Writing on the Ether: When the Amazonians Select You

Ancient Roman coin, the head of Geta
iStockphoto / paul837

A Christmas Nightmare
North Pole, Amazonia: Guy Gonzalez in Toyland
But pay no attention to our vested interests
Robert’s wild ride: When the Amazonians select you
Essay sommelier: Amazon’s price-scan spree
The chasers
Another thing-Amazonian: The Book Depository
And back to Guy. Until the next blog post drops
Sharing the wealth: Shatzkin talks turkey
Rooting around for how the Kindle Fire is doing
And speaking of ebooks: an infographic
Libraries & publishers on ice: What ‘original’ means
Pictures worth billions of words
Metadata: Only make believe
What’s critical. And what’s not.

A Christmas Nightmare

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Bezosius, that all the world should be axed.

Taxed. Did I say axed? How silly of me. We ran out of axes when the Governor of Self-Publica ordered his Konwrath-ful followers to cut their agents in half.

Where were we? Right. And behold, all Prime members went each unto his or her own local bookstore, toting a price-check scanning app.

And there were in the same country traditional publishers abiding in the field, keeping watch over their hardbacks by night. Because Peter Meyers‘ new Breaking the Page had yet to be published. And, lo, the Archangel Android came upon them, and the glory of Seattle shone ’round about them.

And they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For behold I bring you tidings of 99-cent specials, 32 cents of which will go to the author unless she just flat-out gives away her life’s work in our KDP Select program for Kindle Lending. Which shall bring to all readers tidings of great joy—just as soon as you stop whining about what’s being done to you and start doing what you need to do, as Don Linn hath spake.

“And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find a copy of Christina Katz‘s amply tweeted The Writer’s Workout wrapped in Amazon gift paper and lying in a manger. Not laying. Lying. The Lord wants you to use the language correctly and so does Porter.”

“What’s with the manger?” the publishers asked in six-part harmony.

And the angel said unto them, “Do I look like a wise man to you?”

And suddenly there was with the angel a Multitude of the Self-Published Authors, praising Bezos and singing:

When your backlist’s been sold
But your camel’s too old,
That’s logistics!

Then the booksellers rejoiced and returned unto their quaint independent corner stores to hand-sell all that they’d seen and heard, opening new sections of gaudy fiction for Vampire Fans Who Don’t Mind Typos because those things were selling like hotcakes online, right?

When in time the great star had come to stand over the whole business in Preoccupied Bethlehem, there were no more than two or three sentences uttered daily that didn’t include the holy word “Amazon.”

And Ginger Clark kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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North Pole, Amazonia: Guy Gonzalez in Toyland

This is a smart (but not wise), low-cost play for market share by Amazon, and while I usually admire their moves, this one stinks of the worst kind of opportunism. And I say that as someone who has an ebook that hasn’t sold worth a damn via B&N since its first month (or Goodreads at all), but continues to see a trickle of sales every month from Amazon despite the fact that I’m a shit marketer when it comes to my own stuff. This is one program I’m sitting out purely on principle.

Our Loudpoet on the Ether, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, has this interesting take, KDP Select: Is It Worth It? on Amazon’s KDP Select, the program in which, he writes:

Amazon is trying to entice self-publishers to go exclusive with them for 90 days by dangling a “fund” of $500,000 that will be distributed based “on a share of the total number of qualified borrows of all participating KDP titles.”

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Gonzalez will be back to close out this week’s Amazon Ascending sequence. Meanwhile, at paidContent, Laura Hazard Owen has been listening as Self-Published Authors Debate Amazon’s KDP Select.

To those who are signing up for KDP Select, the benefits seem obvious: Increased visibility and publicity for their titles and the option to make their book free for five days out of every 90-day period (many self-published authors have seen higher paid sales after making their books free for a limited time, and Amazon hasn’t previously allowed it).

But she also quotes some tough language from the Amazon exclusivity agreement authors must approve:

If you don’t comply with these KDP Select terms and conditions, we will not owe you Royalties for that Digital Book earned through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library Program, and we may offset any of those Royalties that were previously paid against future Royalties, or require you to remit them to us. We may also withhold your Royalty payments on all your Digital Books for a period of up to 90 days while we investigate. This doesn’t limit other remedies we have, such as prohibiting your future participation in KDP Select or KDP generally.

