Why Is Amazon So Weird?

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

AmazonThere 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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17 thoughts on “Why Is Amazon So Weird?

  1. David Blatner, Creative Publishing Network

    I’ve known a lot of people who have worked at Amazon (as I live in the Seattle area) and it’s clear that transparency and altruism are not part of the corporate culture. I think it comes down to: If you think the world is out to kill you, you’ll act as though the world is out to kill you. If you think you’re in a position of strength and we’re all in this together to make a better world (I like to call this “pro-noia”) then you act differently. Amazon doesn’t act weird; they just act based on their top-down culture.

    Sure, I wish Amazon were more open and transparent. Apple, too!

    1. Lindsey Thomas Martin

      David, re ‘pro-noia’: the Greeks have used ‘eunoia’ since the 5th century B.C.E. to mean more or less what you want to say. The word doesn’t seem to have made it into English or French but there is no reason it couldn’t be adopted: in construction it is parallel to ‘paranoia’ (another word drawn directly from Greek) and follows the pattern of, say, ‘euphemism’. Have at it.

  2. Mitchell Davis

    You know what is weirder? That an entire industry could 1) watch the internet happen, 2) fail to collaborate in any meaningful way over twenty years to do anything about it (remember bookish?), 3) trade what you describe above for short term money and then 4) act like is an unexplainable phenomenon. Amazon hires smart people, incents them well, invests in where they believe things are heading and then they execute. That is not weird.

  3. Michael W. Perry

    Until 2012 I lived in Seattle like David Blatner. While there, I made a point of observing the various high-tech corporate cultures, and even worked for two of them: Microsoft and Boeing. All were very different and that shaped not only employee morale but how they related to the public. In the end, employees tend to treat outsiders like they’re treated by their company.

    Adobe software developers, while retaining the necessary product development secrets, weren’t afraid to be honest with me about issues. On the other hand, I found Amazon developers absolutely paranoid about letting something slip out. They clearly lived in a climate of fear, which is really odd given that—unlike say Apple—Amazon isn’t pioneering new technologies. It doesn’t need as much secrecy.

    Top-down criticism of employees is particularly destructive. If the NY Times is right about how highly critical Amazon is toward its white collar workers, then the result will be a lot of employees fearful of failing and thus unwilling to be open or think for themselves. Keeping secrets and doing as told without question becomes necessary for survival. That’s not good.

    High tech is hardly the only organization to face those issues. Hospitals are particularly prone to develop extremely critical environments, since the costs of failure are so high: dead patients and malpractice lawsuits. I deal with that based on my own experience working at a top-ten children’s hospital in Senior Nurse Mentor, a book that also offers a solution.

    To get that message out, the ebook version is free on the iBookstore and would be free on the Kindle store if Amazon let me do such a thing. If you get it, pay particular attention to the contrast I draw between the flack I got at that hospital for bending the pedantic work expectations of the administration to help a boy just diagnosed with leukemia versus when I worked at the Seattle Art Museum, then headed by Bill Gate’s extremely talented stepmother, Mimi Gates. Here’s where I make that contrast at the start of chapter 20.
    —-Start Quote
    What should I do? I’d been told not to allow anyone but performers to park in the pavilion’s underground garage. Some eighty were participating in a fund-raiser for Seattle’s most prestigious art museum. They were performing for free, so the least we could offer was free parking. There were barely enough spaces for them.

    Yet when I saw that elderly woman get out of her car and begin to hobble painfully toward the elevator, I decided to make an exception. Given her condition, I was not going to force her to park half a mile away. Most performers were young and healthy. One of them could park elsewhere. I rushed to offer her assistance.

    About ten minutes later, the event’s director came to thank me. There’d been a mix-up, he said. The woman was one of the museum’s major donors and had been told she could park in our garage. What I’d done as a good deed proved good for the museum too.

    In this book I’ve described several hospital situations when I did a similar good deed for our kids and was harshly criticized rather than thanked. Fortunately for those kids, I’m stubborn. I persevered even though I knew nastiness might follow.

