And the lemmings march on

by Amanda S. Green

The past 10 days or so have seen lots of chest beating and crying unto the heavens by some members of the publishing community. Oh the gnashing of teeth and the blind leaping onto bandwagons as they roll off the cliff of reason. How easy it has been for these writers to cry against the evil that is Amazon, all the while refusing to look beyond the headlines or even read the headlines to see what is really happening.

Last week IPG (Independent Publishers Group, a book distribution company) announced that Amazon failed to accept new contract terms that would have been so much better for IPG’s clients than the current contract. We were told how Amazon was being the big bully and wanting better terms for itself to the detriment to IPG, its clients (publishers) and therefore writers. Without knowing what these wonderful new terms would be, writers hit social media sites condemning Amazon. How dare Amazon refuse to accept terms that would be better for the other party, for writers?!?

But let’s look at this. First of all, at the time of the announcement, we didn’t know what those so-called wonderful terms were. IPG all-too-conveniently didn’t say what they were. Nor did IPG detail what terms Amazon proposed and it turned down. Then there’s the fact that IPG is the middle-man. Just because terms are better for it, that doesn’t mean they will be better for the publishers using them, much less for the authors. Remember, authors may create the product but we get the smallest amount of the sales price of anyone else in the chain. But I can understand why writers were up in arms after reading the IPG announcement. Amazon was once again trying to screw the publishing industry. Evil Amazon! (yes, the sarcasm meter is on here.)

Then came the announcement that Amazon had removed IPG distributed e-books from its catalog. Oh the cries of outrage became howls. Authors’ fists pumped in the air like workers of old as they marched against the evil regime. How dare Amazon remove their titles! Didn’t Amazon know it was hurting authors by doing so? It had a duty to keep those titles in the catalog and for sale. Bad, Amazon, bad.Facebook was ablaze with authors rallying around the cause. Blogs flogged Amazon for being an evil capitalist machine out for no one but itself. And then SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) entered the fray.

SFWA leadership decided to stand by the few authors who had titles distributed by IPG. They would show their solidarity with the common man, er writer, and take action. They’d show evil Amazon that it can’t push people around. So, without consulting the member-at-large, SWFA leadership decided to redirect all product links on its pages from Amazon to other online stores. The only caveat to that was that if the book was only available through Amazon. In that case, the link would remain.

Solidarity! Solidarity! Solidarity! SWFA and others march unerringly toward the cliffs with the other lemmings.

What everyone seems to have forgotten in all this is that Amazon is not the big evil when it comes to publishing. The problems the industry faces now have their roots in practices that were outdated before Amazon was founded. Business plans have failed to evolve with changing times, changing technologies and changing consumer demands. How quickly these same authors have forgotten how the big box stores like Barnes & Noble came in and wiped out the majority of our neighborhood bookstores. How quickly they then over-expanded until they flooded the market. And now that practice, as well as other poor business decisions, have these big box stores in trouble.

Don’t believe me? Where’s Borders? Where’s Bookstop? Barnes & Noble has been trying to spin off Sterling to become more financially stable. That hasn’t worked so Sterling is no longer on the market. Instead, B&N is once more considering spinning off the Nook division.

But let’s continue. IPG presented Amazon with these wonderful terms for itself and its clients and Amazon had the audacity to decline to sign on the dotted line. Then, gasp, it removed those e-book titles. How dare it?

My question is how dare it not? Amazon no longer had a contractual right to sell the titles. It did the correct thing in removing them. After all, whether you like it or not, Amazon is a company. It has shareholders it has a duty to. That duty is to make money in return for their investment. I know that’s awful in the minds of some, but it is the truth. Just as it is true that IPG is in the business to make money.Even SFWA admits that Amazon has the right to decide who to do business with. But what is telling is that, while admitting that only 4,000 e-book titles or so were involved in the IPG dispute, SFWA was redirecting all links away from Amazon as long as the books weren’t exclusive to Amazon. There is nothing in the SFWA letter to say this is applying to just e-books. No, ALL BOOKS are involved.

But the authors who are beating their breasts and pumping their firsts have no problem with this. You must protect the few at the expense of the many.

The double-standard about this hatred so many in publishing have for Amazon continually amazes me. None of these authors cried “FOUL” when Barnes & Noble, and then other bookstores, announced it wouldn’t sell books published by Amazon. No, they actually applauded the move. After all, how dare Amazon have its own publishing arm. It’s out to kill traditional publishers. It is only enticing authors away and then it will turn on them because Amazon is evil.

I’m not going to say there won’t come a day when Amazon changes the royalty structure for self-published authors or small presses. It very well may. But the responsibility falls to us to be prepared for that day. In the meantime, we’re foolish not to take advantage of the tools available to us and, like it or not, Amazon is one of them.

