It’s always quite mind-boggling to me to see indie/self-pub authors going after traditional publishing houses for having “unfriendly” contracts. And yet said authors are perfectly happy to tout the benefits of Amazon, the world’s biggest provider of take-it-or-leave-it “contracted” services. (Not just for its publishing platform, either; try renegotiating the terms on your S3 space one of these days.)

I’m sure self-pub aficionados have a lot of justifications as to why Amazon’s non-negotiable terms are better than a Big Brand publisher’s (royalties, rights, etc.), but… still.

When dealing with Amazon, authors keep their rights and take a “publisher’s royalty” because they are the publisher; they’re the party that incurs all the cost/risk of bringing a book to market. Yes, some author-publishers can win big in this scenario, but the part of the indie success story no one ever talks about (or, at best, glosses over) is that those individual successes are built on the backs–and the lost dollars–of the hundreds of thousands of authors that didn’t make it. Treat it as a single business, and I would bet money that the indie market is deeply in the red. The fact that you can name a handful–or even a dozen or a hundred–successful self-pub authors is like me picking Stephen King and JK Rowling (to use the Two Default Examples, with apologies to the individuals) and saying, “Look, see. Tradpub makes millionaires. Anyone can do it!”

(And, to anyone who says, “Well… tradpub has been selling that snake oil for years!” I would say, “Yes. Quite.”)1

Point being, comparing Amazon’s business model to Random Penguin’s is like comparing Apple’s to Amazon; it’s the difference between producing a product and providing a platform. The actual comparison authors should make is between Amazon and Barnes and Noble/[insert local bookstore chain here].

And that’s the rub: Amazon isn’t killing New York, it’s killing physical bookstores in order to monopolise the distribution chain. It’s already done it in the ebook market (and IaaS cloud provision, if you’re into that sort of space), but physical is going to be next… somehow. And, like. Who remembers about six or seven years ago when everyone loved Google, and believed the corporate motto (“Don’t Be Evil”), and clutched lovingly at their Gmail accounts while waiting with baited breath for Google’s rumoured Facebook Killer social media platform which was just going to be the best ever because Google!

And then fast forward to 2014 and suddenly every second tech article is a support group for recovering ex-Google users, and people are cursing YouTube and now Gmail because of mandatory G+ integration.

Does everyone remember when that happened? Because hey. I do.

And I bet Amazon does as well.

P.S. Insert mandatory disclaimer about publish-however-you-want-I-don’t-care here. Yes, both models have flaws and yes, both models can produce successes and yes, both models have a lot to learn from each other (or, rather, indie pub’s already learnt its lessons from trad, and now the latter is playing catch-up). But also remember that authors are talented liars by trade, and we’ve always got a new fantasy to sell you…

  1. Also, consider the reason those authors are so successful; it’s not their books. Not exactly. It’s their brand and, more importantly, the way their brands have been maximised along the vertical. I don’t think a year goes by without one of King’s works being turned into a movie/miniseries. Meanwhile, Rowling has an entire empire built on top of reselling the same content over and over in slightly different, red-and-gold-striped packaging. I’ve yet to see that sort of success replicated in the indie market, almost by definition.