Table of Contents
- Should Authors Stop Linking to Amazon?
- Timing, and Interdependence
- Chewing Each Other’s Legs Off
- Mr. Smith Goes to Town
- “Don’t Link to Amazon.” But She Does It.
Do you not “give a fig” for independent bookshops?
If you provide links to your Amazon sale pages on your author site, does it mean you don’t care about the future of your neighborhood bookstore?
If your Amazon Associates link gives you, as it does me, a small percentage of a sale that costs the reader nothing, are you in it because you’re ready to see the last bookstores close?
I’m guessing you’re answering no to these questions.
But that’s one reason this debate is so valuable. It’s one of those issues—like so many in the upended business of publishing—that has no villain, regardless of how harsh someone’s accusations may be.
You’re hearing a strongly stated opinion here, yes, from bookstore owner Keith Smith, in an opinion piece at The Bookseller, headlined Action not words. His commentary seems to come from earnest frustration:
I speak as someone who has built up two profitable indies, but whose turnover has declined in the past couple of years, beset as we are not only by the general economic malaise and the infiltration of ebooks, but more significantly by undercutting from supermarkets, multiples [bookstore chains], and Amazon.
“The infiltration of ebooks” is an interesting phrase, isn’t it?
Do you remember hearing of a springtime petition drive in the UK in which independent booksellers were asking people to demand that Amazon pay more corporation tax there?
Mercy Pilkington at GoodEReader had a write on it in April as more than 150,000 petition signatures were in-hand: Change.org Petition to Require Amazon to Pay Tax Delivered to British PM.
Pilkington wrote, “The Smiths, bookshop owners since 2004 who now own two locations, started a petition in order to ask David Cameron to enact change to correct what they feel is a situation that allows a much bigger entity to benefit over the smaller businesses unfairly.”
Same guy you’re hearing from now. Keith Smith.
He and his wife Frances own and operate Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books. Each shop is in the English town for which it’s named. Those towns are about 15 miles apart, Google Maps inform me. I don’t recall having the pleasure of seeing either town, but they’re near Coventry. I visited its bombed cathedral and radiant new one as a kid.
Smith, the owner of these two bookshops, isn’t attacking Amazon this time. He’s attacking authors who make sales there.
Is this really the type of company and operation and morality that authors want to support? Because that is what they are supporting and every day they do so drives another nail into the coffin of the independent sector, which is now in desperate straits.
Morris just wrote up her positive experiences in working with independent booksellers in her own area in How Indie Authors Can Get Their Books Stocked in Bookshops at the Alliance of Independent Authors blog.
And in direct answer to Smith?
I don’t want to be unsupportive of Amazon. Without the tools and platforms they have made available, I would still be locked up by the gatekeepers. With their [Amazon’s] algorithms, I’m finding readers. But if Mr Smith wants to stock my books and encourage his clientele to try them, I’ll add him to my list of recommended suppliers.
Morris is hardly alone. Many authors see Amazon as their biggest friend, not simply a richer sales venue than the shop down the lane—and absolutely not as their enemy.
Smith, this time, has turned on people of his own business—the essential people, authors, the creators of the stories without whom neither of his bookstores means a thing. What a gamble.
When my Bookseller colleague Lisa Campbell followed the Smith column with authors’ reactions in Anger over authors’ website links to Amazon, historian and author Alison Weir—a seller of more than 2.3 million books—gave her an extensive response that includes these lines:
The fact remains that publishers can shift large quantities of books through Amazon, W H Smith, Waterstones and the supermarkets, which are their main clients. Amazon also pays authors on their associates programme fees based on the number of books sold. Authors do have a living to make and Amazon can provide a great source of income which, sadly, independent book shops could not possibly meet. I understand the concerns of independent booksellers…But accusing authors like me…of not ‘giving a fig’ for independents is not only ignorant but untrue; I think my deeds over the years give substance to my words.”
