Amazon, Publishing, and You

by LeslieKeenan on November 14, 2011

From my current Newsletter, November 2011:
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Several people have been posting and asking about the recent NY Times article about Amazon working directly with authors and leaving publishers out. What do I think of this, they wonder. I haven’t actually responded yet, because what I think is the result of all my 30-plus years in publishing and a great deal of thought and observation. I couldn’t put it into a quick Facebook note, or a Tweet. I will see if I can unravel some of it for you here.

There are several issues involved, and it’s easy to come away with the wrong impression if you don’t see them all. Let’s start with the obvious one. Do authors need publishers? If you can go directly through Amazon yourself, should you bother with the big, mainstream publishers? This is actually a question I have been putting to the authors I work with for years. And the answer is, it depends. First off, it is true that authors are often neglected by publishers. And it’s not just that they have a hard time getting their editor on the phone or can’t seem to get their own sales figures. I have observed, from my very earliest days in publishing, that there can be an attitude of disdain for the author at the publishing house. I could never understand this, which is why when I started my own publishing company I was careful to be clear that the author is the centerpiece. After all, without authors, there is no publisher. The author is the creative source – the goose, busy laying those golden eggs. So authors’ fear that the publisher doesn’t care about them is often accurate.

Now I will put on my other hat and defend publishers. Authors (and Amanda Hocking is only the most recent example) actually would rather be writing than figuring out what the best price is for their book, or learning which bookstores are worth giving a reading at. When it’s handled properly, the author/publisher relationship can be a beautiful thing. The author is supported in getting their creative work out into the world. And I do believe every author’s work can be bettered by some time with a good editor (although that work is usually handled directly by the author these days).

So what about Amazon then? Is Amazon supporting authors and dis’ing publishers? Should authors abandon their publishers and join them? This is where it gets tricky.

Amazon has been seen by the outside world (that is, those who are not inside publishing) as a “good” company, like Google or Apple, whose products and services are great and who do business in a fair way. Those on the inside have seen something very different. While Amazon is an incredible database and has done a great job of connecting readers and books, they also have exhibited many signs of being a dangerous company. First, they behaved just like the chain stores in undercutting independent bookstores by offering better discounts that were not offered to independents. (This is a long story. A good link to read more is this 1999 article by Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage, who was involved from the very beginning with the series of lawsuits pursued by independents. Also, see his Huffington Post blog, for continued, informative weigh-in’s on the publishing industry.)

And then, they have been behaving very aggressively about not collecting sales tax. (This is a flagrant violation of clear and long-standing law in California and most other states with sales taxes.) In its beginnings, Internet commerce sites were given a break to encourage business, but I don’t believe anyone in government intended for this to continue after the larger businesses began putting others out of business. When California began attempting to force Amazon to collect sales tax, they threatened to shut down all their “associates” — the small businesses who get fees from Amazon for connecting consumers to Amazon through links on websites.

Why should this matter to authors? Well, if they behave that way to others, even their ostensible best customers in publishing, you can expect that, one day down the road, they may behave that way with you.

I don’t believe it is ever good for one company to have as much power in an industry as Amazon has today. What to do about it is not something I am even thinking about. I’m just saying it’s worrisome.

Now, despite my uncomfortable feelings, I have gone into business with Amazon. They carry my titles. And I like their transparency with numbers (sales figures and royalties), and ease of access to that. But I think of Amazon as a distribution company, not a publisher.

One final word about the big publishers. I really don’t feel sorry for them. They had no qualms about allowing almost 2,000 independent bookstores to go out of business in the 90s (and another 1500 were gone by 2008), by undercutting their pricing. My view at the time was that they were being incredibly short-sighted in giving all the power to the few people who headed these companies to decide what books would be published. It shouldn’t surprise them that they are now on the receiving end of a similar business strategy.

So where does that leave you? And how can you decide? I think the answer is still the same one I have given authors for years. Think of what would serve you best. Is your book the kind of book that the big New York publishers do well? Is it fiction? If so, try the mainstream route first. Are you an independent self-starter with a lot of opinions about how you want your book to be? Then self-publishing or an Amazon-hybrid of self-publishing may be good for you. The global way to think of it is: who are your readers and how can you best reach them?

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