The great Amazon debate: A leading Amazon critic and a self-publishing rock star try to find common ground
After I wrote a piece calling self-published authors who defend Amazon “no better than Ayn Rand libertarians,” I received a flood of social media high-fives from those within publishing, their frustration with the giant palpable. I also received fierce blowback from the self-published community. The most thorough and entertaining came from Joe Konrath, who has self-published 24 novels (three of them No. 1 Amazon sellers), hundreds of stories, and has sold over 3 million copies of his books.
He, in turn, received a flood of digital high-fives from the self-publishing community for his zingers, the pent-up frustration at what they believe is one-sided media coverage palpable.
I could have left the name-calling to the social media ether, but we rarely ever really engage with those with wildly differing opinions. I reached out to Konrath and we had the following exchange of ideas.
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Your “Fisking Salon and Rob Spillman” was the most entertaining thing I’ve read in a long time. If only some of my authors and students had the same bite, humor and energy.
I wanted to engage in a conversation. I realize this may be impossible, but as you have already established that I am a 100 percent Idiot, I thought there would be nothing to lose.
. . . .
As an indie publisher, I have been on the receiving end of Amazon’s tactics.
I don’t want to split hairs, go through each other’s posts line-by-line. I do, however, want to apologize if it seemed like I was dismissing self-published authors or genre writers. That was not my intention, nor is it what I believe. My intention was to point out that Amazon has been a very good platform for a large number of self-published writers, which tend to be genre writers.
One thing I want to make clear: I believe that Jeff Bezos is a genius. He has single-handedly changed the way the world shops.
His hero, Sam Walton, was also a genius. Bezos’s bible is “Sam Walton: Made in America,” Walton’s autobiography. Walton’s legacy is the big box store where very cheap products, many made in China, are readily available. His other legacy is the destruction of small town America and family-owned businesses. When I drove back roads across the U.S. last summer, small town after small town had boarded-up downtowns with a Wal-Mart and perhaps a Costco on the periphery. Those people lucky enough to have jobs were working for half the wages they used to under dehumanizing conditions (you have to purchase a uniform, at your own cost, to begin with). According to your argument, this is just the free market at work. Efficiency. The Walton heirs are now worth more than $100 billion. The U.S. now ranks 93rd in the world in income inequality. The middle class has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, with average salaries stuck at 1994 levels while the S&P has more than doubled in value adjusted for inflation over the same time.
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I believe that Amazon is trying to do Walton one better. With traditional publishing, $10 million in sales required 47 employees. With Amazon, the same amount requires 1 employee. Was the old way inefficient? Perhaps. Maybe I work in an obsolete world of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism. In my world, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, book reviewers and bookstores are necessary and vital. Book advances are what fund many book-length nonfiction projects. I am also concerned about local economies being squeezed out by massive, unchecked corporations that do everything legally possible to avoid paying local and national taxes. Again, they are doing nothing legally wrong, but I would argue that there is a greater moral issue at play here.
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I look forward to your thoughts.
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Hi Rob –
Thanks for the kind, levelheaded email. I’m impressed by your tone, your willingness to engage, and the integrity it took to email a loudmouth jerk like me. Remember, I didn’t say you were a 100 percent idiot. Only that you were getting close to 100 percent in that Salon piece.
I read your email with an open mind, and agree with much of what you said, along with the sentiment behind it. I believe you’re sincere.
I also drove across country, signing at more than 1,200 bookstores in 42 states. This was only a few years ago, but I’d guess at least one-third, and possibly one-half, of those bookstores no longer exist. That saddens me. I love bookstores, and booksellers. In my novel “Dirty Martini” I thanked over 3,000 booksellers by name in the back matter.
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“I am also concerned about local economies being squeezed out by massive, unchecked corporations that do everything legally possible to avoid paying local and national taxes.”
This is where you begin to lose me. I know it isn’t your intent to dismiss self-published writers, but I think there’s a very good argument that Amazon has been a boon to tens (hundreds?) of thousands of authors that weren’t ever given a chance in your world, which you reference above.
. . . .
“But from my POV, it is hard to see how anyone can face off against a company willing to lose $100 million per year just to gain market share.”
A company doesn’t have to compete with Amazon. A company can instead innovate in sectors Amazon doesn’t presently care about. Have large publishers innovated anything? Did they create an online bookstore where people want to shop? Did they invent the e-reading device and app everyone wants to use?
