Amazon, KDP Select, Monopolies and Asshattery

Seems like everyone is weighing in on this debate and I can’t help having my say too. First and foremost, I’m all about seeing things from every side and not throwing out babies with bathwater. Seriously, who the fuck throws out babies!? So it’s fair to say that I still really like Amazon and all they’ve done. There’s no question that they’ve changed the face of publishing and bookselling and, for the most part, in very positive ways. Of course, brick and mortar booksellers will have a different view, but that’s life and progress.

Amazon single-handedly made ebooks the ubiquitous force they are today. Others helped it along, of course, but Amazon made it happen in the timeframe we’ve seen. They’ve opened up the playing field to let indie authors and small presses compete realistically with the Big Six. They’ve made books and other items readily available and affordable to millions of people who may have had trouble accessing those things before. I don’t like everything about the Kindle model – exclusive file format, etc., but it’s very good overall. Amazon are very good overall.

There’s no question that I would rather have Amazon around than not. Although, on a slight digression, when the hell are we getting an amazon.com.au? Seriously, Amazon, why do you hate Australia?

But there are changes happening at Amazon that I don’t like. I’ve never been able to ignore a bully and I don’t like monopolies. They’re bad for everyone except the person in control of said monopoly. And while Amazon are still doing many good things, they’re starting to do many questionable things as well.

The major problems are these:

– Setting up as a publisher, not just a retailer;
– Starting the KDP Select program;
– Cutting publishers out of control;
– Propogating the cheap and free model.

Why are these things bad? Let’s look at them one by one.

Setting up as a publisher:

This is not a bad thing per se – another opportunity for writers to get published is a good thing, right? Well, not if it restricts the writer’s ability to sell their work. Whenever Amazon set up a service, they make it exclusive to themselves. For example, their CreateSpace POD printing venture means stock is only available through Amazon.com – not even the other Amazon branches internationally. As a result of in-fighting, Barnes & Noble have said they won’t stock any Amazon published books. This is a direct result of B&N’s problems with previous Amazon exclusivity policies, and I can’t really blame them. But it means that writers being published by Amazon have a greatly restricted range of outlets for their work. And Amazon encourages that in order to gain monopoly share.

Starting the KDP Select program:

This is a program where authors can make their Kindle ebooks available free for 5 days out of every 90. The idea is that it will greatly enhance their profile, drag more readers to their work and they’ll see greater sales in the long tail. Amazon have a pool of cash and for every author with a free book, Amazon distributes a share of that pool based on how many free downloads that book saw. Sounds great, but it’s not. That distribution pool is already getting smaller, the vast majority of people involved will only ever see a tiny fraction of it and, worst of all, those books can only be included if they’re exclusive to Amazon. No iBooks, no Smashwords, no Nook, etc. That means that once again, Amazon are forcing exclusivity and using sweet, sweet cookies to lure authors into snubbing every other retailer. Then you find out that the cookie is made of mud and dog crap.

Cutting publishers out of control:

It’s getting harder and harder for publishers to manage their stock at Amazon. My novels are published by Gryphonwood Press. They recently commissioned new cover art for both books and tried to get Amazon to update the art. Nothing happened. No responses, no changes, nothing but huge frustrations. Eventually, after talking to my publisher, I went to my Amazon Author Central page and requested the changes myself. The update was made inside 24 hours. This is Amazon responding to authors, not publishers. That means they’re actively cutting publishers out, which actively encourages authors to do their own thing. That’s not an author’s job. It’s their publisher’s job. But this strikes me as an underhand way of getting authors to distrust their publishers or decide they can do without them and go the indie route, which is better for Amazon.

Propogating the cheap and free model:

So many novels are on Amazon for 99c. I’ve already talked about the free option on the KDP Select program. This is a big problem. For one, many readers are starting to undervalue work. They decide to wait until something is free or reduced to 99c before buying it and that’s bad for authors. This is our job – we’re trying to make a livng here and there’s a lot of work in writing a novel. It’s worth more than a single dollar. But Amazon don’t care. They’ve got something set up where anyone can upload an ebook, charge a buck for it and think they’re on the author gravy train. 99.9% of those people are unlikely to sell more than a handful of books. But that’s all right with Amazon. After all, if they make 75c for every book sold, they don’t need to sell millions of every book. They just need to sell a few copies of millions of books. Each author is making fuck all, but Amazon are raking it in. And those authors who stick exclusively with Amazon are told they’ll do even better, with no guarantee that that is actually the case.

