Onward to the second installment of Why I Don’t Like Amazon. Part 1 discussed Amazon’s relationship with publishers and this time we’re going to look at how Amazon effects authors and bookstores.
It wasn’t until I read this blog post by Anne Leone (and later confirmed the perception with my friends) that I realized how many people think Amazon is good for authors. They see E.L. James (who, by the way, was not published by Amazon, just sold well there) and Hugh Howey, and they assume that Amazon’s self-publishing features give more authors the chance to reach an audience. Technically, this is true, but it ignores the larger picture. First off, let’s remember that less than one percent of all self-published books are successful and it still takes at least $1,000 to publish a reasonably polished title, and usually closer to $30,000 after all expenses are considered. If you’ve got some cash you can get your work published, but your pockets are gonna be considerably lighter afterwards.
But, hell, let’s ignore that for a second and concentrate on the success stories. For those few people, yes, Amazon gives them a solid platform they would otherwise lack. And they pony up a much larger percentage of royalties than traditional publishing houses (after all, they make practically no investment and participate in no promotion for individual books). So on a singular basis, Amazon’s self-publishing options can be good for authors. Not most authors, but a handful. It’s when you take a peek at the larger picture that you realize how insignificant this contribution is. Bringing a dozen authors into the spotlight is a small consolation against the one-way stream that Amazon tries to create with books. Its number one priority is to sell books on the best possible terms for the company, so if anything gets in the way of that, Amazon will kick the authors, publishers, and anyone else straight to the curb (like this, or this, or this, or that).
In fact, the benefit that Amazon “offers” is oxymoronic when compared to their practices. Their self-publishing platform gives authors another option to consider for publication and they extol the benefits of having these multiple avenues to publish from. But Amazon is trying to do anything possible to become THE ONLY avenue of distribution. They want to be the first, last, and only stop for book buyers. They want their recommendations to control what you see and they want to funnel you into only using their products. The more options that are available, the better the situation becomes for authors, but Amazon’s self-publishing benefit is, in my opinion, completely outweighed by its limiting effect on circulation. The louder Amazon’s shout projects, the fewer voices (authors’ and readers’) can be heard. And that is a terrible thing for our writers.
At the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m against self-publishing. As mainstream publishers have seen a larger and larger percentage of their sales coming from just a few big hits, they’ve started to ignore their mid-list authors. Publishing houses are playing a money game too, and they’re going to put the most money where they think it can do the most damage. So, if you’re an author faced with the options of publishing with a house that won’t push hard to promote your book and will pay you lower royalties, or self-publishing and receiving a much larger chunk of money from each sale, what would you do? It’s great that self-publishing has become feasible for so many authors and the longer it’s around the more gems it is sure to spit out (though Hugh Howey does need to shut up). But, don’t lose the forest for the trees. Amazon is helping a small contingency of authors and hurting everyone else.
The relationship between bookstores and Amazon is much more straightforward. They are enemies and competitors. While Amazon is bad for publishers and mostly bad for authors, these effects are, to a certain degree, just collateral damage. Amazon’s crosshairs are actually aimed at bookstores. They have lower prices to dissuade you from buying at these stores. They have one-day shipping to compensate for your desire to get the book fast. They have recommendation engines to mimic conversations with local booksellers (though, unless you only want to read bestsellers, they do this rather poorly). The have huge warehouses to hold more books than could fit even in a large Barnes and Noble. They even feature a bar code scanning app so you can go to a bookstore, find the book you want, and then buy it on Amazon instead. Almost everything that Amazon has become, it has become in the hopes of eliminating physical bookstores.
But, you know, that’s business. Who cares? Well, if there are any independent bookstores left in your town, they definitely care. And if there are any authors hoping to have physical interactions with their readers, they definitely care as well. The truth is that bookstores are more than just buildings with books in them. They host author events and introduce readers to new subjects. They interact with their customers and try to find the best book for them. They allow for browsing, discussion, and insight that no website can duplicate. And they have personalities. Amazon is Amazon and most Barnes and Nobles are the same, but every time I step into an independent bookstore I feel something different. Whether it be a bookstore pet, a unique design, or a particular theme, bookshops have more to offer than just bounded paper and it would be a shame to see them fall by the wayside. We need to remember that, when you buy from Amazon, the cost isn’t just what you pay for the book, it’s also the loss of these unique, independent outlets. If you’re okay with that (and it DOES NOT make you a bad person if you are), then keep your online orders flowing (books from anywhere is better than no books at all), but if you think that price is too high, then now is the time to change your habits and do something about it. If you wait much longer, you might not have the chance.
Keep your eyes peeled next week for the epic conclusion to this Amazon-bashing trilogy. We’ll be looking at the acquisition of Goodreads, big data, and overall impressions.