Oh my. The Amazon haters have been out in droves of late. Between those who are complaining that the new rules for payouts for titles downloaded and read via the Kindle Unlimited/KOLL programs and the media stirring up outrage over the supposed lack of “real” deals for Prime Day, it would be easy to think Amazon is nothing but a money-grabbing corporate whore. There are a few problems with this, of course. First and foremost is Amazon has never hidden the fact that it is a business and businesses exist to make money. The second is, from an author’s standpoint, the fact that Amazon has given us the power to make decisions about our careers that had been out of our hands for years. But Amazon is bad. Maybe if we repeat it often enough, we will start to believe.

I have little patience for those complaining about Amazon at least trying to normalize payments to authors based on number of pages read instead of times a title is read to 10%. The previous system rewarded authors of short works, often with payments for loans that exceeded what they would receive for a sale of their work. More than that, someone who was publishing a five page short story would receive payment after one page or so was read while an author of a longer work had to have chapters and more chapters read before they hit the magical 10% mark. Authors openly blogged about gaming the system by splitting their work into shorter “episodes” so they could get more money through the program than they would by putting their work out in its natural novel state. All that said, unless and until these authors who have already jumped ship — and those who have threatened to quit writing altogether — have actually seen the results of the first few months of the program and how it impacts their bottom line, I have little patience for their “poor me” act. Right now, they are doing a poor imitation of Chicken Little.

But they aren’t the ones who really bother me. Those folks are the ones taking part in the “Authors United”. This group of authors, agents and booksellers have written the Department of Justice to whine yet again about how Amazon is killing the publishing industry. If there is a real or perceived problem with the industry, this group lays it directly at the feet of Amazon (can a corporation have feet?). Amazon sells books at a discount less than the price on the flap. Oooh, that’s evil and manipulative and monopolistic. Funny, why haven’t they asked DOJ to investigate Walmart and Target and every other store or corporation that sells books at a discount?

From the Bookweb article:

In ABA’s letter, CEO Oren Teicher and ABA President Betsy Burton write: “A central tenet of ABA’s mission is to ensure that a broad array of books is as widely available to American consumers as possible. The greater the number of books, the greater the number of voices and ideas; the greater the number of voices and ideas, the richer are the lives of our citizens and the stronger our society.”

Amazon’s business tactics, the ABA letter continues, threaten publishers’ ability to support new and lesser-known authors and publications, thereby hindering the diversity of speech. “We have already seen fewer titles published by the major publishing houses each year,” it notes. “And while it might be tempting to chalk this up to a changing economy, the truth is that these changes have been manipulated by one retailer, which uses scorched-earth tactics to extract concessions and kickbacks from publishers in exchange for offering their books for sale.”

I have a couple of problems with what is said here. There are more books available, in both print and digital versions, with Amazon in the market than there had been under the traditional model of 20 years ago. Even without taking into account the vast expansion of e-books, you have books from small to medium sized publishers easily available to readers, something that wasn’t the case under the Borders/Barnes & Nobles of last century.

It also fails to take into account the fact that indie bookstores, where some of those less than best seller books could be found, were run out of the market by the influx of the big box bookstores in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the Borders of the world were sent into bankruptcy not just by the advent of Amazon but by their own poor business decisions. Decisions such as the failure to embrace the digital market and the need for viable online “stores” as well as over-expansion and the undying dedication to build bigger and bigger stores, even after the economy started going South.

I also love the talk of scorched earth and kickback tactics. Do they really believe we, the consumer public, don’t know that publishers pay to get end-cap displays and those cardboard displays near the front of the stores? Have they forgotten how the big box booksellers “negotiated” the change on buy-backs years ago, something that hit publishers very, very hard?

So let’s look at some of the specific complaints in the letter sent to the DOJ.

Amazon, to pressure publishers over the past 11 years, has blocked and curtailed the sale of millions of books by thousands of authors.

Hmm, funny how they don’t note that this happened during a time when the parties were in contract negotiation and on at least one occasion happened when there was no valid contract to sell the books in place. No contract, no right to sell.

Amazon, during its dispute with Hachette in 2014, appears to have engaged in content control, selling some books but not others based on the author’s prominence or the book’s political leanings.

