Showing posts with label Amazon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Amazon. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Second Edition - Chance for a do-over

This past Wednesday, all the rights to Bad Policy officially reverted from my publisher to me and the second edition went live using my publishing company, Wolf's Echo Press. I’ve already discussed the self-imposed angst I generated by reediting and reformatting the book. Today I want to talk about one of the things independent authors often say they most cherish, the ability to choose how to price and promote their books.

The print decisions were fairly easy to make because I’ve had practice when I developed the print edition of my Kindle Scout winner, Ant Farm. I use CreateSpace to prepare the print edition for sale on Amazon and IngramSpark for all other distribution. The reason for the two versions is the difference in royalties CreateSpace pays for Amazon and all others.

Here’s how royalty works at CreateSpace for Bad Policy:

The list price is $14.95, of which they take 40% off the top if the book is sold on Amazon or 60% if sold in “Expanded Distribution” (any Amazon competitor, whether online or bricks and mortar). That leaves $8.97 (Amazon) or $5.98 (Other). From that, CreateSpace deducts both a fixed charge per book ($0.85 for books with 110-828 pages) and a variable charge of $0.012/page (for Bad Policy this comes out to $3.19) for total per unit deductions of $4.04. My payment (combining my roles of publisher and author) is what remains, $4.93 if the book sells on Amazon and $1.94 elsewhere.

As an aside, note that even if we assume there is no profit for CreateSpace in the $4.04 fixed costs of producing a book, they and Amazon still make $5.98 (before shipping costs) per book sold on Amazon, compared to the publisher’s and author’s combined take of $4.93!

At IngramSpark, the royalty calculations are a bit different because the publisher determines the wholesale discount. I set mine at 40%. My thinking is that bookstores will be ordering this book because of customer request, not to stock their shelves. Therefore, the standard discount makes sense. Starting with the same $14.95 with 40% wholesale discount, leaves $8.97. Ingram has a higher charge to print the book ($4.84), leaving $4.13 for the publisher and author.

That’s eighty cents lower than what CreateSpace pays for Amazon sales (so I use CreateSpace for that sales channel), but a whopping $2.19 higher than CreateSpace when it comes to any other sales channel. Another reason for using IngramSpark for bookstore sales is I have had bookstore owners tell me they will not carry or order a book published by CreateSpace because it is owned by Amazon, who they see as an unfair competitor.

Figuring out what to do with print was the easy part. How to price the ebook and where to sell it required (and will require in the future) considerable thought.

The original ebook price for Bad Policy was $5.95. Cabin Fever’s ebook still has a $5.95 price tag. Kindle Press priced Ant Farm at $3.49. Amazon, gorilla of the ebook market with a roughly 70% share in the U.S., pays royalties at a 70% rate for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, provided the books comply with a few rules that are easy to follow. Prices outside that range qualify for a 35% royalty.

I like 70% better than 35%—about twice as much.

I did a scientific survey of 1 person (my life partner, Jan). She said to price it at $4.00. The marketer in me changed that to $3.99 and that is its price.

We now arrive at the decision point over which much ink has been spilled: go exclusive with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or sell across multiple platforms. There are excellent arguments for both sides. I looked at my past sales for guidance. Amazon has sold over 80% of the ebooks for Bad Policy and Cabin Fever even though the publisher made sure the books are available everywhere.

The KDP exclusivity period runs for ninety days, when it can be renewed for the next ninety days or not. The biggest advantage for going exclusive with Amazon is to have the book available in Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL).

Thirty percent of Ant Farm ebook sales have come through the KU and KOLL programs. Yes, if a book is not available on KU and KOLL, some people will buy the books, but those folks have already had three years to purchase Bad Policy. Consequently, I decided to start Bad Policy’s rebirth by going exclusive and trumpeting to KU participants that for them the book was now free. Of course, they have to read the book before I see any royalties!

