A note to readers, regarding Amazon

I have long used the Amazon widget on this page because it offers the cleanest graphics and is the easiest way to create a linked, text-enriched slideshow of one’s books–capabilities which, unfortunately, are not yet available to authors through indiebound. For the moment, however, the Amazon widget has been removed from this page as I consider the implications of Amazon’s recent decision to remove “buy” buttons from books published by MacMillan. In response to MacMillan’s concern over bargain-basement e-book pricing by Amazon, the online retail giant emerged as the bully of the literary marketing playground, denying consumers access not only to e-books by MacMillan authors, but also to physical copies of those books.

While my publisher, Random House, was not affected by the Amazon move, this was the latest in a round of wake-up calls to authors and publishers about just how aggressively Amazon is willing to be in its attempts to dictate the prices of books. We authors want to be read, and we are happy when worn-out copies of our books are passed from hand to hand. But Amazon’s price-fixing scheme is a Toys-R-Us approach to bookselling, an attempt to monopolize the market at the expense of those who write books, those who publish them, and ultimately those who read them. Much lower pricing means books have to be produced faster; the quality of books on offer can only be negatively affected by lightning fast turn-around times for authors and editors. It’s the difference between a blog post like this one and a well-researched essay in Harper’s magazine. While we all enjoy our quick fixes, we want the stuff that’s been labored over as well, the artfully written and meticulously crafted novels that make reading such a pleasure and an addiction.

If giant retailers exert a controlling force on publishers in the manner that Amazon is attempting to do, there will be less and less room in the literary market for mid-list authors who enter the publishing world as I did ten years ago, with a small literary book from a small press. I was one of the ones who eventually “got lucky,” in a commercial sense, with a major publisher and a “breakout” book. But the publisher didn’t know that The Year of Fog would be a breakout when they acquired it. It was a small acquisition by a major publisher, one of those novels that a wonderful editor decided to fight for, despite my less-than-impressive track record when it came to sales. We’ve all heard the term “too big to fail.” There is such a thing, in the publishing world, as “too small to sell”–or there will be, when every book is priced at $9.99 or less upon release. In such cases, publishers will be able to stay afloat only with the Dan Browns and J.K. Rowlings of the world, authors whose books will sell millions of copies simply on the strength of the name. The success of The Year of Fog never would have been possible had the publisher rejected my manuscript because it was “too small to sell.”

In a world where price is the predominating criteria, publishers would be unlikely to make the gamble on authors without a proven track record–in other words, authors like me, and almost every author I know. It might be a beautiful new world for zombie novels, or vampire novels, or for whatever books fit into the literary fad of the moment. But should Amazon have its way, finding literary or mainstream novels by writers simply struggling to get a book out into the world would become increasingly difficult for readers.

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Sans Serif is the blog of author Michelle Richmond.

4 thoughts on “A note to readers, regarding Amazon

  1. I can’t speak for everyone, but it doesn’t seem to me that a digital edition should be priced the same as a physical hardback. First, there’s no printing and distribution costs to recoup, and second, under current sales scenarios the book isn’t really “sold” at all — Amazon retains the ability to unilaterally take it back whenever they want, and I never really gain full control of my purchase in the way I do with a physical book.

    That’s a bad trade. Consequently, it’s only fair for e-books to cost less. We readers get less for our money. Unless that changes, of course.

  2. I agree that readers get less for their money with ebooks. I would ALWAYS prefer the physical book. But the ebook market has exploded in the past year. Publishers traditionally postpone the paperback version of a book about a year after the hardcover, in large part so that the cheaper paperback won’t be competing with the hardcover edition. Amazon wants ebooks to be available at the same time that hardcovers are available, at a much lower price point. Publishers are worried that delaying the publicaiton of the ebook–just as they have always delayed the publication of the paperback–may turn off readers who want the ebook “right now,” and who will then just download a different new release instead. I do wonder if the folks who are willing to wait a year for a book to come out in paper will have the same patience when it comes to ebooks. There’s so much that just hasn’t been tested yet due to the relative newness of the ereading devices.

  3. All of this is a symptom of the transition that publishing is going through from print to digital. Amazon isn’t trying to “dictate the price of books,” it’s trying to sell ebooks for substantially less than print books (even if it takes a loss doing so) in order to encourage and accelerate that transition, because ultimately ebooks will be more profitable for Amazon because of reduced costs. The big publishers aren’t trying to protect their authors, either, they’re trying to slow down the transition from print to digital because they can’t charge the high prices with high profit margins for ebooks that they can for print books, nor can they control the market in the same way because of the low cost of production. The publishers aren’t trying to sell $15 ebooks — they know very well they won’t be able to. Instead, they’re trying to sell $25 hardcovers. From an author’s perspective, it is I think not true at all that “publishers would be unlikely to make the gamble on authors without a proven track record–in other words, authors like me, and almost every author I know” — merely that the big publishers dominated by the big 6 will be. But the future holds a lot more publishing opportunities with small publishers than one can easily find today, most of them publishing digitally. That transition has already begun, and it will only accelerate. In addition, royalties paid to writers will go up.

  4. I’ve stopped linking to Amazon at all. I’m not going to support that kind of strong arming.

    As far as the price of books, the general rule is that about eighty percent of the cost of producing a book has nothing to do with printing: it’s editing, art design, publicity, etc. Not to mention paying the author for a year or so of work. So a ebook can’t be more than twenty percent less than a printed book before somebody is taking a loss. So a book that’s out in hardback can only be priced about twenty percent lower — $20 instead of $25.

    Amazon wants to sell them at half that. Publishers already exist at a very slim profit margin. If its cut completely, nobody will be able to afford to publish books.

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