The “Amazon Is Bad For Authors” Meme

Amazon bought Goodreads.

You probably already knew that if you’re even marginally connected to social media and have any friends at all who read books. You probably also know it because lots of folks were in quite a tizzy about the whole thing. Hair on fire. Pants exploding. Blood pouring from their eyes as if from the elevators in The Shining. Quite the sight to see.

This isn’t a post about that, not really.

I think Goodreads is okay. It’s a good community but a clumsy site. Hard to use, funky sort, web 1.5 design. They’ve had some issues with reviews and reviewers and moderation in the past. Though they also provide some nice data to authors and the Goodreads giveaways are a plus… so, on the whole, it’s a positive, it was just kludgey enough and had enough issues where I never really got deep into using them. So, Amazon buying them is a good move for Amazon (obviously), and reportedly Goodreads is going to remain independent at least for now.

I’m going to assume that Amazon buying Goodreads is complicated. A mix of good things and not-so-good things. And that it’s probably also not one of the Seven Wax Seals that breaks and signals the Bookpocalypse, where Jeff Bezos spears the angels Barnes and Noble with his sword made of melted Kindle Fires, where all our Amazon rankings suddenly become 666.

It is not the End Times for publishing.

Anyway, whatever.

Whenever this sort of thing happens — whenever Amazon so much as sneeze-farts — social media lights up with frothy condemnations. Which are, at times, deserved. Hey, remember when Amazon removed Buy buttons from people’s books? Or when they instituted that non-policy policy about authors not reviewing authors? OR WHEN THEY ATE YOUR BABY?

Maybe not that last part. Point is, Amazon’s hands are not soft, innocent lambskin unsullied by the dirt of capitalist digging. Sometimes they get downright muddy.

Just the same, there exists a component of the meme that seems to suggest Amazon is categorically bad for authors (and to an extent, for readers). And I don’t agree.

First, Amazon sells books. They do so pretty well. It ain’t perfect. I’m not fond of how they handle discoverability which felt much better five years ago than it does today. (I’ve seen memes that suggest discoverability is more for publishers than for readers, to which I make a trumpeting poop noise. I want with online procurement what I used to get by walking into a bookstore — that languid curious kind of magic where I wander the stacks and find books and authors I’d never heard of before. That works at bookstores. It doesn’t work at Amazon.) Just the same, Amazon pushes a great many books into a great many hands both physical and with the Kindle and while I’m a bit daft at times, it’s hard to see how that’s a negative for authors.

Second, KDP. We can all pretend that self-publishing is equally as awesome on B&N or Smashwords or iTunes, but it isn’t. KDP with the power of the Kindle has added a whole new option for authors that was only marginally feasible before. This isn’t always great for readers (flooding the marketplace with books is now an option, which stands in the way of that discoverability thing I was talking about), but it’s pretty rad for authors.

Third, Bookscan. Amazon gives authors access to Nielsen Bookscan numbers. Without cost. It’s a valuable tool that puts some data in the hands of authors — imperfect data, but here I think that’s better than no data at all — and that wasn’t generally available before. (At least, not immediately.) (Puzzling, though, to me, is why Amazon doesn’t make available Kindle sales numbers. Seems an easy transparency to provide?)

Fourth, their publishing arms. Now, to make it clear — I have books coming out with Amazon’s YA imprint, Skyscape. And that will limit those books in some fashion (though how big or small remains to be seen). Just the same, as publishers, they pay competitive advances while offering clear monthly royalty statements (other pubs tend to offer them quarterly). As an author, they’ve been great to work with. A strategic partnership through and through.

Again: Amazon is by no means perfect.

But I think it’s becoming increasingly easy and popular to take potshots.

Worse, it’s easy to say that they’re bad for authors when they do quite a bit of good, as well.

As always, this is all just one silly author’s opinion.

You may return now to your regularly-scheduled blood-pouring-from-eyes.

29 comments

      • Sorry, to clarify, I don’t mean self-pub KDP. I mean, I get Bookscan numbers for my published novels. BLACKBIRDS, etc. — but they don’t release stats for Kindle sales on those. Those I still have to wait for the publisher to share.

        – c.

        • If I understand correctly, you don’t get numbers on your traditionally published books because you are not the publisher on those and numbers go to the publisher, not the author.

          KDP self-published books get numbers because it’s all one and the same.

          There may actually be some legality involved, although I have no idea, but that’s my understanding. It’s not just an Amazon quirk or someting.

  • I don’t think Amazon is a Herald of the End Times, Devourer of Publishing and Conqueror of the Nine Circles of Bookselling Hell. They’re very good at what they do, and some of what they’ve done has been great for me as an author. I love having access to my Bookscan numbers, for example…

    But in many ways, Amazon’s behavior reminds me of a predator. That’s not necessarily different from a lot of other businesses, of course. But Amazon is a very successful predator, and I worry about what will happen as they slowly starve or devour the competition.