“For me and most of my colleagues, we are being squeezed, and Amazon has massive power and endless resources.”
I actually do understand. But that doesn’t forgive all of the glaring errors and bad logic in your Salon piece. Being squeezed hurts. It’s human to want to lash out, fight back. The trick is to analyze what the best response is.
Sometimes the best response is to move on.
What you’re feeling is no doubt akin to what buggy whip manufacturers felt when Henry Ford came along. When a new tech replaces an old one, people are disintermediated. It sucks, but it’s life.
“What I can’t understand is why you would cheer for Amazon in its fight against traditional publishers. Here comes one of my analogies that you love to pull apart – -it seems like rooting for the lions against the Roman prisoners in the Coliseum.”
I was a Roman prisoner in the Coliseum, being feasted on by lions. Those lions were big publishers. After 20 years, a million written words, and nine rejected novels, I finally landed a book contract. And I worked my ass off and published eight novels with legacy publishers, dozens of short stories with respected magazines, and went above and beyond everything that was required of me, in order to succeed.
And I got eaten. One-sided contracts, broken promises, lousy money. But it was the only game in town. If I wanted to make a living as a writer, I had no choice.
Then Amazon invented the Kindle.
I first self-pubbed in May of 2009. That first month I made $1,500, publishing books that New York rejected.
Those same rejected books have earned me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I cheer for Amazon because it saved me, and thousands of other authors, from the Coliseum. And I try to show others there is a way to make money from publishing where the terms are better, and the writer stays in control.
“My central argument is that if Amazon crushes us all, it will be able to dictate whatever terms to anyone using its massive platform. What if it suddenly decides to flip terms and only offer you 30 percent, or decide that your books really should be sold for 50 cents?”
Rob, that’s what the Big 5 already do. Except for an elite, tiny group of upper-tier authors, the Big 5 treat 99.9 percent of us badly. Keeping rights for term of copyright? Non-compete clauses? Twenty-five percent e-book royalty on net? I’ve had chapters cut by editors that I wanted to keep. I’ve had terrible cover art. I’ve had my titles forcibly changed. And my experience isn’t unique. I’m friends with hundreds of authors. A few were treated like kings. Most were screwed.
You worry that Amazon might someday offer 30 percent when publishers right now offer 17.5 percent? You must see how odd that is.
Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Brandt for the tip.
PG will briefly comment on Salon’s point about Walmart because it’s so typical of what happens when big city folk drive through small towns on their way to other big cities. He believes it is also an example of how out of touch Big Publishing is with the lives of readers.
PG grew up on ranches and farms outside of small towns. Small towns were where he went for excitement. While he left the farm for the big city when he went to college, after several years in a couple of big cities, he moved back to a small town for 16 years. He’s lived in cities since then. When he visits his brother or sister, however, he visits small towns.
People from Manhattan vacation in Bar Harbor or Martha’s Vineyard or Carmel and think they’ve experienced the ideal small town. They haven’t. They’ve experienced small down Disneyland for rich people.
Walmart is one of the best things that has happened to every typical small town where it has built a store. Typical small town retailing isn’t like Carmel. Typical small town retailing is dead-end minimum wage jobs. Typical small town retailing is limited choice and high prices. Typical small town retailing is one of the reasons that graduates of small town high schools head elsewhere as soon as they can. Typical small town retailing is why families who live in small towns travel to the closest city for a better shopping experience..
When Walmart takes applications to staff a new store, the line of people who want to work there extends way out into the parking lot. The line includes almost everyone who is an employee at the existing small town retailers. Small town Walmarts never have problems filling open jobs.
Why? Because Walmart offers a future. You can start at a cash register and become a store manager and then move up from there. Without being a college graduate. The manager of a Walmart is easily the highest paid retail employee in a small town. He/she makes more money than the owners of all but a couple of small-town retail establishments.
Walmart is also the very best thing that happens to poor people in small towns. Why? Their minimum wage salary or welfare check buys them much, much more at Walmart than it does at any other retailer in town.
Visitors from Manhattan who venture into a Walmart are always grossed out by some of the customers they see there. Why? Because those customers are poor people trying to make their incomes stretch as far as possible. Even poor people like to have a nice selection of products they can afford in a clean store.