The Amazon Question: Blind Faith vs. Reality

Like everyone else in the publishing industry, I’ve been following the many blog posts and articles about Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer publishing imprint, and how those who have signed are ga-ga over the money, the promotion, the control, and did I mention money?

Leading the charge are well-known authors who have abandoned their mainstream publishers in favor of Amazon’s riches. I applaud them because they’re looking out for #1 – themselves. They’re getting more money and selling lots of books. Who can argue with that? Their testimonials have writers rushing toward the floodgates to be a part of the Next Great Thing.

But let’s look at this logically. The authors who are promoting Amazon already have a large readership…that they got from where? Their mainstream publishers. It strikes me as disingenuous and ungrateful when people bash the very entity that made them what they are today. In praising Amazon’s abilities, their focus is on all the things mainstream publishers do wrong and fail to mention what they do right, which resulted in making them a recognizable name and gaining them a healthy readership.

I agree that mainstream publishing has its foibles and we all need to be aware of the evolutionary process in order to remain viable. Competition is good for the soul. But just because Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer is appropriate for those known authors, does anyone really believe this is your typical publisher? And this is where blind faith comes in, and Amazon exploits this very well.

They sign big name authors and offer them the moon. They can do this because, well, they’re Amazon. So Amazon now has a cadre of happy happy authors who are making pretty good money and lots of sales. And best of all, those books are coming out far faster than mainstream publishing. I have no quibble with this at all.

But what has me casting a wary eye is where and how this will eventually shake out. Right now, everyone is rushing toward the new kid on the block who’s offering attractive promises, thus ensuring Amazon’s bid to monopolize the publishing industry. And once it’s done this, then what? Once you have total control, or a huge part of it, you can call the shots and decide who and what gets published.

The marketplace has traditionally been the litmus of what publishers produce. Oh, you want more vampire romance? Okay? Ah, more DaVinci Code? Sure thing. But when you control the majority, marketplace desire becomes secondary because they’re going to buy whatever you’re offering because it’s the only game in town. Now it becomes a matter of, “You’ll buy what we give you not what you want.”

Ok, I realize I sound very 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but it pays to look past the blind faith and look at the potential realities because authors’ literary careers will be affected. This is a company that disses mainstream publishing (if anyone calls us legacy, I will instruct the beagle to bite their toes off), yet is employing many of its tenets to their own business plan.

I have no problem with anyone taking the best qualities of publishing and combining them with their own ideas, but I wonder if Amazon will use this to become the Costco of publishing. I love Costco for the ability to buy my 50-pack of toilet paper and 75-gallon drum of olive oil. But they appeal to the largest common denominator, which means I can’t buy that fantastic tomato basil soup that only Trader Joe’s makes, or the fabulous garlic French bread the local bakery cranks out every Thursday. For those reasons, I don’t want Costco to be the monopoly on groceries. There are many things they simply can’t do well because of their vast size.

Which brings me to the realities of Amazon. You can’t create a major takeover and not create a serious fallout for the industry. In the rush to be published, I see many writers jumping on the Amazon bandwagon. I believe there’s room for all, but if Amazon edges us publishers out and we become the way of the dinosaur, then what? Many of you may say “good riddance,” but it’s a good idea to consider the repercussions a monopoly may engender downstream.

And it’s this very reason that I cast an edgy eye at Amazon’s signing these big name authors and promising the moon. Their effusive praise is the doorway Amazon needs in order to attract authors down the path of blind faith.

Costco is about one thing, selling lots of things in bulk. Trader Joe’s and my local baker are about a love and appreciation of excellence and quality. I’m not convinced the reality of Amazon is about quality and love of literature than they are about selling piles of books. It’s my hope the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but I can’t help but wonder where this road will take us and those who are flipping us the bird now won’t eventually come to decry our demise.

24 Responses to The Amazon Question: Blind Faith vs. Reality

  1. Madison Woods says:

    Thanks for your clarion voice of reason. I hope it rings out across the airwaves far and wide.

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    What this makes me think of is the reason I hate clothes shopping.

    I live three blocks from a huge mall that is devoted to clothes. Yet every single time I want to buy something I end up searching the mall twice and then standing there on the edge of tears because It’s Not There.

