Amazon Publishing: Authors Are Customers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

When book publishers consider their customers, historically, they were stores that retailed books. As of recently, with the distance between publisher and reader now measured in electrons, readers have entered the mix as customers publishers relate with regularly. And with the rise of self-publishing, giving the competition for content from authors a new dimension, publishers have intensified their efforts to woo new authors and retain old ones.

Amazon Publishing, the relatively new house owned and operated by the world’s largest bookseller of the same name, is taking that last point to a whole new level.

“Our authors are our customers,” Sarah Jane Gunter, director of international publishing for the company, told me at the London Book Fair this week. “Amazon Publishing is going to become a house that is focused on authors. Our focus is service.”

But Amazon as a company has a particular view when it comes to customers. The customer is solidly at the center of Amazon’s thinking and everything the company does. According to Brad Stone’s book on the large e-tailer, The Everything Store, meetings held at Amazon leave a seat open symbolically for the customer.

It’s easy to argue that Amazon has followed through on this philosophy. The company has famously low prices and famously good customer service, two things generally very important to customers.

According to Gunter, when it comes to publishing, this means “helping [authors] find new audiences” and making “the books available to anyone who wants to buy them.”

It’s not hard to believe her: In its short history, Amazon Publishing has been known to spend money on content and actively promotes its list through its own very powerful retail platform. At the same time, the company has had trouble getting physical books into stores, which are still a hugely significant retail channel and very important for book discovery and new author discovery in particular.

When I asked her about being able to get authors’ books into wide bricks-and-mortar distribution, Gunter said that Amazon Publishing makes its books available to all stores. When I followed up with specific stores that would or would not stock Amazon Publishing titles, she said, “We’ll have to follow up with you on that.”*

That said, despite any hurdles the company might face, publishers in both the U.S. and abroad should watch the company closely. Amazon Publishing plans on hiring 70 new people this year, many who will help with the company’s planned expansion into Europe. It plans on translating 200 English books into German and will be investing in translating yet more titles into English, Gunter said. Further, Amazon Publishing has already acquired 26 titles in the UK and published 11 of them.

“We’re looking for people who are going to obsess over customers,” said Gunter of the proposed new hires, adding, “we want to hire people who are passionate about bringing great books to market and helping authors find new readers.”

Gunter will be running this operation from Seattle, where she is based.

“It’s helpful to have someone in Seattle to build a bridge between our teams around the world and our home office,” Gunter said.

*Editor’s note: This section has been amended to reflect the full exchange that occurred here. Previously it noted that Gunter’s final response to the matter was “we’ll get back to you,” which was not entirely accurate. We regret the mistake. 

9 thoughts on “Amazon Publishing: Authors Are Customers

  1. Michael W. Perry

    When I read this article, I had to check the date. No, it’s not April 1st, I confirmed. This isn’t a joke. Nor is it a press release. It would say that at the top. At best, it’s a soft and squishy interview. No hard questions. In fact, no real questions at all. Just let someone important, Sarah Jane Gunter, director of international publishing for Amazon, say what she wants without challenging her in the slightest. This is what in the trade is called a puff piece.

    The article’s basic point is wrong. Authors are not customers at Amazon. They’re regarded as a particularly powerless and easily duped group of suppliers. And yes, Amazon is quite clever in how it appeals to the vanities of much put-upon authors. For instance, Apple takes a week or more to post a new ebook. Amazon often does it overnight. That does appeal to authors and costs little.

    And if there is a problem, the KDP service isn’t bad, although typically for Amazon, it feels very depersonalized. There’s also the usual marketing hype making much of nothing, in this case that Amazon is about, “helping [authors] find new audiences” and making “the books available to anyone who wants to buy them.” Actually, almost anyone’s online ebooks store on the planet does that as long as it can take credit cards.

    But Amazon is utterly rotten at the two things that matters most to authors with their heads screwed on. The first is letting them make choices and the other paying a fair wage. Amazon does neither.

    CHOICES:

    1. Apple allows me to upload a sample of a book along with sample pages. I choose what potential buyers see. Amazon gives me no choice. It simply grabs the start of the book though robotic software. And yes, I’m aware that’s probably because Amazon equates book with novel. But it’s still frustrating for those of us who publish other sorts of book. One of mine is for nursing students and needs to show different sections to fairly represent the book. Apple lets me do that. Amazon doesn’t.

    2. Image quality. My latest book, an almost done novel about a brave girl who rides through night in Reconstruction Era North Carolina to save her father from the Klan, opens each chapter with a picture. Those pictures will look great on an iPad. They’ll look unpredictable and often poor on various Kindle readers. Apple allows me to include images over 3 meg in size. Amazon rejects any image over 127K. Again Amazon equates book with novel. In my mind, Amazon equals ugly.

    3. Formatting hassles. Virtually everyone else has adopted epub, making cross-publishing easy. Apple is pioneering ePub compatibility and Adobe is making sure InDesign has excellent ePub export capabilities. And what is Amazon doing? It’s got its own pair of proprietary formats, mobi and KF9. And although InDesign CC has been out for about a year, it has yet to create an InDesign plug-in for it. As a result, Amazon makes creating anything other than the simplest of books a pain. Apple even has iBooks Author, so ordinary people can create visually appealing books. Amazon seems to think that Word documents are enough to define a book and that nothing more complex than a cheap novel really matters.

    4. I could go on, but you get the point. As an author, Apple gives me choice at every possible point. Amazon regards me as a four-year-old whose options need to be limited \for my own good,\ presumably because it thinks I’m not too bright.

    PAYMENTS:

    The specifics are complex, but can be summarized easily.

    * Apple pays top-of-the market royalties. Authors get 70 percent of retail at any price from $0.99 to $199.99 with no download fees. No gimmicks. No deceptions. Straight, honest dealing.

