Previously, only the biggest publishers with a high financial turnover were able to market their books to more than a handful of the book-buying public. It is no secret that they controlled the market by buying display space in shops and reviews in the national press, pushing a small selection of books under the noses of readers and tempting them with cheap deals. Small presses, by contrast, could only afford more costly short print runs, only to have their books consigned to the shadowy back shelves of bookshops – if they were stocked at all.
So the opportunity offered by Amazon levelled the playing field for small and individual publishers, allowing them to compete at a price equal to or lower than most mainstream books, along with online forums where authors or their representatives could, within reason, tell readers about their books. This was made available, first in US, then extended to authors and publishers in other countries, and, as each market developed, Amazon tempted small publishers with a larger share of the revenue.
By Easter of this year, many authors and small publishers – especially of the more mass market books - were enjoying a generous and regular income from ebooks. Almost all made their books available in a variety of formats, distributed by different retailers, but, due to the success of the kindle, combined with the opportunity to interact with readers on the Amazon forum, most found that this provided by far the biggest portion of their income. Many authors were giving up their day jobs to write full time, in order to satisfy the demand from their fans for more books. And new small presses – essential for nurturing new talent and launching new authors into the mainstream – were beginning to flourish.
Then, suddenly, without warning, Amazon called time. Forum posters were forbidden to post links to their books or to promote them on amazon.com’s site apart from in a newly-created jumbled author area. Where previously they had been on virtual shelves in a bookshop, sorted according to subject and genre, they were all thrown in a heap into one bargain bin out the back.
And now the same thing seems to be happening in the UK store, although Amazon have not actually announced it.
Due to these changes, during the past 2 – 3 months, the revenue of many independent authors and small presses has dropped by 90%. Of course, Amazon is a business, not a charity, and if new publishers go bankrupt because of their actions, it is neither their concern, nor their responsibility. But for all the revenue lost by publishers and authors, Amazon is losing it too. And this makes their action difficult to understand.
As an independent author and publisher, I might be taking a blinkered view. So I’ve asked the opinion of Amazon customers who have nothing to lose financially by the developments. And their answer is always the same: a look of disbelief followed by a protestation that a business taking action which loses them money, simply doesn’t make sense.
So I’m trying to understand what Amazon are playing at. Did they set out as a vanity press, making false promises to would-be authors, playing on their delusions that they could write? Did they use new authors and small presses, encouraging them to publish so that kindle could acquire and boast a large number of cheap books and so take the trade that may have gone to other manufacturers of ereaders? Did they do this to persuade a large number of authors, small publishers and their friends to buy kindles? Did they do all this knowing they would ruin businesses and lives?
Well maybe they did. But that doesn’t explain why they stopped doing it at a point in time when those authors and publishers were earning them a lot of money.
Maybe forum members complained that they didn’t like all the advertising.
Certainly some did, but judging by the sales and the favourable reviews on independently published books, they are far outnumbered by customers who like not only the availability of those books but the opportunity to interact with the authors. In any case, an astute business wouldn’t pay heed to complaints from a minority of customers whose business doesn’t add up to much revenue when far more money will be lost by responding to it.
Two more points which suggest customer pressure is not the reason for Amazon’s action. Customers in the UK store contacted Amazon and asked them to provide one author/publisher promotion thread in each genre area. An excellent suggestion, which would have kept everyone happy and would be cheap and easy to implement. But Amazon weren’t prepared to listen. Secondly, the sales which arise from an author’s forum promotion are not the bulk but the catalyst for many more sales via Amazon’s automated recommendations. Most customers do not read or post on the forums but the books they buy often come from forum generated sales. So the financial consequences of Amazon’s action reach much further than a few sales from a forum.
So what other explanation could there be?
Very simply, that if Amazon are losing a considerable amount of revenue, they must be being compensated with significantly more. Where might this be coming from and why does it require their dispensing with the smaller publishers?
Here’s one possibility. As mentioned earlier, by purchasing display space in shops, the big publishers are able to control the print book side of the publishing industry. They are able to ensure that, irrespective of quality, the books they produce sell in larger quantities than those from smaller presses. Amazon’s ban on author advertising in US coincided with the kindle release of many cheap backlists from large publishers. Could it be that they don’t want the competition and they are prepared to pay to have it removed? Or might it be that Amazon is preparing to sell advertising space, for a price, to the big publishers, and that free promotion must therefore go? Or simply that Amazon don’t want competition with their own publishing imprint?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that most US independents have not been hit as hard as those in UK – perhaps because they’ve had longer to get established. But this makes me even more concerned. Here we are in Britain. We have no British retailer of ebooks or manufacturer of ereaders (certainly none that will make any difference), the books available to us are being increasingly chosen by a US company and our hope for nurturing new talent, both for authors and publishers is seriously under threat.
What is going on and what are we going to do about it?
As usual, sensible responses are welcome. As per my blog policy - no sales figures please.