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

The State of South African Literature

“Why don’t you stock more local authors? Why can’t I find any South African poetry? Why are there so few black authors?”

These complaints come my way every now and then, and are often brought up at store level. While these are very valid questions, the answer is more complicated (and a little bit sadder) than most booksellers have time to explain.

The book industry, as I’ve discussed before, is ultimately a business with serious overheads and a currently volatile market. More now than ever, publishers are losing their best authors to Amazon, readers are shying away from unusual books and no one wants to take any risks. You only need look at the New York Times bestseller list to see that genre fiction makes up the majority of the bestsellers. For the love of text, the bestselling book this year is that godawful Shades of Vomit tripe. This is further exacerbated in the South African market, which already has a very small book-buying population and is still trying to climb out of a recession. That small market is also likely to own tablets and Kindles, carving that market up even further. And when Amazon sells the same book at a pittance compared to a brick and mortar store with its ridiculous overheads, it makes sense that publishers carefully hedge their bets, and that stores would do the same. After all, rent must be paid and books that sit forever on the shelves end up costing the business. This is one of the many reasons why so many bookstores have closed down.

And unfortunately, publishers are not going to take a chance on a South African author that isn’t an easy sell. Penguin is suing several authors for not producing books that they were paid advances for, and many of these authors are very bankable. If a legacy publisher is losing money on safe bets, then is it really so surprising that a publisher won’t spend the money editing, printing and marketing a collection of African short stories written by a black woman no one has ever heard of?

Ultimately, the publishing industry is much like Hollywood. It likes its leading actors to be white, straight and male (Christian is a bonus) and second it likes white, straight females. While there are definitely gay and lesbian (Stephen Fry, Ellen Degeneres) and black authors (Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe) who have enjoyed huge literary success, it is still much more difficult for them to break into it than a pretty little white girl who looks good on the back cover. I’ve discussed this issue in terms of black and gay characters, considered risky and likely to hurt sales. And it continues in a cycle of people not buying because the books aren’t there, and the books not being published because there’s a perception that no one wants to buy them.

This is not a new problem in publishing, but I’m not really sure there’s an easy or clear-cut solution. We would have to uproot a lot of social constructs about race and gender before people would be more receptive to a book that isn’t written by someone just like them. One of the many problems with the Man Booker prize is that it is nearly always won by an upper-class white English writer because that’s what the judges are comfortable with.

Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, lashed out at the “highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker prize”, whose winners have alternated “between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade'”. Speaking at the Edinburgh international writers’ conference , he added that the organisers’ failure to refute accusations of anti-Scottishness, already voiced by Scottish writers such as Alan Bissett, was a sign of “arrogance” and “intellectual enfeeblement”. Welsh, who is famous for using Scottish dialect in his novels, said: “The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology.” The award, he said, was “based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured”.

That’s one example of where prejudice can give a book an unfair advantage over other, often better books.

So, perhaps what might be done is that South African book prizes go to authors who actually deserve it rather than the safe bets. Some publishers have local imprints that are supposed to service South African authors; perhaps skimping on print quality to get cheaper books into more hands might be better. How about putting more South African books in the school syllabus instead of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice? (Although Cry The Beloved Country is an awful, condescending litany of racist tripe, it probably has a valid place in the school syllabus.) I really think that South Africa is home to enough legacy publishers with good teams to give local authors good opportunities, and there definitely needs to be more publishing in done in languages other than English and Afrikaans. In fact, I’ll tackle the potential answers in another, lengthier blog post. I’d love to hear what you think about what is happening on the South African literature scene, and what can be done to improve it.

Amazon.com is eating up the book world

As someone who works between the publisher, author and reader, articles like this bode poorly for my industry. The article discusses how Amazon is directly snapping up authors instead of sourcing their books from the publishers, and how this might affect the publishing industry.

It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction. It signed its first deal with the self-help author Tim Ferriss. Last week it announced a memoir by the actress and director Penny Marshall, for which it paid $800,000, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said.

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.

So what does this mean for booksellers? For authors? For publishers? It means a hundred things, but the most important thing is that the book industry is going to fundamentally change, and soon. Once upon a time, eBooks and eReaders were slated to be the biggest white elephants in technology. Now their sales are booming (Kindle sales are estimated at 3 million units) and last year it was estimated that Americans alone spent $440 million dollars on eBooks. This sounds like great news for publishers and authors, and it is. People are reading more than ever before and across more genres. Once upon a time fantasy and science fiction were the red-headed stepchildren of the publishing industry, and now we’re seeing massive interest thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, miniseries like Colour of Magic and movies like I, Robot. Young adults are reading like crackmonkeys and the word in the industry is that there’s money to be made in writing for them. Readers enjoy instant and sexy novels and there’s always online shopping for those who don’t want or have an eReader.

Rosy thus far, but the last year has seen the closure of entire book chains, such as the 400 Borders stores that closed this year. 22 independent books stores are on sale in the UK, including the famous store in the Notting Hill movie. And as many of my friends delight in telling me, why wait for a book when they can get it immediately on a Kindle? There’s always the complaint that new books are expensive, but if one considers that the price of printing books has doubled, that the books have to be shipped here, the publishers paid and the rent of the store settled, its no surprise that bookstores are feeling the weight of import duties and exchange rates. We buy books in dollars and pounds, and you can imagine how hard it is on the booksellers when the Rand is down. With theft being endemic and many stores losing money through endless shoplifting and book piracy, it is a damned hard industry to stay afloat. I think one of the saving graces for us is that people over 30 tend to buy proper hardcopies. I know I prefer a real, delicious book but I know not everyone doesn’t.