And here’s a question no one seems to want to hear: why do folks like Smith and others want all or nothing? As Morris’ comments ask by implication, what is the advantage to authors in trading Amazon links for local-store options? Shouldn’t every entrepreneurial writer pursue every possible avenue for sales, meaning the biggest possible online retailer and local independent booksellers? (Update: You’ll see author Victoria Noe raise this question in our comments below.)
— Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) July 4, 2013
Smith lodged his post at The Bookseller to time with the UK’s Independent Bookseller Week. That celebration continues through this Saturday with special events. Here’s Kealey Rigden‘s Independent Booksellers Week: 29th June – 6th July from the Telegraph, lots of details.
The Booksellers Week site includes plenty of pictures from shops’ activities on this page. And some of the warmest commentary about the importance of independent bookstores comes from author Ruth Ozeki. She is the winner of the Independent Booksellers Week Book Award for her A Tale for the Time Being. In her own post at The Bookseller, Keystone species, Ozeki writes with candor and power:
My books are not easy to describe or categorise. People have told me this. They are ungainly things that seem to fall between genres and unwittingly confound the machinery of mass marketing. The way books like mine find their way into readers’ hands is through word of mouth and the kind of personal and patient hand-selling that independent booksellers are famous for, and I’m grateful for this. But my gratitude is about more than just my particular books finding readers. Books like mine exist in the niches and at the edges of our cultural ecosystem, and without independent booksellers to hold open a place for them on the shelf, they would be far less likely to get written.
Independent bookshops are the keystone species of our cultural ecosystem. When they are endangered, the other species are imperiled as well. When they flourish, so do we all.
I’m not sure that some wouldn’t want to argue with that. The artist, the author, may be one step more fundamental in this ecosystem than the store. The store has nothing to sell without the author. But Ozeki is making a good play here. She’s going for the symbiosis of it all, of course:
Luckily, we know this somehow. Independent booksellers are an adaptable and resilient lot, and readers and writers are loyal and stubborn, and together we form a strong relationship of symbiotic mutualism.
It’s impossible not to wonder if comments of such grace and sincerity as Ozeki’s might not do far more good for independent bookstores than Smith’s cutting criticism of the authors on which those stores depend. Back to Table of Contents
Ironically, Smith says he doesn’t care much for Independent Booksellers Week (IBW). It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?Željka Marošević
In a Q&A with the perennially anti-Amazonian Melville House‘s new UK presence—Independent Booksellers Week: Q&A with Keith Smith from Warwick and Kenilworth Bookshops—Smith tells Željka Marošević:
I feel really guilty about this, but we put on so many events throughout the year, and so many promotions, IBW doesn’t really fit into our program. It’s the wrong time of year, it’s too amorphous… I would much rather have an International Book Day as in Spain. And whilst I’m moaning I absolutely hate World Book Night and refuse to participate. Giving away hundreds of thousands of cheap books that look cheap, but which the middle-classes snap up ‘cos they always want something free…where’s the sense in that?
It would seem that not even the “middle-classes” are safe from Smith’s treasure chest of complaints.
And while some US bookshop owners might line right up for a special nationwide week of attention, do remember that the UK’s Independent Bookseller Week had a peculiar preface this year, when the American author and Nashville bookstore owner Ann Patchett was asked to make some comments.
Her advance remarks to Campbell and her Bookseller associate Joshua Farrington touched off loud protest among many entrepreneurial authors. We covered the rough patch Patchett put herself through in Ether for Authors: United We Divide at Publishing Perspectives. No need to drag ourselves through that one again, thanks.
There was what might be called respectful coverage this week—maybe even muted coverage this week?—of her frequently recounted bookstore-opening story. Patchett has contributed a version of that story to Booksellers Week festivities as a one-time hardcopy, The Bookshop Strikes Back.
There is a polite piece on it in the Guardian by Liz Bury. Her short article is Ann Patchett flies flag for indie bookshops with her own store. The “Strikes Back” essay is here, in an edition run by The Atlantic in November of last year, should you care to read it.
