Saturday, August 9, 2014

Readers Unite? WTF?!?

So that Amazon, huh?  What're you gonna do?

I woke up this morning to an email in my box from Amazon to its KDP authors.  I am not, in fact a KDP author.  I think I may have signed up for the KDP program at one time to see their self-publishing terms, but I have never actually published anything through them.  My books, however, are sold through Amazon.  Amazon is a distributor for my book from Simon & Schuster.

The gist of the email, which uses a quote taken out of context by George Orwell (a poor choice since it only serves to remind people of the Kindle-1984 debacle where Amazon deleted 1984 from a bunch of devices without asking) is really just more of the same.  Ebook prices should be lower, Hachette wants higher prices, World War II, something...something...something.

The email annoyed me.  Not because Amazon was trying to get its point out, but because they'd used my email address to send me their bullshit propaganda.  You can read the letter on their website.  In my opinion, it's a load of shit.  At the same time, I think the equally creepy advertisement taken out by 900 authors in the New York Times is also bullshit.

I'm not going to rehash the entire argument.  You can read about the Amazon letter here on the NYT website.  You can also read some balanced and well thought out responses from John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig.  On the page, there are links to pro-Amazon articles, and if Hugh Howey or JA Konrath post about the email, I'll edit this post to include links to them as well.

I actually only have a few things to say about this situation:

1.  I agree with Amazon that lower ebook prices would be nice.  Four years after its release, Deathday is still in print, but I'd love to sell more copies of it, and having the ability to drop the price to $4.99 or $3.99, even for a limited time, could help boost sales.  Lower ebook prices could increase sales so that total units sold makes up the difference in revenue from a lower price, but it's not as much a guarantee as Amazon would like people to believe.

2.  I disagree that Amazon should enforce an artificial price ceiling of $9.99.  That's the job of the free market.  In Amazon's letter, it makes sure to highlight the fact that Hachette, along with Apple and other publishers, were caught colluding on prices.  This is true.  However, raising book prices was a gamble.  Books are not a necessity.  You don't need them to survive.  And if the publishers had raised prices too high, people would have stopped buying them and the publishers would have had no choice but to bring prices down to something more reasonable.  That's how the free market works.  Companies charge for a product the amount they think they can get you to pay for it.  I can make iced tea at home for 50 cents, but I love Starbucks' iced tea and am willing to pay their insane prices.  If they priced their iced tea too high, I wouldn't buy it, others wouldn't buy it, and they'd lower the price.  I think Starbucks' prices are nuts, but I pay them, and I don't begrudge them their right to charge me the highest amount I'm willing to pay.

Amazon's attempt to create a price ceiling, however, attempts to side-step the free market approach by enforcing a maximum price for all ebooks.  Amazon's statistics may be correct that the sweet spot for ebooks is $9.99, but that's not going to hold true for all books.  I might not be willing to pay $12.99 for a debut I've never heard of, but just last night I spent $12.99 on the newest book in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (which is a brilliant space opera, by the way) because I wanted to read it immediately, and $12.99 was what I was willing to shell out for it.  Had it been $14.99, I probably wouldn't have bought it.  Amazon's price ceiling takes away a publisher's ability to determine the best price for each and every book, and that's not good.

One of the secrets of publishing is that the best selling books—the Snookie biography and Stephen King's latest and even Twilight—prop up the books that sell moderately well or not well at all.  Without the ability to maximize the profits of bestselling books, publishers would have less money to spend acquiring riskier books, and that would mean less variety for readers.  You know, I read once that Christoper Nolan had to agree to make Batman in order to be allowed to make Inception.  New, untested properties are a risk, and though Inception did well, there wasn't the same guarantee as with Batman.  That's how publishing is.  Publishing the sure things gives them the latitude to publish the riskier books.  

3.  Amazon doesn't give a single flying fuck about readers.  They care about customers.  Buying customers.  Another tidbit that's come from the fight is that Amazon wants a most favored nation clause from Hachette, ensuring that they always have the lowest prices.  This is the same thing that many people demonized Apple for requiring.  It's not illegal.  But Amazon wants to cap the maximum price of ebooks and also ensure that they can't be beat in a price war.  Why?  Because ebooks still only make up about 20-30% of the entire market.  That means there's still a metric shit ton of readers to convert to Kindle users.  Bringing the prices of ebooks down is how they intend to lure readers away from physical books.  And it's a smart strategy!  I won't deny that.  It worked for Apple.  They forced record companies to allow them to sell songs singly rather than forcing customers to buy the entire album, and they made the price point 99 cents.  Apple didn't give a fuck about music; they wanted to sell iPods.

But digital music was relatively new.  As the space matured, Apple was forced to allow music companies to raise prices.  The ebook market isn't exactly a mature market yet, but it's not new either.  And quite frankly, the publishing industry isn't floundering the way the music industry was when Apple came along.  Publishers are still posting profits.  People are still buying physical books.  Publishers don't need Amazon to come along and save them.  Amazon's actions may align with those of consumers who are generally predisposed to want lower prices, but Amazon is doing this to bolster its control of the ebook market, and not because it loves books or readers.

