Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Should Self Published Authors Boycott Amazon?

Self published authors have a lot to thank Amazon for.  Amazon didn't invent the eBook revolution, but it was a major player in its development.

eBooks have been around for quite a while.  Probably the first major attempt at producing them was Project Gutenberg; in fact their website claims that they invented eBooks in 1971.  I have no reason to challenge that claim.

But in my opinion it was Sony who brought eBooks to life through their first eReading devices.  That was a few years ago, probably about six, and the devices were comparatively expensive by today's prices; basic too.  However, they formed a loyal following and I have to admit I was seriously considering buying one myself just before Amazon launched the first Kindle range.  It wasn't the Kindle that changed my mind and stayed my wallet all those years ago, instead it was the reviews that followed Sony's latest eReader of the time.  The critics slammed Sony for paring back the features and producing a machine that was deemed inferior to the model it had replaced.

Of course, with 20/20 hindsight it is possible to conjugate that Sony had got wind of Amazon's initiative and had cut back on the spec to keep the model competitive price-wise.  Whatever the reason, Sony have not seen the same level of organic growth other manufacturers of the devices have since.

Amazon played around with the device for a few iterations until, with the release of the Kindle 3, they hit the public conciousness.  But they hadn't just played with a piece of hardware, they'd been aggressively pushing for conventionally published books to be released in eBook format, a move that was met with some resistance by the industry and one that led to some interesting court judgements recently.  This was a brave move by Amazon, if only because they chose to ignore what was fast becoming the de facto industry standard of EPUB, instead creating their own version of another, less popular standard named Mobi.  Anyone who has lived through a technology standard war, such as the Betamax/VHS battles of the eighties  will know that it only ends in tears somewhere.  I think it is only due to the phenomenal  success and power of Amazon that they have succeeded in pushing through a version of Mobi that only their machines read. They also encouraged self publishing by authors - either those who had never been published previously and those who had and had the rights to publish their own, previously published, work.

In fact, many self published authors only consider using the Amazon self publishing process, named Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as it serves their needs.  Others only use it because they either don't know how to access the alternative platforms or are concerned that they will become engaged in a process that they find difficult.  A third group only use Amazon because they have succumbed to an outrageous bribe by Amazon with the intention to create a monopoly.  This bribe is achieved by Amazon putting up serious money - around $20 million over the last fourteen months - to bankroll exclusive access to author work, although on paper the program is there to provide a bonus feature to consumers who sign up for Amazon Prime, offering them access to free eBook loans through the Kindle library.

Anyone tied to only Amazon are not being featured on Kobo, Sony, Google machines and, of course, are not listed on Apple which is the only eBook seller to individually challenge Amazon's grip.  In fact, Apple are taking such a large chunk of Amazon's business they are likely to overtake Amazon in a year or so by some estimates.

Now, choosing to only sell through Amazon, or only through Apple or Kobo or anyone else for that matter, is a personal choice for the author to take.  However exclusivity is only being pursued by Amazon; none of the other eBook sellers are trying to lock anyone else out of the market.  From the author perspective, Amazon is an important market but so are all of the other sellers.  I, like many self published authors, found Amazon first and discovered other eBookstores later, through the medium of Smashwords.

Smashwords exist to provide a marketplace for authors to self publish through with similar tools to those provided by Amazon.  In fact the Smashwords tools are more thorough than Amazon's, because Smashwords makes eBooks available to multiple formats and devices, from mobile phones through to full blown PCs via tablet computers and dedicated eReaders.  Obviously they generate files in EPUB, but also in Mobi which can be loaded onto a Kindle device plus other formats that are more niche.  Critically, though, Smashwords doesn't exist to be an alternative eBookshop, it exists to act as a conduit to the likes of Apple, Kobo, WH Smith, Barnes & Noble and many others.  To my eyes there are two notable exceptions; Google Play and Amazon.

