Here we go again

Earlier this week, I could only shake my head as an author on one of the discussion boards I sometimes visit pontificated about how Amazon is not, never has been and never will be, an author’s friend. You see, according to this author, Amazon is the big evil, the reason why bookstores and small presses have gone out of business. Good on Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million for declaring that they won’t carry books published by The Big Evil. We, as authors and readers, should avoid supporting The Big Evil at all costs.

Okay, this author — and those who feel as she does — are entitled to their opinions. What bothered me about her argument was multi-fold. First was the fact that she didn’t seem to mind at all the fact that Barnes & Noble purchased Stirling Publishing in 2003 and Stirling is now its own imprint. Guess what, as of my search last night, Amazon carries books published by Stirling. So, why is it okay for BN and BAM to refuse to carry books published by Amazon’s imprints when it expects Amazon to carry books published by BN’s imprint? Can you say, “pot calling kettle black”? And am I the only one who can just hear the cries of “foul” BN would send up if Amazon suddenly decided to quit selling books by Sterling because it is owned by a competitor?

The next issue I had with the author’s assertion that Amazon is The Big Evil goes to her condemnation for Amazon refusing to sell books from the Big Five (it wasn’t six at that point) back at the beginning of the agency pricing model. Apparently, she has a problem with a retailer, and that is what Amazon is, not only choosing what it stocks but also being able to set its own prices. She doesn’t see the need for competitive pricing. In fact, she didn’t like the fact that Amazon was selling e-books from the major publishers for $9.99, and losing money doing it. It didn’t matter that it was the price point e-books readers wanted — and still want. It didn’t matter that publishers weren’t losing money. No, it is simply that The Big Evil was doing it, so it must be wrong.

Then there’s the argument that Amazon having its own imprints will drive print publishers and bookstores out of business. Okay, remember Stirling? That sort of throws a wrench in that argument. But, let’s look at it a bit more. Sure, the fact that Amazon doesn’t have brick and mortar stores, the fact it can and does sell for less than most brick and mortar stores, does make it a competitor. But it isn’t and never has been the sole reason for the problems in the publishing industry or in the survival of bookstores.

I’ve written a number of posts about this, as have my fellow MGCers. Publishing is operating under a business model that is decades out of date. Most legacy publishers have failed to recognize, much less embrace, changes in technology or demand of the buying public. Like the ostrich, it has kept its head in the sand, convinced that if it ignored e-books long enough, the abomination would disappear.

Likewise, it failed to recognize that people want to read for entertainment. Yes, I know there are those who read to learn. I’m one of them. But most folks read for entertainment. They don’t want to read the same book over and over again, simply with different character names and places. Fads are just that, fads. They go just as quickly as they come.

People also don’t want publishers trying to “educate” them through the books they are reading for fun. They are tired of PCness being shoved down their throats. Most of us are tired of the “men are evil, women are wonderful” and “business is the ultimate evil”. Moreover, if we want literary, we’ll buy it. Don’t try to sell it to us wrapped in the guise of genre fiction. Sorry, folks, but not all of us want plotless, pointless navel gazing in our reading.

Then there is the argument that Amazon is killing bookstores. Nope, sorry, but the big box stores managed to strike that blow themselves. The very companies that are now crying foul over Amazon are the ones who came in and wiped out the local bookstores without batting an eye. How? By being bigger. They could offer more stock at lower prices than the local indies could. Once they cornered the market, these big box stores over-expanded and, being the only game in town, started having problems, especially when the economy went into a downturn.

But, like the publishing industry, it didn’t adapt. It kept building big stores and hiring people who didn’t know the stock and who weren’t passionate about books. (Okay, over-generalization, but on the whole true) Actual book stock decreased as knick-knacks increased. Books may only stay on the shelves for a week. If it’s not bought then, it is boxed up and shipped back. If you special order a book, you may or may not get it. But that’s not their fault. It’s all the fault of Amazon, The Big Evil, because people can order books from them for less.

Well, guess what, if these same bookstores would take time to review what their customers want and try to address those issues, if they’d hire employees who knew the stock — and this implies paying these employees a decent wage with benefits instead of hiring a store full of nothing but part-timers so they don’t have to pay benefits — most readers would be more than happy to pay a bit more to buy locally. Why? Because it does support the local economy. Because most readers enjoy the experience of browsing the rows of books. Not only will you, hopefully, find the book you came for, but you might find something else you’ll like as much, if not more. Sure, coffee shops are nice, but good stock and knowledgeable, courteous employees are more important.