4.  Publishers don't give a flying fuck about readers.  Listen, I've got books published by S&S, and I love my editors, my publicists, the art designers.  I love the whole team of people there.  They're amazing, hard working people who love what they do.  But S&S, and the other traditional publishers are owned by media conglomerates whose sole job is to make money.  This fight they're having with Amazon is about protecting their interests.  It's not about authors, it's not about readers.  It's about corporate profits. If they wanted to get authors on their side, they'd change their boilerplate contracts to offer authors a higher percentage of ebook sales than they do now.  The individuals inside of those publishing houses may care about their authors, but those people have bosses, and their bosses have bosses, and if you aren't making them money, you're worthless to them.

5.  Though I disagree with Amazon's tactics and have made my feelings known by not purchasing from them since this whole mess began, there's nothing inherently wrong with what they're doing.  Bookstores frequently don't stock certain books.  B&N doesn't stock books published by Amazon, and indie bookstores with limited space frequently have to pick and choose which books to stock.  What Amazon is doing is shitty, but it's their right to do so.  If you agree, taking out ads in the NYTs is a stupid way to voice your opinion.  Corporations respond to one thing and one thing only:  $$$.  Tell them how you feel with your wallet.  I'm doing it with Amazon now and I did it with B&N when they fought with S&S.

6.  Amazon's KDP authors should be the most concerned by Amazon's demands.  I honestly don't understand why they're taking Amazon's side in this.  The biggest weapon in a self-published author's arsenal is the ability to control the price of their books and to undercut those of traditional publishers. If Amazon wins and sets a ceiling on the price of ebooks, KDP authors are going to have to price their books even lower to compete.  If I self-published my books, I'd be furious with Amazon for trying to narrow the price points of ebooks and cripple my ability to compete with traditionally published books on price.  I know there are a lot of fantastic, polished self-published books, but public perception is that traditionally published books are of higher quality (and I'm not going to argue whether the perception is true...there are shit traditional books and shit self-pubbed books).  Price has always been where self-published books ruled.  People are willing to overlook the perceived difference in quality because the price is so much lower.  It boggles my mind that Amazon KDP authors are fighting to allow Amazon take away their greatest advantage.

7.  I've said this before and I've said it again:  if traditional publishers want to keep the price of ebooks high (and I totally understand the economics of wanting to do so, even if I disagree with the rationale) they need to offer more value.  Extra chapters, author notes or interviews.  Blu-Rays offer extras, and ebooks should too.  They're easy to add and can help increase the value of ebooks.

8.  Publishers are missing a huge opportunity by fighting with Amazon.  If they don't like Amazon's terms, they should simply withdraw their books from Amazon and sell direct to readers.  The short-term consequences would be outweighed by the long-term benefits.  They need to invest in startups that compete with Amazon.  Ebooks aren't going away.  I don't think physical books will ever go away either, but ebooks are a thing, and publishers need to get behind it in a big way.  They've allowed Amazon to control their destiny, and now they're paying the price for it.  They need to pull up their britches, stop bitching, and do something about it.

9.  Finally, I just want to throw this out there about price:  My next book is out January 20, 2015.  Right now the MSRP is 17.99 but you can find it on Amazon and B&N for about $14.  The ebook version's MSRP $12.99.  You can get it for $11 at B&N, and $10 at Amazon.  Maybe you think that $10 for an ebook is too much, but I've spent approximately 2000 hours over four years writing, rewriting, and editing that book.  My agent and I worked on revisions for almost a year.  My editor and I worked on it for about a year.  A copyeditor tore it apart.  An team of designers created the brilliant cover, jacket, and inside designs.  Christine Larsen, a truly amazing artist, drew the Patient F comic that lives inside the book.  This isn't just a bunch of words, it's not simply bits and bytes.  It's thousands of hours of work.  It's missed time with my family and friends.  It's all the weight I gained and lost and gained again while working on it.  It's a little piece of my soul.  And hopefully, for readers, it will be a few hours they can escape into the world I created.  I don't think ten or twelve bucks is asking too much for that.


  1. I honestly don't understand why so many of my friends, who are smart people, trust that Amazon actually has writer's (or even reader's) best interests at heart.

    Amazon cares about very few things:

    Their bottom line.
    Increasing their market share.
    How their shareholders vote.

    Maybe a couple other things, but all related to profits. They are a for-profit corporation operating in a capitalist society. They have no obligation to give a shit about anything else.

    As a reader, all I really want is a DRM-free, non-region-locked, device-specific e-copies to come with every hardcover I buy, direct from the publisher. I gladly pay nearly twenty dollars for books from authors who I already know and therefore trust I will enjoy.

    Sadly, this doesn't seem likely.

    Sigh. Thanks for a thoughtful, measure take on the whole thing, Shaun.

    1. I agree. The arguments for keeping DRM are all BS. The piracy fears are overblown. Frankly, I want people to pirate my books. If I wasn't sure I'd get in trouble for it, I'd throw my ebooks out on The Pirate Bay myself. Obscurity is a way bigger problem for me than piracy.

      We've talked about this before, but I think that it publisher's imprints really took the initiative to brand themselves and sell direct to readers in a DRM-free, open format (like EPub) they could increase author royalties and lower prices (because they'd be cutting out the middle man) and take control of their destinies back from Amazon. Sadly, I fear they think too short term. Amazon is playing the long game and winning, and rather than trying to fight them there, Publishers are simply reacting out of fear. It's really a shame to watch.


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