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Friday, January 20, 2012

love-hate amazon


I'm emerging briefly from the 12th century to contemplate the real world. I'm pleased with myself as I've written the first two chapters of the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn' and I want to keep writing. When I work, I write roughly 1,000 words a morning. When I don't work, I can hear the characters speaking and working out what they're going to do. I can see a hundred characters waiting in the wings and I'm not sure yet which of them are coming on stage. Research carries on but now it's focused on exactly what I need to know. So far this has included making opium tea and forging Damascus steel.

Back in the real world, there are mergers and takeovers for stock photography companies, so I took refuge in publishing news - yes, I'm joking. Anyone who doesn't like change would do well to stay in the 12th century and well away from publishing news. However, it is always a good time to take stock (pun intended) so I've managed to come to some conclusions about what might be the most important relationship in my creative life - me and amazon.

If you read or write books, you have a relationship with amazon. Like me, you're probably thinking about how  far you want to go with amazon and what the consequences will be. As with any relationship, short term pleasure might mean long term suffering, for you and for other people.

The two big questions for me as a writer


 - should I try to get amazon as a conventional publisher? Confession time. I did submit 'Song at Dawn' to their imprint and have heard nothing back whatsoever. It was already self-published (with lulu not amazon's self-publishing service) so I have only lost the time it took to write a submission but either their email submission route didn't work or they're just one more publisher too rude to reply/too bogged down to reply yet. I don't know anyone published this way but I shall be keeping an eye on the amazon imprints to see how they do.


- should I go exclusive with amazon's KDP select on an e-book to profit from their 500,000 dollar 'new author' promotion program? How far into bed with amazon am I willing to go?

These are my thoughts at present.

As a reader


LOVE
I've been buying books from amazon for many years. They offer an incredibly wide selection of books, cheap prices, cheap postage (even from the USA or UK to France, where I live), fast delivery - wonderful! With kindle books I have the ebook option and can even have a selection of newly published kindle books free - wonderful!

HATE
Obviously, I've killed the bookshops where I used to browse shelves, read reviews by shop assistants, have a coffee, enjoy bookshop atmosphere and sometimes go to signings or readings by other writers. As a little girl I spent all my pocket-money on books and when I was lonely (because I wasn't allowed a dog) I'd hang out in a bookshop or library and read.

LOVE
Nostalgia doesn't create the future and nowadays even lonely little girls living in the wilds can chat on amazon forums or join online booklovers' sites like goodreads , read, review and talk books all day (while skipping school because they get bored there) Someone's publishing prediction for 2012 was that amazon will buy goodreads.

HATE
I live in France. When I decided to buy an ereader, I could ONLY buy a kindle from amazon.com, not uk, and pay import tax for the privilege. Now I can buy a kindle from amazon.fr and pay far more for kindle books than from .com or .uk, where I am not even allowed to see the price. The relationship between the different countries' amazon sites is complicated and however much I am told 'it is to do with national laws' I remain sceptical. I can buy a print book from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk but not an ebook. I can buy ebooks from US based smashwords but not from amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

I am not happy with my access to ebooks, nor with the prices I'm charged. This is not just an amazon hate, as I cannot even buy ebooks from Waterstone's or Blackwell's UK. Amazon does however charge me more because I live in France and limits my choices as a customer, wherever I live, by selling only a link to an ebook, not the book itself, and by restricting the format of books to kindle only. I believe this to be illegal but no-one yet has taken on amazon and those who wish to do so can find ways around this. Whether it is illegal to hack into an ebook which you have paid for and are keeping for your own use, is another question I have yet to see taken to the courts. The last straw for me was when I found I had to pay 2euros on amazon.fr for a kindle book on special free offer on .com


AS A WRITER


PRINT books
LOVE
If I self-publish with ISBNs, my books can sell via amazon's wonderful online bookshop, be reviewed, be packaged and posted, all without me lifting a finger. Amazon distribution is first class and international. The site is user friendly and is visited by millions of readers. Amazon is efficient!

Amazon is offering more and more feedback to authors, with demographic stats on sales, author pages, questionnaires and comparisons. I've had a couple of problems to deal with and amazon staff have replied promptly with practical solutions.

