Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: The Amazon Problem

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Amazon Problem

(Note: This is replacing Friday's blog post, because I'm going to be on the road)

For those who don't know: Amazon, who has made self-publishing what it is (i.e. a path to a living for some and to readers for all) today, is brawling brutally with Hachette, one of the largest traditional publishers, over the terms of their distribution relationship. You can read up on it here and here, but the gist is that Amazon is basically doing everything short of not selling Hachette books at all in order to get them to capitulate to whatever new terms it wants for selling their books.

Charlie Stross has hit the nail on the head in describing what this means for authors. In short, it is bad, bad news. Most salient passage (emphasis mine):

By driving down the unit revenue, Amazon makes it really hard for publishers—who are a proxy for authors—to turn a profit. Eventually they go out of business, leaving just Amazon as a monopoly distribution channel retailing the output of an atomized cloud of highly vulnerable self-employed piece-workers like myself. At which point the screws can be tightened indefinitely. And after a while, there will be no more Charlie Stross novels because I will be unable to earn a living and will have to go find a paying job.
This is the nightmare scenario. It's one I have been worried about since Amazon started doing this to publishers years ago. There is nothing---absolutely nothing---underlying the amazing royalty rates that Amazon pays authors like me other than either a.) Amazon's goodwill or b.) this business strategy or one much like it. And Amazon is not a company that has gotten where it is today because of its goodwill toward suppliers.

For traditional authors, the hope is that their publishers will band together (probably through mergers, because they were sued successfully by the Department of Justice, largely at Amazon's behest, for banding together without merging---admittedly illegally, from my point of view) and survive strong enough to remain a counterweight to Amazon.

For indie authors, the hope is that Nook Press and Kobo (and to a lesser extent Apple, but they're much less friendly to indies than the other two) will remain just enough of a threat to Amazon in the realm of e-books to keep Amazon from turning the screws on self-published authors.

I went into self-publishing knowing this.

But this month I removed my titles from Nook Press and Kobo anyway.


Because I'd sold a handful of copies of Soulwoven in each venue, lifetime, and zero of Three Dances. Because Amazon gives me valuable promotional tools in return for exclusivity, and Kobo and Nook Press don't give me any promotional tools at all. Because the increasingly powerful handlers of the best marketing tools available to indies care more than anything about how many star reviews a book has on Amazon.

After writing a good book in the first place, reaching readers is the great issue in self-publishing, and by taking and holding the lead on ways to promote books, Amazon is making itself indispensable to indie authors. By requiring exclusivity to use its best promotional tools, it's also making publishing e-books anywhere else a losing proposition.

At this point. It could get better. Kobo and Nook Press do a lot of things right. Maybe someday Apple will decide it wants to be a player in the e-book market rather than try to leverage its small market share to sell hardware to self-publishers. Google may get their act together too.

It could also get worse. Amazon could start dropping royalties anytime, and I'm willing to bet Kobo and Nook Press would follow suit. Nook Press's royalties are already worse than Amazon's, and both of those companies need all the revenue they can get.

Everybody in traditional publishing fears Amazon, for two reasons. The first is that they're brutal. The second is that they're so damn good. They're light-years ahead of everyone else, and they're experimenting and rolling out new ways to connect authors and readers so fast that the best the industry can do is laugh at Amazon's failures to hide its tears over Amazon's successes, and rage when it gets the opportunity to.

Indie authors should fear Amazon too. Yes, it's the hand that feeds us, but the open palm has turned into a fist at some point for everyone who's ever been in our shoes before, and we are fools if we refuse to recognize that.

I titled this post The Amazon Problem, but Amazon is not THE problem. It is A problem. THE problem is that nobody is competing with them effectively.

P.S. Filed under "Decisions I may come to regret" because of hands that feed, and biting, and concern thereof.


  1. Well-written post, with many good points behind it.

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