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Amazon Addenda: More on the Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution

September 27, 2011

Last week I talked about some of my concerns as they relate to the Digital Self-publishing Revolution.

One of my primary complaints concerned the market dominance of Amazon as the etailer of choice for ebooks.  Most ebooks are sold via Amazon, and most writers openly embracing the digital self-publishing revolution in the process embrace a de facto contractual relationship with Amazon (whether they realize it or not) – and one in which they most likely don’t even know what their own rights and responsibilities are.

Today’s addendum is a link that will serve to further illustrate just what sort of company with which these writers are entering into a relationship.

First, a bit of disclosure: I shop on Amazon. Quite regularly, in fact.  As a consumer, I appreciate Amazon’s low prices, speedy deliveries, and the ability to compare multiple products.  I use Amazon for more than just books.

But that comes at a price, and I’m only now coming to realize the full nature of that price.  This article tells the tale of what it’s like to work in an Amazon fulfillment warehouse located in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.  If you don’t click the link, here’s the short version (the full article is some 9 pages long, though you’ll get the gist before you finish the first page; the rest is just further accounts re-illustrating the same point): it’s not pretty.  It’s not nice.  Not nice at all.  The working conditions are, in a word, barbaric

Now, two things: yes, the physical fulfillment business is perhaps intellectually separable from the e-delivery side.  The two are not necessarily the same, so perhaps this is tangential.  Secondly, it may indeed be possible that the sub-human conditions in this warehouse are an aberration, not indicative of Amazon as a whole.  I can answer both of these with a single, important business concept: Corporate Culture. Something within the core of the company, at a corporate level, makes this possible.  There is some fundamental belief, some driving ideology, that makes this an acceptable outcome a at the corporate level.  Were it not so, it wouldn’t happen.

To those writers who believe that Amazon, at a corporate level, views them individually as any less disposable than the temporary workers laboring in 100-degree heat in warehouses with impossible physical demands placed on them; to those writers who suppose that they are more important to Amazon than the poor temps who are carted away on stretchers in ambulances after collapsing from heat exhaustion only to return and find their positions “terminated”: I assure you, you are not

And this is what worries me about the idea of working with this particular behemoth.  To them, I’m disposable.  I’m a commodity.  I mean nothingThis is who I’m supposed to trust with my future as an author?  To me, that’s a scary prospect.

Many of the same arguments can be made about the large, traditional publishers.  But even to those corporate entities, you are more than a commodity.  You are something.  Because you’re able to build a personal relationship with the editor and others who are on the inside.  And when they have to let an author go, for whatever business reason, at least there’s someone there who’s likely to get at least a little emotional about it, someone who regrets having to make this decision. 

So yes.  I still shop at Amazon.  From now on, when I do so (and I’m under no illusions that I won’t), it will be with a sense of humility, and more than a little bit of shame and regret.  And for now… I’m not yet willing or ready to throw my lot in with Amazon, as a writer.  As a matter of principle.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 9:20 pm

    I’ve had a wide variety of experiences with Amazon. On one hand, they gave me probably the best customer service experience I’ve ever had with a large corporation: http://u-town.com/collins/index.php?p=1993. On the other hand, some of my websites went down for over 48 hours(!) because Amazon is pretending to be a web hosting company: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2121. Those are probably the extremes.

    When I decided to self-publish via print-on-demand, my first choice was CreateSpace (which is owned by Amazon), but their customer service was dismal, so I changed to Lulu. They’ve been fine (and now my book is on Amazon anyway). I have a Kindle, which I’m very happy with. As I said before, I use it mostly for writing/editing. I’ve bought a few books, and I get the NY Times, plus some books from the early 20th century for nearly nothing.

    I’m putting together my new book (slowly) and I do have to figure out whether I want to have it sold as an e-book (which would require dealing with Amazon, I suppose), or just give it away, as I have before. Plenty of time to figure that out.

