Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
There isn’t a company that more directly affects book publishing than Amazon. The e-commerce giant’s tentacles are firmly wrapped around all publishers, just waiting to tighten when its terms are deemed a speck below satisfactory. And in recent years it has taken a further jab at publishers by being largely responsible for the self-publishing boom that allows many authors to circumvent the traditional publishing system.
Not a week goes by on this website or similar ones in which we don’t discuss one of Amazon’s latest moves. But rarely, if ever, do we ask a very basic question:
Why is Amazon so weird?
It’s an unusual question, I know. But I think it’s appropriate to ask.
It’s obvious as to why Amazon pressures publishers and suppliers. We don’t need to waste time there. And granted, most headlines regarding Amazon’s actions are overblown, like the recent Kindle update-or-die warnings. Once you got below the surface, there wasn’t much news or urgency to the story.
What I’m getting at, though, is the bizarre aura that surrounds the company’s actions. Some, despite bases in sound logic, just seem strange, random or unexpected—like the recent deletion of a user’s account because he returned too many items, or the debate surrounding whether Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) authors must put their table of contents pages in the front matter as opposed to the back.
Maybe to some, those actions don’t seem strange. Or maybe, to those whom they do in fact seem strange, it’s simply because we in this industry analyze every breath the company takes.
The weirdest thing about Amazon (at least in my opinion) is the way in which the company structures and polices its KDP self-publishing program. Sometimes it feels like there’s a new crisis in this community every week.
Yet the cure for it is fairly simple: transparency.
Which is something that we rarely get from Amazon. The same goes for explanations. Amazon doesn’t like to explain itself very often. It quietly says, “Jump,” and everyone writes, tweets and comments, “How high?”
This dynamic leads to rampant speculation and endless commentary.
To that end, the fact that the community has someone like Data Guy working on its behalf is good. It needs someone actively addressing (however inaccurate the data pulled and conclusions made might be deemed) these important issues.
But the fact that the need for Data Guy exists at all? Not so good.
Sales reporting, as Michael Cader explained at the most recent Digital Book World Conference, is mind-bogglingly flawed. But at least there is a collective attempt to be transparent and inform the industry, as everyone involved benefits from the data—publishers, editors, agents, authors, even readers.
But given the dynamic that Amazon has created, the company clearly sees no reason to provide any more information than just surface-level observations. And why should it? Amazon has all the leverage. Many authors literally depend on its publishing and sales platforms to fulfill their job description of actually being an author.
Some people have referred to Amazon’s presence in book publishing as a monopoly. Others have more accurately referred to it as a “monopsony.” Whatever you term it, though, that presence has an undeniably eerie feeling to it.
Remember how Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, said the company should approach publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle?”
Amazon allegedly wanted/wants to kill off the traditional gatekeepers—the publishers. The goal there makes sense for its business.
The company, however, clearly does not want to kill off authors. That would not make any sense.
I guess what I’m getting at is this: when, if ever, does the other shoe drop when it comes to Amazon’s relationship with authors? The company has succeeded in helping to create a sizable space in the industry that has no need for gatekeepers or even middlemen. Amazon works directly with the author, both get agreeable terms, and everybody seemingly wins.
But when will that dynamic turn? And if it does turn, how will it? Because if a shift does indeed occur, there’s only one party that will benefit. And I think we all know what party that is.
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