Amazon is not my publisher

I apologize for the lateness of this post. Mea culpa.

I woke up this morning looking forward to the Barfly range trip, only to realize that I don’t get that opportunity this year. Let me ‘splain. You see, Mrs. Dave, Wee Dave (the aforementioned Working Title has received a timely and well-deserved promotion, all names and … names have been changed to protect the innocent) and I spent yesterday driving from the boggy depths of deepest southern [REDACTED] where we currently call home, to the site of LibertyCon27. We’ve never traveled with a newborn before, so the severalmany hour drive was … longer than I expected. Also, I spent the day reading Kate’s novel, ConVent, aloud, to keep Mrs. Dave from sending us all flying off the road in a ball of flaming wreckage. She likes me to read because I do the voices. Wee Dave spent most of the day sleeping. Still, we stopped far more often than I liked, as the Young Master required sustenance and the enforced exchange of certain items of his wardrobe. From time to time. And when we arrived in Chattanooga, at a time normally reserved for more relaxed activities, there was the unpacking, the feeding and diapering of newborn, and finally, the introducing of (adopted) Grandsquirm to Sarah and Dan. Which went well. He hardly screamed at all (and Wee Dave was fine, too. *rimshot*).

Before that, my parents spent a week with us, and –

Look, long story short: I woke up this morning and felt a nagging itch in the back of my head, and then remembered that I do a thing here every once in a while. So I’m doing a thing.

This is going to be brief, as I just don’t have much brain power right now.

Amazon (Kobo, Apple, etc.) don’t offer royalties, as such. We as writers often refer to them as such, but that’s a tradpub term, and not accurate to how the new world of publishing actually works. Indies, self-publishers, author-publishers, hybrid writers, part-time adventurers don’t license to Amazon the rights to their intellectual properties. Amazon is a distributor, and it (and the rest of the yahoos) give us access to their distribution network in exchange for a cut of our sales. We have a much simpler business relationship than that of a writer and a traditional publisher.

What does that mean? We’re thinking this whole thing wrong, and it’s affecting our judgement, especially when it comes to something like Amazon renegotiating with Hatchette, and the other renegotiations that are going to happen in the nearish future. Authors are getting tripped up thinking that Amazon is solely a publisher. It does publish original works under its imprints, but that’s not what anybody seems to be thinking about.

Look at it this way: you have a widget you’ve invented. It’s shiny; it’s awesome. You’re pretty sure everybody’s going to love it. Problem being, you have no way to tell anybody about. You’ve spent your fortune developing the widget, and you live on an island in the middle of the ocean and phone calls are expensive. You met a guy a while back who expressed interest in your widget, but he wants you to givesell him the rights to produce the widget. And incidentally, he swears he’ll promote the hell out of your shiny widget, and also make it SHINIER! You don’t really need that; you’ve got production facilities going (your island happens to house the last robotic fabrication facility from the lost Mu Empire) but you just don’t have a way to distribute the crates and crates of beautiful widgets to the downtrodden masses whose lives are poorer for lack of your widget.

Then you get a visitor.

She – because strong, female characters are important, I’m told – offers to sell your widgets, under your name, at her enormous network of widget emporia. And not to reverse-engineer them, and cut you out of the market, as she sells widgets, and has no interest in getting into widget production, because taxes. All it’ll cost is roughly a third the retail price of each widget sold.

The other guy offered you a month’s salary or so paid over a year, and maybe about 12% retail of each widget, if anybody’s interested. Oh, and you have to give him the opportunity to buy any more widgets you invent. And you can never sell your widget through anybody else. Oh, and he doesn’t actually have any storefronts. He has relationships with other people, who will also take a cut from the sales of your widget (which is not the same thing as “your widget sales”).

Which deal do you take?

The one that gives up control of your widget, or the one that offers you a distribution network in exchange for a cut of the profits?