You can see how all these things are set up to benefit Amazon, at the expense of everyone else – authors, publishers and readers. It’s better for all of those people if price points reflect the effort involved in making the work being sold; if product is available through a range of outlets for a range of devices to give readers a choice and therefore give authors a greater chance at more exposure and sales, leading to a stronger career. The only beneficiary of the models described above is Amazon.

Now I don’t mind Amazon doing well for itself, but not by monopolising an industry and not at the expense of authors and readers. That’s where I have to step in between the bully and bullied and say, “Wait a fucking minute, here, what do you think you’re doing?”

What can you do about it? Lots of things.

If you’re a writer or publisher:

Don’t make your work exclusively available in one place. It benefits everyone to have it available in as many places, for as many devices as you can.

Don’t price your work ridiculously low and devalue it. Equally, don’t price it stupidly high and drive all the readers to pirate sites instead.

Don’t saturate the work with DRM, inconveniencing readers who can’t read a book they paid for on seperate devices.

Stand up against monopolising policies wherever you can.

If you’re a reader:

Check various venues for the availability of the work you want and don’t always buy in one place.

Try to buy non-DRM versions in order to encourage greater openess in the future. DRM is not the way to fight piracy.

Don’t go for pirated work. If you respect the authors you’re reading, pay them for their work.

Don’t only read free books and those you can get for 99c. At the very least, you’re cutting yourself off from some really good stuff out there and only encouraging the lowest common denominator.

Chime in with a comment below if you have an opinion or an idea about this. Or if you completely disagree with me – I’d love to hear why.

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15 thoughts on “Amazon, KDP Select, Monopolies and Asshattery

  1. Great post, Alan.
    Amazon seem to be trying to wipe out all competition, both online and bricks-and-mortar shops. This can only be bad news for writers, publishers, and, in the long run, readers.
    Geoff Brown

  2. Very well written! I totally agree.

    Both writers and readers will benefit the most when companies actually compete with each other for business – not try and lock the competition out with exclusivity agreements.

    When companies carve out a piece of an industry and then run away and hide their treasure behind razor wire fences, it only leads to a fractured infrastructure.

    And let’s face it, considering Amazon’s grip on the industry, they really don’t need to pursue exclusive rights.

  3. Great post.

    The decisions feel like they’re based on greed.

    If you pull customers in by excelling at what you do then you generate loyalty. In Amazon’s case that would be product availability, pricing, delivery etc.

    If you force customers to buy from you because they have no other choice, then you create resentment and ultimately damage your brand image. This obviously applies to Amazon with what they’re doing, but by association it would apply to authors too. I don’t own a Kindle, so if one of my favourite authors turned ‘Amazon exlusive’, it won’t encourage me to buy a Kindle, I would be more likely to simply stop reading their work and my opinion of them would drop.

    For the author it’s the ripple effect that is most damaging. In the above example, as well as losing my sale, I would cease to recommend that author to others. For readers still ‘loyal’ to the author, they may well seek out pirate versions that will work on their chosen e-reader. A small ripple from each consumer that cumulatively would have a significant impact on the author.

    In the meantime, Amazon don’t care as they still get 100% of all the sales that do take place.

  4. Excellent post Alan. The worst thing about the market being what it is, is that it sets authors against everyone else (publishers/other authors) and makes them dependent on everyone. At some point authors may decide to go their own way and work on a peer to peer sales base where the work stands or falls on it’s own merits.

    Hey, maybe I’ll go and set one up now.

    But I agree with you, generally, on exclusivity. I fight all-rights clauses in my journalism – which is giving up everything to one outlet – but not exclusivity – for a limited period only – as long as the bucks are there. You can resell your content after that.

    If the bucks aren’t there, screw it. If someone asks for everything and offers nothing, screw them. Writing is a business and you either have to make money; or have so much money that you can write for the love of it; or write as a means of self promotion.

