Before I make my point, I want to stress this is not an ‘Amazon-bashing’ post. You could substitute Amazon for Apple, or a number of large modern-day conglomerates, indeed, any third-party retailer, and still see where I’m coming from. That while they’re beneficial in some areas, they uphold certain gate-keeping practices at the other. I’m going to use Amazon as my main example, however.
We understand Amazon as the trail-blazer in the publishing industry, which it is, in some ways. Eradicating the slush-pile for authors to navigate, side-stepping agents to woo, anyone anywhere can upload their work – good or bad – to Amazon’s template-driven digital storage facility, to wait for readers to snap up their book. Whether those book-buyers think it’s a quality read is largely irrlevant from one aspect – at least no one’s told them this is the book they must read, that reader has discovered that on their own. With Amazon, there’s no gate-keeper filtering books on the public’s behalf, making their decisions for them: hurrah!
Print on demand
Amazon were also early adopters of the ‘no upfront cost’, i.e. print on demand movement (relating to paperbacks/hardbacks, not eBooks). In this process, the digital file on Amazon’s Createspace system remains just a file until the moment it’s ordered. It costs the author nothing to keep it sat digitally on Amazon’s back-office platform, and the cost to Amazon for this service is practically negligible too. The customer then orders and pays and machines whirr into action: the book is no longer a digital file, it’s a physical, printed copy that, within minutes, is winging its way to said reader.
Of course, the author can order copies of their books from Amazon at ‘cost’. Copies they can take to speaking events, book signings, give in person to family, friends and associates…anyone they choose. But the cost of each copy remains the same, however many they order. Compare that to a small print run from an independent printer/publisher, consisting of as few as twenty-five copies, and you would start to see costs shift, and margins getting better and better the more you order. Once you’re a more established as an author, this gap in the printing cost margins starts to make a difference.
Yes, you could argue that Amazon plays a significant role in boosting the platform of a new author from the sheer amount of traffic to their site, in order that they get to be established, but given the size of Amazon’s platform, the amount of free content available on there that can never be consumed, and the sign-posting by the author to get readers to even ‘see’ their book on Amazon, I see their input bringing as many consequences as benefits.
Amazon takes a good portion – up to 60% – of the book’s margin, and can alter its list price, for the part they play in the sale of a book – should you print your book through another provider. The attraction to use their publishing platform, Createspace, is therefore strong in comparison, but hardly inspires freedom, more a monopoly.
Yes, yes, I know…
Now, before I get a deluge of angry comments from Amazon’s supporters, I accept that they’ve made self-publishing a wholly viable proposition for authors. They’ve offered writers a direct link to their readers with no tyranny from the publishing houses as to which book is accepted and which goes in the trash. From that aspect, the freedom they’ve brought is immeasurable and wonderful. The traffic they’ve managed to generate, and the mindset within readers that they can access any author’s work at a good price – and receive their purchase quickly and without pain – are huge pluses to any author. It’s possible to make a good living, establish a good platform and use Amazon’s algorithms and tools to not even need the distribution and clout of a traditional publisher – that, to me, is Amazon’s greatest achievement.
Where Amazon, and every other third-party retailer, are the real gate-keepers…
There are so many books out there, that readers face being overwhelmed by sheer choice. It’s only those titles that manage to generate any sort of conversation or visibilty that rise above the ‘selling-fewer-than-a-hundred-copies’ practice that most authors see. Therefore, new tactics and different approaches have to be applied to get in-front of readers, who are blinded by the books on offer to them. Readers want more than a good read: they want an experience, a connection, a sense of identity from the books they read, and much, much more.
Readers today want ‘access’ to the authors they follow and enjoy. Authors are encouraged, quite rightly, to have a relationship with those buying their books – but, if you sell your books through Amazon, who are these people? Yes, authors can see how many books they’ve sold at the end of the month, and any sales spikes, via Nielsen book data, if they’ve successfully scooped some PR, for example, but what’s their demographic?
How do you know if those ten sales that day were from one new reader taking a chance on your whole back catalogue, or ten separate customers buying a cross-section of your books?
The truth is, you don’t know. And that’s where Amazon et al are gate-keepers – the wall between you and your readers. They keep your readers’ email addresses and details of their buying habits – both of which are crucial, and vital information you could use to bolster your writing career and your longevity as an author. Analytics and measurements that could make a significant difference to your marketing and sales strategy are kept by Amazon for their own marketing and promotional efforts. Considering that many of those customers will have been sign-posted or sent by you via another platform altogether, this seems unfair.
Amazon is a multi-billion dollar business. They have opened up so many opportunities for authors and readers to take advantage of, but their main objective is to make money. Books may be loss leaders for the benefit of Amazon’s business overall, but I’ve already shown you examples of where they can, and will, squeeze the author – sometimes in pounds and pence; sometimes, their freedom. They’re not doing anything illegal, and it’s not disgusting for any business to make a profit – all I want to demonstrate is that there are other ways. Ways that could prove better and more lucrative for an author in the long run, but which may represent greater risk. That’s fine, I don’t expect everyone reading this to grab flaming torches, ready to burn Amazon or any other retailer for their business practices. If all I do is open your mind, that’s enough.
The future of book marketing is changing, and Amazon may not remain the top dog. Do you want to be the author ahead of the trend, or the one too fixed and comfortable with the current status quo to do anything?
Developmental editor and publishing consultant Diane Hall is the author of three books; she has also ghost-written books for others and created a plethora of content, on more subjects than you could care to imagine, for numerous clients since the beginning of her career. She is proud to have fundamentally shaped series of books and more than a hundred individual titles over the last decade with various authors, nationally and internationally.
Among her editing qualifications, she holds a linguistics diploma, which involves the study of language and speech. Diane employs this knowledge in the forensic linguistic work she sometimes undertakes.
Diane has seen the introduction and subsequent rise of self-publishing, and passionately keeps abreast of its disruption of the publishing industry. She is a thought leader when it comes to the future of book marketing, fuelled by the poor results authors see when employing traditional techniques.
Thanks to Master isolated images and Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net for use of the images.