    The art museum was different. It encouraged those working for it to think beyond rules, policies and procedures. I wasn’t aware that the woman was a major donor, but in the end that would not have mattered. I had a reason to make an exception for her. She was attending the event and needed to park in close. Flexibility like that was encouraged rather than punished.
    —–End Quote
    Highly critical organizations make employees risk-adverse and the resulting fear makes mistakes more likely. I saw that repeatedly at the hospital, particularly with nurses under intense pressure. On the other hand, a work environment that encourages employees to step back and take a more mission-centered rather than criticism-avoiding approach will do much better in the long run. Just a few weeks after I resigned from that hospital, there was a mass-exodus of nurses, with 20% of them leaving within a few weeks.

    Perhaps Amazon should hire Mimi Gates as a consultant on how it should treat its employees. While I worked at the Seattle Art Museum, I was impressed with how often its senior management, including her and the European curator (Chiyo Ishikawa) mixed with the staff to emphasis the broader ethos of the museum. Gifted leaders do that. They guide by personal example rather than rule by threats. That’s a lesson that Amazon desperately needs to learn.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  4. Susan Ranscht

    Why should Amazon worry about its relationship with authors? Most — not all, but most — of the self-published works they hawk are authored by people who can’t write to a standard that anyone with any literary analytical knowledge would describe as good. (5-star reviews on Amazon mean nothing because every author’s friend or author-in-hope-of-returned-favors writes 5-star reviews.)

    Caitlin Rother, a traditionally published author with a NYT Best Seller to her credit (My Life — Deleted), recently said at a writers’ workshop, If you look at the sales data for the self-published authors on Amazon, you’ll see they’re mostly selling to their family and friends.

    How much can it cost the online behemoth to keep crap available? So Amazon plays to the vanity of those who imagine they can write, will do anything to see their name on a title page, and dream they’ll be discovered by a legitimate literary agent who’s so impressed they’ll make contact, sign them, and sell their work to traditional publishers. Oh, and get them a film option — something with Daisy Ridley or Matt Damon, directed by Ridley Scott. (Hey, it happened to Andy Weir, minus Daisy Ridley, but hey!) Amazon is the Schwab’s Pharmacy for writers. Everybody and anybody (and their dog) is welcome to play.

    And they do. So why SHOULD Amazon worry about its relationship with authors? There are millions more sitting at their laptops right now, churning out adjectives, adverbs, and dangling modifiers, getting ready to publish their unedited masterpieces on Amazon and take the literary world by storm. And they’ll check everyday to see if their seller’s rank has risen to #4,327,119 in books.

    1. Nirmala

      You might want to check out the reports on Authorearnings.com. It just so happens that a lot of self-published books are ranking quite a bit higher than 4 million. In fact, if you go right now to the top 100 on Amazon, you will find a preponderance of self-published titles. I guess readers like those self-published books.

    2. Rachel de Vine

      I am a writer, but not self-published. I write erotic romance through a small publisher. However I know many, many self-published writers who are supremely talented writers, who pay professional editors to work on their books, as well as professionally designed covers, and I resent the slur you make that they are semi-illiterate, vanity publishers. You say: “Most — not all, but most — of the self-published works they hawk are authored by people who can’t write to a standard that anyone with any literary analytical knowledge would describe as good.”
      I have never read such a cynical, egotistical and unfair rant such as this. I have not heard of you, so I do not know if you are a writer or not, but I resent your bigoted attitude towards the majority of decent, talented and hard-working writers, who do not deserve such criticism.

      1. Rachel de Vine

        And to reinforce what Nirmala said about the success of self-published books, according to Authorearnings.com, the relevant figures are as follows:
        The aggregate share of indie self-published titles on Amazon’s best seller lists, at 27%, hasn’t changed since September 2015. It is still more than double the representation of Big 5 titles. But what has changed, very significantly, is the degree to which Amazon’s overall Top 20 Best Sellers, and even the overall Top 10, have come to be dominated by self-published titles from indie authors — nearly half of which were not priced at $0.99 but rather “full-priced” sales at prices between $2.99 and $5.99.

