Amazon–Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts
Last week, I picked on The Big Six in Bracing for Impact–The Future of Big Publishing in the New Paradigm, so today we are going to talk about Amazon. There seem to be two camps when it comes to Amazon. Either they are a tool of Satan and are actually responsible for the cute kitten trafficking to fund drug cartels in Guatemala, or they are the great and benevolent
Optimus Amazon Prime, the one to free the enslaved creatives from their oppressive Big Six Masters.
Which is the truth? More on that in a moment. A little story first to help this sink in…
Some of you may or may not
care know that I actually earned my B.A. in International Relations with a heavy emphasis on political economy (specifically dealing with the Middle East and North Africa). Back in the day, I wanted to be a foreign service officer or an analyst. So what did I do? I booked a flight to Syria.
The day after graduation, a cohort and I boarded a plane to Damascus. Our goal was to modernize a small paper company. We sought to streamline production and minimize inefficiencies. We were young, we were smart, we were…seriously
dumb out of our depth.
Our plan was to help a paper plant stuck in the 60s come join the rest of the world in the 90s. We believed we could help them become competitive in a digital world so they could be competitive in the 21st century. (Sound familiar?)
Yes, that was the plan. What did we actually do?
We spent most of our time waiting on our driver to come pick us up from the refugee camp where we were staying. Yep, waiting…and more waiting…and counting goats. And, beyond that? We tried to chew ourselves free from the bureaucratic red tape that kept us from doing anything meaningful…and we drank a lot of Turkish coffee.
Why the trip down Memory Lane?
Little did I know back in 1999, that, a decade later I would become a voice for writers in a new paradigm. See, back then I thought my passion was politics, but it was actually people all along. I traveled halfway across the globe to one of the most dangerous places for a blonde with a big mouth and zero common sense to be. And, though I failed back then, I am better prepared now…to help you guys.
Huh? I’ll explain.
The Problem with a Monopoly
Here is the thing. Syria is a dictatorship, and being a dictatorship, they really don’t care for a free market system despite any rhetoric about wanting to modernize. The paper company we wanted to streamline? They were the ONLY paper company, so anyone who wanted to wipe their tush or blow their nose, HAD to buy it from this company.
Those at the top were, well, on top. They didn’t need to listen to well-meaning college graduates who might have actually helped them be more efficient and make more money. They already had a lot of money and they controlled anything paper.
Failure will teach us far more than success ever will…
That time in Syria taught me a lot. Aside from the sound pop on the snoot to teach me I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, I got a solid dose of the downfalls of a monopoly. You see, success was the paper company’s worst enemy. They had a lock on an important commodity and no competition. With no competition, they got lazy. There were gross inefficiencies in production and distribution and quality control was dismal at best.
But why would they change? There was no one else consumers could go to.
Talk is Cheap
I also learned that talk is cheap. Companies can say they care, that they want to be efficient, that they want to offer good products. Heck they can say it until the cows come home and that doesn’t mean a thing. It is generally only when there is an outside threat that these companies will get their act together.
So what does this have to do with publishing?
Part of why The Big Six have been able to be so grotesquely inefficient has been due to the fact that, historically, they’ve controlled distribution. They held the keys to the kingdom. Big Publishing didn’t have any decent competition, so no credible threat, thus there was no real impetus to do things faster, better, cheaper.
Oh, but that has changed. Yet with all these changes and innovations, does the future look brighter for the publishing industry and for writers?
Not so hasty…
Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts
Amazon is the 500 pound gorilla in the room, only we can’t see it because it is hidden neatly inside a giant digital Trojan Horse. Don’t get me wrong, I buy plenty of stuff off Amazon, and they have done a lot to help shake up the industry and get New York hopping. Without them, I don’t believe we would have seen so many miraculous changes so quickly.
Ah, but every fairy tale has a dark side…
I really hope New York gets its act together, because, once the competition falls away and Amazon burns New York to the ground? What happens to the writer? What happens when we fall asleep and it is safe for Amazon’s Trojan Horse to unleash the gorilla?
Amazon right now is in the courting phase with writers, and it is using us (writers) as a weapon to kill our former masters. Ah, but if Amazon really gets its way…what then?
When NY is razed and Amazon has no real competition, do they have to keep giving us the same sweet royalty rate? And they already have a nasty reputation. They pulled that little stunt with a publisher who dared to cross them. Two years ago, they removed all the “Buy Buttons” off all the Macmillan titles. So, if Amazon will use the brass knuckles on a major publisher that crossed their path…what about us? The little guys? What happens when a writer miffs them and they unleash the gorilla?
Lord Acton so eloquently said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that statement is as relevant today in 2012 as it was in 1887, because while industries change and technology changes, humans are timeless. So what happens when it’s Amazon’s turn to hold all the keys to the kingdom? Will they use them any differently than those they crushed to gain them?
The Perks without the Works
Unlike NY, Amazon isn’t searching through all the millions of wanna-bes for a handful of investments. Anyone can publish quickly and cheaply. Writers are running to them! The problem with this is they get all the benefits of being a publisher without any real sacrifice.
A lawyer friend of mine noted that when writers publish on Amazon, we all agree to the same blanket contract. This gives Amazon all the perks of being a publisher without concerning itself with any of the traditional protections for the writer.
And, I understand that writers haven’t been treated all that great in the past, but we need to ask the tough question. Is this future better? Is trading one dictator for another a good plan?
Amazon having total control is a particularly frightening scenario for indie and self-published authors, because many aren’t repped by agents with the legal know-how to fight any injustice. Oh, I suppose we could sue, but Amazon has armies of high-powered attorneys to make a lesson out of any of us who tried.