    I was going to try to work this into a longer comment with a metaphor about how authors are the platypuses in the circle of publishing life, but I’m still tired, and my metaphor slipped away from me. I’m told that happens more and more as you get older.

    Anyway, Amazon buying Goodreads, by itself, doesn’t scare me that much. But the larger pattern does make me very nervous.

    • You had me at “authors are the platypuses.” BECAUSE SECRET VENOM. Or something.

      Anyway! Yeah, you’re on point. Some larger picture stuff there that gives me pause; and again, this isn’t a rah-rah-rah Amazon is a Golden God post. Just wanted to put out there that they’ve done some good for authors, too.

      – c.

      • I have not been published in a way to make this all too significant, but I seem to have a hatred for Amazon inscribed in my DNA. They can save literacy and I’d still loathe the hell out of them, cause it was Amazon that did the saving. Can we hope Goodreads will get a redesign? I would certainly hope so, cause it needs an upgrade.

  • Amazon tends to make me kinda twitchy, what with the “yes we have like buttons” “no we don’t have like buttons, and what’s more, we’re going to pretend we never did” kind of thing. On the other hand, I still buy a lot of books (and other crap) through them, and I have an ebook up there (and link to my regularly pubbed books when I post about them on my blog), so um…I can only yell so loudly about them bringing on the zombie apocalypse.

    On the other hand, everyone knows they’re teh devil. right? Right?

  • Monopolies are bad for everyone but the monopoly-haver. Amazon is far from a monopoly right now, but watching the traditional publishers in their Voltron-like panic, and Barnes&Noble’s slow implosion, you can forgive me for thinking Amazon’s unholy ascent is inevitable. And being the big kid on the block doesn’t really endear them to anyone.

    But as evil overlords go, they do make it pretty easy. As a way to get my book to the clamoring masses — CLAMORING, I SAY! — it’s hard to fault them.

  • Rarely is any corporation as bad as people believe or as good as its PR says. Look at any industry, from oil & gas to banking to publishing to food service to big pharma. Many people call “corporate social responsibility” an oxymoron; I call it a career.

  • March 29, 2013 at 12:35 AM // Reply

    I’m really worried by Amazon’s plans to sell “used” digital content, which won’t really be used in that the customer will get an absolutely clean download just as if they’d bought it new. Of course, it will be used in that the creator of said digital won’t get paid except on the first sale. So it would be possible for Amazon to sell 200 copies of your book while you only get paid for 20 (since who is going to buy “new” for more when “used” gets you the exact same download).

    Once they have monopoly power, they’ll be able to impose whatever conditions they want on publishers and creators, such as accepting whatever the hell Amazon wants to do in regards to “used” content. I have no problem with a customer selling an actual used physical book, but there is no such thing as a “used” digital product. Yet Amazon will soon be in a position to insist that there is.

  • Amazon eats small businesses. And it’s beginning to eat large ones. And you’ve said what the real danger of Amazon is, the fact that it has its finger in every pie and also controls people’s ability to find out about what pies are on offer. Right now, Amazon is neutral, but as its publishing arm develops, why not always push people toward its own books? It’s got control of the reviews site, why not suppress bad reviews of the books it wants to sell?
    You can say it won’t do that, that it doesn’t need to, that it’s only self-interested authors who game the system. But people love to game the system. And programmers are really good at figuring out how to do that. (There’s someone I know who works on affect in language, and he has an algorithm that can tell a negative attitude from a positive attitude. It would be so easy to just give it a list of your books and tell it to strip out all the ones with negative affect – even if there weren’t the obvious star rankings!)
    So yeah, Amazon isn’t a problem right now. But it could be. And the whole point of anti-trust legislation is to break up collusion that means the customer doesn’t have a choice, because when the customer doesn’t have a choice, there’s no reason to keep up the deals and breaks.
    I think people take potshots at Amazon because we feel powerless against their influence. And we are powerless against their influence. But although legally corporations are people, corporations don’t have feelings. Insulting them isn’t rude. Trying to not drink the kool-ade, even though you’re stuck in the cult, isn’t going to change much, but being afraid of things that have gone wrong in the past is a normal approach to sticking your head in the dragon’s mouth.

    • (I don’t know that I said that thing about the “finger in every pie.”)

      Anyway — I think some of what you’re saying leans a bit toward the dramatic side. It’s good to worry but nobody’s powerless — there’s a very easy way to defeat Amazon if that is one’s aim and that is to stop giving them money. Vote with your dollar. If they become too excessive, lots of folks will do the same.

      For my point, right now, I am fond of Amazon’s offerings and convenience and will continue to use them for lots of things. Including e-books because I like the experience they offer through apps and devices better than what’s on tap elsewhere.

