In reading numerous articles, blogs and comments related to or about Amazon over the last four-five years–both pro and con–I found myself discussing the issue this last weekend with my husband and fellow author. In our minds, the various aspects of the Hachette kerfuffle, the anti-trust arguments and rather vitriolic opinions on the subject came to a head.
What is this issue really about, we pondered while sipping our morning cups of coffee. Why are publishing houses, their contractually-obliged authors and adjacent talking heads so upset with this one company?
Simply stated, it boils down to Control or–more accurately–the loss of it, an issue heavily debated and fought over throughout history.
Take the invention of the printing press, for example, a device that took the idea of mass-producing literature—initially the Bible–and put it squarely in the hands of the consumer. It’s presence provoked an instant catharsis among the mainstream idea-producers of the time, who lost no time in decrying the printing press as “evil” and actively sought to repress its influence.
While this may seem ludicrous—even criminal—to readers now, at that time the printing press was merely a thing that suddenly–and irrevocably—shifted control from one party to others. The press changed when and where the Bible could be read, as well as who could get their hands on it… a truly revolutionary notion. Over time, the initial animosity lessened as literacy and learning increased. More books followed and newspapers cropped up. Ideas flowed and were shared, all because of one invention that—at the time—was heralded by those in control as a bane to humanity.
Utilizing a more modern example, the Internet became a sort of modern reincarnation of the printing press—subsequently giving birth to companies like Amazon–by inducing yet another series of control shifts within the free market. Almost overnight, average consumers could buy a varied array of items online and have them shipped to their doorsteps. These items included books, once strictly available through tightly-controlled displays at brick and mortar stores, or temporarily at libraries. At first, the big publishing houses thought online platforms were merely a niche market, but an intriguing one; some willingly struck deals with the fledgling Amazon.
Quite a few commentators online today seem to forget that the oft-vilified tactics that Amazon now employs were then used by publishing houses, most notably (to me) over the issue of indie writers and control.
Just as the future of the eBook market seemed rosiest, the Kindle Direct Publishing platform rolled out… and the entire publishing industry gaped in yawing horror. For the first time, almost anyone could upload a book without the interference of a literary agent and/or publishing house… and sell it directly to consumers, rejoicing in a royalty that–even in the paper book publishing’s heyday—most authors could only dream about.
“Sacrilege!” publishing houses/firms cried.
“Indeed!” the mainstream media assented.
Even worse—in the minds of such conglomerates–these ‘independent’ writers were given algorithmic equal billing with traditionally-published authors on the new platform. Suddenly, consumer spending was the main determining factor as to whether or not a title rose or fell in popularity, which—on Amazon at least–eclipsed the efforts of publishing house PR departments and/or marketing firms.
Another thing that many commentators today seem to have forgotten is that before Amazon, a handful of huge conglomerates dictated not only what was being published but also forced authors to accept a paltry percentage of sales in exchange for the privilege of being published. These houses & firms would cherry-pick what they thought the public should see, and repressed what they didn’t think would sell, or didn’t agree with, etc.
What happened next is a mixture or rumor and conjecture, gathered from the far-flung corner of the internet, via message-board-trolling and discreet inquiries. Apparently, several large publishing houses banded together and outright demanded that Amazon make a clear distinction between indie writers and ‘real’ authors, or create a separate platform for indies altogether. Bezos refused… and as an indie writer, myself, I’m glad of it. Clearly, Amazon’s team could see the sales potential (for them) in allowing a massive number of new writers to flood in, upload their work and sell it. Many indie writers hopped on board, from starry-eyed new writers to folks embittered by rejections from the traditional publishing industry. These optimists created a self-perpetuating production engine of new material to sell, one that continues to this day, a few titles of which have broken out into the realm of Ridiculous Popularity.
After Amazon did not concede to the separation demand, the traditional publishing houses—apparently as one voice–threatened to walk, a threat that included pulling their titles.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Whether by the fleet-footed competence of their internal number-crunchers or the fact that, by that time, Amazon had surpassed them in consumer popularity the publisher’s bluff was called, and the relationship between them and Amazon has been rocky ever since. If all the above really happened then I don’t really blame Bezos for turning such tactics back upon the folks that tried (unsuccessfully) to strong-arm him into agreeing to their demands.
The perceived victory was bittersweet, however. A maelstrom of one-sided opinions flooded the mainstream media (another industry that stood to lose control of content in such a consumer-driven market) with talking heads and contractually-obligated authors disgorging snark and fear into the market, postulating that literature itself was being threatened by a glut of ‘toilet-paper’ writers.
Just for fun I’d to remind the audience that—at the time–scores of book industry experts kept insisting that eBooks were a novelty, that hardback sales would rocket back to life after the recession and nothing would ever, ever dent paperback sales. If true, this was more cause for celebration on their part than slander, but I digress.
Like or dislike Amazon as you will, but what the KDP platform accomplished for the consumer and the independent writer alike is nothing short of revolutionary. That is the main reason many an indie writer feels rather unwilling to join the “here be monsters” refrain when referring to KDP’s owner.
Now, I don’t consider the company in question on equal footing with the Gutenberg Press, nor does it somehow ‘enlighten’ the masses. It’s a business—and a substantial one at that–claiming a smidgen less than two-thirds of the online book market, according to a recent report by the Codex Group. Admittedly, that’s a scary amount of power for one group to hold, but the change of control from one party to another was not unexpected. Judging between the traditional publishing houses/firms and Amazon, the latter appears to listen more to the consumer and evolve itself accordingly, for now at least.
As a consumer, however, I like the current book market, in so much as seeing a wide choice of books available to purchase. I likewise enjoy knowing that–when I buy a self-published book–more of that sale actually goes to the writer. Even better, I like that if I cannot find a book that I would want to read, I can write one myself, upload it, put it into paperback, ePub or audio form and share it at a price that I stipulate. Whether said book sells four copies a month or fifteen-hundred, I’ve won either way.
Most other consumers I’ve queried about Amazon likewise revel in the proffered variety and like knowing that their purchases matter in determining an item’s rank. Even more consumers feel that the prices of eBooks (given their rather marginal production cost) should change to reflect demand; many also argue that eBooks should not be sold too cheaply.
All the feedback that I’ve received so far on the eBook pricing wars subject, however, strongly agrees with my own view, that prices should not be set by the overhead-driven, antiquated whims of the more obsolete sectors of the book market… especially ones intent on dogmatically consulting the golden bones of the past to determine their business model.
All the pros and cons and subsequent rebuttals aside, no one company is ‘untouchable.’ If history be our teacher, we know that conglomerates aplenty have risen and fallen, replaced by others that performed the similar function of catering to the desires and/or needs of the masses.
Considering the rather harsh lessons that traditional publishers have recently endured (i. e. the failure to recognize an evolution in their own industry) should they choose to ignore history they will invariably repeat it, leaving even more of the market share for another to absorb.
L. R. Styles
(Originally posted today on LinkedIn)