Now, am I saying that I agree with everything Amazon does? Heck no. But blaming them for everything that is wrong in a seriously ill industry is so short-sighted as to be ridiculous. This is especially true when it comes from an author. Amazon is the first of the major retailers to allow authors and small presses to direct sell their e-books without having to go through a repackager. I know from my own numbers, that most of my sales come by far from Amazon. Part of it is because it is Amazon. Part of it is because BN waited too long to get into the e-book business and its web interface isn’t as user friendly as Amazon’s. Amazon also has a very active community, which benefits authors whether we realize it or not.

Like I said, the author who feels Amazon is The Big Evil is entitled to her opinion. It’s not completely wrong. Nor is it completely right. But, before condemning Amazon, I wish she had taken time to look at the companies she was supporting. If she had, she might have realized there is much more involved in the issues publishing is facing than just The Big Evil. Publishing was on the road to ruin long before Amazon was started. Did Amazon speed the process? Undoubtedly. But it did not cause it — either for publishers or for bookstores.

For me, I support my locally owned indie bookstores as much as possible. Unfortunately, we don’t have all that many and most aren’t conveniently located. Still, when I’m near one, I go and I buy. I also buy from Amazon because I can find books there I can’t in the stores. I use the library. I buy e-books from a variety of sources. However, I have found that I buy fewer and fewer e-books from the legacy publishers because they are priced too high. But then, e-books are just the latest fad and if the legacy publishers have their way, e-books will go the way of sparkly vampires. Oh wait, legacy publishers still like sparkly vampires…oh well, guess that means e-books are here to stay.

17 comments

  1. There’s finger-pointing fault everywhere in the industry, but to jump on the B&N bandwagon and call Amazon Evil is ridiculous… and a potential career-killer for an author… keep following that author because I guarantee you, if they aren’t already selling on Amazon, they will be soon. And when they do and realize how easy it is to sell their stories, the cut they get, and the sales figures, they’ll quiet down and staret to collect sales.

    It’s not perfect, and Amazon is the big bully on the block, but they positioned themselves there by doing the right things in such a wrong business… 90% of my sales com from Amazon, but I still sell on B&N and SmashWords and will continue for most books (yes, I use the Amazon KDP and it has helped sales all across my 30+ titles)…
    Armand Rosamilia

    1. Armand, the author did admit that she sells through Amazon and many of her sales come from there. But they are still EVIL and NOT the author’s friend. (Rolls eyes).

      You’re right. Amazon isn’t perfect and it is a bully, but it isn’t the one to put the industry behind the eight ball. Publishing and bookseller execs did that all by themselves. Authors, agents and editors need to understand there is more out there than the established, and dying, legacy system. It’s up to them to figure out how best to use it for their benefit.

  2. Pfui.

    The Big Box stores wiped out smaller retailers across the board, if the smaller retailers weren’t smart — it isn’t just bookstores. They did so by offering a larger selection, somewhat lower prices, and amenities. That is exactly the way business is supposed to work. If somebody figures out a way to get product to the consumer that provides more benefits for the consumer than the earlier ways did, that innovator gets rewarded and the earlier providers adapt or die.

    Now Amazon is challenging the Big Boxes — by offering a larger selection, lower prices, and amenities; different amenities (it being hard to serve hot coffee over the Internet, and Internet browsers already have a comfortable chair) but the formula is the same. Oh, the outrage!

    Sauce for the goose will season the gander. The rest of it is largely smokescreen — the fact that Amazon is also challenging publishers just means they’re taking on a two-front war against allies who don’t really like one another all that much, a good bet for them.

    As a side note: Sam Walton, arguably the founder of the Big Box Store system, despised “Main Street Merchants” and deliberately set out either to supplant them or to force them into changing their business practices. In his view, the whole distributor/retailer/big markup system abused the customer, and he wanted to get rid of it. If he had been starting out thirty years later than he did, he’d be either an ally or a competitor to J. Bezos, either way doing pretty much the same thing Amazon is doing.

    Regards,
    Ric

    1. Ric, I have to agree with you. And, btw, your example of Walmart is excellent. How many of us remember the cries against Walmart when it started coming into smaller cities and towns and the five & dimes and hardware stores were put out of business. Oh, how evil Walmart was. Now, most cities want Walmart or its sister stores because of the selection, lower prices and tax base it brings with it.

      As an author, probably 90% of my sales come from Amazon. I appreciate being able to put my titles up either on my own or through a small publisher like Naked Reader Press (okay, disclaimer here for those new to the blog. I am also Senior Exec. Editor for NRP). Amazon is the first of the major retailers to allow indies (self-published authors and small presses) to put their e-books up for sale. Do I wish Amazon allowed sales of both MOBI and EPUB formats? You betcha. But I’ll take what it offers and be glad for it.