How dare a retailer decide to sell only items that would actually sell. As for the political leanings bit, who gives a damn? Amazon chose, I’m sure, what titles to sell based on what it knew would move and what wouldn’t. If it chose not to sell books by the publisher’s darling, too bad. A retailer still has the ability to chose what it will stock in inventory and what it won’t.

Amazon has used its monopsony power, and its ability to threaten punishment, to extract an ever greater share of the total price of a book from publishers, which has resulted in less revenue to support midlist authors and certain kinds of books, effectively silencing many voices.

That sound you hear is all the midlist authors who had been cut loose by publishers long before Amazon became the whipping boy of the traditional publishing industry. As for “effectively silencing many voices”, how? That is not a valid assertion in this day and age of indie publishing and when so many small and mid-sized presses are coming into their own. Oh, wait. Could they be talking about those authors the houses had basically been subsidizing because they wrote the “right” kind of books — books that were seen as politically or socially relevant but didn’t sell worth a dime?

Amazon routinely sells many types of books below cost in order to drive less well capitalized retailers — like Borders — out of business. This practice, known as “loss-leading,” also harms readers by reducing the amount of revenue available for publishers to invest in new books.

Hmm, looks at the local businesses in the area and sees Walmart. Doesn’t see many mom and pop shops. Thinks back to Borders and Barnes & Noble and how they priced the local bookstores out of the market. Looks at Borders and how it didn’t adapt to the changing times and demands of its customers, up to and including having Amazon as its online bookstore. But Borders’ poor business decisions are the fault of Amazon. Riiiiiiight.

Amazon routinely uses its market power to steer readers toward its own books and away from books.

Another head-scratcher. Checks various publishers’ sites and don’t see them offering to sell anyone else’s books (Baen excluded). Remembers going to the grocery store. Store brands are given better locations for some items and are almost always priced lower than the big name brands. But Amazon is bad.

Amazon dictates pricing to self-published authors, requiring them to price their books within a specific range or be subjected to a 50 percent cut in royalties.

Pardon me while I quite laughing hysterically. Amazon royalty rates are better than the traditional publishers, at least when it comes to e-books. If you sell your title for $0.99 to $2.98, you receive 35% of your list price. Because Amazon is storing and transmitting the titles, that amount is more than fair, in my opinion. Also, there is a perceived view by many readers that an author doesn’t value her own work if she prices a novel for less than $2.99. For e-books priced $2.99 – $9.99, an author receives 70% royalty. Yes, your royalty drops back down to 35% above the $9.99 price but, unlike the Big 5 Publishers, indies realize that most readers will not pay more than $9.99 for an e-book. So, false argument. This is the publishers and agents trying to artificially inflate prices to a level they want.

The thing to keep in mind is that those supporting Authors Unite are not really out to help authors as a whole. They are out to maintain their role in a changing industry, an industry they don’t want to change. The argument that they are concerned about the midlisters doesn’t fly when you consider statements like this from the head of Penguin Random House Canada, Brad Martin:

I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.

Compare that with what Brian Kaufman, head of Anvil Press, had to say:

“Most books in Canada simply don’t sell anywhere near those numbers, . . . The more niche, literary works aren’t going to drive those kinds of sales figures,” he says. “[PRH] only care if you have the thing that’s going to sell like Fifty Shades of Boredom … or whatever the next big bewilderment is.”

Now, I ask, if someone in charge of the Canadian part of Random Penguin feels this way, how do his US counterparts feel? My guess is that they agree and the numbers are multiplied several times. That, too, gives the lie to the Authors United request to the DOJ.

Let’s face it, those folks want things to go back to the way they were — where they were the gatekeepers and had a stranglehold on what books were published. They aren’t looking at what the reading public really wants. For me, I find myself agreeing with much of what Joe Konrath has to say about the letter.

What’s scarier is how a group of supposedly smart writers could write this nonsense. 

Also, note the fallacious appeals to “goodwill” and “the public interest.” Authors United doesn’t care about the public. They want to go back to a world where hardcovers are thirty bucks and they got all the coop space on the retail shelves.

Authors United doesn’t speak for me, either as a writer or as a reader, nor should they for you.


