Amazon and the status of authors

More on the ongoing battle between Amazon and the publishing industry. Yes, I know, but it’s an important issue to me as an author, and to be perfectly honest, I’m still working through and around a lot of this, trying to get a handle on exactly what I think about everything. It’s a big topic with a lot of elements that inter-connect and play off of each other. I’m also the type who likes to boil complex subject matter down into more manageable, digestible bites. So this is my ongoing debate with myself to figure out exactly where I stand. Feel free of course to chime in, counter, proclaim my stupidity, and so forth. Discussion is always good.

A lot of this debate seems to be polarizing. We have the Amazon is the devil on one side and the Amazon is god’s gift to writers on the other. There is a lot of gray in between, but depending on which side of the center you fall on, you tend to get lumped into one end or the other. While I tend to be more on the devil side of things, there is certainly room to lie anywhere on this spectrum. Publishing is in flux right now, so to say you are firmly on one side or the other is, I fell, a bit premature.

That being said, at this point in time, I don’t like what Amazon is doing for the most part. Understand that I speak as a writer here, not a consumer. One can make the argument that in the end, it’s only the consumers who matter, because they are the ones buying all of the books.  And let’s face it, Amazon is damn good at drawing in the consumer and treating them well. If I want books at the cheapest possible price, they beat pretty much everyone else, hands down.

If we go beyond the surface level economics, if we care about this issue beyond the consumer level, we get a more complex story. Amazon started out as an online bookseller or at least it was one of their major components. It provided a near infinite line of products they could market and sell online with little worry about overhead. When the kindle came along, you got a product with no warehousing requirements. During all of this, they are fighting with publishers to get as large a discount as possible so that the product can be offered as cheaply as possible. They still are. Amazon’s business is based upon getting customers through the door so to speak. You can’t sell the consumer anything if they don’t come shopping.

Books provide a great gateway product. It has a large customer base, and given Amazon’s methods aimed at getting customers in and keeping them loyal, books have been and will continue to be a very useful product to accomplish this goal. From an economics standpoint, the more of this gateway product you can provide at the cheapest possible price, the bigger you can make your customer base. The customer base is king.

So, what do you do when you can’t get the prices you want from your suppliers for one of your key gateway products? You see if you can cut the supplier out of the equation.  Publishing is in the unusual situation of having a far greater supply than product demand. Demand has been predicated in the publishing industry on shelf space and the speed with which product can be produced. Amazon looks at this and the evolving digital technologies and realizes something. We can bring the producers of the product directly into the store and let them sell direct. This might be kind of like gathering up all of the small farmers in the country and creating one gigantic farmer’s market and let them sell direct without going through the supermarkets and subverting the giant food corporations.

The great thing about this? These small producers aren’t really competing against the big corporations. They’re competing against each other. All Amazon has to do is create a user friendly environment in which to do this, and they have.  On a psychological level, they’ve accomplished something else quite remarkable. They’ve provided a method through which a select few can achieve great success. Anyone familiar with stimulus-response theory, knows that the random reward system generates the greatest response. Put the cheese at the end of the maze at long, random intervals, and that mouse will try for a really long time to get it.

As a writer, I applaud the successes that those few writers have found. There are authors out there now who have achieved some level of success that would have otherwise languished. For most, it’s honestly no different a result than it always has been. I don’t know the percentage, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s somewhere in the high 90’s that see little return on their invested time and resources. On Amazon’s end, they don’t care one way or the other, as long as those few continue to find success. Their platform has one particularly elegant design element that traditional publishing can’t provide. Hope. Even if it’s false hope for most, when you are a writer and see what the possibility is, no matter how rare it might be, why would you be interested in pursuing an avenue that for all intents and purposes, provides none? Very smart, Amazon.

So, Amazon has created a venue for any and all produces of books to sell their wares. It’s an open market place. I think this element is what many laud Amazon for. For those with the talent, understanding, resources, and where-with-all to make it happen, it’s a great opportunity (and that’s a whole other post).  Unfettered, free-market, publishing. What could be better, right?

For all the opportunity, it does have its drawbacks. Unfettered generally means no quality control.  You run the whole range of literary merit to utter crap. Now, while Amazon has put in place a method for consumers to get a handle on this through reviews, the system is still flawed and prone to manipulation. In essence, it’s not entirely trustworthy. Personally, I put little faith in Amazon reviews unless it’s from someone I actually know on some level. Beyond quality control issues, is the matter of actual quantity. This market has unlimited space. Picture going to a mall that is nothing but women’s clothing, and no manner of organization to it with regard to quality. You are delighted to shop, for a while. Then it becomes a drag to find what you want, and finally you get frustration at the inability to sort through the endless supply in a coherent manner. Amazon has a plethora of book categories, and yet a mind-boggling ineptitude to get books properly placed.  I believe the three books in my series, all have at least one tag on them that is different from the other two.