  3. I worked in an independent family owned and run bookstore back in the early to mid 1990’s and felt the impact of Barnes & Noble first hand. They built thier store right down the street from G. Sanders Books and within two years, I and most of the staff had been laid off, and eventually the store went out of business. Our store offered some great ammenities, like author events, a very knowledgable staff who all loved books, and great customer service. It could not compete with the selection and discount pricing of a big box retailer however, especially when it was less than a mile away. I still hold a bit of a grudge against B&N for that. But after Sanders Books went under, they were the only new bookstore in the area, so if I wanted the latest releases bought off the shelf, I was stuck with them. I have always supported my local Half Price Books store and the few other used independent bookstores not just because of the prices, but because they offer so many out of print and hard to find books that I am always looking for or happen to come across while browsing the aisles. Even though I do order from Amazon, both e-books and print books, I really enjoy being able to walk into a physical bookstore and browse. Just being amongst so many books is relaxing, and you never know what you might find. And then there is that old book smell that is like an aphrodesiac to a book lover like me.

    1. Larry, I miss G. Sanders. I remember the author events the store used to put on, as well as the staff. THAT is what bookstores need now — and it is what a lot of the new indies are doing. Smaller shops which mean lower overhead, niche stock and workers who enjoy what they are doing.

      I prefer going into a “real” store as well. I like spending time working my way through the aisles of books, looking for some unknown gem. Heck, the last indie store I was in had almost as much stock as the local B&N did because it (the indie) was a BOOKstore and not just a store that says it sells books but is focusing more on other things.

      1. I have never lived near enough to a bookstore of any type to visit regularly until very recently, and I’m mainly a science fiction reader, so the times I was able to visit the so-wonderful independent book stores varied somewhere between disappointment at the lack of anything I wanted to read and positive discomfort from the sneer-rays emanating from the owner and staff. When I was traveling, the mall bookstores were a Godsend. Their SF stock was always limited, but much less so than that of the literature-focussed (for which read: pretentious) bookstores, and if the clerks were at all knowledgeable they trended toward either adventure (compatible with my tastes) or something woo-woo (crystals, New Age, &ct., easily ignorable).

        When B&N and Borders appeared, they were simply the mall bookstore writ large. The proportion of the store devoted to what I liked was the same or less, but the store was bigger, meaning I had a better selection. I spent many an hour, and many a dollar, in one of the two (favoring B&N by a large proportion) in cities far from home. It was my substitute for going to bars.

        But it soon became obvious that there was something wrong. The B&N still had a wall o’books in the SF section, but I was finding less to read than I had at B. Dalton’s. At the time I didn’t know about the “produce model”, but I did know the books were somehow being forced into ever narrower subcategories, most of which missed my tastes entirely, and that if something came out that I might want to read, I had to get to a store quickly or it would disappear forever, to be replaced by Yet Another Ray Bradbury Re-issue. By the time I’d quit traveling extensively, even B&N and Borders were hardly worth the visit. It was bars or boredom.

        Borders is gone, B&N is going, and as far as I’m concerned it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch. I would prefer Amazon even if they didn’t send me money, and no “indie bookstore” is going to get much from me because my tastes are relatively narrow. Lots of book buyers have just as narrow a set of preferences, but they’re different from mine and one another’s, and you can’t turn that into a realistic business opportunity because the stock/customer ratio is too large.

        Print books, and therefore bookstores, will survive, but will become increasingly a niche market devoted to prestige — we’ll soon arrive at a common trope in the Flandry stories, in which $BADGUY had a wall of real printed volumes behind his desk because he was a pretentious ass. With a little luck I won’t survive until the solar flare or EMP bomb destroys the Internet and everybody has to start over.

        Regards,
        Ric

  4. I don’t trust Amazon. For much the same reason that others don’t trust Google. Basically both companies are becoming a monopoly middleman (or at least owning a very very large %age of the market). For the most part both Amazon and Google have gained their massive market share by offfering a better service to the people that pay the money than their competitors. But eventually every (near) monopoly ends up as a flabby rent-seeker to the disadvantage of others in the value chain. That concerns me. And in Amazon’s case I see a number of indications that they are headed that way based on their contract terms with authors, their lack of support for an open ebook standard and so on.

    Now does that mean I don’t buy from amazon? of course not. But I do try and patronize local bookstores and alternative ebook providers because everyone (even Amazon) benefits from the competition.