I’ll do the experiment for ninety days, evaluate it, and then decide what to do for the next ninety days. That’s life in the independent author lane. Oh, and here's the link to Amazon if you're interested in in the Seamus McCree novels.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 4/17/16.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kindle Press’s (Presumed) Long Tail

Earlier this month Kindle Press released Ant Farm into the electronic publishing world. To celebrate I held a virtual release party—a new experience for me. Unlike the physical release party I held for the publication of Bad Policy two years ago, this cost considerably less (the prizes were real, but the food was virtual and Facebook charged nothing for the “room” in which we held our conversations).

Also different: I sold no books during those two hours—although one ebook sold on Amazon shortly after we ended.

For traditionally published authors, presales and first week/month sales are absolutely crucial. Physical shelf space is a scarce commodity (scarcer as bookstores use more of their square footage for nonbook merchandise, coffee bars, and the like).

Only so many books can be featured in high sales locations (new releases, the bookstore’s staff “picks” on a table shoppers must pass). Make a big splash and your book continues to command prime store real estate. Make a moderate splash, and your book remains on the shelves. Not enough of a splash to scare a goldfish and your books are returned to sender, with negative consequences for future book sales by the same author.

This traditional approach is all about the head of the sales beast—the big rush at the beginning—and very little about the tail of the distribution.

Kindle Press with the Kindle Scout program takes a different approach: it gives away the head. [Skip the rest of this paragraph if you already know how the Kindle Scout nomination process works.] As part of how Kindle Press determines which books to publish in electronic format, each book is presented to the public for thirty days for people to nominate. If someone nominates a book that Kindle Press selects, then when the ebook is available for pre-sale, that person will get a free Kindle version of the book, with the expressed hope they will leave a review.

These free copies of the Kindle book are a significant portion of what would have been the distribution beast’s head. Given the extensive campaign I undertook to make people aware of the Kindle Scout nomination process for Ant Farm, there are very few people I know who read electronically who will not already be receiving a free book. No one who came to the virtual release party needed to buy Ant Farm; they already had it.

For someone like me with a small following (although loyal, thank you readers), the only way Kindle Press will recoup its upfront costs is through their marketing of Ant Farm. Not that I can’t and won’t continue to promote the book, but the choir to which I can preach already know the hymn. It is up to Kindle Press to find new churches in which to sing Ant Farm’s praises.

Picture traditional publishing as a controlled flood (an oxymoron?) They hold back a reservoir of books until publication date, open the sluice gates, and in a massive rush the books pour out, hopefully to be purchased by the buying public. If not, then the detritus from the flood is cleared away in bargain bins, sold to remainder operations, or recycled.

Consider the Kindle Press experiment as akin to a leaky faucet. It steadily drip—drip—drips its way to success. Oh sure, from time to time someone opens the faucet and lets it run wide open for a while, but even when that gush of promotion turns off, we still hear the steady drip, drip, drip as a book here, a book there finds its way electronically onto someone’s reading device.

Some of the Kindle Press books have taken off from the start—the faucet is wide open. Many of the romances have done particularly well, rising into the top 1,000 ranking of Kindle books sold, meaning many people are buying the books daily. Others books, started with the drips, but with a blast of Amazon attention suddenly sell a bunch before returning to the drips as the promotion ends.

The Kindle Press advance is $1,500. They also have their time and money invested in each book (editing, layout, overhead, etc.) Let’s say that’s another $1,500 (they won’t say). Since royalties are mostly at the 50% rate, it takes selling roughly 1,000 books to cover the advance and the estimated internal costs. (It varies based on the book price, but Kindle books have been initially priced between $2.99 and $3.99, with the average currently at $3.45). Recently a number of the Kindle Press books entered a month-long $2.00 promotion and sales for those books increased significantly, but at a smaller profit.

The Kindle Press contract locks authors in for two years. To cover the $3,000 initial outlay they need to average selling a bit less than one and a half books a day. Drip, drip, drip. To continue to control the book for the next three years means Kindle Press needs to generate royalties of at least $500 a year. A book a day will accomplish that. Drip, drip, drip.