I know this sounds a little Orwellian, but when everyone else is gone, what is to stop Amazon from having “technical errors” that just happen to lose YOUR books? What’s to stop another “Buy Button” glitch? What’s to stop them from demanding we all sell our books for $2.99 and if we don’t comply, we suddenly start having “technical errors”?
Yes, I read a lot of Asimov in my formative years.
Amazon is great at selling the cheapest stuff. They sell everything from camping equipment to push-up bras. Books are just another commodity…right?
Books are not TVs and Writers are not Camping Equipment
See, NY has its share of problems, but one thing NY has going for it is the LOVE of the written word. They VALUE it. Now, they might be valuing it in a way that isn’t competitive, but at the end of the day, they still VALUE it in a way that I believe eludes Amazon.
To Amazon? The gorilla doesn’t have the same sentimental connection. The bottom line and making money is all that matters, and, sure, they love selling motorcycles, but the romance genre alone is worth BILLIONS.
Some people say, “It’s just business.” Yet, Amazon has not had any problem going to the mattresses to dominate the market and drive competitors out of the game. I guarantee you that, if Amazon does manage to finish off the major competition, they will soon open their own brick-and-mortar bookstores on Barnes & Noble’s grave. Why do I say this? In my book, the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. How will we writers feel about this type of “business” when we land in the cross-hairs?
You will know them by their works…
Great, Amazon wants to bring affordable and convenient shopping to the consumer. Awesome. But the question becomes, what are they willing to do to increase their profit margin?
Publishers Weekly announced on February 1st of 2012 that:
Amazon is continuing to report record growth. The electronic and general merchandise segment that includes the Kindle devices posted a 51% fourth quarter increase and a 57% gain for 2011.
So, as a former wanna-be analyst and paper salesperson (post-Syria), what do these numbers say to me? They spell potential big trouble in the future. See, I know what it is like to be the sales guy. Sure, when you are opening up into a new territory with no competition and you have a 57% gain in a quarter, you are hailed a genius! A hero!
Ah, but the numbers always look good when penetrating a new market. It’s like turning on a water hose to fill an empty pool. Every drop looks awesome. But once the pool is full?
Those numbers don’t look as impressive and the board of directors want to know where you, the salesperson failed. Why aren’t we seeing the same profits? What do we need to do to see 57% gains every quarter? The shareholders want to see profits!
And this is usually where the trouble begins.
This is the point that the benevolent
dictatorship monopoly turns into a tyrant, because it is all about the bottom line and the spreadsheets. They lose all sense of reality and fail to see that no company can make 57% gains every quarter into perpetuity. This is where they start gutting geese writers for golden eggs best-selling books.
Sure, Amazon is great now that everyone is allowed to publish, but what if, in a few years, they no longer like that business model and they only want shiny darlings like Eisler and Konrath? What’s to stop them from becoming Big Six 2.0? What’s to stop them from jerking around our royalty rates? What’s to stand in their way and keep them from trafficking cute kittens to fund Guatemalan drug cartels?
We seem to be the ones that get left out, but we are the most important. We weren’t well-represented at Digital Book World or even the recent ToC (Porter Anderson explores this in depth in the latest Writing on the Ether.) Yet, without writers there are no stories, no books to sell.
Take heart, my peeps. We hold more power than we know.
How do we make New York wake up, snap in line and treat us better than they have in the past? How do we keep the belly of the Amazon Trojan Horse closed and the greedy gorilla at bay? How can we help ensure that the indies popping up all over have a viable marketplace to grow and put down roots and fairly compete?
We band together, we get educated, and we become empowered. Our author platform is the most powerful tool at our disposal. It makes NY take us seriously, and it will help keep Amazon playing nice. I would even be so bold as to say that our platforms will determine the future landscape of publishing.
An author with a platform is a citizen, an author without one is a subject.
There are too many authors who want to just write and hand the books and the business to someone else. That is a dangerous and risky plan.
No Platform=No Options
An author with a viable social media platform is empowered, and is more than just an author. Writers plugged into the WANA community are transformed. They are a new breed of faster, smarter and strangely good-looking writers. They are a WANAuthor. WANAuthors are citizens of the new publishing paradigm with a voice and a vote.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead
We Are Not Alone
Writers! Remember, We Are Not Alone (WANA) and together we are stronger. This is a great time to be a writer, and the future looks bright, but we are in this together. We are no longer indie, self-pub or traditional…we are WRITER-KIND. One global race comprised of storytellers, inspirers and educators with one mission…to fill the world with amazing books.
In a world where power corrupts and talk is cheap, we need each other more than ever. Our platforms and our voice keep the despots in check because we have the power to
remove them from office take our business elsewhere.
What are your thoughts? Fears? Concerns? What do you see on the horizon and what are your solutions or suggestions? Hey, together we are stronger, but we are also smarter. I read every comment, so raise your voice!
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
This Week’s Mash-Up of Awesomeness
Those Who Can’t Self-Publish, Really? by Girls with Pens
The Big Six Publishers are Dead-6 Critical Factors for the Future by Richard Monro
Speak Strength to Yourself by Shelli Johnson
100 Tips to Alleviate Self-Doubt by Matthew Turner at Jane Friedman’s place
NYTBSA Bob Mayer has another perspective about Amazon over at his place. The Reality of Amazon and the Digital Publishing World.
Publication–Perfection Not Required by the amazing Jody Hedlund.
25 Things I Want to Say to So-Called ‘Aspiring Writers’ by the word-pirate Chuck Wendig
Let the Good Times Roll AWESOME post by the talented Ingrid Schaffenburg
Women Peeing Outdoors by Natalie Hartford. Hey! It’s funny and makes the mash-up eclectic.
Jenny Hansen has an AWESOME lesson about Triberr (Triberr is a tool to manage all those blogs you like to read).