Rocket Bomber - article - publishing - bookselling - Amazon's Generosity

Amazon's Generosity

filed under , 26 May 2014, 11:39 by


“Amazon offered a choice. Not just for writers, but for consumers who wanted larger selections and didn’t want to pay luxury prices for books. (Publishers didn’t just control who got published, they also controlled the prices of their titles. What other industry prints a price on its product?)”
Turow & Patterson: A Plateful of Fail with Extra Helpings of Stupid

see also: Five+ years of me angsting on Amazon


Amazon is not a Great Evil, hellbent on destroying publishing.

Amazon is a business, and is using their market position to be even-more business like.

Is that evil? Yes, actually, I think abusing your market position to extract profits without providing additional value is kind of evil, but apparently I’m alone on that — and just because Amazon isn’t attempting to extract the extra money out of their customers (yet), I’m told my opinion doesn’t matter, or worse, that I suffer from Amazon Derangement Syndrome for pointing out the obvious.

Are publishers any better?

The major media conglomerates that currently own the publishers aren’t. A publisher who can’t add value (production and marketing support) to a book certainly isn’t entitled to take a large percentage of its profits. But is the model bad? I think it was working up until the 80s, and then a lot of things happened before Amazon got started [consolidation, shifts in book retail — including the rise of first the mall chains and then the big box stores, the ‘elevation’ of genre fiction, and the multi-media tie-in] and Amazon stepped in to abuse the exploits readily available because the book business was (from a “business” standpoint) “broken”.

If Amazon is “good” and the publishers are “bad” — then what’s the third way?

If it is all just business, then any well-run business should be able to provide services to both readers and writers in ways that do not require the publisher’s scale and clout to get shelved in bookstores, and don’t rely on the size of Amazon’s customer base and on Amazon’s generosity. If it’s ‘stupid’ to ignore Amazon because “that’s where the customers are” then you’ve merely traded one pair of gatekeepers (the acquiring editor, the chain book-buyer in New York) for a different set of gates, and all the gates are owned by Amazon.

Sure, for an ebook Amazon will pay an author up to 70%, assuming the author adopts Amazon’s preferred pricing structure, but why does Amazon charge 30% at all? If it’s only about hosting the data, it looks like 1 GB of storage and 5 GB of data transfers (customer downloads, in this case) would only cost me 17¢ a month using Amazon’s own Web Services — that’s 17¢ for the data (…per month, and I’d only be charged for what I use), so I guess the other $.72 (on a $2.99 kindle book) is sales commission? For listing the book on Amazon’s website?

Except… the web site is automated, too. The author fills out the book metadata, decides which keywords and categories to use; the customers submit the reviews. Amazon is just providing the server space and the download (for 17¢ a month). Customers find the book using search, or by browsing — which means relying on Amazon’s algorithms and hoping that there isn’t some dumb reason Amazon would want to hide your book from the search results, or to keep it off of top 10 or top 100 lists.

Amazon makes money on Kindle books in aggregate so it doesn’t have to support any one author, or any one category or genre of books, or even provide any support at all so long as the website is up and the servers are running.

Amazon deserves credit for setting up the system (and for leaving the lights on for the rest of us, I guess) but it doesn’t do anything; the sales commission it earns is for providing access to its customer base, a de-facto social network of millions of readers who have self-selected — for reasons of cost and/or convenience — and are the fraction of readers that are both more technically savvy and most willing to try digital options (because they did, when they first chose to try Amazon).

Amazon may “only be 30% of the market” but represents at least 75% of the ebook market, because that’s who their customers are. Amazon only takes a 30% cut — for books under $10 (a pricing scheme they enforce, and they take 65% if you choose to deviate from their guidelines) — for a service that costs them pennies on a closed platform they control. Amazon only provides the listing, the author is then responsible for the marketing, and for generating enthusiasm in their readers. Some authors are very successful on Amazon’s platform and that’s fantastic — but no one has asked them the question: now that they have a reader base, do they need Amazon?

Amazon processes the payments, so that’s nice (and the hosting and distribution of files) and of course there are interactions and synergies that come from being listed next to other authors and books — benefits that outweigh the trivial fact that other authors are technically the competition. But I can just as easily push books from my website — in fact there are Wordpress plugins that can turn any blog into a store. Sure, it’s a lot of work — but the arguments against publishers (“I can hire a proofreader, and an editor, and a cover artist, and someone to format the ebook for me… hell, I’m doing all my own marketing anyway… why do I need a publisher?”) can also be applied to Amazon (…now you need to hire a web programmer, and a web designer, but the rates are going to be similar to a good book editor, and once a solution and/or model is in place many authors will be able to copy it, or parts of it).

I repeat myself for emphasis: If Amazon is “good” and the publishers are “bad” — then what’s the third way?

If it is all just business, then any well-run business should be able to provide services to both readers and writers in ways that do not require the publisher’s scale and clout to get shelved in bookstores, and don’t rely on the size of Amazon’s customer base and on Amazon’s “generosity”.

Monopoly, monopsony, whatever… Amazon is not the final solution, but gets a lot of the credit (and a lot of goodwill) for having “solved” the book “problem”.

All I see is a single player that has gobbled up too much of both book publishing and book retail. Amazon’s Generosity should not be taken for granted, or assumed to be limitless. I suppose the advice to authors should be: get in now, while the getting is good, and hope you can make your roll before the rules change and Amazon, in its great indifference, rolls over you.


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