    The point about open vs. closed standards is often misunderstood. If Apple is supporting open e-book standards and Amazon is proprietary, it’s just because each has figured out where their advantage lies at the moment (or at least they’re doing their best — they could be wrong, of course). Microsoft has a long history of proprietary formats (and “customizing” public standards to their own advantage), but a long time ago they were strong supporters of the W3C (the web standards organization started and run by the guy who invented the web). This wasn’t because they suddenly believed in open standards, it’s because at that moment it was the best way of sticking it to Netscape (who thought that _they_ were the web standards organization). And Apple certainly believes in closed and proprietary systems when it suits them (and a recent article on Slate detailed how people are treated in the factories where Apple products are manufactured). I remember when Windows was first steamrolling over the computing world, some people actually thought IBM were the guys in the white hats who were going to rescue them. IBM. Really.

    So, as a consumer, I will continue to buy from Amazon, and I’ll continue to use their Kindle for editing and reading and occasional email. The great deal for me is buying tea. Great prices, and I don’t have to go from store for the specific kinds I like (I’m picky about tea). For my stuff, we’ll have to see. And I’m certainly not letting them host any of my websites.

    Sorry this ran a little long, but it’s a complex question.

    • September 28, 2011 8:15 am

      It is complicated. The benefit to consumers of what they do can’t be ignored. But the negative aspects of what they do can’t be ignored, either.

      • September 28, 2011 10:11 am

        Oh, yes, and interacting with a company as a consumer is entirely different from dealing with it as a supplier. In fact, when a company has the lowest prices for consumers, it is likely there are suppliers on the back end getting squeezed. If you’re a writer, that’s something to think about.

        Publishers and agents all know this already, but of course writers are amateurs at dealing directly with retail booksellers.

      • September 28, 2011 10:58 am

        Yes, exactly right.

      • September 28, 2011 3:48 pm

        After this discussion, I was amused that Amazon’s announcement of their new Kindle models begins, “There are two types of companies: those that work hard to charge customers more, and those that work hard to charge customers less.”

      • September 28, 2011 3:51 pm

        Indeed. It’s easy to charge customers less if your strategy is to sell your products at a loss with the intent of capturing a monopoly-size market share. (And also to abuse and bully your workforce and suppliers.)

  2. September 28, 2011 11:22 am

    This pairs well with the other link I gave you in my previous comment. I’ll post both on my Linky Friday – both less known faces of Amazon.
    Personally, I don’t rely only on Amazon to sell my books (in fact, I started with Lulu). We’ll see where this leads us… But I totally agree with you on this post!

    • September 28, 2011 11:36 am

      I think there are only rather few authors who relie solely on Amazon. Most make their work available through other venues, I believe. The problem is, at least with regard to ebooks, Amazon is a dominant segment of the market (something between 60-80% of all ebooks are sold on the Kindle format, I believe is the statistic I’ve seen cited). This de facto monopoly over the ebook market gives Amazon an outsize influence over the direction of the digital self-publishing revolution. Given Amazon’s history, this leaves me feeling profoundly uncomfortable… One thing I know for certain is that Amazon doesn’t have the best interests of authors at heart in their various relatively generous-seeming royalty rates on e-books. I think that rate is specifically targeted not at benefiting authors but at luring authors away from traditional publishers – and also making individual authors feel like they can carve out a niche in the long tail that is Amazon’s bread-and-butter.

  3. October 1, 2011 9:54 pm

    Self published writers who put all of their eggs into Amazon’s basket are fools. You need to make your product available through all platforms. Does Amazon care about authors on personal level? No. Do Big Publishers? No. No one really cares about authors which is why authors need to care for themselves and do what is best for them on a professional level. Right now, self publishing, if you do it right, seems to give more benefits than traditional publishing does, IMHO.

    • October 1, 2011 10:14 pm

      Even if you don’t put all your eggs in an Amazon basket, the way the e-book market looks right now the Amazon eggs are still the only ones hatching… I do hope that other ebook venues catch up and erode some of Amazon’s market share, because 80%-ish gives Amazon just a little too much market power, IMO. Undoubtedly, for some writers, digital self-publishing will be better. For some, it will not be. There’s no universal answer for all writers, not yet.

Trackbacks

  1. Linky Friday « creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator)
  2. NPR Interviews Barry Eisler « The Undiscovered Author
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  4. “A Novel Venture” Revisited: Kickstarting a Writing Career « The Undiscovered Author
  5. Last Call in the Great E-Book Debate « The Undiscovered Author

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