  1. I’ve been pointing and laughing at the authors who are complaining about the new KU.
    I’ve told them that they were idiots if they didn’t think that Amazon would get tired of them scamming the system and ripping Amazon off for millions of dollars. Especially those publishing scamphlets – two pages of original content, eight pages of stuff found on the internet.
    The other people complaining are the ones that can’t write a story that people will read through to the end. Now they have to learn how to write. Must be terrible for them.

    1. I know some short story authors who have been writing good stories and making a good living from the old rules. But even they admit that the payout wasn’t fair when it came to what they got per title compared to what novelists were making. But, you are right, there were far too many who were ripping not only Amazon but their readers off by how they were gaming the system.

  2. I have been fascinated with Amazon and how they do service since I was in Germany and finding books from them. They were one of the few companies who would send to an APO address. So I have been liking Amazon since the late 90s.

    1. I hear you. Now that my son is stationed in Germany, he has found Amazon an excellent source for things he needs. So that is another point in its favor, at least in my book.

  3. Typical tactic of the liberal progressives in which camp the publishers and major booksellers would seem to be firmly entrenched. Sad sad sob story that only holds up as long as no one challenges the cherry picked data and outright lies that make up the bulk of their complaints. This is the gatekeepers whining to the government to rebuild the walls that came tumbling down so they can regain the power they once had over authors and their ability to claim most of the value of a book for themselves.
    My fondest hope is that having opened up this can of worms the right parties will dig deep enough to determine what a pack of greedy ripoff artists the traditional publishing houses actually are. Were I a kinder sort I would wish that they simply fade away into the distant past, but being who and what I am I will watch with great relish how they crash, burn, and expire with great wailing as they bring about their own demise.
    It does explain somewhat the great distain that tradpub has for Baen. After all, how can you foist your own bad business decisions off on fate or the evil Amazon when that small upstart publishing house dares to not only sell books that readers want to buy themselves, but establishes a working business relationship with Amazon as well. How dare they!

  4. I say the Amazon change will weed out the lazy/crap authors. Good writers will still be able to make sales. That last bit about the “public good” made my Atlas Shrug.

  5. Funny, why haven’t they asked DOJ to investigate Walmart and Target and every other store or corporation that sells books at a discount?

    One of the selling points for the military exchanges is that all the books and magazines are 10% lower than cover price.

    Just to add an additional datapoint. 😀

  6. I would love to have an alternative to<amazon that was viable. Simply because the presence of a second player that is also inventive is an incentive to everyone. I get the longer term view that at some point Amazon may decide to screw with authors or consumers or both.

    But I'm not that worried that, right now there doesn't really seem to be one. The key phrase is "barriers to entry"and basically I don't think that, for ebooks, Amazon has particularly high barriers to entry. In fact I could well imagine a (say) setting up and using AWS (owned by Amazon) as hosting provider. I'm reasonably sure that Amazon would actually be welcoming of such a situation because they'd make money either way

  7. “Then the Borders of the world were sent into bankruptcy not just by the advent of Amazon but by their own poor business decisions. Decisions such as the failure to embrace the digital market and the need for viable online “stores” as well as over-expansion and the undying dedication to build bigger and bigger stores, even after the economy started going South.”

    Exactly. As someone who worked at Borders HQ back in the 90’s, it was clear to many of us back then that Borders was setting itself up to fail. Left a longer comment over at Sarah Hoyt’s, but I see that I agree entirely with you. Add in that they had a very profitable business with Waldenbooks (which had decent sales and were dirt cheap to run) but they sucked it dry to build a big box Borders store everywhere they could despite that never being a profitable business model. Instead it was a branding arms race with B&N that they both lost.

    Plus the leadership’s opinions on the digital market and ecommerce are the same things you hear from every business that fails to survive a major market shift – “passing fad”, “will never turn a profit”, “future will always be bigger and bigger bricks and mortar”, or remembering back, I believe the Borders CEO also laughed out loud at the thought of Amazon trying to sell anything but books. The death of Borders started somewhere in the early to mid-90’s, and you are right, it was almost entirely from over-expansion and failure to understand the new internet world.

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