The Vexed Question of Amazon
Amazon is a problem for us indie writers. It’s always been a problem, and we watch it with frowning apprehension every time the matter of selling our work comes up. Which is, as you know, a lot.
But you also have to understand there has never been a good solution for selling our work to the public. Short of squatting on the sidewalk yelling “Novel cheeeeep” we have always been dependent on more or less unreliable or larcenous intermediaries. For now, Amazon is the best thing to happen to fiction writers since the idea of passing a bowl around the camp fire for coins for the storyteller.Which doesn’t make it ideal or even good in the long run. Because we are very well aware we can’t trust it to go on working for us.
It’s not even the matter of political bias. Yes, Amazon probably has that. It has shown in other products, and other moral panics.
In books this is harder to track, and I’ll explain that in a few moments. It’s also harder to implement, which is why we’ve not had that problem (really)so far. For now just bear with me that from my own experience as an indie it’s hard to track and probably a phatom.
It’s more the fact that like almost every company that hires programmers they periodically fall victim to what I can “the programing mind.”
My husband has a degree in mathematics, but for most of his life, until the current job in which he uses both, he made his living in computer programing. So I am aware of how the mind works.
And yes, I’m also aware I need to change the look of my blog, but it’s hardly the burning matter to me that it’s for my husband.
The programing mind is prey to two obsessions: innovation and cunning devices.
If they could figure out a way to eat breakfast by pressing a screen-button that says “Breakfast, consume” it would already be done, even if the breakfast it fed everyone was the same gruel made of coffee and sawdust.
Because they can’t do that, I’m mostly amused with the programing mind in its domestic incarnation, and try to avoid saying things like “I wish I could figure out how to do x on the computer” because d*mn it, there’s either an app for that, or he’ll take three months to write one, during which time I’ve cobbled together a solution out of cobewebs and spit.
The problem is that Amazon is programmed/worked, behind the scenes by this type of mind, precisely. Which means periodically they seek solutions to problems no one ever had. Or try to optimize the algorithm and suddenly all us indies are making a lot less (or more. But it’s usually less) because no one can find our books.
Right now the search algorithm is borked, though the July innovation seems to have made it better. This as a reader. I haven’t even checked royalties for a month or so. It was so thoroughly borked before that I often would look for a book with name and author and it wouldn’t show up in the first page of completely insane suggestions, some of them for t-shirts. Oh, this still happens, but usually the book is number three on the page.
Now every time this happens to me as a reader, I get cold sweats. None of these books is even vaguely political, because what I’m reading mostly is Pride and Prejudice variations (Fanfic, essentially) because we’re in the middle of the great garden remodel, and I’m trying to write, which means I don’t have emotional space for anything more challenging. So I can’t get paranoid on “it’s politics.”
But “it’s programmers” doesn’t make it better. It is in fact more difficult.
In fact, the two biggest problems I’ve had with Amazon were not even vaguely political, but both were baffling. One was when their programmers — cunningly — created a crawler to go through books and identify “stolen” content.
They were going off a real problem, mind you. People, mostly in copyright-weak places like China and Russia were putting up books of samples, slapping bestsellers’ names on the cover and selling those. Hunting them one by one was extremely difficult. Enter, the spider crawler… which promptly unpublished all my short story collections, since 90% of that is previously published.
It took hours on the phone to solve that, and getting them to understand “short stories revert after a year” was the hardest part.
Then there was the great unpublishing of … 2016? whenever I brought out the last Dyce. Because Prime Crime still had it up for sale in paperback, Amazon kept unpublishing it. It took sending them the reversal letter’s scan for them to stop doing that.
Most of the stories we hear of that are “it’s politics”, it’s in fact bullshit like that. Look, if I were of a paranoid disposition, I would also jump to “it’s politics” and never actually find the reason the books were removed and/or get them back.
But I reason while they publish Glenn Reynolds and Milo of the untypable last name, they’re not going to come after my fiction books which for the most part aren’t even vaguely political.
Also every case of “my book was removed for being political” I’ve done a deep dive into and facts could be found, it was removed for other reasons. Keep in mind we’re not privy to phone interactions or even emails between author and Amazon in most cases. Again, I figure while there are a ton of more controversial people than me up there, they’re probably removing for another reason, and try to figure out why. Panicking is not helpful.
This is like people panicking that Amazon “reached into their kindle” (So why didn’t they have a backup? Never mind) and took 1984. Cute, but no cigar. They did that because the person selling it did not have the right to. And they refunded. This is more akin to a supermarket realizing it sold tainted lettuce than, well, 1984. And engaging in a moral panic about it only means you’re cutting yourself off from what is, right now, the best source for indie published ebooks. (Yes, best, more on that later.)
And while they have lactation porn, (I stumbled across one by accident. Just the description, EW. Plus they used Henry VIII as a character, which double ew. I was looking for references) they’re going to have real trouble removing for “troubling content.”
Now, is it possible for a bunch of readers to complain of “defects” and get your book taken down at least temporarily? Sure it is. Amazon is in a way reinventing the wheel with this book thing, and I don’t think any of them has realized there are NO books without typos.
It is that kind of happy go lucky cluelessness of how readers and writers interact that gives me the cold sweats.
It normally wouldn’t, because normally I’d just go elsewhere.
Except that not only have I published a bunch of my reverted books, but I have visibility into my friends’ numbers, including a couple who run small presses.
