Friday, May 30, 2014

Amazon and Reality

Amazon is in the news lately for their dealings with the Hachette Book Group—a very large mainstream publisher. Folks, as I see it, the core of this problem is the bizarre publishing business. Consider that when a minor miracle happens and an author gets a mainstream publisher to carry a new book, the author usually get an advance (usually, but not always), but little after that unless the books goes viral. The publisher edits the book, produces the cover, prints up copies and does some (less that most would like) marketing—but generally only to bookstores. The publishers don’t really sell anything to individuals—not directly. The books are marketed, sold and shipped to distributors who warehouse the books, and supply bookstores who order them and ship them out again. The bookstores shelve the books, keep them dusted and wait. If they sell, they (might) order more but when they don’t, they arrange to ‘return’ the remaining books to the distributor for a refund. What usually happens is that the unsold books are donated to a rural landfill or pulped. In this system, each layer takes a cut. The publisher, the distributor, the bookstore chain, the shipping companies, the landfill operator and the bookstore itself. This means a good author typically gets less than 15% in royalties.

Seldith Chronicles Composite Covers (small) V20

In the Amazon model, the author writes a book, formats it for Kindle and submits it to Amazon for publication—no money changes hands. Amazon does not edit the books unless the author pays for that service. Amazon posts virtually all submissions on their website (for free) and if it sells, they send the author up to 70% of the sale. The author pays for download fees out of their cut.

If the author wants to sell printed books so they can give a copy to their mom, they can go to a vanity press and order N thousand copies and keep them in their garage until their spouse runs into them with the car. In this case, they have to market and sell the books to retail outlets themselves and act as the shipper and distributor and take back books if they (when they) don’t sell as fast as the bookstores would like. I’ve done this, but I ordered 100 or so at a time from a local on-demand printer. This was in 1992. I also did not let bookstores take the books on consignment nor would I take books back if they didn’t sell. Only one bookstore in five would work with me. In the end, I was selling 50 or so a week out of the house—just before Microsoft Press picked it up. I wish there was an Amazon in those days.

With the Amazon/CreateSpace model, authors can take their Kindle-formatted book, run it through an online program to generate a for-print version in a few minutes. They can take the time to create their own cover or use the Amazon cover wizard. All of this can be done for free. Of course, if you want Amazon to provide the ISBN, you can—for free. If you want Amazon to provide “expanded” distribution that will cost you—$35.

As far as independent bookstores go, these small businesses are being hurt by Amazon in that they have to compete with books sold at very low margins (perhaps because there are fewer middle-men) and while readers can’t touch Amazon books before they buy them, they can get them in a couple of days by mail. These indie stores are also hurt by Kindle or eBook sales except when the author has gone to the trouble of creating alternative formats using companies like Smashwords to produce and distribute the electronic copies—versions that the indies can sell directly. But the indie bookstores are also woven into the establishment problem. It’s often just as hard for us independent authors to get on their shelves as it is for us to be picked up (assimilated) by the mainstream publishers. Some bookstores won’t even talk to us without a successful book in hand—just like the big publishers. Some won’t do book signings unless we can do it in conjunction with other authors. Sure, this makes sense for them, but it’s just another hurdle for low-budget authors. Frankly, I don’t expect these businesses to be around for long.

This whole business is feeling the same pressure as the record industry when cassette tapes became popular. Now that anyone (as in really friggen anyone) can create an eBook in a matter of minutes and get it on the Amazon site in less time than it takes to read the Sunday New York Times (well, in about a day), independent bookstores and brick and mortar stores are feeling the pinch. But their business model is bloated as there are too many middle men, shipping companies, building rent collectors and people dusting and selling books by hand to support. Will this trend reverse itself? I don’t think so. Okay, no. Will the independent bookstores have to adapt? Of course, or they will face the same fate as Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail.

But what will us independent authors do? I’ll continue to work with bookstores like McDonalds Book Exchange in Redmond, WA and JJ Books in Bothell that carry my series The Seldith Chronicles and try to lobby other stores in the area that want to take books on consignment. Yes, this is a burden for them as it means author-specific accounts and more overhead for them but they get to deal with an author who will bend over backwards to help promote the books and the stores. I’ll also continue to write and publicize the books whenever and wherever I can. Yes, I’m that guy you met on the bus when you were reading your Kindle and asked if you like fantasy fiction. Sorry, I just had to ask.