Is Amazon damaging authors?

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If you don’t know what all the fuss is about here’s a quick précis: 

Leading authors, under the name ‘United Authors’ founded by Douglas Preston and including Malcolm Gladwell, Ursula Le Guin, Michael Chabon, Ann Patchett and many more are putting their names to a letter attacking Amazon’s ‘abuse of its dominance in the world of books’ and are calling on the US justice department to investigate the retailer’s ‘power over the book market’, saying that it holds a damaging monopoly.

Here’s what it says: 

“We are authors with a deep collective experience in this field, and we agree with the authorities in economics and law who have asserted that Amazon’s dominant position makes it a monopoly as a seller of books and a monopsony as a buyer of books…in recent years, Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society”.

It all sounds a little worrying, and as an author myself, should I be worried? My answer: No way.

Despite all the fuss, this is about money. Amazon refuse to sell ebooks on their very popular and accessible Kindle platform for more than $9.99, because ‘they think it’s a reasonable price’. Whereas ‘Hatchett’ the American publisher behind this letter want Amazon to sell books at $14.99 – close to the same price for a printed version of the same book.

I can understand how Hatchett and other traditional publishers may feel disenfranchised, but their view is simply archaic – that are refusing to adapt to the changing way books are now bought and read:

Firstly, publishing electronically costs virtually nothing. Turning a professionally edited book into an electronic version involves no extra outlay. A few dollars tops if they get an external agency to do it. But why would they do that? It’s incredibly easy to ePublish,

Secondly, there are no printing, warehousing and shipping costs. None.

Thirdly, printed books retain value. You can re-sell or lend them. You cannot do this with an eBook.

Finally, and most crucially, authors signed up to traditional publishing houses receive 15-20% of the cover price of a printed novel. With all the outlay needed for the printed version, this makes sense. But the same is not true for an eBook. Amazon offers the author 70% of the cover price. A traditional contract would then net the author 15-20% of the 70%, with the publishing company taking the rest for effectively doing nothing.

On the face of it, United Authors have a point. While Amazon exerts control ever the price of their books, driving the price down means they are getting less for every ebook sold than they would expect. But is this Amazon’s problem?

I would instead prefer to see these authors spend their energies, time and monies demanding separate contracts for their ebooks sales. New technologies are disruptive, and the dinosaur publishing industry can make as much noise as it wants, but refusing to bend to a changing market is doing them no good.

As a consumer myself, I refuse to buy ebooks that are over-priced, even if they are by my favourite authors. I would go get the printed version instead.

The technology behind the Kindle and on-line buying has, if anything, invigorated the book selling market, introducing readers to not just eBooks but printed books as well. And crucially, it has allowed smaller publishers to sell books around the world. It also allows people to publish themselves and to do it as effectively as publishing companies.

But is Amazon all good?

Amazon deliberately makes a loss on its book business, yet it’s great for building its customer base which has a knock on elsewhere for non-book goods. It sells ebooks cheaply in line with its own business model.

This has pissed off the traditional book companies. But for readers and self-publishers, and for those authors canny enough to negotiate separate ebook contracts, it has only been a boon.

3 thoughts on “Is Amazon damaging authors?

  1. Hi Kev. I am in the process of writing my first e-book. Can you tell me more, or can you point me to some informational reading regarding “separate contracts”? I know nothing about this subject. I have been striving to learn as much about the industry as possible BEFORE my book is published. Thanks for following me on Twitter. I followed you back.
    ~ Josie

    1. If you get offered a publishing contract I suggest, negotiating a different rate for electronic books to printed ones (or at least raise this as an issue of concern).

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