HATE

Some of my books were not self-published. I negotiated a wonderful 40% off cover price to buy my own books direct from the publisher and guess what? I could get them cheaper from amazon. It is not only the bookshops that lose out from amazon prices.

the bully
Amazon has such a huge profit margin that it can sell products below cost price. No-one can compete with this. It kills the competition so in the future there will be competition. Without competition, there are no checks and balances. Amazon is deliberately turning publishing into a totalitarian state.

As a self-publisher, I cannot offer buyers enough discount for me to make money by them buying direct from me. I have to tell them, they will get the books cheaper from amazon. Guess who amazon puts the squeeze on, demanding bigger discounts for them to purchase books, as they cut prices more and more? The publisher. And who does the publisher squeeze? The author. That's me, both publisher and author, screwed twice over.

EBOOKs


LOVE
I hated the fact that .com had kindles three years ago and welcomed self-publishing from US based writers only. I spent two years desperate to get in at the beginning but without an American bank account and address, no dice. I still resent missing those two years, when I had books ready to roll.

However, the love returned with kindle uk and amazon has enable me to self-publish 12 kindle titles, sell them via amazon's amazing online bookshop, in all the different amazon countries, with instant feedback on sales, and the option to control pricing.


HATE
You need a degree in discounts, pricing and royalties to understand and compare anything on one amazon site, never mind in three currencies on six international sites. My books are available in more currencies on more sites but my brain overloads after six permutations - and that's just on amazon. I suppose you thought you'd set a price in sterling and amazon would happily convert that into dollars/euros or whatever? Bitter laughter. No indeed! Hence my real grievance about amazon not allowing me to even see the price of my ebooks on amazon sites where, as a French resident, I'm not allowed to buy the books.

Add to that the fact that my royalties are halved for purchases outside the UK and the USA and I am not happy about these complicated international amazon relationships. I do understand that different countries have different laws, different taxes on books, and different 'norm' pricing for books. Print books cost far more  in France than in the UK or USA, protecting publisher and author, so one price doesn't suit all. I don't see why amazon.fr should take a different cut on my royalties to amazon.com though.

That puts my decision into context. Now back to the question

- should I go exclusive with amazon on an e-book to profit from their 500,000 dollar 'new author' promotion program?


I now know a couple of writers who've done this and I intend to track their progress and interview them on my blog as they progress. I rate them both highly as writers and at the moment they've launched their books with free giveaways, taken up by hundreds of readers - nice start.

They're both pricing their books at 99cents - the conventional low price 'starting point' for unknown writers.

I've decided NO, not for me.
It would be a lot of hassle to remove any of my ebooks from their other distributors -  smashwords, lulu and goodreads, where they're building up steam nicely.

If the offer's still there when I finish the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn', I could publish that exclusively to kindle. Why wouldn't I?

For the same reason I don't price my ebooks at 99cents. I agonised over pricing, caught between 'conventionally published authors demand and get high prices for ebooks' and 'unknown authors get thousands of readers via cheap ebooks'. My current theory is that there is a huge readership for books which are free or 99cents but that those readers will have no loyalty to an author. They will always be looking for - and able to find - books that are free or 99cents - and their priority will be the price. As a writer, I am looking for readers who value what I write and who will come back to read more of my books because they think they're good, not because they're free. I am prepared to sell books more slowly at what I've decided is a fair price - definitely less than print books but above the '99cents mass of new and unknown writers'. I will get more money per book and I am hoping to reach 'my' readers. Time will tell.

I am also unhappy at the idea of signing that amazon contract, not just because I've had bad experiences with a recent publishing contract, but also because there are clauses along the lines that you don't talk about your contract. What was I saying earlier about totalitarian?

Maybe freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, maybe freedom ain't worth nothing, but it is definitely free. I want to keep my sense of these two words, 'value' and 'free' separate from amazon.

In future blogs I will be following the progress of writers who've made different choices for their books so that I can relate our experiences in conventional publishing, self-publishing, print books, ebooks, kindle exclusive.

Now I need to go back to the 12th century, where the Crusader armies taunted the Saracens before attacking by miming the act of writing. It showed what a wimp you were to be literate. Plus ca change. Long live us wimps.


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