It is No Longer the “Normal World” of Publishing

Anyone who has been reading this blog for long knows publishing isn’t what it used to be. No matter how hard traditional publishers, especially the Big 5, try to hold out, things have changed. One of the most obvious indications of that change is that it is now the Big 5 instead of the Big 6. Then, whether traditional publishing likes it or not, indie publishing is a major player in the field. The main reason for that is Amazon. However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been pitfalls, because there have and Amazon has been forced to put in place systems to help navigate those problems — systems meant to benefit its customers and indie authors alike.

One of the most infamous instances of Amazon acting to protect an author’s copyright happened back in 2009. It hit the news in a big way because Amazon didn’t necessarily do it in the best way possible, at least from a PR standpoint. The short version is simple. Amazon discovered someone was selling an e-book version of the George Orwell classic, 1984. Instead of contacting those who had purchased the book, Amazon simply removed it from their devices. Refunds were eventually issued and Amazon explained why it had done what it did. Simply put, by continuing to allow the unauthorized version of the novel to be sold, it was open to liability. By removing the e-book from devices, it limited any liability it might have and it protected the copyright of the book.

Oh, but the cries of foul.

Since then, Amazon has been condemned by a number of people — authors and publishers alike — for not doing enough to protect the copyright of authors. There have been allegations of “authors” plagiarizing books wholesale, changing only names and locations (if that). Everything else about the books are verbatim. (Check out this article detailing Elis O’Hanlon’s story of being plagiarized.)

Amid all these concerns, and there are others who have alleged plagiarism, calls for Amazon to tighten their systems to prevent people from ripping off another author’s work have sounded. As an indie author, I’m all in favor of Amazon doing just that. Our copyright in a work is like our deed for our house. We no more want squatters in our homes than we want someone ripping off our work and profiting from it at our expense.

I’ll even admit that I’ve been asked by Amazon on a couple of instances to prove that I have copyright in two or three titles I have indie published. Each time, the work had been previously published by a small press. The contract I had with the press expired and rights reverted. I received an email from Amazon in each instance and all it took was a quick response, letting them know the terms of the contract, the fact rights had reverted and a copy of the reversion letter. No big deal. The way I looked at it was simple. This might have delayed the release of the titles by a couple of days, but I’d rather that than have someone who shouldn’t be releasing the work doing so.

So imagine my surprise this morning when I was looking at The Passive Voice and found reference to a situation involving the husband and wife writing team of Lee and Miller. They attempted to self-publish a couple of short stories as chapter e-books and Amazon flagged the new publication because the stories had been published before in a collection of their work from Baen. Amazon wanted proof rights had reverted back to Lee and Miller.

As you’d expect, communication went both ways and Lee and Miller informed Amazon they had granted Baen non-exclusive rights for the short stories. That meant they had the right to publish them in the chapter e-book format. Amazon responded that it needed to see the contract. And that’s where Lee and Miller had an issue. Why? Because that’s not how things are done in the “normal world” of publishing.

I’m not faulting them for being frustrated. I was as well when Amazon wanted me to prove my rights and reverted. What did get me was that they were applauding the fact iTunes, B&N, etc., hadn’t given them any problem where Amazon was. Call it a difference in view but I feel good knowing Amazon is trying to combat the plagiarism and copyright problems authors have been complaining about for ages, problems that aren’t exclusive to Amazon.

I do wish Amazon’s communication options for authors were better. Unlike “customers” who can simply go to the Contact Us section and choose whether to have a live chat, a phone call or email their problem to customer support, authors are limited to basically emailing their issue and waiting anywhere fro 24 to 48 hours for a response. There are ways around this but only after that initial email has been sent. It is frustrating, especially when you consider that each day a book isn’t on sale, you are losing money.

Of course, I’ve also had better response from Amazon than I have from any of the other “stores” when I’ve tried to contact them. The few times I had to contact B&N, I never heard back. That’s part of the reason why I pulled all my books out of there for several years. I have one book back there right now and will be adding several others, just to test the water. However, my expectations for responsiveness of the store is far lower than my expectations for Amazon.