After five years the author can exit the contract if Kindle Press has not paid at least $25,000 in royalties. I predict many books will not reach that payout. Regardless, let’s assume all a book accomplishes is to make enough sales to keep the author in the contract for the five years. That will be a minimum of 2,000 sales over the five years.

Rounding liberally, that means that book has gross sales of $7,000. Royalties are a something over $3,000 (reflecting transaction fees); gross income is the same $3,000. Profit is $1,500, or 100% after 5 years. Not a bad return on investment. And remember, that’s on a drip, drip, drip of sales—just slightly more than one a day. When one of the Kindle Press books has the faucet wide open, the profit margins for Amazon are quite high.

It is easy to understand why Amazon would like the premise behind Kindle Press. What about an author’s perspective?

I have a series. People who read my books like them (average reader ratings are well over 4 out of 5), but not enough people know of the books because most people don’t like them so well that they buy them for other people or insist that their libraries stock them. In what I consider a worst-case scenario, if Amazon only sells 2,000 books – those are 2,000 new readers (remember my old readers received the book for free). Some percentage of these folks will buy other books in the series. That means the distribution of my sales tail is even fatter than Amazon’s!

And if Amazon works magic and Ant Farm becomes a big seller, it’s all to our mutual benefit. What that means is I am not stressing out that as I write this Ant Farm’s ranking is just around 100,000, It’s early days of a very long tail, and I am planning on enjoying the ride.

Oh yes, if you would like to add to my drip, drip, drip, here’s a purchase link for Ant Farm.

~ Jim

[An earlier version of this blog appeared on Writers Who Kill 6/21/15]

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kindle Scout and Me

Have you heard about the relatively new Kindle Scout program? If not, I’ll tell you about it in a minute. If so, I’ll tell you why I chose to try it.

But first, here’s how I came to my decision to try to qualify for this Amazon publishing venture and here is the link where you can nominate my book, Ant Farm.

The situation before Kindle Scout

The Seamus McCree series is published by Barking Rain Press (BRP), a small publisher. The books have generated positive reader reviews. The few professional reviews they have received have also been positive. But BRP does not have the resources for any kind of major publicity campaign. While I have done what I can to promote the books, one aspect I have not had any control over (nor would I in a traditional publishing contract) is the ability to aggressively price books to generate a larger reader base.

I have confidence that if I can get people to read a book in the series, they will want to read more about Seamus and friends and the scrapes they get into. If I were persistent and produced a book a year, by the time I had five or seven books in the series, I would have built a bigger following and the series might have traction. Was there a better way?

My electronic equivalent of the bottom drawer contained the first novel I wrote with Seamus McCree. I referred to it as my practice novel because, through its dozen drafts I learned how to write a mystery. It was good enough to garner an agent offer, but not strong enough to be published, and so six years ago, I put it aside. Last fall I reread it. Ant Farm had good bones, but needed major work to bring it up to my current standards. With effort, I could make it an excellent read.

If I self-published that reworked story, I could use it as a marketing device to help bring readers into the series. It could be a loss leader for the series. I could hook readers with Ant Farm and continue to provide good stories with Bad Policy, Cabin Fever, and Doubtful Relations (the manuscript I put aside to rework Ant Farm). Done correctly, I could build the Seamus McCree “franchise” more quickly.

After hemming and hawing at this change in plans from finishing Doubtful Relations first, I decided to tackle Ant Farm. I rewrote, re-edited, sent to beta readers, re-edited, proofread, and now it’s ready to go.

While I was revising, Amazon announced the Kindle Scout program. Briefly, it is a way for Amazon to get great content for their Kindle ebooks and Audible audio books based on reader nominations. An author submits a complete book in one of three genres, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance or Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Amazon staff reviews the submission, which includes a book cover, logline, blurb, author bio and some optional questions the author can answer. If they appear reasonable, within a couple of business days the book is listed and available for nomination. My direct link is https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/3IATL9SA04ZS2

Disadvantages of Kindle Scout Program

Extra preparation

Submitting to the Kindle Scout program cost me no money and only a bit of time to jump through their hoops.