    1. Francis,

      You may trust or not trust as you please, but I’d suggest that their contract terms with authors are still so much better than anything legacy offers, they don’t block you from anyone else if you don’t take their terms, and their base format (mobi) is as open as epub. No-one has to add DRM.

      Yes, everyone benefits from competition. I’m just not entirely sure that the competition is where you think it is.

    2. Francis, I may not trust them but at least they didn’t try to lay claim to the right to put every book there is online like Google did (oversimplified, I know, but my brain is mush right now). It is also a case of the devil you. Does Amazon need competition? Absolutely. But to lay all the ills of publishing and bookselling at its feet is absurd.

      As for contract terms with authors? Not sure I get what you’re saying. They have basically the same terms that B&N, Smashwords and other outlets that let authors and small presses put their work up without having to go through a repackager. The only time Amazon limits where you can put your work is when you opt into their KDP Select program and that is for only 90 days. Plus you can opt out.

      With regard to supporting an open ebook format, none of the major players support that. Would I like them to? Hell yeah. Will the day come when it finally happens? Absolutely. But to condemn Amazon for taking the same stance as the others and not condemning the others, well, I do have a problem with that.

      The point of my post was simple: lay blame where it belongs and not just where you want it to belong. Amazon has had a hand in the creation of the situation publishers and booksellers now find themselves in. But it isn’t the sole reason for their problems, not by a long shot.

      1. Does Amazon need competition? Absolutely. But to lay all the ills of publishing and bookselling at its feet is absurd.
        I agree. I didn’t say I was blaming Amazon. For the most part the big publishers have managed to destroy themselves with very little help from anyone. My concern isn’t for the past or present it is for the future.

        The only time Amazon limits where you can put your work is when you opt into their KDP Select program and that is for only 90 days. Plus you can opt out.
        This was the contract term that bothered me. Maybe it’s fairer than I thought, since I’m not publishing anything I haven’t looked into it in detail.

        Almost every other ebook distributor supported epub as far as I can tell. OK they frequently DRM cripple it but they support the format. Amazon doesn’t and I don’t see any benefit to the formats they do supprot instead other than their being proprietary and thus limiting you to Kindle readers.

        I don’t say Amazon are bad bad. But I don’t consider them pure as driven snow either. Shades of gray, lighter in some areas, darker in others and no where currently as dark as, say, Apple or the big publishers.

        1. Francis, the KDP Select terms that bother you are optional as well. Sorry, I should have pointed that out to begin with. You can choose whether you want to enter the program or not. Now, like almost anything else that you choose to take part in, be it cable TV subscriptions or what, you have to opt out at the end of the 90 days or you are automatically renewed. However, it isn’t an opt out on this day or you are forever tied in sort of thing either. Also, from the push in sales I have seen for both my titles and for Ellie Ferguson’s (the only other book to fully take advantage of the program right now), the exclusivity for a short time has been well worth it.

          EPUB v. MOBI, well, that’s the betamax v. VHS battle on the e-book front. Both formats have their strengths and weaknesses. With the advent of the Kindle Fire, and with the fact that now anyone who publishes through Amazon (legacy publishers, self-publishers or small press) can upload their work as an EPUB file, I have a feeling that in the moderately near future we will see Amazon allowing for EPUB downloads as well. But that will come as the older generation kindles die and are replaced by newer models, imo. But then, I could be wrong. (Shrug)

  5. Amazon is also a big reason self-publishers went from “Fool that can’t write but has enough money to be fleeced” to being accepted as “always look inside, but a lot are really good.” No matter what happens to Amazon, I don’t think many writers will ever go back to the traditional publishers, and if Amazon starts turning into a choke point, we’ll learn how to open our own online stores.

    1. Pam, absolutely. It has also shown that self-published authors and those who use small presses to publish their books can also become best sellers. Best sellers that legacy publishers who wouldn’t look at them a day before now are falling all over themselves to sign. And why didn’t these legacy publishers sign these authors in the first place? Usually because the authors weren’t writing sparkling vampires or whatever the fad du jour happened to be. But, seeing the public buying mass quantities of their e-books, now, suddenly, these writers are “good enough” for the legacy folks. (Rolls eyes)

  6. Re: the proprietary mobi format of Amazon, if the author/publisher does not use DRM (none of my books do) a reader can buy the mobi format and run it through a conversion program like Calibre to get epub and other formats. Given that Amazon does not *require* DRM, I would say they are not locking in users very well 😉

    1. Sabrina, thanks for noting this. I’ve talked about it until I’m blue in the face, but there are still those who just either don’t see it or don’t understand. It’s as if they feel Amazon is forcing the legacy publishers to put in DRM when it is the publishers insisting that it is there.

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