“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you” about my real feelings regarding Amazon vs. Hachette. Ok, ok, Darcy WAS asking Elizabeth Bennett to marry him, not taking sides in the current publishing wars. But, as a new indie author, I am taking a side, Amazon’s to be specific, and I want to talk about why.
Although I wrote my first books over 15 years ago, they were never published. I did submit the first three chapters of one to some publishing houses, and was even asked for the rest of the book. But it wasn’t bought, and at the time, you really needed a literary agent to get in the door. As the mother of a toddler, with a fairly demanding full time job, and a horse farm to keep going, seeking one out seemed like more than I could take on. Not to mention, finding a literary agent in Michigan in the ‘90’s wasn’t a matter of just looking it up online and sending some emails – this was the age of the yellow pages, when AOL chat rooms were the latest thing in connectivity!
I wrote several romances, and like so many others’ works, they lay abandoned in my desk, their obsolete floppy disks gazing at me imploringly, and pushing my guilt buttons every time I tried to organize things.
Fast forward to the modern era. It became more and more apparent to me that e-book publishing had eliminated the enormous barriers to entry in this industry that the publishing-industrial complex had long maintained. I bought a little drive that could resuscitate my 5 1/4 inch floppy disk-bound novels, turned them into updated Word files and proceeded to review them. I decided that if I did some updating they might sell. I recruited a friend familiar with promoting websites, and another to help me with the updating and editing, and we formed an LLC to publish the books. You can get very nice freelanced covers made for less than fifty dollars. There are many, many excellent websites that help you learn how to promote your books on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, GoodReads, etc., in addition to "The Naked Truth about Self-Publishing", an amazing book by the equally amazing women of The Indie Voice, and in short order we were in business.
Just over six months later, my first books, A Most Unusual Situation and A Duchess Enraged, were in the Kindle store. Within seven weeks we had sold over 2,000 copies, and made the bestselling e-books list in a couple of categories. Our first royalty checks from Amazon were for over $900.00. I’m a historical romance writer, who publishes two versions of my Georgian or Regency period novels, one a no sex “Traditional” version, and the other an “After Dark” version with a healthy helping of sensuality. I’ve now published two versions of three stories, and sales continue to rise. Information on pricing, promotion, editing, cover art, etc. is all shared among authors. My books are selling, and I’m having fun.
So what is missing in the indie publishing world? Well, as far as I can tell it’s barriers to entry, which is anathema to bricks and mortar publishers, who rely on them to make their high cost business model work. Literary agents, who charge you a significant percentage of your earnings to monetize their contacts in publishing, are missing. Executives in plush offices in New York, London or Paris are missing. So are their fancy lunches at expensive restaurants, and pricey book launch parties to be enjoyed by the select few. So too, are the elite and elitist reviewers at the NY Times, WSJ, and other major media outlets. Hachette’s offices are at 237 Park Avenue, New York, where space rents for more than $100/sq ft. And don’t get me started on literary festivals, the incestuous relationship with Hollywood (Cannes Festival, anyone?) and the rest of it. Bridget Jones Diary, in addition to being a fantastic book, is a great movie, and has some wonderful send ups of the book publishing world. Watch this clip for a hysterical cut from a book launch party.
Meanwhile, the pipeline of books available to readers is relatively narrow - due to that infamous slushpile. Amazon.com, however, is one ginormous slushpile, and I don’t have to rely on someone to search Hachette's materials, select a “worthy” author, and eventually publish something I can buy. Instead, I can use online searching to find the stuff I might want to read, and democratized reviewing, sample chapters, and other digital methods to decide if I want to read it, instead of a handful of reviews of a minuscule percentage of the books out there to make my decisions. Another benefit? The advent of indie e-publishing opened new, never-before-seen genres for writers and readers. Gay Regencies, anyone?
Publishing has changed a great deal for magazines and newspapers, with democratization of content preparation, and the atomization of interest areas. I guess the moaning is over for this somewhat, and we are resigned to the fact that Instagram and Pinterest have supplanted many of our favorite fashion, interiors, and cooking magazines. But I can lament the demise of Domino while appreciating the immediacy of online sources, which come in handy when I want a recipe for say, gluten free chocolate chip cookies, right now!
What makes the book business sacrosanct in this changing ecosystem? There seems to be some notion that it is more high-brow and special than other print oriented businesses. Perhaps it’s the celebrity editors, the Nobel prize for literature, not journalism, good PR, or something in the water, that makes people think that protecting the privileges of book publishing executives is more important than protecting those of magazine or newspaper publishers. It is easy to argue that the news is far more important; it’s abundantly clear that the decline of fact-based news reporting in favor of politically influenced “opinions,” “beliefs,” or just plain bald faced lies disseminated by point of view driven “news” outlets, negatively affects public policy discourse and political decision making. But we don’t hear too many laments about that any more.
A common theme among traditionally published authors is that “Amazon will come for you indie authors next.” In the short term, it’s hard to worry about this, because traditional publishers won’t come for me at all, so to speak (see “barriers to entry” discussion above) and in the meantime, I’m having fun and making money.
But, taking this seriously as a long term issue, I suppose that the main concern is that Amazon puts all the traditional publishers out of business, except for the University presses and scientific publishers like Elsevier, then tries to drive down the cut that indie authors get. The question is, can this work for them? There are several compelling reasons to believe that this is unlikely.
Why? Well, take a look at the television and movie business. The advent of cable TV and digital streaming of TV and movie content has radically changed the broadcast model as well as the Hollywood studio business. Thanks to YouTube, Hulu, NetFlix and countless others, many, many more channels, TV shows and movies are available, and importantly, many more independent content developers are able to produce product and be paid for it than ever before.
Viewers are happy because quality and choice have gone up, and content providers are far more empowered and on average, have the opportunity to make more money than in the days of broadcast/movie theater monopolies on content distribution. Authors are essentially content providers in this model, and today’s publishers are lot like the 3 major networks and the big movie studios. A few stars, agents and executives made a TON of money in the old days, and still do today. But, many people who couldn’t catch a break in the acting and production system, are being paid, and often paid well, to do what they love in the new one. Now, the same is true for writers.
I also think that Amazon’s ability to cram terrible terms down on authors is limited, because there are a LOT of platforms for publishing books available, and it is pretty easy and cheap to create new ones, just as there are many video streaming channels available. Right now, Amazon’s is the best known, has a great brand, and very, very low friction for an author to use, so it’s extremely popular. If these things change enough to cause content providers real pain, new channels would emerge, or authors could band together to create a co-operative hosted on someone else’s platform (Azure, Rackspace, blah, blah, blah) and be up and running in weeks. So, it’s hard to see how Amazon can squeeze the content providers too much. No one is saying that Amazon’s Prime video and music services are threatening the video and music businesses, so why books?
So, all in all, I don’t think the apocalypse is coming for the book business. Like Hollywood, and the music industry, it will adapt. Maybe traditionally published authors should try to flex their pricing muscles and extract better terms from the publishers? Because neither readers, nor writers suffer if fat cat publishing executives take a bit of a haircut on the size of their high rent offices, or their lunches at power hot spots. Of course, I could be all wrong about this, so I should get back to my next book and continue to make money while the Amazon sun shines on us indie authors. I’ll leave you with another happy ending; here is Mark Darcy kissing Bridget Jones, in the last scene of the movie.