Mad Genius Club

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.