And Owen, like many of us, has been reading author David Gaughran‘s consideration in How Much Do You Want To Get Paid Tomorrow? It’s worth going over its staged arguments, which lead to a cautionary conclusion:

There are valid reasons for experimenting with KDP Select, and there are valid reasons for rejecting it. However, I would urge all self-publishers to look beyond what they perceive to be in their immediate self-interest and consider the bigger picture. Subscription models are going to play a big part in the future. … Do you want to have a say in what you get paid? Do you want to have control over the value that is placed on your work? Or do you want to hand away that power to someone else? It’s your decision … I think we could (and should) get a better deal for our work. We can demand a rethink on exclusivity. And we can fight for a better compensation system. The first step, I would humbly suggest, is to withhold participation in KDP Select until those terms improve.

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But pay no attention to our vested interests

Amazon yesterday launched a broadside against competing ebook retailers when it introduced a new program that requires authors to remove their books from competing retailers … there are multiple catches as outlined in Amazon’s Terms and Conditions for the program. Some carry potential anti-competitive and restraint-of-trade implications.

In his direly headlined Amazon Aims to Empty Competitor Shelves of Indie Ebooks, Mark Coker goes on to excoriate Amazon for that KDP Select program as “effectively denying its competing retailers access to the books from indie authors.” He also decries Amazon for discouraging “formation of new ebook retailers around the world by making it more difficult for new retailers operating outside the US to gain footholds in their respective markets if they lose fair access to the content readers want to read.”

While I’ve appreciated some of Coker’s good writings—he was just with us on the Ether last week—I notice that only at the end of this article does he concede his direct and quite material bias in the debate. He is the CEO of Smashwords. This is akin to Coke(r) calling Pepsi fizzy, and announcing its pertinent identity only at the last moment:

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not an impartial observer. I have a horse in this game. Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks. We publish and distribute over 90,000 ebooks from 33,000 indie authors and small presses around the world. We exist to serve our authors and publishers by distributing their titles to retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, the Diesel eBook Store and others. In other words, we supply Amazon’s competitors. We also distribute a small number of titles to Amazon. We’re eager to supply Amazon our entire catalog, but unlike every other leading ebook retailer, Amazon to date has been unwilling to provide us agency terms.

Even if every complaint Coker makes proves to be right on-target, that last paragraph should be his first.

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Robert’s wild ride: When the Amazonians select you

I’d like to shake some hands at Amazon. My best guess is that they had been looking at promising books by indie authors that stood out for their good sales and great customer ratings. That’s the only thing I can find in common among the titles chosen for participation in the post-Thanksgiving “Big Deal” promotion. A week or two beforehand, they invited me by email to participate, the only condition being that I’d have to agree to lower the price of HUNTER from $3.99 to whatever they set it at—which turned out to be $1.99.

See, that’s the thing that makes any author’s angst over Amazon so compelling. When things go well at Amazon, they go outrageously so.

Self-published author Robert Bidinotto was selected for Amazon’s promotion with his thriller, Hunter—which, by the way, is now on the KDP Select program, available to Prime members for a free rental. “I had no advance warning that they also planned to feature my book as an ‘Editors’ Pick’—in fact, their #1 editors’ selection—for the entire week!” He tells Jennie Coughlin about his Stephen King-passing experience in Robert Bidinotto and Hunter’s Stunning Amazon Success.

All day it continued to rise through the top ranks—past the latest blockbusters by Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, and then James Patterson. I couldn’t believe it. By late evening on December 2, it was at #5, passing John Grisham and Michael Connelly.

Bidinotto continues to answer comments at Coughlin’s site on his interview, and in several he’s generously instructive to other authors who are asking him some good, practical questions.

And I’m sure no one feels the slightest envious impulse to back the car over him. Robert: Be sure the body armor you order is on Amazon Prime so you get it free in two days.

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Essay sommelier: Amazon’s price-scan spree

Start with novelist Richard Russo’s Times op-ed, Amazon’s Jungle Logic, in which the author polls his writerly friends and concludes, “Like just about everybody I’ve talked to about it, I first attributed Amazon’s price-comparison app to arrogance and malevolence, but there’s also something bizarrely clumsy and wrong-footed about it.” (At least Russo states right up top that his piece is prompted by “my bookseller daughter.” That’s disclosure well done.)