And now with Amazon taking on authors directly, there are two things that I think will happen. Publishers, in an effort to recoup losses caused by defecting authors, are going to increase the price of books. This will directly affect the booksellers and make it even harder to sell books. So more people will turn to Amazon, who can buy in absolutely ridiculous bulk and command the best prices.

I do believe that Amazon has a phenomenal business model, and one has to admire them for it. They see a hole in the market and they fill it with melted Kindle goodness. And for authors, this may be the best news in the world. With publishers too scared to take on any title that may be a little controversial or too highbrow to do well, Amazon might be the best bet for a fledgling author. If they don’t require agent representation, then that’s another foot in the door. Sure, they’ll probably have slush pile ten feet high, but at least they have the kind of money to hire a fleet of editors and agents. Publishers don’t have that option anymore.

I can’t pretend to know what will happen in a year or five’s time, but I do have this awful feeling that Amazon is chewing up and spitting out all of its competitors in the Western world. With South Africa being a little behind in terms of bandwidth and wireless availability, the bookstores have managed to keep ahead. But with incomes shrinking there will definitely be less money for shiny new books. And if there’s a massive company that will send a cheaper eBook to you immediately, then why go to a bookstore?

The future might lie in bespoke bookstores, or in appealing to the idea of personal interaction with books and booksellers. But for now, all we can do is watch, and like the executives say at Amazon, to not be so hyped on demise.

Amazon executives, interviewed at the company’s headquarters here, declined to say how many editors the company employed, or how many books it had under contract. But they played down Amazon’s power and said publishers were in love with their own demise.

“It’s always the end of the world,” said Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives. “You could set your watch on it arriving.

EDIT: Today The Daily Maverick released this fascinating article that further explores the price structure Amazon is offering authors and more specifically where they will beat out publishers.  In essence, I think Kevin Bloom has nailed the potential upshots and downfalls of this situation quite nicely:

The contract was cancelled and Davenport was forced to pay back the $20,000 advance. She took it philosophically, stating that Cannibal Nights was some of her best writing, and that she had Amazon to thank for finally presenting it to the world. “Sleeping with the enemy?” she wondered. “Perhaps. But now I know who the enemy is.” It was a line read by thousands, as evidenced by the 159 comments under the blog, many from writers railing against the well-known bully tactics of the Big Six.

Which is where the upside to the current turmoil can possibly be found. If Amazon can act as a ballast to the dominant publishers without putting them out of business, if it can break the oligopoly and force better terms for writers as an industry standard, the good guys win.

If, on the other hand, Amazon guts traditional publishing until it’s the last player standing, only Jeff Bezos wins.

For further reading, please visit The Publisher’s Weekly article All Eyes on Amazon Publishing and the Davenport Dialogue blogpost directly dealing with her experience with Penguin.

Sorry, straights only

Unfortunately, we often forget that the publishing industry is as much a gatekeeper as it is a place of rebellion. It can be both, but it is sad when it is the former.

Two authors wrote about their book being rejected because they would not change a gay character into a straight one. Mail and Guardian reported on it further, noting that it isn’t an isolated case and that the publishing industry doesn’t see YA with gay elements being publishable. While there are books being published with gay characters at the centre and doing well (Song of Achilles being a case in point), there are no YA books that approach this issue. With gay teens already so maligned by their schools and communities in a very straight, religious world, there should be books that have gay characters in them so that they have something to relate to.

I cannot pretend to understand the persecution so many gay teenagers must undergo at some point in their lives. Society is generally heteronormative and Christian, and sometimes that means that there is aggressive legislation against gay rights in some countries. (For further info, please read Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” to really get the meaning of that term.) In the States it is not new news that gay students are often denied the opportunity to form support groups. Now they don’t have the choice of literature starring gay heroes. Just as women still have to sit through movies where the heroine ends up being saved by a guy at the end anyway, gay readers don’t get to see a character that isn’t hetronormative, white and typical.

I am glad that there is some author backlash against these decisions. I just hope that the appearances of gay characters doesn’t become token. Look at JK Rowling and her post-publishing announcement that Dumbledore was gay. Never mentioned in the books because it might hurt sales, but its safe now that the books have been published. It reeks of tokenism because let’s be honest, all the heroes are white and straight. It’s a bit late to throw in a gay character once the money is banked. I know it started as a children’s series but it most certainly became too dark for that around the fourth book. So why not announce then that there was a gay headmaster who was powerful, intelligent and kind? The religious groups were upset anyway, so that wasn’t a factor. Is it just such anathema to have a gay character anywhere? In any case, I am glad that the announcement was at least made, and for as long as Harry Potter stays in the public domain, Dumbledore will be gay. (And in a sidenote to the above article, I am proud of the kids who were excited about it. Pity about the sanctimonious Christian mother, but she’s only one person and the fans are truly legion.)

Albus Dumbledore

The obvious answer is to write and publish more gay-themed YA books, but it should always be done tastefully. How to do that is a discussion for another day, but it is also the place of authors to be the vanguards in shifting perceptions and trends. We don’t have to, but we should when we can. After all, being able to write well is a gift, one that should never be used to further the status quo when it is already so unfair. Besides, it would be a great challenge to write a gay character that isn’t an awful stereotype.