Let’s put it this way, if Amazon stopped existing tomorrow and nothing arose to replace it? We as indie writers are DONE. Unless we have an amazing mailing list, where people will actually send us money, we’re DONE.
Back when I was publishing wide: Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple through Kobo, all of those together made me less than $20 a month, while Amazon made me $500.
I understand this is different for certain genres and that mystery (serious mystery, not my cozies) do better than that in Barnes and Noble. So they might make $60. Meanwhile Smashwords is a caution for ALL innovators. They OWNED the field and failed to grow it, or adapt when it grew, and now they’re a byword and a horror, including the fact they lend and sell your book, and don’t keep very good track of where things are, or what’s going on on that end.
And as for arbitrary crazy, Amanda reminded me the other day of Kobo stomping on “Porn.” Only what they got was not porn, and honestly I have clue zero what it was, since one of the books removed for indecent content was… Death of a Musketeer.
This brings us on why it’s so hard to censure by political content, btw. And why it’s so impossible for (a complaint I heard recently) Amazon to “move the book to the right category.”
Amazon publishes a round giga-gazillion of books, all filled with words. Do you think someone is reading them all? Heck, no one reads all the facebook posts. It’s all robots and spiders. I’m sure it was the same in Kobo and some conjunction of words made the stupid little programs think it was porn.
Which in turn brings us to why Amazon is so terrifying: because they’re our sole conduit to the public.
Even though, as a politically black listed author, I’ve lived for years with the terror of having only one outlet and having my livelihood dependent on it, it’s not any better now that Amazon is my only outlet.
It’s a single point of failure, and anything, including a decision to not publish indies who aren’t selling in the top x percent, could kill a bunch of us.
As readers, you should know ALL OF US are aware of this. Every single one of us. Sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night with the word Amazon in our heads.
And yeah, we do know they play fast and loose with ranks for political books by big figures. And this worries us on other fronts even if doesn’t affect us as indie writers.
I think we need to create parallel services, that don’t do precisely the same thing, but which can retool very fast should Amazon buckle.
For years now I’ve thought a service where a reader can “subscribe” to an author’s daily content (fiction, non fiction, both, by choice) and which works out to beam the stuff to people’s devices, etc, would be a good way to start. A friend and I were going to do it, but I think he’s got sidetracked into something quite different, and I SIMPLY don’t have the tech know-how to do it. I DON’T. But judging by the people who buy earcs at Baen and who keep wanting to buy “Your daily output” this might be doable. Particularly if people made it fun every day, with a little report on how things went.
For that matter, just beaming people’s newsletters (if you make them fun) to devices might do the same thing, bypassing email’s tendency to put such things in spam.
It would be a little service that would just putter along perhaps for years, maybe paying for itself, but that could be rapidly retooled to do something else and take the load if Amazon buckles, on the fly.
If anyone is interested, I’ll be more than happy to discuss what it MUST have from the writer side.
Because yeah, Amazon is worrisome.
It is also, frankly the way people like me, or Margaret Ball, for instance, can still have careers, after the traditional publishers decided it was time for us to retire.
If you’ve read The Still Small Voice of Trumpets, by Lord Biggle Jr. Amazon is the only thing that allows us, one-armed ex-harpists to continue making music.
Demanding we forsake Amazon and all its works and all its empty promises isn’t going to do anything but piss us off. Why would you imagine it would be different? Do you think we don’t know it’s a single point of failure, and we’re dependent on it? Spreading stories of Amazon’s “horrible political bias” will also piss us off. Because honestly, if it were true, a lot of people already wouldn’t be published. And because in most cases the real reason is probably (from experience) either programmer or writer-stupid. And let’s suppose someone at Amazon has a deep, personal hatred for some guy and makes it impossible for him to publish. First, has this person never heard of DBAs? Second, what are we supposed to do about it? Even when Kobo decided that Death of a Musketeer was porn, what was I supposed to do about it? Amazon at least has someone I can argue with on the phone, and doesn’t just keep telling me I’m banned forever.
Could the later happen in the future? Sure. It’s why “single point of failure” terrifies us. But we’re dependent on it. And from those of us who have been traditionally published a long time, let me tell you, Amazon is not nearly as terrifying and arbitrary as even the best of traditional publishers. At least you can argue with it.
Going on your high-horse and thinking Amazon is the most totalitarian of services and you won’t read on them, ever, ignores …. every other service, which is just as totalitarian and incredibly dysfunctional. (I have stories about Barnes and Noble. SO many stories.) You only hear them about Amazon more because Amazon is ten times bigger — mostly through being better at what they do, for both readers and writers — and therefore there are a lot more incidents. Kind of like PCs get more viruses. There’s a lot more PCs and virus writers know it’s easier to write viruses for them.
So, instead of engaging in spreading stories about how terrible Amazon is, and giving yourself nice frissons of panic over what they’ll do next? Come up with the alternative. I don’t have the programing chops, and Dan is already working two jobs. But some of you have the know-how and the time. Come up with inventive ways to start something.
Be aware right now you can’t really COMPETE with Amazon. They’re the go too for ebooks. So figure out other things you can sell that use the same mechanism, and which can switch over easily if needed. Because it will be needed. It might be ten years from now, but it will be needed.
Every company goes stupid sometime. Which is why there is a problem with Amazon being the only outlet.
We get it. It’s however the only way we can make money. And most of us have livings to earn.
You can’t make us worry more than we already are. Trust me. We’re already worried.