And would you like more of Patchett’s excellent work? (I’m a fan.)
To writers, I’d recommend in particular her Kindle Single, The Getaway Car.
And since Smith has put before us the question of how good authors link to retailers on their sites in the age of the Seattle Satan, go to Patchett’s own site and check her best-known title, Bel Canto.
You’ll find that she offers links to many retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many specific stores—but there seems to be no link to her own shop. Not even in a dropdown that lists many independent stores.
In fact, HarperCollins does not seem to realize that it released the book on June 7, 2011. The page there says “Pre-order the book.” I’ve helpfully circled that for you on our screengrab.
Nothing messed up about publishing today, is there?
Not to worry. That’s why you have the Ether: Parnassus Books in Nashville. Cheers, Ann.
— Foyles Bookshop (@Foyles) June 29, 2013
Neither the comforts of Booksellers Week nor the endlessly traveled story of the author-who-started-a-bookstore-in-Nashville-so-there seem to have afforded Smith any particular cover in chasing authors around the Internet. Paul St. John Mackintosh’s coverage at Teleread in Anti-Amazon links bashing in The Bookseller brings new bout of bathos, picks right up on the comments at The Bookseller of author Diana Kimpton. Her response is long and detailed, firmly rejecting Smith’s reading of the corporation tax issue that has embroiled not only Amazon but also Starbucks and other companies in the UK. Kimpton writes, in part:
Yes, [Amazon] does organise itself in a way that minimises its tax bill but paying tax in Luxembourg on profits made in the UK is absolutely legal under EU rules and seems quite similar to the equally legal system authors like myself use when we pay tax in the UK on profits made in the US.
And while this mention of UK authors’ sales in the US has come up, I’ve checked again with Ether sponsor and self-publishing author Joanna Penn—who has just released her new How To Market a Book, by the way. Penn confirms that she still sees 95 percent of her fiction ebook sales and some 70 percent of her nonfiction ebook sales made in the US. She is, she notes, primarily an ebook author and what print copies she does sell are produced by Amazon’s CreateSpace. In a case like hers, Smith’s proposal that an author use local-store links instead of Amazon links would mean walking away from most of her sales. Her American readers would need to board transatlantic jets and travel to her selected nearby shops in London to buy her work. And yet, here is Smith in his piece at The Bookseller:
The Booksellers Association should contact all authors immediately and ask them to stop supporting Amazon directly.
I think bookshops asking authors to support them over the dominant force in the marketplace is not a good scene. A much more interesting approach is to ask what indies can do for authors to become their natural home, and the answer is probably that an independent book shop can become the sole point of sale for, say, line-and-signed books and other author stuff. Cut the author in at a decent rate and be a real partner, justifying the higher price with unique access. I think a straightforward “back us over them because we’re nicer” is a mistake.
Harkaway may be putting his finger on the issue when he mentions partnership. For all the agonies of the digital disruption in publishing, we continue to see riffs open inside the industry! the industry! like this one between a main who rails against “the behemoth that is Amazon” and the authors who do business with it. What does Amazon do for authors? Kimpton:
Amazon runs an excellent website that it built up for years at a loss while everyone else laughed. It has constantly improved during the 14 years we have been Amazon Associates, and it has won customers’ confidence and loyalty by offering good service. It helps people discover books they might never find otherwise, and it keeps backlist titles selling long after the bricks and mortar shops have taken them off the shelves. It has also done more than anyone else to create the current ebook market and, by opening up viable methods of self publishing, it has given authors new freedom to turn down the low royalties and restrictive contracts many publishers are offering these days.
In an energetic exchange of comments that follow Smith’s post, writer Marc Cabot reflects some of the values to authors of Amazon’s sales capacity this way:
I’d be glad to link directly to your store. You in return will promise to keep every single one of my books in stock at all times and recommend them to anyone who buys or expresses interest in a similar book, of course?…How about you agree to stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and sell my books to anyone who wants one, any time they want one?…You just promise to give me 35% of cover price for every copy you sell, net forty-five. Unless I’m in your country. Then it’s 70%. That’s fair, right?…What I’m hearing is that I have some nebulous, undefined but extremely important moral responsibility to take away custom from the entity that treats me and every other author on Earth better than any author has ever been treated by a publisher or retailer in, well, the history of Mankind, and give it to you.
