean achievement. Compare that to the prolific Corín Tellado, who published more than 4000 novels and novellas in 63 years.  That’s roughly 62 works a year. (Which should make us all feel incredibly lazy.)

Given that, self-publishing starts looking easier. There’s no mean editor to say “this isn’t good enough. Rewrite it.” There’s no one stopping the aspirant author from getting a book out there. There are vultures that will help them do it. Vanity presses abound, and sites like Createspace make that author dream come true. And I suppose that, if the intentions are pure, then that should be enough. The book exists, friends and family and unfortunate denizens of the social media continent can be led to it by bribed bloggers and aggressive tweeting. Mission accomplished, said George Bush, and now we can all go home.

But after the work it takes to produce a novel, some money would be nice. Prestige would be too. And this is where the gates of self-published hell open and consume the will to live of the poor sod that thought it was worth a try. Sure, anyone can give it a try. Look at Amanda Hocking. Look at EL Grey. And…that’s about it, really. Yes, there is the select club of rich self-published authors, but there are maybe a handful of them. The way I see it, if one is willing to put in the nearly back-breaking work required to produce a top-notch manuscript, then why not put in a little more and get the support of a publisher? Sure, great content will produce its own fans by itself, but the self-published have to be their own publicists and life is busy enough without the pain of cultivating a substantial online presence. As it is, most publishers won’t consider an author who doesn’t already have a website and a Twitter following. Establishing that, as outlined by this interesting BubbleCow article, is relatively time-consuming. An aspiring author, published or self-published, will have to develop this web presence to start, but the self-published author will have to work much, much harder to sell books that way. Also, consider that there is no advance for the self-published author. An advance may not always be much but it is something solid.

All in all, both are tough, but I still would rather polish a manuscript until its good enough to be accepted by one of the Big Six than try flog my work in the giant trough of shit that is the Internet. I would rather have the help of experienced people at 7% of the book’s profits than strike out on my own for a tiny chance to make 70% off my novel.

Publisher on Author Crime

Because I’m almost permanently wired into the world of books, publishing and writing, I am coming across more and more stories of writers being malaligned by their publishers. More writers being strong-armed into ridiculous contracts and made to feel grateful for it. It is ridiculously competitive and based less on quality as marketability. As Sarah A. Hoyt mentions on her blog here,

In fact, if your book had been completely blank, or a compilation of nursery rhymes, it would have got exactly the same distribution and sales as it got with your words in it. You didn’t choose the cover. You didn’t choose the price. You didn’t choose the push. You didn’t choose the distribution.

More importantly and more than likely, the person who chose these things chose them NOT based on the book – which they might or might not have read – but on YOU and their perceived marketability of YOU. (And let me tell you, as a reader, that’s many shades of wrong.)

Most people don’t know your book even exists, and therefore they can’t ask for it. And if they do, they might get told it can’t be ordered.

(The whole post is fascinating, and an excellent shorthand for what’s wrong with publishing in general.)

Then there are the authors I spoke about in my post on the opening Amazon’s publishing branch. Add to this the story of Doranna Durgin, who is being forced to buy ALL of her books in the warehouse if she wants the rights back.

What’s going on here? Without authors there is NO publishing industry, and yet most of them end up languishing in the mid-lists forever despite being brilliant. This attitude seems a little self-defeating in the face of what might be the death spiral of publishing as we know it. I usually read mid-list titles as those are the ones that proof copies are provided for, and more often than not it is far superior to the majority of the top-list crap. I mean, credit due where it is, but James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer and Danielle Steel don’t produce great literature. (See their ranking on Forbes in my post here.) I’ve beaten that poor horse to death in the previously mentioned post, so for now I’d like to deal with how authors are being conned and guilted.

The best examples of the pitfalls of the publishing industry are made clear on the Writers Beware page. There are impossible clauses buried in the contracts offered by the major houses, more commonly in the littler houses trying to entrap good authors. So many people are desperate to get published that there are numerous vultures waiting to feed on their desire without giving them the credit they deserve. People who ask for a small ‘consulting’ or ‘reading’ fee and who promise to get the book published. Agents who swear they know the right people and charge either a consulting fee or demand 30 printed manuscripts. Usually the author pays the fee rather than the printing cost. Luckily my fingers were saved from some burning thanks to published author sisters and dear friends, Molly and Joely Burkhart, who warned me that no author pays upfront to get their book published. Agents and publishers take the fee off sales, never off the author directly.

Which is why book piracy makes me sad. The author is already making so little (3-8% of the cover price), it just seems cruel to snatch even that from them after all their hard work. I once read a pirated copy and felt so terrible that I have long since stopped the habit. (Also, the quality is just so bloody awful.) The only free books I take now are proof copies from book reps and from Project Gutenberg. And the more I read about how publishers treat any author that isn’t a mega-star, the less enamoured I grow of the industry. So, follow the buzz (right here, of course) and support the authors that write fresh, bright fiction so that one day the Forbes Top Ten doesn’t read like a litany of mediocrity.

For further insights into publishing from a self-proclaimed Penmonkey who made it and writes about it, visit these posts from Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds.com

Toxic Tempers and Fevered Egos in Publishing

Writers are the 99%

(His site is truly a treasure trove of insight and coffee-snorting humour, and he deserves his success as a writer.)