Unlike traditional publishing where the publisher produces the book cover, for Scout I had to submit one. Since I had planned to self-publish anyway, I already had a cover prepared. However, I had to develop a logline with a maximum of 45 characters, a short blurb (max 500 characters), cram my author bio into another 500-character limit, and choose three questions to answer, each in 300 characters.

I can use the logline for promotion, and the other stuff didn’t take too much time, and I had no extra cost, so the process was not much of a burden.

Loss of Pricing Control

Recall that one of my reasons for independently publishing Ant Farm was to maintain pricing control so I could generate free and reduced price opportunities to introduce people to the Seamus McCree series. Amazon, as the publisher, controls all pricing decisions. They will decide if the book is $2.99 or $5.99 or whatever. They’ll decide whether to provide free days.

Loss of Timing Control

If selected, Amazon determines when the ebook version of Ant Farm will be published. Had I not gone this route, I could have had the ebook available currently. That possibly cost a bit of revenue, but not much.

Kindle only

If accepted, my ebook will be available only in the Kindle format sold by Amazon or loaned through their Prime and Kindle Unlimited programs. No Barnes and Noble, no Kobo, no Scribd or Oyster. Amazon generates about 75% of my ebook sales. That means hooking my wagon to their horse gives up 25% of that potential revenue if all things are equal.

But will they be equal? I don’t think so, which brings us to the advantages as I see them.



Advantages of Kindle Scout Program

Promotion

The primary reason I wanted to independently publish Ant Farm was to generate more readers for the Seamus McCree series. I believe (no facts on which to judge as the program is too new) that Amazon will want the early books to succeed. As of this writing, the Kindle Scout program has selected eight books in November, eight in December, and so far only one in January [update: three now selected].

If they choose my book, it will be one of the first published, and I believe they will make sure those books will do well. They will promote the heck out of them, and they can do that much better than I, because they have the platform for it.

Advance

The Kindle Scout program pays a $1,500 advance for books they publish. That advance would cover the editing and book cover costs I’ve incurred. Whatever royalties I earn would be profit.

Free Publicity

Participating in the Kindle Scout program provides 30 days of free publicity for Ant Farm and by extension the entire series. Even if not selected, at the end of the 30-day period those people who nominate the book receive an email from me thanking them for their interest and inviting them to keep in touch with an email address and link to my website.

Plus, during the nomination process I will use social media to generate interest in Ant Farm’s participation in the program. If others retweet and share Facebook posts, it provides additional content for new people to learn of the series.

As the saying goes, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” [Update: several people have told me they have purchased Bad Policy based on reading the selected chapters of Ant Farm.]

Exit Strategy

The initial contract with Kindle Scout is five years. However, if the ebook does not meet defined monetary goals, an author can cancel the contract in as few as two years. My contracts with Barking Rain Press have a three-year lock in. In reading Kindle Scout’s contract, it’s clear they intend the authors to be successful and if not, let them out of the program. So, if it is a bust, I can exit after two years, self-publish on all the platforms, and move on.

My conclusions

It comes down to giving up total control and ebook retailers to gain Amazon’s marketing power. Given my current level of sales, I think it provides a good risk/return tradeoff. Others may be in different places in their writing careers and could come to a different conclusion for them.
In case I haven’t been obvious. If you haven’t nominated Ant Farm yet, I hope you will. If you have, then thank you very much. I am offering extra praise for those who help publicize Ant Farm’s quest by letting others know.

It’s a good book, although I am a bit prejudiced.

~ Jim

[Update: This blog was originally published 2/1/15 on Writers Who Kill. As of this posting, Ant Farm has retained its "Hot" Label through the first seven days, thanks to all the people who have responded to my request to check the book out and nominate it if they like it. Thank you so much.]

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Effect of Amazon’s Subscription Service

Kindle Unlimited (KU) has interesting features for readers and authors. To summarize the basics of their subscription service:

As a reader you have unlimited access to download and read (but not keep) any of their listed books (~700,000 available) for $9.99 per month.

Amazon pays authors an unspecified amount each time a KU subscriber selects (and at least partially reads) one of their books.