But now we finally (yeah, I’m being a bit long winded here), get to one of my big issues with Amazon and this free-market book venue.  With the false hopes engendered for most (and this is as much due to writer misunderstanding and lack of information as it is Amazon not presenting a clear picture), and an ever-expanding marketplace, Amazon is accomplishing two things. The first is a widening gap between those who achieve success and those who don’t. I believe that it will get harder and harder to find success the bigger the library of books becomes. As consumers find it more difficult to find books they want,  they will narrow their search field to the most trusted sources of information. The second is monopolizing the producers of the product. Long term, I think Amazon could actually monopolize the publishing industry without actually even trying. As more and more writers look at self-publishing as their only true avenue to success, they’re going to turn to Amazon’s marketplace as the only venue through which to attempt to achieve that goal.

Having garnered all of the product producers (not yet, but this is a potential future), Amazon gets the benefit of letting them dictate the market. Writers compete against one another to offer the cheapest product, driving the product value toward zero. Amazon doesn’t have to work to achieve their primary goal with this, which is to provide the cheapest possible price in order to get as many customers through the door as possible. The authors are doing it for them.  They’re basically creating a false environment of promise, where the actuality is to generate as much cheap product as possible to use as consumer incentive to get in the door and buy other items with more value. To Amazon, books have no value in and of themselves, and as  writer, this is something that really bothers me with Amazon (not talking about their own publishing arm here, that’s another ballgame).

Will I use Amazon to sell books if I end up self-publishing? Yep, I will. It’s gotten to the point where it’s pretty much useless to try other venues if you want to have a chance at making it work. I will try to work around these issues as much as I can. I won’t sell novels for $.99 or less outside of promotional purposes. I won’t give Amazon exclusive rights to sell (their exclusive lending program for example). When writers ask me about self-publishing, I will try to be as honest about what they’re getting into as I can, so they don’t generate false hope. And, I will continue to push my belief, here and wherever I can, that books do have value in and of themselves and do not deserve the bargain bin status that Amazon wants them to achieve in order to drive their sales of other products.

Ok, long winded as hell, and thanks for plodding through this with me. As always, my thoughts may change a month from now, but I will continue to churn my way through this and hopefully engender discussion with people, because in the end, I will continue to be hopeful that publishing is going to come out of this change process better than it was going into it.

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2 responses to “Amazon and the status of authors

  1. I have to disagree with your assertion that Amazon offers false hope. You say that the number of authors who don’t achieve success is in the 90%+ range, and I certainly don’t argue that. But how is that any different than traditional publishing? I think it is likely that most authors who publish on Amazon probably queried agents and publishers with their books before making the plunge into the self-publishing pool. Following your logic, isn’t watching the incredible success of Stephen King, J.K Rowlings, Stephanie Meyer, etc., giving false hope to new authors? Isn’t the rate of success in traditional publishing likely the same, just not as measureable?
    As we all know, just because a manuscript wasn’t picked up by a publisher doesn’t mean it is unpublishable, especially with Amazon’s hold on the market strengthening. With the the shift in the marketplace toward ebooks, traditional publishers are making it even more difficult for new authors to find a home for their work, leaving them little option but to self-publish. As a forty-something man, I would rather see my book published by a traditional publisher so I can walk into my local bookstore and see the glossy cover looking back at me from the shelf, but given the option between banging my head against the gatekeepers’ cage to try and achieve that or publish it myself, it doesn’t take many form-letter rejections to sway me.
    Is it the right decision? Time will tell. But I am a writer, not someone who thought they’d give it a try to make some money. I have to write. If I’m going to, I want people to have the opportunity to read it.
    One book sale is better than a place in a drawer.

    • Oh, I agree with you there, Bruce. If I implied traditional is any better on the odds, then I misspoke. The odds are low no matter how you slice it. What I do think, is that Amazon proliferates the notion that “If you put it out there, they will come.” I’ve heard that unsettling sentiment a number of times, and I cringe for the writers who think it’s the golden opportunity they’ve been waiting for. It’s a great opportunity for the very limited few with the ability to take advantage of what the system offers. For the majority it’s still a crap shoot as much as it’s always been, but the ability to have it all in your own hands alters the perception. I just think Amazon is manipulating that perception to their advantage at the expense of the publishing industry as a whole.