Then pair it (clear your palate first) with Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who manages to stand some hair on end with his Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller.

Take a moment to behold that headline and ask the question we need to ask of all our media: Is it really worth waving these overstated, hyper-crude, red-cape headlines in our faces?

Now, back to what Manjoo wrote, none of it as much a Pamplona stampede as his headline:

It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use. They’re economically inefficient, too … This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community, they “optimistically set up  … folding chairs” at readings, they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.

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And let me offer you one more: David Streitfeld at the Times follows with For Amazon, Lashes and Backlashes: “When I interviewed the retailer’s executives in August, I asked if they feared being perceived as bullies. The question was met with incomprehension.They still see Amazon as an underdog.”

And yet one more: Chad W. Post of Three Percent comes in  with one of his “Open Letter” pieces, Richard Russo, Bookstores, and this Amazon Price Check Thing [Controversies], in which he points out that Amazon, technically, may well be no less interested in nourishing readership than the Big Six publishers. Corporations work for their shareholders. This is their nature.

They’re also not motivated by “doing the right thing for book culture” but by trying to maximize their impact, relevance, and earnings. And that’s totally well within their rights.

He offers three approaches:

  • Acknowledge that what they’re doing is what every corporation would do if in their position…and that if you don’t like it, you should do everything in your power to benefit those outside of the corporate system and try and take down capitalism as a whole.
  • Agree that capitalism rules the day, and go make your money in whatever way necessary.
  • Figure out a valid third perspective or way of accomplishing what you really want

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The chasers

Obviously, the Amazon debate is easy for nobody, neither authors nor publishers nor many dedicated readers who are following carefully the challenge being launched by Amazon in particular and digital rendition and distribution in general.

So I’m grateful for the permission of two good folks to use a bit of perspective commentary they exchanged in a private discussion this week.

The first is from publishing consultant Joseph Esposito, who writes:

I was myself disgusted by Amazon’s recent promotion (which, of course, excluded books), but it did remind me of stepping into an independent bookstore over ten years ago and requesting a book that I could not find on the shelves. The proprietor turned to a PC and began to check its availability. “Is Books in Print now on the Web?” I asked. “I stopped ordering BIP,” she said. “I look up books for special order by going to Amazon.”

And then, from Dublin-based editor and consultant Eoin Purcell, to whom I’ve come to look quite frequently for a clearer head than many. Purcell reacts to Manjoo’s badly named “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller” this way:

Yes I thought his condescension a bit much but even so he hits home at a pretty important point, the core weakness of local booksellers (and large booksellers too), their inefficiency in economic terms, especially as more content shifts to digital. By doing that he highlights the likely outcome for those bookstores that are foolish enough to think they can survive without changing radically … In truth, though, books and reading will survive the passing of many of these bookstores, people will read and writers will write. The structures of the industry will just be ‘mostly’ different.

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Another thing-Amazonian: The Book Depository

From Owen at paidContent comes late word of the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading’s decision to approve Amazon’s acquisition of the The Book Depository, the UK’s largest online bookseller. “As a result of this transaction Amazon and The Book Depository will cease to be distinct.”

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And back to Guy. Until the next blog post drops

Personally, I believe Amazon and local indies can (and will continue to) co-exist, because they serve two very different types of readers, and where there is overlap (like me), they offer two very different experiences that the other can’t match. Sometimes I want what I want, and I want it cheap and with free two-day shipping. Other times, I don’t really know what I want, but I love to browse the shelves of our local indie (Montclair Book Center) or B&N, willing to pay full price for whatever serendipity puts in front of me.

Reacting in On the Appeal of Indie Bookstores (on Google+) with some displeasure to Farhad Manjoo‘s Slate  episode (the word “troll” has been spotted a few times), Guy LeCharles Gonzalez heads once more into the breeches to say:

To pretend that bookstores across the board are doomed because you’re a socially awkward twit who likes to shop at Amazon is just being willfully ignorant and trollish.

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Sharing the wealth: Shatzkin talks turkey

The total situation not only argues for publishers to change their accounting, it also argues for them to give a bigger percentage to authors and to do it now! Doing so would deliver them two important benefits. It would reduce the apparently excess margin that their retail trading partners are noticing and coveting. But — of much greater importance —  it would also reduce the differential between what Amazon (and who knows, perhaps B&N in the future) offers an author and what the publisher offers, making it more difficult for Amazon to lure their authors away with higher royalty terms.