Another example of the double standard is the deafening silence in the wake of Barclay’s announcement that it will not distribute one of its titles to any online bookseller. Their reasoning, to protest Amazon’s “unfair practices”. So, they don’t like Amazon but will “punish” all online stores.  I’m sure Amazon is quaking in its boots at the removal of one title and will soon capitulate. Yes, I’m rolling my eyes as I type this. But the point is, Barclay is removing the title from a number of venues and yet the authors pounding their chests and pumping their fists are silent. I can only guess their reason is because the evil one was mentioned so they didn’t read any further.

Nor have I heard these same authors condemning Apple for refusing to carry an e-book in iTunes/iBooks because, gasp, it had a link in the back of the book in the references section to an Amazon page. GASP. It linked to a book Apple didn’t carry. Not an e-book, if I remember correctly, but a hard copy. Guess what, boys and girls, Apple doesn’t sell hard copy. Not yet, at any rate. But no one is up in arms about this because, sigh, Amazon is involved.

As I sit here writing this blog this morning, I have the news on. A commercial just aired for a live show later this month at the American Airlines Center. The music in the background is “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables. How appropriate. I see these authors in my mind’s eye marching shoulder to shoulder, fists pumping as they call for solidarity against Amazon. But they aren’t marching toward the guns of their oppressors. No, they are marching toward the edge of the cliff, blindly supporting an industry that, if it doesn’t quickly change its operating model, will soon fall.

And, like it or not, these authors are playing a role in the decline of the industry. How? By doing exactly what they are right now. By getting on their facebook accounts and alienating a very large part of their readership by saying not to buy from Amazon. Guess what, authors, the Kindle still holds a major market share when it comes to e-readers. As long as your publishers continue to insist on putting DRM on your titles, most readers won’t jump through the hoops, hoops that are technically illegal around much of the world, to convert that title bought from B&N or Kobo, etc., to be able to read it on their Kindle.

Guess what else–the reading public doesn’t understand why an e-book should cost as much as a hard copy of the book. No, don’t go spouting the tripe about how it costs the same to make an e-book as it does a hard copy. That dog don’t hunt, especially not when there is a hard copy being produced. You don’t edit the book twice, once for the hard copy and once for the digital version. You don’t make two different covers for it.  I could go on, but I won’t. Why? Because you have dug your heels in, put your head in the sand and are going “lalalalalalalalala” until it’s over.

The time has come for writers to take control of their careers. I’m not saying every writer should self–publish. Why? Because not every writer wants that. Not every writer is capable of doing everything that is needed to self-publish, either because of time constraints, personal preferences, etc. But now is the time for writers to demand accountability from their publishers. That includes demanding to know why publishers are using distributors for e-books to sites like Amazon and B&N where it is simple to publish on your own. Middlemen add costs that publishers will take out of the whole before paying the author. But even more than that, it is time for authors to demand their fair share of royalties on a book. Remember, without the writer, there would be no book.

Wake up and realize that while Amazon isn’t pure, it is still the 800 pound gorilla we need to work with–at least until there is a viable alternative. It is not the beginning and end of all that wrong with the publishing industry. If you want to rail against something, writers, read your contracts and your royalty statements. Ask yourself why publishers are trying to claim digital rights to books when contracts were signed long before e-books were even thought of. Ask yourself how your books can still be on the shelves of physical bookstores more than two years after publication and yet your publisher tells you “it just didn’t catch on with the readers” and declines to pick up your option. Ask yourself why you haven’t earned out more royalties than your advance. Ask yourself why the quality of editing, copy editing and proofreading from your legacy publisher has been declining over the years.

Or, continue gnashing your teeth, beating your chest and pumping your fists in the air as you walk off the cliff, alienating readers and cutting yourself off from what most likely is your largest online market.

Cross-posted to The Naked Truth and here.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “And the lemmings march on

  1. Pingback: And the lemmings march on « Amanda S. Green

  2. Pingback: And the lemmings march on | The Naked Truth

  3. Kate Paulk

    Well said, and so much better than anything I could say.

  4. So Amazon is going to eventually snatch the rug from under me after I foolishly support them as an author? I have news for people who think this. I went through learning to produce e-books with very little help. I made mistakes and had some ugly formatting mistakes. But people like my stories and were willing to overlook a badly rendered hyphen or a too deep paragraph indent.
    If Amazon tries to cut my royalty deeply I am perfectly willing to climb the learning curve to set up my own store front and sell my books completely independently. The efforts I put into directing folks to my Amazon page will work just sending them to my own page.
    For now Amazon gave me a market when traditional publishers would not. I can’t live off my earnings but they have gotten better each month and I will have a $450 deposit from this month’s sales. I don’t NEED to make a single dollar of that to live so I’m quite happy.