        On January 10, the date our spider ran:

        4 of Amazon’s overall Top 10 Best Selling ebooks were self-published indie titles
        10 of Amazon’s overall Top 20 Best Selling ebooks were self-published indie titles
        56 of Amazon’s overall Top 100 Best Selling ebooks — more than half — were self-published indie titles
        20 of Amazon’s overall Top 100 Best Selling ebooks were indie titles priced between $2.99 and $5.99
        So much for Susan Ranscht’s opinion that self-published authors only sell their books to friends and family!

    3. Anon for this

      What utter garbage. And obviously spoken by someone who has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. I only have two books for sale, but so far this month I’ve managed to sell 4,100 ebooks. My life would be very different if I had 4,100 friends and family who would buy my books over the course of a month. I don’t. And I’m nobody. We keep hearing “only the outliers!” when it comes to making money, but that is totally untrue. I’m living proof, and I could list a hundred authors off the top of my head who make totally fantastic money and have never even been in the Top 100 on Amazon. Caitlin Rother is seriously, seriously, seriously misinformed. Either that or completely stupid. Any traditional publisher in New York would be giddy with the sales numbers I do with my two little books. They’d probably even spend advertising money on me.

      So move along – we don’t need you to spread your lies here.

    4. Cameron Dockery

      Your bias banter becomes obvious and leaves your argument shallow, unfounded and weak. Anyone slightly in the \know\ is able to reduce your drivel to shreds.

      While it is true, some Amazon self pubs are poorly written and go no where, many are well written, developed and edited with very good cover art.

      Thus, the reason and justification for Amazon’s shaking the industry to its foundation and core.

      If you are going to speak in the forum, please present yourself and argument in a more professional light.

  5. J R Tomlin

    I’ll quote from The Passive Voice blog because in a SANE world you would be questioning the ‘weird’ (or abusive) choices of traditional publishing such as:

    “* Payments to suppliers (authors) every six months
    * Monumentally obscure payment calculation reports to suppliers (authors) delivered on paper (in the 21st Century)
    * Supplier (author) contracts that always last at least 70 years and frequently over 100 years.”

    But instead you find the idea of Amazon offering a publishing platform to those same suppliers (namely we authors) as a ‘poke at publishing’ and “tentacles”. Yes, something is weird but it isn’t necessarily Amazon.

  6. Hugh Howey

    Of all the ADS addled drivel I’ve seen over the years, this ranks up there as quite possibly the most idiotic.

  7. Terrence OBrien

    Toaster and blender makers aren’t whining because Amazon doesn’t publish data on kitchen appliance sales.

    Should authors be treated differently? Why? Are authors less capable of dealing in the market? Are authors special?

  8. Data Guy

    Hi, Dan,

    Online retailers like Barnes&Noble.com, Apple, Kobo, Google, and Amazon.com don’t have any business incentive to share detailed competitive sales data with their suppliers, each other, and the public at large. In fact, they have plenty of business reasons not to.

    The onus is on us, as suppliers, to collect and analyze the market data we need to run our businesses. That’s how it has always been, which is why organizations like Nielsen and the AAP exist in the first place, and why they are able to sell the data they collect and report on.

    The only thing I find weird is the tone of this blog post. 🙂

    All my best,
    Data Guy

  9. Brian Robben

    I’m a big fan of Amazon because of how they leveled the playing field for all authors to a degree. Rather than having gatekeepers at Barnes & Noble or other bookstores, Amazon lets the public decide what authors make money and how much.

  10. Len Edgerly

    Brad Stone does not present the gazelle comment as a direct quote from Bezos. In fact, in the next paragraph Stone writes that \Bezos meant the cheetah-and-gazelle analogy as a joke.\ He later said of Amazon’s pressure on publishers for favorable terms, \These tactics were not unique to Amazon.\ From start to finish, this post is a frivolous bit of writing about a company that DBW readers have a right to expect you will cover seriously.

  11. Cameron Dockery

    The big 5 have never been transparent and though it sounds like a broken record, “Now that theyvare no longer in control, they constantly whine like spoiled children.”

    Blinded by an arogent sense of entitlement has left them firmly planted in the passenger seat where they belong.



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