I don't know about Google Play - I asked Smashwords why they weren't distributing to Google and they just replied that they're not.  Hardly a complete answer, but then again I don't think Google Play is that relevant in most eBook readers' consciousness right now.  However the Amazon connection is more interesting as they have been approached by Smashwords for some time and have even entered into small scale trials, however they have consistently avoided being supplied with books by Smashwords.  In fact, in the words of Smashwords' CEO, Mark Coker, Amazon has attempted to treat Smashwords as 'a competitor to be crushed, killed and destroyed.'  And Mark is a mild  mannered person not taken to outbursts generally.  You can read his comments on Amazon and his opinions on the eBook industry here.

Why should this matter?  Well, from an author perspective, maintaining author pages at Smashwords makes them available at all the eBook stores they ship to, so write once, use many.  We have to maintain a separate page on Amazon, so we have additional work for little gain.  The same is true when we want to update a book or upload a new novel.  One upload to Smashwords gets the book converted into multiple formats and distributed to many sellers at once whereas we have to go through the whole process again just for Amazon.  Also, monitoring sales through Amazon is becoming a real pain in the proverbial right now as I have to individually drop down 9 separate country windows to find out if I've sold any books overnight - with Smashwords I get a straight numerical figure with detailed data below.

I guess one of the bigger issues is the royalties.  For low cost eBooks, that is $2.99 or less, the author only gets 35% of the selling price with Amazon.  With Apple and most of the other eRetailers the royalty rate is about 60%.  Books bought directly through Smashwords generate even better royalties.  All at no extra cost to the consumer.

Another reason to use Smashwords is the ease of varying pricing, even offering readers free versions of your I did in the run up to the New Year.  You can vary the sale price at Amazon but if you want to run a promotion it isn't user friendly.  And you can't list them for free.  However, they play fast and loose with your prices as they see fit.  Today my books in the US are priced between $1.23 and $1.63 despite being listed at $0.99 with Amazon.  As they are cheaper everywhere else it isn't surprising I don't see people flocking to the Amazon store.  They'll also discount on the Kindle daily deal without telling the author, so not allowing him or her the opportunity to self promote and take advantage of the plug.

So, should consumers of eBooks care?  Well, I think so.  Amazon are clearly attempting to obtain a monopoly on eBooks.  Monopolies are never good news for anyone in the long run.  Sure, your Apple device can run the Amazon Kindle app to let you read their eBooks on, but if Amazon succeed in knocking Apple out of the eBook business, an event admittedly looking unlikely right now, then I'm sure Apple would retaliate by ensuring the app doesn't run on their platform - if they can do it for their own mapping app...

The upshot is that Authors are not being well served by Amazon's restrictive trading actions and, in the long term it is likely that consumers will lose out too.  So the question at the top of the post is aimed at both the author readers and the consumers of eBooks alike.  Now I could boycott Amazon all on my own and in the unlikely event that Amazon noticed I doubt they would lose a nanosecond of sleep over it.  If ten, or even a hundred of us boycotted Amazon the result would likely be the same.  However, if a larger, significant number of authors suspended their books from the Amazon Kindle store, directing readers to Smashwords for those who need Kindle content, then they would.

And I'm not even talking about walking away, as I believe Amazon have an extremely important role to play in the eBook market.  But how about a bit of passive resistance?  How about we suspend our books for a week, the same week, starting and finishing the same day?  What could we expect to achieve, assuming enough took part, enough to make Amazon sit up and notice?

Well, I think parity on royalties with the rest of industry would be a start, as would not being tied to a minimum price.  I would also like to see Amazon sit down with Smashwords, as I'd like to distribute through just the one portal to as many eBook stores at once.  And ultimately I'd like to see Amazon change its views on exclusivity.  I won't sign up for their KDP Select program because I don't like anti-competitive measures - Amazon Prime would get the same boost from offering the eBook lending to subscribers without needing exclusivity at the same time. In fact, more authors would sign up, so their Prime customers would benefit too.

Shall we set a date?  Why not ask your author friends to comment.


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