Mike Shatzkin, recognizing that publishers are in “a PR war for new authors that they have been losing,” writes “Paying authors more might be the best economics for publishers in the long run. This is not an easy set of arguments to go over. As Shatzkin says, himself, “The activity of publishing is complicated and its economics are complicated.” And this essay is complicated.

But I urge authors to work through it. There’s a rich fundamental here, in Shatzkin’s recognition of a shift in negotiating power to authors’ advantage. The better an author can understand the implications Shatzkin is highlighting in terms of pricing and royalty accounting, the more comprehensive a player she or he can be, particularly with a fine agent at hand, in her or his own career.

I make no secret that my view of the world is publisher-centric. I was brought up that way and I’ve spent 50 years learning about the book business with that point of view. And I also make no secret of my high regard for the current leadership of the biggest publishing houses.

And what he’s saying to those leadership figures—as one of them—is timely and forcefully representative of the new weight authors carry into bargaining sessions. With Dan Blank and Viki Noe the other day, I was revisiting a line from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Willy’s wife Linda says it: “Attention must finally be paid.”

If the authors don’t play along, (publishers) have nothing to sell. Making deals with authors is the publishers’ price of admission to the game.

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Rooting around for how the Kindle Fire is doing

The honeymoon may be over. David Streitfeld in the Times lands a big punch in the face to Kindle Fire fans with his recitation of criticisms (and all-but buried news that an over-the-air update is coming) in As Kindle Fire Faces Critics, Remedies Are Promised.

A few of their many complaints: there is no external volume control. The off switch is easy to hit by accident. Web pages take a long time to load. There is no privacy on the device; a spouse or child who picks it up will instantly know everything you have been doing. The touch screen is frequently hesitant and sometimes downright balky.

Streitfeld notes, however, that analysts aren’t changing their predictions of up to 5 million units this quarter.

But I’m reminded of the line Barack Obama used in his 60 Minutes interview, crediting it to Joe Biden: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative,” when I read Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land, raising the other viewpoint well: The Kindle Fire Is A Kindle-Killer, Not An iPad Killer — That’s Why It Works. Stabbing away at my own Fire, with my fingers not “as slender as toothpicks,” as Streitfeld hisses, I wonder if a lot of early owners may not feel closer to Sullivan’s write:

The New York Times came out with an article today making the Kindle Fire out to be a big loser, citing a few experts, customer complaints and how it doesn’t measure up to the iPad. It never really talks much about the Kindle as a Kindle replacement, and that’s where the story misses the Kindle’s real advantage… Steve Jobs was wrong. When it comes to reading books, holding a small tablet is just right… for the past two weeks, the Kindle Fire has grown to push aside my use of the other Kindles.

But on the other hand, there’s O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert at his Kindleville blog in Why I Rooted My Kindle Fire – and his immediate admission that Joe has a handy son who can root the Kindle. See? I knew there was a reason to get a family. The rooted Fire lets Joe pull in apps he wants for his Fire, offerings he can’t in Amazon’s appstore.

My favorite iPad apps are Zite and Flipboard. Neither of them are available on Android… The rooted device looks and acts a lot like it did before. One key difference is that I can now go to the Android Market and download whatever I want.

Wikert saves his strongest criticism for the Kindle Fire’s vauted (pre-release) browser speed.

Don’t get me started about the Fire’s supposedly super-fast Silk browser. I’ve done side-by-side test with my iPad, Galaxy S II phone and Mac PowerBook Pro. The results show the Fire browser comes in last place pretty much every time I load a page, reload a page, etc. This is one of the most disappointing aspects of the Fire. I originally planned for it to be a fast, small browsing device. Now that I have Dolphin installed it’s at least as fast as my iPad. Amazon should publicly apologize for the misleading promises they made about Silk.

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And speaking of ebooks: an infographic

The Content Wrangler infographic: ebooksFrom Scott Abel of The Content Wrangler comes this infographic designed by Corey Ercoli and based on the Aptara Survey of Publishing Professionals.

There are some nicely illustrated points here including a finding that 37 percent of publishers produce between 76 and 100 percent of their titles as ebooks.