Which Readers Will Choose KU?

Which readers will utilize this service? After the thirty-day free trial, only readers who expect to obtain greater value by purchasing the KU service than the $9.99 cost will continue in the program. That only makes sense. If the average Kindle book available for KU retails for $2.99, it only takes four books a month to be ahead of the game. Of course, if you select books listed for $0.99, it requires ten per month to be worthwhile.

Ah, but national bestsellers often cost more than $10.00. Just a single one would make it a valuable program. Problem: the big five publishers have chosen (correctly, from their standpoint) to withhold most of their titles from KU.

Regardless, let’s assume Ms. Reader pays Amazon her $9.99; how is her behavior likely to change?

(1) Any book not in KU has an added cost; any book in KU is free for the month. All other things equal, Ms. Reader chooses books in KU.

Author implication: Those who choose KU are less likely to buy books not part of KU.

(2) All things equal, we all like a bargain. That suggests Ms. Reader will choose more expensive books. She’ll “save” more. Free books are no longer as attractive—all KU books are the same “free.”
Author implication: The cachet of “free books,” already diminished in value by the sheer volume of available books and the large percentage of free books that are not worth reading because of inadequate editing and poor formatting, will further decrease. Why read a free book when I can read one that costs $2.99? Why try a new author when I can read all the backlist of an author I know and like?

Authors will need to evaluate whether maintaining the first in their series as a “perma-free” book is still the best strategy. Will it be better to price that book at (say) $2.99, but periodically have advertised promotions to provide free books to those not participating in KU?

Amazon’s Author Payment Mechanism

Amazon pays authors for loans from KU from a pool it sets up. What is the size of the pool? Here’s a quote from Amazon’s Q&A: 

We review the size of the KDP Select Global Fund each month, in order to make it compelling for authors to enroll their books in KDP Select.

I read this statement as “We’ll find the lowest possible payment that keeps authors in the program.” Each author receives a proportionate share of the fund based on loans of their books once the reader has completed 10% of the book (first time only). I know Amazon supporters will consider that a jaded statement. The proof will ultimately be in what happens to the level of per loan payment after Amazon has fully marketed the KU program.

Author implication: The Amazon formula does not consider book price; therefore, on relatively high-priced books the author will lose money compared to an equivalent sale. For lower-priced books the opposite is true. Of course, that assumes a book loaned through KU has reduced books sold one-for-one. Early anecdotal evidence was that more books were loaned than were lost in sales. More recent anecdotal evidence is that total author income has decreased.

Bonuses for Top-selling Authors

Amazon also pays top-selling KU authors a bonus. Whether Amazon pays the bonus out of a separate fund or the same “global fund” is immaterial. Money is fungible and Amazon is the only one who decides the size of the global fund, so it is only a question of pulling the money from their right pocket or left pocket.

In business a useful rule of thumb is the “80/20” rule. For example, many businesses find that 80% of profits arise from 20% of their customers. I am guessing Amazon finds that roughly 20% of its authors account for roughly 80% of revenue. Keeping these 20% happy is much more important than keeping the folks who sell a few books a month.

The bonus program is a way to entice those authors into the program.
Author implication: Two major decisions an author must make are traditional publishing or indie publishing, and if indie publishing, whether or not to go exclusive with Amazon for ebooks. (I can see no compelling reason to be exclusive with any other retailer; Amazon has approximately 70% ebook market share.)

Since the bonus program is determined monthly, the group of “hot” authors will rotate. However, it will always favor those with large lists in the KU program over newer authors with a small number of titles.

Writing more and faster is a winning strategy for authors if they can keep the quality of their product high.

Other Predicted Effects on the Publishing Market

Assuming Amazon can retain popular indie authors for KU, I anticipate more readers will decide $120 a year is a good deal even if books by the major publishers are not available. The three most popular genres for ebooks are Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, and Science fiction/Fantasy.
Younger adults are accustomed to subscription services for audio and video, and also more accepting of new technologies. This combination makes them receptive to subscription services for ebooks. I expect people who heavily read indie published authors will rapidly gravitate to the subscription service.