    ALL of the clothing stores sell one thing: What Is Fashionable Right Now. If you happen to want or need something that is not Fashionable Right Now they will graciously sell you something that is Fashionable Right Now. You don’t get to choose what you buy or what you wear…you get to buy what they sell.

    Most recent example…a FOUR HOUR search for plain, lightweight long-sleeved tops suitable for casual wear that eventually ended in: The back to school section. All because I did not want The Fashionable Brand emblazoned across my assets.

    If book publishing starts to go that way then small, independent publishers will become VITAL. I don’t want to read what Somebody Has Determined Everyone Will Read any more than I want to wear what The Fashion Industry Has Decided Every Woman Will Wear This Year.

    (And if you really want fun: Try looking for nice, feminine dress shoes with less than a four inch heel).

  3. Ninjie, I’d rather go barefoot than wear heels. After getting a new bionic hip and another one this coming November, thar be NO WAY this girl will ever set foot in heels. And that goes for cookie cutter books, too.

  4. There’s so much we don’t know about Amazon. They’re paying some big names lots of money — great for the big names. I haven’t seen any examples of new writers being paid lots of money, and their marketing plans are “top secret.” Uh, wha?

    Second, has any bookstore agreed to sell an Amazon published book? If I were a bookstore, I wouldn’t — not even the big name books. Not everyone purchases their books from Amazon, and so I wouldn’t want my distribution options limited that way.

    Third, how do we know they’ll produce quality books? Who are their editors and designers? Who is producing the hard copies for them? Deep pockets doesn’t mean they have the know-how to do it well (though, granted, they could afford to buy people with the know-how, *if* they know they need to).

  5. Exactly my point, Melissa. Does anyone really believe unknown authors will get the same star treatment Amazon lavishes on their well-known authors? I’m suspicious this as an effective ploy to drain off writers from mainstream publishers and gather them into one big basket.

    As for stores shelving Amazon books, it’s a matter of economics. If a store wants to stay in business, they need to sell books, even if it’s from the only game in town. There are stores who say they won’t carry Amazon books, but if a lot of big name authors publish through them, they’ll have to weigh their principals against the ability to keep their lights on.

    Amazon is smart to hire the best editors and people who have been in the industry for a long time and can help guide them through the murky waters of selling books in stores. There are a lot of out of work editors, so they’ll probably look to hire the best. The question is whether they’ll go to a tiered system whereby the big authors get the star treatment, and everyone else gets Costco.

    As with any new entity, it’s smart to wait and see.

  6. Digital Dame says:

    Giving Amazon more control over anything strikes me as a bad idea in general. It’s the same with those big-box stores that often dictate what will get published by deciding what they choose to sell. Amazon has its uses, I just don’t think this should be one of them.

  7. It’s hard to stuff a genie back in the bottle, so the only way Amazon would be denied their monopoly is if people make informed, conscious decisions before they sign on the dotted line.

  8. Aston West says:

    Great points…agree wholeheartedly with most of it (especially about all of the major authors flocking to Amazon after already having readership through their other publishers). I will point out, though, that your statement:

    “You’ll buy what we give you not what you want.”

    sounds pretty much the way mainstream publishing has been handling things for years…

  9. MK says:

    “You’ll buy what we give you not what you want.”

    I have been a compulsive reader since the age of 9 and I must disagree with this. I will buy what I want or I will not buy at all. I have been known to spend six-hour-long journeys staring out of the window or into space, because I could not find a book that interested me enough to buy.

    The thing with books is that, unlike clothes, one doesn’t have to buy them. Will people really continue to buy books, if they cannot find what they want? I am afraid that an outcome such as you describe will not mean that people will read what Amazon sells them, but (eventually) that less and less people might read less and less books. And it’s not as if we can afford to lose readers as it is.

  10. Bill Webb says:

    If Amazon gets too big a market share look for an anti-trust lawsuit. At least in this county, monopolies are illegal. I don’t see why that standard wouldn’t apply.

