Sunday, 20 November 2011

Amazon vs the Book Trade, Part 2

There are some very interesting points made about my Amazon vs the Booktrade post, most notably at The Passive Voice.

Julia Barrett's comment, quoted here, is a very important one. She says:

I won’t miss gatekeepers because gatekeepers were guilty of an abuse of power and they have been humbled, whether they realize it or not. I will, however, miss a sense of organization, for lack of a better word.

I’m increasingly concerned about the wild, wild west attitude in self-pubbing. Everyone is trying to grab a piece of the pie and believe me, the pie is shrinking fast. It’s like one of those sales where women trample each other to get a handkerchief or something!

Leaving aside the issue with gatekeepers (she's mostly spot on, but that deserves a separate blog), Julia raises two key points:

1. that the pie is finite, so there's only so many slices that can be taken before there's none left;


2. indie and mainstream publishers offer invaluable organisation (and support) to writers.

As someone who has experience of both ebooks and print books (and has published in both), I do see the opportunity ebooks present. I think they’re very useful and it’s always a good thing that more people are seeing their words in print.

But many self-published writers who use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing see ebooks as the be-all and end-all, and then wonder why their books aren’t selling millions. There’s lots of hype about ebooks, and while ebooks are selling in huge quantities, these quantities are spread over a vast number of titles. It’s only a small number of writers, as with traditional publishing, who are making a killing. In that respect, we need to temper this hype with a good dose of reality.

Dan Meadows says: 'I believe, with the advent of cheap, accessible readers and tablets, and falling prices of books, that the overall pie is going to increase. Besides, if a customer can get three or four ebooks for the prices they traditionally paid for one Big 6 book, that alone increases my chances dramatically of landing a sale even if the pie stays exactly the same. And I’m getting a bigger cut per book than the Big 6 author.'

I think he misses an important point: if book prices fall, authors will end up with less money.

Let's work out what the cover price of a book actually pays for.

If you want your books in stores and supermarkets, or anywhere other than Amazon, you need distribution. This costs money.

To sell those books on behalf of the distributors you need sales reps. This costs money.

Covers need to be designed. An editor needs to be paid. The book needs to be typeset. Unless you're very lucky and crossing your fingers always works for you, you probably won't be expecting readers to just accidentally stumble upon your book. That means you'll need marketing. If you're talking a print book, you need to print the book (although, this is only about £2). Overheads have to be met. This all costs money.

If book prices drop, then you need more sales to make up the difference. But this still only benefits retailers. If an author can manage to write one book per year, it doesn't help them that their £10 book is now only worth £5, and that of that they only make 50p instead of £1. They'd need to sell twice as many books, or work twice as hard to write twice as many books as they were doing, in order to make the same amount.

The mistake made with ebooks is that they should cost a lot less than print books. But unless you've literally just uploaded a Word document (which I don't recommend anyone should do if they want to call themselves a publisher), the only costs you're saving on are the print costs. The distribution costs are still there, but they go to Amazon or the iBookstore. A £10 print book should be an £8 ebook, to cover those same costs. Self-published writers might take a larger slice of the pie, but it is they, not the publisher, who forks out for the costs above. In effect, then, the increased royalty only serves to claw back some of that initial outlay. Also consider that 80% of books sell less than 100 copies, and most self-published authors who produce their books properly will be out of pocket.

I would also like those surging to Kindle en masse to consider what they're sacrificing for their higher royalties, increased 'creative control' and quick-and-easy publishing.

Modern mainstream publishing doesn’t always invest in writers and new talent as much as it should. But ebook self-publishing, while allowing new talent to be heard, can’t really be said to offer much of an investment in writers either (since it’s the writers who are doing all the investing).

Amazon (and Nook!) isn’t giving writing classes, in-depth editorial support and career development to self-published writers. Traditionally, this is what publishers would have done for their own authors (although, it seems, many no longer do this outside the small press scene). This, I think, is part of what Julia Barrett means by 'organisation'.

What is undeniable is this: bookstores are closing all over the world. Perhaps they do need to adapt. Ebooks will be a good impetus for that. But those who don’t see that Amazon is developing a worrying monopoly over the booktrade, which is destroying local businesses and brick and mortar bookstores, are perhaps as biased as those with an investment in traditional publishing. And the problem spreads to agents, editors and publishers, too.

Without agents, who will argue for proper remuneration and rights for authors? Without editors, who will weed out errors, give feedback, and help writers’ work flourish? Who will organise and pay for book tours and events? Is anyone at Amazon really doing all this for the self-published Kindle author? If we see traditional publishing die, every author will be a self-published Kindle author, and your fate as a writer will be in the hands of a retailer rather than someone whose job it is to develop and nurture your talent.

That is what worries me. I don't want to see the livelihood of authors turned over to an online retailer who cares only about its profits and not about the creative talents who supply the goods. But if speed, ease and convenience are what you prefer, go ahead and feed the monopoly.


  1. It is true that Covers need to be designed, Editors must be payed good remuneration for the work to be get done.

    Cover Letters

  2. Jaylen, I agree. A good editor is a must. No matter how good a writer thinks he or she is, a book (both as an artwork and as a commercial product) is usually even better with editing. A second opinion is necessary to weed out overindulgence, to push writers further, and to help the book be what it aims to be. The size and scale of any book is such that you're leaving too much to chance otherwise.