Readers will join a subscription service for only three reasons: (1) it is the only way to receive the goods (not applicable for books) or (2) it saves them money or (3) the convenience is worth the extra cost. Amazon has made it so easy to download an ebook onto a Kindle or app, there is very little additional convenience to be had. Therefore, Amazon’s subscription service will survive because it saves customers money.

If readers are saving money, it means authors will earn less.

This may not happen immediately; Amazon has shown that it is willing to invest to gain market share before reaping profits. But Amazon did not introduce KU to lose money long term. By the end of 2015, I predict those who exclusively rely upon Amazon will earn less than they would have before the introduction to KU.

That said, it does not mean those authors will be economically better off leaving Amazon’s exclusive products in order to sell across multiple platforms. Remaining solely under Amazon’s banner with its additional benefits may still be the best decision, but by the end of 2015 significantly more of the publication profits will flow to Amazon than to the author.

~ Jim

[This blog originally published on Writers Who Kill 1/2/2015]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Authors United Next Tries DOJ

After deciding Amazon’s Board of Directors might not understand Amazon’s business practices, [see my previous blog] Authors United now thinks they can educate the United States Department of Justice on antitrust issues as reported by The Bookseller in this article .

According to Douglas Preston, the leader and spokesperson for Authors United, “They (DOJ) are expecting this letter and they have told me that they welcome any information we can provide.”
Well, sure. The DOJ is always interested in information about any company’s anticompetitive actions. However, unless Authors United can provide specific actions Amazon has taken and document their competitive consequences, Authors United has nothing. And, given the lack of details in anything they have so far produced, I am so far past skeptical as to be disbelieving.

Here’s a suggestion for Authors United: Work with your publishers to provide consumers alternatives to Amazon. Have your publishers offer your books at significant discounts. Offer free shipping on all hardcover purchases or orders of paperbacks that exceed, say $35. Figure out a way to sign those books. Encourage your publishers to offer larger discounts to independent bookstores so they can provide lower prices to their customers.

While the Amazon/Hachette dispute continues each of the A-listers (regardless of publisher) could schedule joint bookstore appearances with Hachette debut authors garnering them more than sufficient publicity to offset Amazon’s antics and make positive news in the bargain.

Be creative in ways that have a real chance for making a difference in the future of publishing and in the lives of your fellow authors. Put on your grown-up clothes and act as adults, rather than continue your recent antics, which remind us of spoiled children asking any and everyone else to make a “bully” play fair.


~ Jim

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Latest Authors United Letter Misfires

The group Authors United spearheaded by Douglas Preston intends to send (or has sent, depending on when you read this) a letter to the Amazon Board of Directors regarding the Amazon/Hachette dispute. Given the dispute has been going on for months, it seems unlikely any director is unaware of the situation, so what is the purpose of the letter? Perhaps the group is trying to put pressure on the directors in their other working capacities? It will be interesting to see what (if any) reaction this letter brings from the directors.

My concerns are not with writing a letter to the Directors, but with the content of the letter. If the drafters would stick to facts, they could make a more powerful argument. But they stray from facts into justification, and that negates the power of the facts.

Potent charges:

“About six months ago, to enhance its bargaining position, Amazon began sanctioning Hachette authors' books. These sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors' pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books.

These sanctions have driven down Hachette authors' sales at Amazon.com by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent. These sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books. Because of Amazon's immense market share and its proprietary Kindle platform, other retailers have not made up the difference. Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership.”

Had the authors next provided specific data to back up their statements—for example, screen shots of pop-ups, a case study of a debut author whose debut was ruined, and perhaps made pre-dispute post-dispute comparisons—they could have cemented in their readers’ minds how Amazon was harming specific authors. Putting faces on the problem would invoke wider sympathy. Authors who have “sold more than a billion books” should know about proper characterization.

Where the wheels fall off their arguments

The wheels fall off their battering ram in their attempt to storm Amazon’s gates when they stray from facts and wander into attempts at wider justification. The collapse starts with the patently false conclusion of this sentence, “We'd like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest.”