Bookseller Smith, again, from his original post:
We put a lot of effort into supporting authors, promoting their work, diligently hand-selling, inviting them to our festivals and “meet the author events”. Not many of us work less than six days a week often seven in doing so. It’s about time they supported us.
Morris again, from her comments to me:
Of course we care about bookshops – the ones I know are a valuable hub for booklovers in the community. But I’m not going to nanny readers about where they choose to buy. That’s their choice. All I can do is present them with the options. If you want to buy in a bookshop, here’s the one I’d love you to support if possible. If you want to buy online, thank you for considering my work and here are your options. No author can afford the kind of boycott Keith Smith is suggesting.
And lest we leave this as simply a squabble in the back room of the shops, a bit more has just come in. Back to Table of Contents
As dawn arrives on the American Independence Day, Bookseller Week in the UK has featured a debate at Southbank Centre.
The event overnight was titled “The Perfect Storm; Why Bookshops Are in the Frontline for the Battle for the High Street.”
The good Campbell at The Bookseller duly reports on it today in Trade debates high street for IBW.
She’s quoted talking of a “market with a society attached onto the side of it,” of “neo-liberalism (as) the primary of an unregulated market” and of a need to prevent the United Kingdom “rocketing towards a powerless society.”
I think there are some things authors can do and the first thing they can do is take that button off their website which says ‘buy from Amazon’—it doesn’t need to be there.
It’s interesting that Sebba’s own site includes Amazon links for sales of her books, isn’t it?
They can be seen at the bottom of the synopsis of her book, That Woman, and on other book pages.
And Sebba’s remarks (her Amazon author page is here for you) may have revealed at least as much about the suspicion and dislike many in the publishing community still harbor for ebooks as about their concern for how today’s books are sold.
She’s quoted as saying:
Publishers need to make a point about the physicality of books, something which makes us feel “this is a wonderful object.”
What comes of so much of this is a better understanding of how wide the spectrum is in terms of digital recognition, acceptance, and adoption.
Even within the business, there are vast distances between the view of a Society of Authors chairwoman who asks her authors to give up their largest sales venue and the comments of Curtis Brown agent Gordon Wise, who, Campbell tells us, seems to have tried to point out some limitations of that “physicality” when it comes to a bookstore and the range of what it can stock.
Wise also spoke to the practical issues facing an industry that some don’t seem to realize is already global:
We have all got to fight extremely hard to keep our place at the table. Publishers will find it is very difficult to keep individual relationships with all these shops. Why aren’t there more regional alliances of booksellers?
The debate may have ended at Southbank but it’s far, far from over.
But, of course, these issues have riled many in the US bookselling community for years.
And with Barnes & Noble facing what appears to be an increasingly uncertain future—there’s something of that for you this week in Ether for Authors: Which Way Should B&N Go From Here?—we could soon see a re-sharpening of these questions, as we did during the collapse of Borders.
Morris, meanwhile, would at least like Smith of Kenilworth and Warwick to know that bookshop workers aren’t the only ones doing some long hours:
I’d like to point out that authors work at least six days a week too. If Mr. Smith thinks otherwise, he can’t know many authors.
And tell me now, what do you think? Is it thinkable for authors to cast off from the biggest marketplace for their work in history at the behest of beleaguered merchants? Or are we approaching a point at which the digital dynamic will so profoundly revise the business that the issue will soon become moot? Have at it. And, if on the left side of the Atlantic, happy Fourth. Back to Table of Contents
Main image: iStockphoto – TriggerMouse
Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He’s The Bookseller’s (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He’s a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he’s a regular contributor of “Provocations in Publishing” with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal’s SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.