  11. Thanks so much for the great replies.

    Todd and MK: Frankly, I’m thrilled you take issue with my statement of buying what they give you. I meant that to be provocative in order to show a possible future of publishing and its consequences.

    While it may never reach the point of “readers, take it or leave it,” I do take a long look at their stronghold on distribution and their ability to choke out the competition. Once that happens, the competing publishers die due to the inability to compete with Amazon.

    This is the exact thing small publishers deal with every day. I can’t compete with the big guys when it comes to mainstream fiction, so I don’t even try. That’s why you see few small print publishers dealing with SF/Fantasy. They can’t compete with the big guys. With the advent of ebooks, e-publishers are able to fill that hole and give authors a viable alternative in which to publish their books.

    I disagree with the comment that mainstream publishing controls what readers read. There are so many large and small publishers, and this creates a niche for every flavor. The trick is in the ability to distribute books. And sure, the big guys have the corner market on this, so us small fries have to be mindful of the projects we choose…which translates to publishing what the marketplace wants.

    If anything, publishers are working smarter and harder than ever before.

    Bill: It takes a lot to file an anti-trust suit, and the government tends to keep their noses out of publishing. Baker & Taylor and Ingram control 90% of distribution. If a publisher doesn’t establish an account with them, it’s nearly impossible for them to do business.

    Our distributor, Consortium, sells directly to the national accounts, but they also do big business with B&T and Ingram. Since they are the main game in town, they can easily establish their cut of doing business with publishers. If we don’t like it, then where do we go?

    Again, that’s why I look warily at Amazon because I can see where they’ll make a play for controlling distribution and choke off the rest of us. Voila…Costco.

  12. Lauren says:

    NinjaFingers, a couple of pieces of (off-topic) help:
    L.L. Bean

    Back on topic: I do wonder if the unknown and relatively unknown authors rushing to Amazon have thuoght to themselves: how am I going to send someone to my book when they can’t easily browse. Let’s say I write a novel. Okay. I got a great cover and excellent editing. Other than that, how am I going to let people know about it because, let’s face it, no one goes to Amazon and types in “novel” when looking for a book. They type in a title or an author. Or they go to a bookstore and browse.

    I don’t mean to ignore online marketing that authors do, but how often does someone searching for a book go to an author’s website? Those who go there already know about the author and want somethign specific.

    Maybe this is ignorant, but what I never seem to see addressed in this “revolution” are readers’ concerns. By that I mean few if any of these authors seems to look at the technological advances in publishing from a reader’s point of view. If they forgot for a while they were authors and were only passionate readers would they find themselves?

  13. Lynn is right. Amazon has indeed entered the Costco Plan of Marketing. As a still undiscovered author, how does this affect me? Well, I think back to when I saw Ann Coulter’s first book on the Costco stacks. We’re from NY, and our son spent 40 days in the hole at ground zero. He’s FDNY. Needless to say, when Ann Coulter described the wives of those lost on 911 as media-grubbing, “harpies”. I was incensed. I wanted to write Costco, send them my torn up membership card, and teach them a lesson. Really? I thought I could teach them not to purchase products that sell just because they might hurt some group of people? My anger faded, and I never sent the letter. Costco is a retailer, not an arbiter of taste or decency. That’s the job of readers.

    Amazon is first, a retailer. They will choose to purchase, and/or manufacture products for sale they believe will turn a profit. That’s all it is. No conspiracy, no evil master plan, no attempt to circumnavigate the proper channels. All industries have stolen from each other for all time. Big-Boy Publishers and agents do the same, although they try to keep it quiet. Amazon’s new venture will probably not affect me much, nor, I believe, will it affect publishers, especially small presses, who still believe in the art of literature. Readers will make the final decision as they always do, and no amount of online hype can make a sow’s snout any more readable. If I wrote what is currently the “blockbuster genre duJour”, it might be an interesting option, but as I don’t… it isn’t, really.

  14. Lauren, thanks for weighing in on this discussion. As a book reviewer, your concerns are valid and thought-provoking. The big name authors they’ve brought in are very pleased at the promotion Amazon is doing for their books. The rube is that there is no way Amazon will do this for their debut authors. As competition rises, Amazon will have the luxury of deciding which books will be printed and which will stay e-books.