These authors make their living (multiple millions of dollars a year for some of them) based on a traditional publishing model. Threats to that model, including Amazon’s tactics and marketplace power, are threats to their individual welfare. Amazon is negotiating with Hachette today, but soon it with be negotiating with the other four of the big five publishers. Those signing authors with contracts with the other big publishers want Amazon to back off now before their publisher suffers similar negotiating tactics.

“Efforts to impede or block the sale of books have a long and ugly history.” Reading this sentence, I conjured piles of burning books in the streets and school boards banning books because their content was “anti-religious,” or “smut” or “Devil-worshiping.” Is this what they would have us believe Amazon is doing? Where is their angst about independent bookstores refusing to carry books published by their competitor, Amazon? Perhaps I missed it or it’s coming soon. I’m not holding my breath. This dispute is more akin to Walmart deciding to not stock any P&G products, but carry those of Unilever instead, than banning the sale of toothpaste.

But these authors disagree, and state, “Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.”

How wrong can they be?

Their analysis is wrong on several accounts: Books are indeed consumer goods—who do they think buys their books if not consumers? Books can and are written more cheaply than those accepted by major publishers. Most fiction authors (based on numbers of authors, not sales revenue) write on speculation. They put their heart, soul and countless hours into creating their manuscript. Many will give their work away or sell it for $0.99 just to have others read it. That each book is unique is immaterial.

No person has a right to demand society pay in order for the individual to follow his dream, nor to specify how that dream should be funded. “Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books.” Is the implication here that, if Amazon is successful, publishers will no longer use advances as a selling tool to entice authors to sign with them?

They would have us believe that because of the additional risk caused by Amazon’s negotiating tactics, publishers cannot afford advances? In 2013 the big five publishers had record earnings (over $1 billion), according to Publishers Lunch with gross profit margins of almost 11% on sales of almost $9.3 billion. The letter’s authors need to document any decline in advances that has occurred after (and therefore perhaps because of) disputes with Amazon.

At best, it is too early to tell the effect this dispute will have on advances, and ignores the change in large publishers’ practices regarding advances for midlist authors—a topic too large to address here.

Amazon’s purported responsibilities to the current system

The letter goes on to ask, “What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors, copy editors, and other publishing staff who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?”

The publishing arm of Amazon pays advances to some of its authors; but more to the point, why is it Amazon the retailer’s responsibility to devise a solution to a postulated problem of declining advances? And what does the role of editors, copy editors, etc. have to do with anything relating to Amazon’s tactics in negotiating with Hachette?

Amazon (the retailer) is a middleman, selling content—in this case books. If the quality is high (however consumers define quality), people will buy it. If they don’t like the product they don’t buy it unless they have to, and books are not (for most people) a required purchase. Consumers don’t much care how the product is made; they only care about the overall level of satisfaction the product provides.

Furthermore, if venture capital is so important to authors (especially nonfiction per the letter), are publishers the only source? Today crowdsourcing funds a variety of businesses and some authors are selling pieces of their future revenues. In times past, individual patrons sponsored artists; perhaps aspiring authors need to find angel investors for the 21st century. My point is that even if advances are important for authors, publishers, while the current source, are not the only source, and it is unlikely Amazon is the only cause of their demise, should that happen.

My advice to the authors of these letters intending to get public support for publishers in their disputes with Amazon: use your talents to paint rich pictures of how regular folks have been devastated by Amazon’s practices. Give us a debut author whose books gathered terrific advanced reviews, whose sales at Barnes and Noble and Independent Bookstores are gangbusters, but because they are not listed on Amazon, the publishers will consider the book a flop. Find a single parent author whose spouse died fighting in Iraq and who is the sole support for three small children. Imply Amazon has ruined this family’s lives, even if it’s not strictly true. Stick a petition on Change.org and get a hundred-thousand signatures. Have Michal Moore make a documentary. Then, maybe you can put some pressure on Amazon.

This letter? An embarrassing misfire.

~ Jim