      Further, in terms of publishing, I’d maybe argue what they’re doing right now is actually introducing competition rather than killing it. They’re competing at a high level with big publishers in a way that’s beneficial to authors. Small publishers have a hard time offering real competition to the Big Six (Five? Four?) publishers, and so Amazon provides a new, robust option. And I happen to like options. Though, again, I am soon to be published by Amazon, so you may consider my opinion compromised and I understand that inclination.

      Meanwhile, in terms of services Amazon is scooping up — Amazon would be a hard model to duplicate, but Goodreads wouldn’t, I don’t think. (I say this as person who does not program things, so take this with a grain of salt. Or rather, a whole salt lick.) I think this is an opportunity for someone to step up and create a better, cooler book-and-review community. Something like Bookish but that… well, that people use.

      – c.

      • I agree with you Chuck. I think we as a society allow these companies to become monopolies by continuing to buy from them. So, if a company becomes a monopoly, we only have ourselves to blame.

        To your programming comment, you are correct. Goodreads would not be a difficult model to duplicate. It’s essentially Facebook for books (Bookbook) which is one webpage that’s replicated over and over for every user. The biggest issue is the server space, which Goodreads actually failed on a few months ago. Having Amazon back them now, that shouldn’t happen anymore.

        I’ve actually thought up a few designs to improve on Goodreads’ model. Maybe it’ll be my website we worms will be using in the future!

  • I”m a fully committed lover of Amazon. Smitten. Amazon-whipped. Their little slave. In fact, when they say “bring out the gimp,” they mean me. Without them who knows where I’d be. If they started to abuse me, I probably wouldn’t even recognize it.

  • I said this yesterday and I think it rings fairly true: At one time we all loved Amazon, but once it started to get TOO BIG, we stopped loving it because it was TOO BIG, just like we stopped loving Microsoft, Wal*Mart, McDonald’s, Apple, etc. We don’t stop using the products or services, we just bitch about it. I have zero beef with Amazon, or with any of the companies I mentioned (Except Wal*Mart, but I don’t shop there.), and will continue to do so. You know, unless they start ritually sacrificing people.

  • Miss the bookstore experience? Yes. Enough to give up Amazon? Never! When Amazon first started, the naysayers said they’d never make a buck, that it would fold. (Remember that, way back in the dark ages?) Well, the ubiquitous “THEY” were wrong, again. I ‘discover’ new writers on Amazon at a better clip than I could in a book store. I start with the one star reviews and decide if they have their heads you know where, LOL. Amazon reviews, even the pimped ones, give insights no bookstore can. And though I might be mistaken on this one, do think it was Amazon who gave writers the non-NY option. Anybody know the answer to that?

  • It’s hard to imagine how a company that has done so much to make it easier for more people to read more books (and publish more books) could be inherently BAD by any measure.

    And as for Goodreads founders enjoying a payday, great for them!

    Now there’s room for another upstart to take a shot at improving online discoverability.

    • Thank you for the excellent article. I can’t add to much of the politics of this but I do want to thank you for reinforcing the idea that Amazon does, indeed, get books into the hands of readers. I often hear the “shop indie” argument, but I have yet to hear a thoughtful discussion about what the many of us who do not have that option should do instead.

  • I’m not running away from Goodreads just because this was announced, but it has made me nervous. Because I’ve never purchased anything from Amazon, they don’t allow me to leave reviews on books I’ve read. If they implement something similar or something I’ve yet to imagine on Goodreads, though, I’m afraid I will have to jump ship, so I am looking at other options, just in case. Goodreads may be clunky, but it’s one of my three favorite social networks, and frankly, if forced to choose between it and Facebook, I’d dump Facebook first; at least, I would’ve before now. Now? Uncertainty. And I think that’s the big thing here. Everyone is uncertain. No one knows what this might mean, so imaginations are running wild… imaginations of readers and writers.

  • ‘the non-policy policy about authors not being able to review other authors’ Does that mean you can’t review books on amazon, Chuck? Or that anyone who publishes on amazon can no longer review books on amazon?
    How is it working?

  • l am not happy about the deal…l think in the end it only profits Amazon, but l will withold judgement till they prove me right…again.
    My greatest argument against Amazon is pretty much what you said: “I want with online procurement what I used to get by walking into a bookstore — that languid curious kind of magic where I wander the stacks and find books and authors I’d never heard of before. That works at bookstores. It doesn’t work at Amazon.” No it doesn’t. There lS no ‘discoverability’ option with Amazon. l can’t stop at my favorite genre shelves and browse interesting covers, flip through chapters (yes, l am one of those horrid readers who glimpses the end section) and find new authors to love and new worlds to explore.
    Apparently the ‘new paradigm’ of endless self-pubbed and e-pubbed authors shall remain nameless and faceless to many readers who might otherwise discover them… and we shall be left to wait for authors we know or new names from publishers we trust.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds