A note to readers, regarding Amazon

written by Michelle on February 5, 2010 in Ephemera with 4 comments

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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