I’ve pointed out a few things and I’ll point them out again.
Disclaimer: “Self-publishing” is not equivalent to “self-publishing by Amazon” but it’s hard to remember this given a lot of the current rhetoric. Even in this list, by “selfpub” I’m actually mostly referring to “self-published, primarily or exclusively, via Amazon”. So. With that in mind:
- People who work in publishing–that is, not authors, but the editors and whatnot at even the Big 5 houses–get paid fuck-all. My Day Job graduates get better starting salaries than the money my editor is (probably) making. You don’t start getting Real White Collar money in publishing until the exec level, and non-executive positions in publishing are some of the most low-paid white collar jobs around. (Compare and contrast, oh just say, software engineers, for example.)
- SURPRISE SURPRISE, there’s also a gender split in there: lower-paid publishing positions (i.e. editors) tend to be female-dominated, higher-paid positions (i.e. executives) tend to be male. (Compare and contrast mk. II.)
- Amazon is at least an order of magnitude bigger than the publishers it deals with.
- Amazon isn’t even in the same ballpark of size in comparison to the self-publishers it deals with.
- For both self- and traditional publishers, Amazon represents a frighteningly huge chunk of their revenue stream. Basically, without Amazon, they’re fucked.
- As an author, if I have to deal with Amazon, I’d prefer to do it via the intermediary of another multi-million/-billion dollar corporation, i.e. a publisher. More specifically, their lawyers.
- Self-publishers have no ability to negotiate with Amazon whatsoever (but also see #9). See recent changes in Audible royalties, Kindle Unlimited availability, and so on. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or hopelessly naive. To anyone who says “well you can just leave if you don’t like it!”, refer #5.
- As a traditionally published author, I have some ability to negotiate with my publisher. Not on everything all the time but, trust me. I’ve seen my contract. There was red in it. I’d put money on this being 100% more contractual changes than a debut selfpub author has ever gotten out of Amazon, ever.
- Despite #7, Amazon still runs a tiered system: blockbuster “self-publishers”1 get different (and preferential) treatment to every other selfpub author, while Amazon’s tradpub imprints treat their authors differently again. Oh, and self-pub authors who only deal with Amazon get preferential treatment to those who diversify across platforms; if anyone starts talking about Amazon’s “70% royalties”, this is where they’re aiming. Note that this isn’t necessarily the same as these preferentially treated authors being able to actually negotiate with Amazon since, as far as I know–and please correct me if I’m wrong here–these are just services Amazon is providing for the good feels, rather than things it is contractually obliged to do.
- Publishers, it should be noted, do this too; mine has been quite tolerant and obliging in some out-of-contract areas that are important to me and potentially detrimental/risky for them. I assume they’ve been doing this to keep me happy, and because people in tradpub often still see the process of book production as (gasp) a collaborative one. Some authors aren’t so down with this–their book is their baby is their baby–which, okay. Selfpub is ideal for them.
- Continuing on from #10, this is, I think, a matter of personalities-versus-platform. I have a human-to-human business relationship with my editor, publicist, and so on; I’ve emailed them, spoken on the phone, and (flights pending) will get out to see them sooner rather than later. That means all those relationships are subject to all the usual soft skills that are so critical in business. I imagine most selfpubbed authors don’t have this relationship with Amazon. Some do, for which see #9. Anyone who doesn’t think this matters obviously hasn’t spent much time in large enterprise. Trust me, it matters. I have a very different relationship with Amazon as a author, where they’re an impersonal and automated service platform, than I do in my day job, where I literally have a guy whose entire job it is to make sure I’m happy with the company, who calls and emails multiple times a day to make sure that’s the case, and to whom no comment or question or quibble is too trivial or too hard. (This is outside of Amazon’s publishing arm, FWIW. And, trust me, Amazon is very aggressively obliging when you’re a large enterprise client in a market it’s trying to grow.)
- At the current point in time, Amazon can’t (quite) get away with issuing tradpub with the sorts of take-it-or-leave-it “contracts” it gives self-publishers. This is not a preferential system for Amazon, and a lot of what we’re seeing in the current publishing landscape is about the dismantling of a climate of corporation-to-corporation (Amazon-to-publisher) deals in favour of corporation-to-individual (Amazon-to-author).
- It’s in Amazon’s best interests, financially, to gut the traditional publishing industry, particularly when it itself is offering the main viable alternative. For all its own flaws, tradpub is essentially the only thing protecting authors from… whatever it is Amazon wants to do, really. In some respects this is like getting Godzilla to protect you from whatever those insect things were supposed to be. The city is still pretty trashed by the end of it, but at least not everyone is dead. While you’re at it, go check with Barnes & Noble (bookselling), Microsoft (cloud service provision), and Apple (content delivery) about what they think of Amazon’s ability to do things like this.
- If you’d like to view Amazon’s business strategy in light of broader moves in the market of globalisation, and the continued disenfranchisement of workers and dismantling of unions in favour of a decentralised, deregulated labour force then I won’t stop you.
- Whenever anyone gloats about Amazon’s self-published authors taking more revenue as a group than traditionally published authors, remember that this “more revenue” is split across orders of magnitude more people than it is with traditional publishing. In other words, this profit share is good for Amazon–who takes their cut whether it sells one of a self-published book or one million–and not necessarily so good for individual authors. The short version of this is that, if ever anyone starts talking in absolute numbers when comparing tradpub authors versus selfpub authors, as opposed to percentages (i.e. “x selfpub authors and y tradpub authors were on this week’s Top 100 sellers list!” versus “x% of all selfpub authors and y% of all tradpub authors made it to this week’s Top 100 sellers list!”), then they are, at best, spinning and, at worst, being deliberately disingenuous.
- Related to #16, Amazon’s selfpub platform has been built to scale down to the micro level in a way traditional publishing hasn’t. Basically, Amazon makes money from selling small numbers of a large amount of things, whereas traditional publishing makes money from selling large numbers of a small amount of things.
- Related to #16, as an author, you are The Thing.
This list is getting long, but the point is this:
Ultimately, both Amazon and traditional publishers large and small are businesses built to make money in the most efficient way possible. The business models they use to do this are fundamentally different because, fundamentally, Amazon and publishing companies are not in the same business.
This is probably the biggest irony of all the anti-publisher rhetoric that floats around in relation to the selfpub/tradpub divide, especially where (for whatever reason) Amazon is involved.
Because, remember: the other term for “self-published author” is “author-publisher”.
And now we know how Amazon deals with publishers. I’ll let you figure out the rest.
- Scare quotes because in almost all cases it’s better to describe these people as “authors who started out as self-publishers”. These are the Hugh Howeys of the world, the selfpub 1%-ers. Most are now hybrid authors, with the sorts of generous, million-dollar tradpub licencing deals that other authors can only dream of. [↩]