You may be aware by now of the brewing battle between Amazon and both publishers and bookstores. A new Tumblr – Against Amazon – lays it all out. On the one hand, it doesn’t fill one with great sympathy to see one profit-driven corporate giant being driven out of business by another, but in the digital age it’s indie bookstores that suffer the most. A recent Slate piece with a title that’s designed to get under people’s skin – Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller – defends Amazon:
Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?
Perhaps I should add a disclaimer here: I’ve done most of my Christmas shopping at Amazon, including books. It’s plainly easier, and frankly more enjoyable – certainly more enjoyable than going to Barnes & Noble during the Christmas rush. Some of the books I bought might be available at a small indie. But taking the trip through L.A. traffic to buy one book here/one book there is not something I look forward to. Advantage: Amazon.
If you buy the book locally, the sales tax you pay will fund local schools and fill local potholes.
Yeah, that’s something, but I just got hit with a $1200 city tax bill for doing freelance writing out of my apartment. When it comes to taxes: where there’s a will, there’s a way. There is an argument that it’s important to have a thriving book culture in different communities, and not just have everyone’s heads in cyberspace. This is important, but if people are reading more, they’re reading more. Cyberspace is also a culture. It’s not a deal-breaker.
This is the heart of his argument:
How do we explain why so many of today’s movies suck? I think that’s an interesting question in its own right, but it’s even more interesting when posed in conjunction with another. Why is current television so terrific? (Honestly, I don’t know what to say to anyone who thinks the reverse.) I think the reason is pretty simple. Television is great right now because there are so many outlets and so much competition: pay tv, cable, network. Hundreds of channels, all hungry for content. As a result, you find wonderfully well-written, acted, and directed shows everywhere (along with, obviously, all manner of crap). On the other hand, movies suck because the studios that make them have been subsumed by entities that care first about selling things.
Here’s where it gets trickier. It’s a cliche now to say Amazon is the new Wal-Mart. They both have the same effect: shutting down mom and pop businesses. EXCEPT – and this is huge – Amazon also has the KDP store, which means they’ve opened up the amount of creative work that can be produced and consumed. Even a gigantic superstore like Wal-Mart has a limited shelf space. Amazon doesn’t.
Amazon Doesn’t Rule
This may lead you to think: Amazon rules! But Amazon’s driving profit motive could mess with self-publishers as well. People are flocking to KDP Select. David Gaughran puts the numbers at 30,000 in the first week. This is 1/3 of Smashwords’ total library. What happens if those people all have good sales/good lending during their initial 3 month trial? They’ll never go back to Pubit, Kobo, or Smashwords again. It is very much in self-publishers’ long-term interest for there to be a thriving ebook market across many devices. Some are saying – well, that means those other outlets will have to offer better terms in order to compete. Given the massive head start Amazon has, even if B&N offered a 90% royalty it might not be able to make up for the sales volume offered by Amazon. The Kindle Fire – though it’s had a lot of complaints – is the one that gets all the publicity. The Nook doesn’t.
But so what? If there’s no Nook, Kobo reader, or anything else, and people are still selling books on Amazon in the same numbers, then what’s the difference? The competition between ereaders isn’t necessary. This is up in the air – we’re at the very beginning of the ebook, so it’s unclear how many Hockings there will be in the future. It will certainly become more difficult as more books are added to the ebook store.
And another wildcard is that the ability of KDP Select authors to offer their books for free means that Kindle owners basically never need to buy a book again. Right now there are more free books than you could ever read in a lifetime. Already, my Kindle sales have gone way down since KDP Select, and I’m not the only one who’s faced this problem. This may be a statistical blip – after Christmas, this may change again. It’s not entirely in Amazon’s interest to not sell titles, but they’re at the stage where they want people to become ebook addicts to help sell more Kindles. Could it be that Amazon is weighting visibility for those authors who are in Select? Even if this is pure paranoia – giving Amazon so much power means they are free to do things just like that.
One thing is pretty certain: more titles in the Kindle store means it’ll be harder to get recognized. And if Amazon has totally corned the market on ebooks, they’ll be free to change their 35% or 70% royalty rate because authors won’t have a choice: everyone who buys ebooks owns a Kindle, so there’s no reason to shop anywhere else. This is the worst-case implication of Select. If people are making a lot of money via Select it’s hard to argue that they should stop, but it may not be in the long term interest of writers overall.
What seems to be missing in the indie bookstore argument is ebooks. Plainly, there’s no need to browse ebooks in-store. They’re built for the web, and after this Christmas there’s going to be a major ebook boom. So it’s terrible, but it’s pretty much old news: indie bookstores are becoming obsolete, and this is not entirely Amazon’s fault. It’s the “fault” of technology. Ebooks are fun and convenient – Amazon didn’t invent this idea, they just perfected the tech. iTunes didn’t “destroy” record stores as some act of malicious capitalism: Apple invented something incredibly useful.
Ironically, self-publishers and traditional publishers may soon be in the same boat. Just as traditional publishers are complaining about the terms demanded by Amazon, it’s quite possible self-publishers might also face the same problem. Amazon has been amazing for self-publishers – but to think that authors are truly “indie” is not really the case: they’re dependent on the whims of a corporate monolith. Amazon could end the ebook gold rush because they own the gold. In the meantime, enjoy the rush, but be wary of giving one company too much control over the industry.