Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In Defense of Amazon

I love Facebook. I really do. I spent much too much time on it this morning because I became captivated by the kids and teachers in their back-to-school finery. I was also delighted to find news of the publication of a friend’s book and “news” that a quiz revealed that another of my friends would be played by Meryl Streep if ever her life story became a movie. Lucky girl.

Notice a theme? These are all good things. Fun things. Amusing, if not entirely true, things. 

But I must say that I’m growing weary of all the bashing. Much as I hate to see sad news on my news feed, life and death and all that happens in between are largely unavoidable. But when did Facebook become the place to bash good intentions and offer one size fits all advice that really doesn’t fit everyone well or equally?

Examples? You know I’ve got ‘em. There were two that hit me this morning but I’m going to stick to just one for the purposes of this post which promises to be a long one: Amazon is the root of all evil.

Do I agree with all of Amazon’s business practices? I do not. But when authors tell readers not to buy books from Amazon, they aren’t hurting Amazon. They’re hurting other authors.
Let me tell you a story. Picture it: Pennsylvania, 2013. A newly retired educator signs a contract with a small publisher that will bring her manuscript out of the slush pile and into the hands of readers. Is the contract perfect? No. Are there bumps along the way? Absolutely. In fact, the book almost didn’t happen.

But it did, and so “almost” is water under the bridge. In January 2014, my first novel was published. And thus began my education in book sales.

I’d had two books published before, but they were in a niche market, and truly, the only place they were readily available was through the publisher. Though I eventually got copies into the local author section of a small indie bookstore and a chain store (Borders -- so you know how that ends), most copies were sold through my publisher. That worked for these titles, though, as most of the purchasers were buying them through school districts that issued purchase orders to the publishers.

But fiction is an entirely new story (no pun intended). My book is not self-published. It is available through a distributor, with discounts and return guarantees. That means a bookseller can order my book at less than the cover price and they can return it if it doesn’t sell.

And I still can’t get it into bookstores unless I’m willing to put it there on consignment. 

There have been a few exceptions. Thankfully, Barnes and Noble was one of them. But before my nearby B & N could stock my novel, the book had to pass muster at the corporate level. A stranger in an office somewhere who makes these decisions got to decide whether or not my book made it “into the system” and until it was there, no copies could be ordered for any Barnes and Noble store. In addition, during this time (when I was launching my book), I was ineligible to participate in Barnes and Noble’s author events. (I don’t get paid for author events at bookstores, by the way. I do them because they’re a necessary part of book promotion, and because when they’re done right, they’re a lot of fun).

Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, DE (close to where we vacation) was another notable exception. When I arrived for the book signing they so graciously  made possible for an unknown author, they had a whole stack of my books. They gave me a free beverage, placed me in a prime location and I had a wonderful time talking to everyone who came through the door. And I sold a lot of books. Not a lot by John Grisham or J. K. Rowling standards, but enough to make me very happy.

Not all indie bookstores operate like that, though. Others will gladly carry my book, provided I consign it. I do this on a limited basis for several reasons. I believe in my book, and I think people need to actually get it into their hands or, failing that, read a sample before they know whether or not they want to read it. I also understand that indie bookstores often operate on a shoestring budget and with limited space and that they simply don’t have the room to stock a lot of books by first-time authors who aren’t famous or connected to the store in some way. Finally, I like indie bookstores. I think they’re important and I want them to stick around.

But do you know how much money I make on a consigned book? Depending on the terms, it’s sometimes not enough to cover the cost of a chai at Starbucks. Or Sheetz. Or what it costs me in gas to  deliver the book to the store and drive home again.

My biggest disappointment in this game, however, was the Christian retailers -- the big guys, not my local indie store -- and since “retailers” truly is plural, they shall remain nameless. In order for them to consider my book at all (if I even get that far -- some don’t return e-mails), I must follow the process I described for Barnes and Noble above, but I must provide them with a copy of my book and, contrary to popular belief, author copies are not free. The store’s management can then accept or reject my book for their stores, but either way, they will not return my copy to me. They can acquire my book for their stores through a distributor at a discount. They can return it if it doesn’t sell. And yet they are unwilling to go through this process. Instead, they want a free copy of my book, which they are free to accept or reject, then discard.

Is it unwieldy for them to comb through the news of new releases for every new book by every unknown author to see which books would be a good addition to their inventory? Of course it is (though that’s pretty much what indie booksellers do on a typical day). 

But is it too much to expect that if I go to the local branch of a nationwide retailer, introduce myself and ask them to take a look at my book, that they consider it for the store located in my town where the people I know shop? I don’t believe that it is. 

Have I stopped doing business with that retailer? I have. Will I ask others to do so as well? 

I will not. Because when I do, I hurt every author whose work is sold in that store. And I have no right to do that.

When an author writes a book and gets it published, she wants people to read it. Amazon has made that possibility a reality for me more than almost anywhere else. They carry my book in e-book and softcover. They can deliver it to anyone anywhere. People can “look inside this book” to see if they like my characters and storyline enough to read more -- enough to decide in favor of a purchase or against it. Kindle purchases, like consignment purchases, don’t earn me enough for a Starbucks. But, like consignment purchases, they put the book into readers’ hands. Amazon has carried my book from the first day it was available.

Is Amazon making life miserable for other authors? Yes, it is. Should these other authors tell their readers where they can find their books? Absolutely. Does Amazon have a right not to carry books whose authors and publishers don’t follow their rules and jump through their hoops?

If you think that’s not the case, and if you think Amazon is alone in this practice, please re-read this column. But please, if you’re a reader or a writer, don’t toss out the baby with the bathwater.


  1. A very sensible case, laid out with care. Well said, my friend.

  2. Thanks, Mary. I really appreciate that. Had some hesitation about posting it. Hope things are looking up for you.