  5. Graham – you make a perfect example of a reader reaction, which is ultimately the final call for all writers’ careers.

    And yes, writing needs to be a business for eveyrone except the rich hobbyist. It’s hard enough to make any kind of living as a writer, without the retailers calling the shots at our expense, and that of the publisher and reader.

  6. Hi Alan, great post. I agree that Amazon’s tactics are ruthless, but I do have to say that I’m not surprised by them. Any business is ruthless, and they’re doing what any business is meant to do; try and dominate their sector as much as possible. Asking Amazon to play nice and let others have a go is akin to asking them to lose money. Their competitors wouldn’t agree to it, so why should they?

    It reminds me of the flak Microsoft used to take over creating a monopoly. We complained about it a lot for years, but it took other companies creating smartphones and tablets to challenge their dominance. Don’t we need something similar to knock Amazon back?

  7. I only get the free books from Amazon manily because if it’s someone I really want to read I’ll buy a real copy of the book rather then the digital version. The ereader for me is for stuff I’d never pay actual money for or for books I can’t get anyother way as there isn’t a normal version(which makes me real sad).

  8. James – yes, Amazon certainly needs some realisitic competition. But I disagree that their actions are simply business. Their actions, in the long run, are potentially very bad for authors, publishers and readers, and that can only adversly affect their business. Of course, they’re happy to constantly make $1 out of several million people, and those people are going to keep coming, so maybe I’m just being idealistic.

    Either way, it’s up to writers, publishers and readers to take control, and use the existing competition Amazon already has – such as B&N, Smashwords and others.

  9. I recently made the decision to go with the Kobo Vox (despite the Kindle 3G being an easy product to set up) because of Amazon’s predatory pricing.

    I can still read books via the kindle app of course but I want to have a situation where there is a common ebook format and we are not locked to one company.

    Supermarkets in Australia are doing something similar – trying to obtain market share and kill the opposition, offering low prices to consumers but letting the farmers carry the costs. The end result being one or two monolithic entities that will control all aspects of production and retail.

  10. You’re right – and it’s a standard business practice. I love my Kindle, but I will always try to buy a book elsewhere before I buy from Amazon, due to the pricing and the DRM. Even if it means getting the book as an epub and using Calibre to convert it to .mobi for my Kindle.

  11. “That means that once again, Amazon are forcing exclusivity” with an opt-in program.

    “But this strikes me as an underhand way”. Underhanded? They donned a raincoat, stood in a dark alley, and offered you that secret illicit Author Central login?

    “That means they’re actively cutting publishers out, which actively encourages authors to do their own thing. That’s not an author’s job. It’s their publisher’s job. ” Hey, you can try to justify the 60% you pay them all you want. Rest of us don’t have to do that.

    My job went I went with a traditional publisher? You know, those guys who have a stranglehold on 72% of the deadtree market? It was to write, then sell books. My job with Amazon? Write and sell books, except I get to keep more money.

  12. Then the “rest of you” don’t have a problem.

    You know something a traditional publisher does a good job of? Editing. You know something your comment needs?

  13. I think it’s clear that this is a highly charged and very polarised issue!

    You’re absolutely right, Alan, writers do need to utilise the competition for the simple reason that if you put all your eggs in one basket, you’re limiting yourself. If you’re my selling through Smashwords, for instance, you’re cutting out a significant portion of your potential audience.

    But I disagree that we should use them simply to teach Amazon a lesson. It’s up to the competition to make using them worth our while. I’m not going to use a distributor that costs me time and money without providing a reasonable return. If Amazon are the only guys doing that, then why cut off my nose to spite my face?

    Editing services aren’t the preserve of the legacy publishers, either. There are plenty of freelancers out there these days.

  14. James – you’re right, it is a polarising issue. But I don’t have time for evangelists on either side of the fence. There is no *one* right way, but the best way usually lies somewhere in the middle.

    And of course, don’t do something only to spite someone else. But I’ll put in some time and effort to get a DRM free version of a work if I can – that’s my reasonable return. I’m a big fan of Amazon and use them a lot. Most of my sales are through Amazon. But I don’t like any kind of monopoly or bullying and will make a stand against it.

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