Libraries & publishers on ice: What ‘original’ means

If we want to know what Galileo wrote, we can still go back to the original text. What if the Catholic Church had had the potential to wipe out completely the record of his writings? What if the government or even a nongovernment entity could destroy, with a simple computer command, the outpourings of the next Thomas Paine? Works are routinely challenged, but what if the next challenge resulted in destroying the offending words…?

If the complexities of the issues around libraries lending ebooks have left you baffled, check Charles Hamaker’s Ebooks on Fire: Controversies Surrounding Ebooks in Libraries. Hamaker gets into a vital concern, the need to protect original text. I’m a lot less concerned about whether Amazon captures customers via OverDrive’s extension for ebook downloads than I am about whether when that book falls into your Kindle it still says what its author wrote. Hamaker offers us a very practical, latter-day bit of context on the topic:

Authors have a right to be wrong. But even the author should not be able to change the text in a previous edition without notification to the reader. The recent back and forth between Governors Rick Perry and Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential debates exemplified the issue. What if Romney’s first edition instead of being a hardcover title were an e-version subject to change? Then Perry’s challenge to Romney might have been impossible, because in the next edition, Romney changed the text. What if the original text were gone?

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Pictures worth billions of words

Flavorwire's 25 Most Beautiful College Libraries
From Flavorwire’s college libraries gallery

With libraries worldwide, not just in the States, watching so much of their currency go digital and so much of their funding go south, an aesthetic pause can help. The headline on this gallery, The 25 Most Beautiful College Libraries in the World, reaches, of course, for the overstatement of such unnecessary hype.

Repeat after me, Netizens: All praise does not have to use superlatives, everything does not have to be the “best ever.”

But it is soothing to spend some moments looking at these honorable settings afforded the written word in many parts of the world, as introduced by Emily Temple at Flavorwire.

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Metadata: Only make believe

I want you to close your eyes and imagine a world in which publishing is a lean-mean-metadata-generating machine (that also publishes quality works).

Nick Ruffilo envisions A World Where Data is King, including an interesting section on contributors to that critical information:

Everyone who affected the content and/or layout of the final product should be listed. Contributors should be noted with a role (Author, Illustrator, Introduction Writer, Editor, Layout Designer, Assistant Editor, ePub designer, etc…).  Additionally, the data should be stored as first name, last name and a “sort by” should be provided for names such as “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr” which would be: “Luther King, Jr, Dr. Martin.”

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What’s critical. And what’s not.

Do bad reviews matter? There’s a school of thought that they don’t, but the thing about them is that they’re just so horribly memorable. Norman Mailer received countless laudatory reviews; but we’ll remember these less vividly, I think, than we’ll remember his decades-long feud with Michiko Kakutani. “It does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one,” he wrote in a 2003 letter to the publisher of The New York Times, “if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work.”

In her fine article, On Bad Reviews, author Emily St. John Mandel (many of us are fans of her Last Night in Montreal) brings the sort of grace we rarely see on such a tough topic. Mandel is no stranger to some panning, which she points out, herself (more grace).

What appears on the Amazon page for “Montreal,” for example, includes Publishers Weekly’s blunt “competent but unremarkable” phrases. They serve as mulch for Mandel and her garden grows with some pretty beautiful insights into “about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.”

While I normally lean toward recent work for the Ether here, I’m glad to have had this February piece flagged by agent Ginger Clark (La Fontanne to Don Linn’s Lunt in cameo tweetings here in the column). Mandel’s commentary is paced and primed with the kind of heartfelt intelligence that critics – I am one, most recently with Reader Unboxed – need to read, hear, remember. While such thoughtfulness cannot change what a serious reviewer may need to do, it does humanize and enrich the link between an artist’s labors and those of the evaluator.

At one point, Mandel refers to her colleague Janet Potter and her much-debated critique (also at The Millions) of the late Stieg Larsson’s “Girl Who” trilogy. After quoting some of the many comments rammed up under that piece by readers hostile to Potter’s criticism, Mandel gives us this thought, one of many which make me hope you’ll have a look at her essay:

All of these commenters were, of course, entitled to their opinions. But what I kept thinking, as I read through page after page of vitriol, was “But you didn’t even write these books.” I found it difficult to shake the uncharitable suspicion that several of Janet’s more vehement opponents would last about five minutes as novelists.

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Porter AndersonPorter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and a producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he has worked with media including CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. He reviews literary fiction at Reader Unboxed, and is based in Tampa.


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