Amazon doesn’t pay me royalties on Baptism By Fire. I own the copyright. Amazon sells copies of my book, and then forwards the profits – less their cut – to my bank account. We have a business relationship, and if they stop being willing to do business with me the way I want, I’ll go somewhere else. Like any other businessman.

13 comments

  1. Very well put.

    The main drawbacks are that the distributor doesn’t have the cozy deal with bookstores and POD is more expensive for print versions. Betcha both those change completely inside of five years. The change is already starting with getting Indie into stores.

  2. Practicing: “Amazon is my distributor. Amazon is my distributor.” I like it.

    1. ‘Amazon is one of my distributors. Amazon is one of my distributors.’

      I have other distributors, but at the moment, Amazon is the one paying me the most money, and second place ain’t even close.

  3. A good summary of the situation with indie writers and Amazon. I think that you’ve omitted one very important dimension to your summary, that is that now YOU gentle writer are the publisher, not Amazon. And as a publisher, you’d better start thinking like one. Amazon does your distribution, but you’re on the hook for marketing and promotion.

    1. Which can be really tricky. I’d wager most writers, especially those of us who do it part time, don’t think about return on advertising dollar, ad design, learning lines of distribution for local book stores, and other things. For example, I’ve considered running an ad in “German Life” magazine, because all but one of the Colplatschki stories are set in a place very much like central Europe, with plots drawn from actual Central European history. But is that going to be a good venue? The magazine’s readership is older and might not be receptive to the type of story I’m selling. *shrug*

      1. Actually, I’ve thought a great deal about these things, and done as much research as I could without paying hard cash for it or turning it into an unpaid second job.

        Return on advertising dollar: Generally nonexistent. Years of careful observation have led me to the general conclusion that the only thing the advertising industry is really good at selling is advertising. In the specific product segment of books, the principal value of advertising is to let an author’s existing readership know that he has a new book out. (This function is nowadays better served by direct notification, i.e., an author’s newsletter for which interested readers can sign up.) Beyond that, it accomplishes very little except to make the author feel Wuvved.

        Ad design: A moot point. If ads don’t move product, why design ads at all?

        Learning lines of distribution for local book stores: Everything I have learnt about lines of distribution for local bookshops tells me one thing: The bookshops are doomed. Oh, I dare say some of them will survive as specialty boutiques catering to collectors and hipsters, just as a small number of record stores have survived. But record stores are no longer an important retail channel for the music industry, and I see no factors at work that are likely to prevent bookshops from going the same way.

        The other thing I’ve observed is that, at least in my neck of the woods, bookshops have no interest in carrying products from independent authors, local or otherwise; partly because the majority of the bricks-and-mortar retail book trade is in the hands of a large chain that is rapidly phasing out books in favour of throw cushions, candles, dolls, and other stuff that could be generally categorized as ‘girly knickknacks’.

        But is that going to be a good venue? The magazine’s readership is older and might not be receptive to the type of story I’m selling.

        If you get a buy-through rate of one in a thousand, you’ll be lucky.

        In these matters I tend to follow Joe Konrath, who spent years of his life experimenting with every conceivable way to promote and sell books; and he has concluded (on the basis of his and other people’s data) that most of the traditional methods are useless. The gross sales attributable to a given promotion are invariably less than the cost of the promotion. For this reason, he no longer does any traditional promotion or advertising for his books.

    2. Commenting as an absolute amateur, it’s my understanding from various people involved in publishing and writing that traditional advertising is essentially neutral, from the readership’s perspective anyway.

      This may be shifting along with the rest of the market, but my impression is that sales are actually more driven by word of mouth these days.

      Which is not to deny your point, just a concomitant comment.

        1. Yes, but it’s common for traditionally published folks to say something like “Oh, I published my book with Tor” and would also be true for someone to say “I published my book with Amazon.” Just one with is selling the book to the company, and the other is hiring Amazon and using their ebook translator tool (Don’t they do POD as well?) so it can be distributed through Amazon.

          They’re both true, but I can easily see someone who is stuffy about tradpubbing having kittens over it. 😀

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