    * Amazon complex royalty scheme seems, in part, intended to dupe authors into thinking it pays the same 70 percent that Apple pays. It doesn’t. There is no price point at which Amazon even pays the same as Apple. It always pays less and often substantially so. Ebooks in the $2.99 to $9.99 range, authors are told, get 70% royalties. Actually it’s more like 55 percent after a grossly inflated and deceptively name download fee is added. That fee, 15 cents per megabyte, is roughly equivalent to pay $400 for an ordinary hamburger. And outside that narrow range, Amazon pays only 35 percent royalties, half what Apple and many other retailers pay.

    In short, it is a matter of somber math that Amazon is ripping off authors, often paying 50-100% less than other ebook retailers. And that is, no doubt, why Amazon is so zealous that ebooks not be priced for more elsewhere. If they had the choice, authors would make the retail at Amazon twice that at other outlets just so they get the same return per sale.

    My own, back of an envelope calculations suggest that, given its economies of scale, Amazon makes about twice as much after-cost profits per sale as companies such as Apple and, since retail prices are the same, every penny of that added profit is coming out of the pockets of authors.

    I think it is only fair to say that the passion at Amazon isn’t for authors and their needs, it’s a passion for the quite large profits that Amazon’s grossly below-market author royalties generate. Authors who think otherwise are being quite foolish. And keep in mind this is while Amazon still has significant competition. Lacking that competition in the audiobook market, it just slashed what it pays authors there. Look for the same with ebooks if the opportunity arises.

    The trade press should quit writing puff pieces like this one. It should get behind the marketing gush and take Amazon to task for how poorly it pays authors, for how little freedom it permits authors, and, although I don’t touch on it here, how badly it has been holding back important ebook developments with out-dated proprietary technology.

    Reply
    1. J...

      I think you’re confused… This article is about Amazon Publishing, not the self publishing (KDP) side of Amazon. The KDP program is a completely different animal. The KDP authors are vendors selling a product just like someone who sells t-shirts on Amazon, and they have no connection at all to Amazon Publishing, which is a traditional house with editors, cover designers, marketing teams, etc…

      Amazon Publishing is completely focused on author satisfaction. I’ve published several books with them after moving over from a traditional big 5 NY publisher, and my experience with Amazon has been light years better. Amazon Publishing not only pays quite a bit more than NY publishers, they pay monthly. I’ve sold over half a million books with AP so far and made more money than I ever dreamed of making with my old NY publisher.

      I can understand your complaints about self publishing, but if it’s really that bad, stop publishing with Amazon. No one is forcing you to use them. They’ve offered a platform for authors who couldn’t find a publisher, and beggars can’t be choosers.

      Reply
      1. Kate

        Would you be more specific? What has Amazon offered and done better than traditional publishers? Higher royalties? Advances? Promotion and marketing? Other authors have found lack of presence in stores to be a hindrance. Can Amazon change your terms whenever it wants? The lowering of royalties on Audible books was a big deal to me. It shows a willingness to exert power at author expense. So if I want Amazon to treat me well, I had better hope they publish me, or else I might get lose money, see my rankings tweaked? Are we looking at a tiered system where Amazon authors get perks no one else gets, within the Amazon website?

        Reply
        1. J...

          “What has Amazon offered and done better than traditional publishers? Higher royalties? Advances? Promotion and marketing?”

          Yes to all.

          I’ve personally never found the lack of bookstore presence to be a big deal. My books have shown up in B&N (occasionally) and are stocked in quite a few indie stores around the country. More indie stores pick up Amazon Publishing books every year, especially now that Amazon Published books are starting to be nominated for major awards, but that lack of presence hasn’t been much of a factor because the sales from Amazon are much larger than sales from stores. Also, bookstore presence is overrated unless you’re an established seller. Debut books are lucky to make in on the shelves at all, and are usually pulled after a few weeks. Since B&N is the last remaining chain, the competition is ridiculous, where on Amazon, the publishing tail is much longer.

          Amazon cannot change terms whenever they want since terms are established in the contract you sign. They might be able to change terms with self published authors, but that’s because self published authors are vendors and Amazon is not their publisher. Self published authors will not get the perks published authors get because Amazon doesn’t see them any differently than anyone else who sells a product on their website. They are not publishing indie books, they are giving self published authors a platform to sell their writing.

          “So if I want Amazon to treat me well, I had better hope they publish me, or else I might get lose money, see my rankings tweaked?”

          Yes. If you self publish a novel on Amazon, you are a vendor and you are subject to the whims of Amazon. You’re not under contract as a published author, and you have no control whatsoever over any changes Amazon sees fit to make to their policies.

          I’m not sure I’d call Amazon’s system tired. They are letting authors who would otherwise be unable to reach an audience a way to distribute their writing. I think that’s an amazing service considering that before Amazon, self published author’s only resource was printing books and selling them on consignment from their cars or friendly local stores.

          Reply
  2. Kate

    It would be great if true, but Amazon just lowered royalty rates on audiobooks again, and they’ve been known to be…inconsistent…when it comes to their self-published authors.

    I think Amazon’s business model, like Wal-Mart, is to punish those who do distribute through them. That said, for the sake of self-published authors, I hope this article has merit.

    Reply
  3. Gabriella

    Michael, to be fair, he’s talking about Amazon Publishing,not KDP. The two things are quite different.

    Your points about KDP are interesting, though…

    Reply
  4. marlayna glynn brown

    I’ve tried to leave KDP several times over the years and use the other retailers to sell my 7 books. I get nowhere near the return I do on KDP borrows compared to other site sales. While I’m disappointed to see your points Michael Perry, I have to agree. Yet I feel stuck and powerless. I also checked the date of the article, btw.

    Reply

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