Here’s the thing, however. It is time for folks to realize that things have changed in publishing — whether you are talking the indie side or traditional publishing. Advances are down. Market shares are changing. Readers have more power than ever before because of the availability of indie and small press books. As an author, we have to not only recognize that things have change but that they are continuing to change. That means, like it or not, if we are going to do business with any of the e-tailers, we have to be prepared to jump through any hoops they throw our way.

Do I wish it were different? Hell yes. I hate the fact Amazon is basically the gorilla in the china shop and there is no real competitor on the horizon. Having any one outlet with that much power is troublesome. But it is the game we choose to play as indies. We either sell through them and jump through their hoops or we go with a smaller market share.

But the first thing we have to do is recognize that things aren’t “normal” any longer. The publishing landscape has changed and if you aren’t playing ball with the Big 5 or other major traditional publishers, their rules don’t apply. For the most part, that benefits the indie author. However, it also means we have to figure out what the rules are and be prepared to respond to them.

Like how they do it or not, at least it appears Amazon is getting better at sniffing out possible copyright infringement issues. That should be something we applaud because it will, ultimately, protect all of us.

55 thoughts on “It is No Longer the “Normal World” of Publishing

  1. I was a senior manager at Amazon for three years. Amazon’s customer focus is extremely strong, and you need to understand that to really understand what makes the company tick. Bezos believes that if you take care of the customers (even if it doesn’t seem to make short-term economic sense) that you will win in the long run. (Maybe the real shock is that almost no companies believe this–Amazon is very unusual in this regard.)

    As an author, you’re a partner not a customer. Amazon is very happy for you to use their platform to make money as long as you treat the customers the way Amazon would. Unfortunately, there are third-party merchants (aka “partners”) who really do want to soak the customers and a few who resort to outright fraud. As a result, the company is very diligent about policing its partners; it has to be.

    The sort of stuff you’re talking about (e.g. having to submit proof of ownership) is called “merchant friction.” Amazon does make an ongoing effort to reduce merchant friction, but it always takes a back seat to customer satisfaction.

    A tip to anyone dealing with Amazon is to describe your issue in terms of customer needs if at all possible. If you can make it about you and Amazon working together to please the customer, things will go much more smoothly.

    In a broader sense, Amazon is driven what it calls Leadership Principles. Unlike anywhere I ever worked, these principles drive the company. People mention them in almost every meeting, and they’re serious about it. (It helps that getting reviews and promotions is tied to proof that you were “strong in most and deficient in none” of these principles.) Anyway, if you understand the Leadership Principles, you’ve come a long way towards understanding Amazon.

    1. Greg, this is exactly what I have learned dealing with them. The last couple of times I’ve had an issue as an author, I contacted them via email, described the issue (not only in how it impacted me but how it could impact Amazon’s “customers”). Within no more than an hour or two, I had a response. The first time, it was a phone call and the second time a detailed e-mail response, including authorization to call them and the number to call if I needed further assistance. All I’d done to get this sort of response was deal with them as I would any business partner in any kind of business, be it writing, insurance or whatever. It took time to figure it out, but if you look at how Amazon values its customers, it’s not surprising that this is the approach to take.

    2. Thanks for the clarification on how to deal with Amazon. Little tricks like this are what makes this good.

    3. This makes sense. The one time I contacted Amazon as an author, my issue was other people’s books showing up as part of my novel series. I put it in just those terms–worried about customers not getting what they wanted–and I got a quick and painless resolution. They set up a very nice series page for me.

      But then, I’m used to taking that approach as a subcontractor–“Help me take care of your customer” always works better than “I want you to do things my way.”

    4. Err. Not so fast on the Amazon virtue promotion. Amazon demands pricing from publishers that aligns with what publishers offer wholesalers and distributors. But Amazon is not a wholesaler or distributor, it is a retailer. By demanding the lower pricing, Amazon might well be in violation of Restraint of Trade laws, but any publisher who points that out is not likely to get a rapid and reasonsable response, but a rapid and rude shutdown of their product’s pages on Amazon. Gorilla behavior indeed. Apparently, you don’t need manners if you weigh five hundred pounds.

      1. You mean the same contract provisions regarding pricing the other online retailers use? I notice how you conveniently left out the Big 5’s (was the Big 6’s) attempt to illegally price fix their products, along with Apple. No one here claims Amazon is all good. But let’s not bend too far backwards trying to make the big publishers the good guys because they aren’t. (There are exceptions, of course).

        1. So big publishers have vices unrelated to this issue entirely. That absolves Amazon of their thuggish behavior…how?

          You argue like you’re fourteen.

          1. Wow, a little hostile, aren’t you?

            If you had spent any time reading this blog over the years, you would see we don’t absolve Amazon of anything. In fact, we would love to have real competition for Amazon. However, that doesn’t absolve the publishers of helping get themselves in this situation, nor does it absolve them from their own abuses.

            You seem to believe Amazon is the only online retailer who has attempted to better their position when it comes to contracting with publishers. I suggest you go back and study the history of contract negotiations between Amazon and the different publishers. Then compare it to the history of their contract negotiations with bookstore chains like B&N and the now-defunct Borders. Those negotiations were most definitely in the favor of the chains and changed how returns were figured and paid for.

            As I noted above, no one things Amazon is all-good. But you appear to fall into the category of someone who believes it is nothing but evil where traditional publishing is concerned.

          2. You argue like you’re fourteen.

            This from the same distinguished logician who began with:

            Err. Not so fast on the Amazon virtue promotion.

            If entering an argument with “I have a magical label that will instantly reframe the other side and make it appear invalid” isn’t arguing like a 14 year old, then what is?

            Logician, heal thyself.

          3. You argue like you’re fourteen.

            Didn’t I see you working down at the Cineplex? I mean, somebody who projects like you do has to do it professionally, right?


          4. Ibsen, if you can’t find your manners PDQ, piss off. It’s exceptionally relevant and related — as an author those are your choices. Traditional Publishing, Amazon and/or Nook and all the other ones. Speaking as a guy who has had contracts with four different publishing houses of various sizes, and sold through Amazon, Nook, Apple and a load of other minor outlets… AND who distrusts large near-monopolies – of all of them (and I mean all, even the best trad) Amazon is easiest to deal with, most transparent, and quickest to respond. I’m neither trusting nor that enamored with any company having that market position, but that is a fair assessment.

      2. Amazon can demand the same pricing as a wholesaler or distributor because they have a large enough volume to do so. Most places who have high volumes do the same thing. I guess you think Wal-Mart is evil, too, though.

      3. So is Wal-Mart. Ever done business with them in the last 30 years? Not from that comment. Wal-Mart is well known for telling suppliers of product that they don’t meet Wal-Mart standards for pricing and quality, so take a hike. This includes dictating their computer software so that Wal-Mart doesn’t have to worry about compatibility, they do.

        And yes, people have tried suing Wal-Mart over restraint of trade…. with a uniform lack of success.

  2. “Normal is just a setting on a drier.” The title of a book and the reality of indie-publishing… and a lot of the rest of life. 🙂

    1. I always like the mathematical definition. “Normal is perpendicular to the plane.” Those of us called Odds are the truly Normal ones since the rest of humanity are all plain 🙂

      1. There was a psychologist (whose name is escaping me) who had a book out called, IIRC, “Normal is just a town in Illinois.” Reason I know about it is because I saw a video of the time he was invited to speak — to a gathering in Normal, IL. 🙂 I remember he opened with a joke along the lines of, “Well, it’s not every day that I speak to a room absolutely filled with Normal people.”

  3. I’ll admit I was surprised reading that article that traditional publishing houses DIDN’T require some sort of proof that the author had the rights to reprint and would just take the author’s word for it. I wonder if that was just due to the fact that the publishing world was relatively small: the big houses knew each other and could reach some sort of settlement if they got lied to, and any author who tried to pull that sort of stunt would be blackballed so fast their head would spin.

    It does seem that what might help, though, is if Amazon could put out some guidelines on what “the new normal” is. A simple statement to the effect of “If this is previously published material, we require some evidence that you are in fact the copyright holder and have permission to publish this material,” along with possibly a way to submit that information when you first publish your book, might go a long way. I understand that, as Greg says above, Amazon’s priority is their customers not their partners (and as a customer, I’m grateful for that), but I can also understand a certain frustration from authors who honestly don’t understand what they did wrong and why what they’ve been doing for years no longer cuts it.

    1. There may be something in their terms of service. I know I’ve seen something about it somewhere. It might be in discussions online or in the FAQ. I’m not sure and don’t have time to look it up right now. Maybe someone else can look it up for us. Otherwise, I’ll try to remember to when the word say is over.

      1. Amazon’s terms of service forbid selling anything that’s stolen–including electronic works you don’t have the rights to. I was there when we kicked WikiLeaks off the platform, and the justification I heard was that WikiLeaks had admitted that the documents they were hosting on AWS didn’t belong to them.

    2. I’m pretty sure the contract requires you to certify that you own the rights to the work being published and that you’re liable if it turns out you don’t. (I remember an editor at a WorldCon panel talking about an author who wanted to modify the contract to drop that clause–something the publisher obviously couldn’t agree to.)

      1. One of the last things you do as a user of the KDP platform is confirm you have the authority/rights to publish the piece. The terms of service are written in such a way that if a work is available elsewhere, ie through another publisher, Amazon won’t accept it without knowing (ie, you proving) that you have the right to sell it. It isn’t quite that clear cut in the TOS but the implication is there.

  4. I read the Ellis O’Hanlon pieces, and I couldn’t believe she just let the fake get away with it. I don’t know about you, but I would be trying to take this person for every penny that they stole.

  5. I do have to say that Lee and Miller’s ‘catalog’ is a mess. I love their stuff but am very cautious about buying anything I am not absolutely sure is NEW. I was told this was not entirely their fault – that a series of events left many of their works orphaned. But it still has never been consolidated and fixed.

  6. I have had a similar problem with Zazzle. Twice, they have refused to send things people have bought because they claimed I did not have the copyright to them. Finally, I got someone to promise to put a note on the file saying that, yes John and I do have rights to the art on the items! (We have carefully used art that we have been granted authority to use.)

  7. I’m old and stuck in my ways already but that “1984” fiasco was (and is) a big reason I don’t do e-books. As I understood it, Amazon just came in and removed it and THEN notified people. They would have been better off sending a message that it was a mistake; we’re going to have to remove it and here’s a refund.
    What it did for me was re-enforce that even though you buy the readers and material; you didn’t own them. And someone was getting even more data they could ‘monetize”. So why pay out good and scarce reading money for misrepresentation when there were plenty of other options.

    1. Actually, that depends on the source of the books. Traditional publishers, especially the Big 5, sell only a license. Others, those who don’t add DRM primarily, are selling the ebook itself. And, while I agree Amazon could have handled the situation better, it was protecting itself from a potential lawsuit with major damages for selling something it had no right to sell.

  8. Amanda;
    This may be a question you’ve already answered. If so, I apologize. I feel there’s a benefit, as regards copyright registration. There’s the letter from the Library of Congress in case there’s any question. But: Is is possible, is there a benefit to register rights that have reverted and may have been registered by the publisher?


  9. I am with Lee and Miller here (at least as you describe it). Contracts are almost always proprietary information. Demanding to see a contract between the author and another publisher is beyond the pale. On the other hand, requiring the other publisher to verify that the authors had the rights to independently publish the work before accepting it would have done the job without requiring information that was non of Amazon’s business.

    1. Y’know, I don’t really see that helping – and I say this as someone who’s had plenty of friends dealing with rights reversions. When an author notifies a publisher that the book is officially out of print, and per contract they’re taking it back, the turnaround time for getting the formal rights reversion notice back from the publisher is usually measured in months. Because after all, the notice that rights have reverted doesn’t make any money for the publisher, so even though it’s a contractual requirement, they have no sense of urgency or even priority on fulfilling it.

      How much slower do you think a publisher would be on sending out a notice from a third party that they’re not contracted to on whether or not they hold rights to a work? You’re asking a publisher’s legal department to stop what they’re doing and check all their contracts, even the ones never digitized, to confirm a negative… when they have no legal obligation to do so.

    2. I guess the fact i have had to prove rights reversion and all I had to do was screen shot the appropriate clause plays into my view of it. Of course, all Lee and Miller would have had to do is contact Baen and ask for a reversion letter — which they would have given. Then no contract information would have had to change hands and it could have probably solved the issue a lot quicker than the back and forth with Amazon took.

      1. Well, it is Baen after all, I would expect excellent service. However, a screen shot??? Is there anything more easily faked if the rights had not reverted? If you are doing anything more than virtue signaling, it needs to be real paper on letterhead, or at least an e-mail that can be traced as coming from the publisher.

      2. Amazon wanted to see reversion letters to the stories, signifying that Baen returned their publication rights to Lee and Miller after their contract expired. However, those stories were never fully sold to Baen to begin with. They sold Baen anthology rights, for the purpose of that anthology, while keeping for themselves the rights to place the stories again elsewhere or self-publish them.

        So in this case, asking Baen to provide proof of rights they didn’t have full rights would have been asking them to prove a negative: they never licensed those rights to begin with, and so could not revert rights they didn’t have. (And there’s nothing in the article stating that Lee & Miller want Baen to revert their anthology rights, anyway.)

        So, how would you ask a content creator to prove that they didn’t license publication rights other than anthology to a publisher, when there’s clear duplication of content? Asking for the contract seems pretty clear-cut here, as the only legal document around proving that the rights had not been licensed.

        I expect to see this again popping up as we indie publishers license some rights here, some there. After all, if you do a print-only deal with a publisher, or you license audio rights with a studio, how will Amazon know that three different accounts and three different companies getting the money all are legit? What about a translation into German, or Spanish, or Chinese? Or a comic book adaptation?

        1. The problem is that if you are in negotiations (not really applicable to Amazon mind you) there are things in your contracts with other publishers that you may not want the new publisher knowing. In this case either a letter on letterhead direct from the publisher to Amazon, or, alternatively a notification from Amazon to the other publisher that this is happening and to speak now or forever hold their peace would be a better solution.
          I know the problem of forgery. That is why the providence and the chain of custody of the document is so important.

          1. As you said, the potential problem wasn’t in play here. Also, this isn’t new to Amazon. Other publications have asked for proof of rights reversion before. Is it frustrating, hell yeah. But it’s not unique to Amazon and could have been handled pretty easily.

            Here’s the thing. I get how frustrating it can be to deal with Amazon as an author. They don’t make it as easy for us to contact them as they do a regular customer. But there are some fairly simple ways to get past the “email us and we will respond in 24 to 48 hours”. You can send the email and phrase it in such a way that you make it clear not only are you being impacted but so are Amazon customers. If that doesn’t get you fairly quick results, you can start a chat with them. The last result, and one I recommend only after you have a paper trail, is to escalate your concern up the chain of command.

            But, where rights reversion or proof that you have the right to publish something isn’t that difficult to prove. Frustrating? Yes, but it isn’t on Amazon to contact others potential rights holders to see if it is okay for something to be published through the KDP platform. Can Amazon make it easier for us, as authors, to prove our rights? Absolutely. But, considering the number of books and authors they deal with on a daily basis, they are doing a pretty damned good job, imo.

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