    This is fine provided there are other games in town. If they choke off our ability to distribute books, then this becomes a real game changer for authors…which could affect readers’ choices.

    I know of several authors who are extremely happy with the Amazon plan, and that’s great. I’m thrilled they’re making more money and selling lots of books. But they’re also in at the ground level. If we fast-forward a few years, that ability to be the cream that rises to the top will be more difficult because everyone will be “shopping at Costco,”

    Richard: I agree with a lot that you say, however, I remain leery of Amazon’s future in publishing and their ability to choke us. If they become as large as I believe they want to be, then it will be very easy to make a land grab for the ability to distribute and sell books. After all, look at what’s happened to bookstores. I’ll agree they weren’t all that solvent before Amazon came along, but Amazon did put a huge nail in their coffins. The question is, do they have a whole set of nails for us publishers as well.

    It may sound like I’m a conspiracy theorist, but I’m more of a realist who tries to look downstream to see where a business is headed. My future depends on that ability.

  15. Madison Woods says:

    We might intend our purchasing habits to control our supply, and that may be true in a broad sense. But what if the majority of shoppers are happy with purchasing worldviews I might not want?

    A good comparison of this sort of subtle market manipulation by a retail giant is visible in WalMart. I might like Martha White flour, but if you’ve shopped the big stores lately you’ll notice that the options are becoming more and more limited. It’s a slow but calculated process and I’m certain it is thought out far in advance of actual changes on the shelves.

    We are like frogs in a pot of water. The fire is steadily being turned up but we’re enjoying the warmth so much we can’t respond to the danger.

    I don’t think this is limited to mega-retail options, but to go on and on about it makes me just sound like a conspiracy theorist 😉 Amazon is just one. WalMart another. We as a society like like the shiny baubles and the ones running analytics at the heart of the giants know exactly which ones we’d respond to most.

  16. Aichpvee says:

    Amazon certainly isn’t concerned with quality. Just look at their KDP service. They can’t even hire people competent in writing English sentences to produce their help pages and no one there even seems to know how their systems actually work.

  17. Vanessa Russell says:

    Very timely discussion. I recently discovered that one mainstream publisher is also marketing Amazon. One asked to read my manuscript and came back with this rejection last week: “We aren’t in a position to attract the interest for your book that you’d expect and deserve. I recommend that you publish it yourself at Amazon is very kind to writers regarding publishing and marketing. You could work on reaching a readership with their publishing tools. And too, you’d receive sales proceeds without anyone in the middle. Nowadays a writer can self-publish with impunity. In time, I think most publishing will be by the writers themselves.”
    This last line was particularly surprising, considering its source, as if publishers are already grabbing their hats and coats.

  18. Wow, Vanessa, I’m gobsmacked a publisher offered that advice. Facts are, we have no idea where all this will shake out, and it’s defeatist for that publisher to prematurely sing our swan song.

  19. Lev Raphael says:

    Stars get star treatment wherever they are. I started publishing my Nick Hoffman mystery series with St. Martin’s and I remember once a drunken SMP publicist confiding that she really only focused on 3-4 of the mystery authors there among many dozens and everyone else got only cursory attention. Why would amazon as a publisher be any different?

  20. Lev, that’s a dirty little secret that large publishers don’t exactly want publicized. I have many friends who are pubbed by the big boys, and it’s interesting to hear their stories re publicity. All these guys employ publicity folks, but the treatment is very selective. I agree that Amazon won’t be any different, especially as they grow more powerful.

  21. Tom Brosz says:

    Don’t get too worried. In my town, Costco and Trader Joe’s are both doing well. The more options, the better, and if Amazon doesn’t deliver the things people want to read, they won’t get that business.

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  24. I think Amazon will be the first of several big new players, and that the publishing shake-out has barely started. Writers are going to have to stay well informed and read their contracts carefully.

    My guess? A Big 6 super-consortium will arise, as well as a Barnes & Noble-led superpower. The new “Big 3” will compete for the most profitable writers.

    And a handful of writers will continue to make big money while the rest grub around for a living wage. Plus ca change…

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