For those who’re unaware, Amazon offers a lot of perks to publishers–specifically, self-publishers, as I don’t know of any traditional publisher who’s pursued this route–who vend their content solely on Amazon.

To anyone who’s been paying attention, this should be ringing massive alarm bells. This isn’t just about Amazon being a sole/majority vendor in its space, which is bad enough, but also being a sole/majority platform. Again, the tech industry is littered with examples of just how badly these arrangements tend to turn out for both content producers to end users. Think 90s era Microsoft, or the current Apple App Store, or the Google and Facebook domination (read: monetisation) of private user data.

The thing to remember in all of these cases, too, is that each company became dominant in its category because, initially, it brought some combination of innovation, convenience, and price accessibility to consumers. Windows’ success was built on the face it was licensed for use on multiple hardware platforms, leaving the hardware vendors to compete for market share, taking the pain of dropping prices and rising features. Microsoft, meanwhile, “won” no matter how many hardware manufacturers went under (the Osborne Computer Corporation, anyone?). Apple (intentionally) missed this boat in the 1980s, but now dominates the strategy in the mobile app market; the mobile app market essentially is the iTunes store, because the vast majority of smartphone apps are iOS-first or iOS-only. But, again, the iTunes store only got as big as it is because of the innovations Apple brought to the smartphone market, both for consumers (people tend to forget just how shitty pre-iPhone phones actually were) and for developers (the App Store is a convenient way to get your product published).

Kindle, I think, is very analogous to the App Store. Once again, a vendor–in this case, Amazon–has figured out how to monetise the labour of thousands, all at next to zero risk for itself. Like Facebook with users, Apple with developers, or Microsoft with hardware vendors, the health of individual authors using the Kindle platform is of no interest or concern to Amazon.1 If one or ten or even ten thousand authors go “out of business” (a.k.a. stop writing), it makes no difference to the ‘Zon, who can offer exactly the same service to the next hundred thousand authors willing to that their places.

This is what it means to treat books as interchangeable widgets, and this attitude is why so much of traditional publishing–which still, for its sins, tends to see books as capital-letter Culture–recoils in moral horror at what Amazon is doing. (Meanwhile, much self-publishing rhetoric, which is built on post-modern libertarian ideals, does the same to what it sees as the “gatekeepers” and “snobs” in New York.)2

The other take-home from the tech industry, then, is that “vendor-locking” yourself to a single platform or distributor, even if it seems beneficial in the short term, is a hugely risky strategy;3 one that will constantly have you as the underdog. There are two models that “work” in tech. One is the Apple Way, which is to wholly control the end-to-end experience of your product, from design to distribution (see also: most social media platforms, where this trend tends to be less visible to anyone who doesn’t remember the days of the decentralised web, prior to the mid-2000s). The second is the Microsoft Model, which is to produce content which is ubiquitous on as many platforms as you can get it on.

Tl;dr: be very, very wary of anything that locks you into reliance on a single vendor. It never works out well…

  1. With some big-name, evangelising exceptions; the Hugh Howeys and Omni Groups and Dells of the world. []
  2. By-the-by, as someone who writes pulpy genre books about DnD-playing losers and an anthropomorphic archaeopteryx whose every second word is “fuck”, I find this view extremely amusing. But the interplay between capitalism and culture in tradpub is another essay entirely, I think. []
  3. And yes, this has relevance to tradpub contracts, too. []