Selling Themselves Down The River

I am getting more and more annoyed at self-publishers.

Before anyone gets confused, I self-publish myself. While the next book of mine to come out is likely to be through a traditional publisher (depending on Obverse Books’ publication schedules), I’ve published something like nine books myself, and plan to put out a couple more this year. I hope to be able to continue publishing books both by myself and through traditional publishers, as the project in question suits.

And I don’t think I’m some kind of special exception to the rule, and that everyone except me is rubbish.  I own and enjoy self-published books by (off the top of my head, and no doubt missing some out) at least a dozen authors. My all-time favourite comic, Cerebus, was self-published, as was much of Eddie Campbell’s stuff.  Sturgeon’s law applies to self-publishing as much as to anything else, but it does not mean that the other one percent isn’t worthwhile.

So my problem is not that people are publishing their own works, but rather that there is a pernicious culture around self-publishing, and it’s that culture which I would like to see gone before it does serious harm to the culture at large.

This manifests in two ways. The first, more common, but probably also more benign of these, is encountered pretty much everywhere that the topic of books comes up online. This is the person who says “the great thing about self-publishing is that it removes those elitist gatekeepers who stop great books getting to a mass audience. Some self-publishers have become millionaires — just look at Amanda Hocking/whatever the name of that Fifty Shades person is! Readers don’t care about things like typos and formatting, they just want a good story! Fuck The Man in the form of the big publishers! We don’t need the businessman in his suit and tie, with his quality control!”

(After my most recent encounters with one of these people, I went and had a look at the books he’d put up on Amazon. The free sample of the first one I checked started with a preface talking about how he’d written it during his GCSE English exam. I felt no need to read any further).

I have a lot of sympathy for these people, because I was one of them fifteen years ago, saying exactly the same things about the MP3 “revolution” and wondering why no-one was buying the pisspoor demos I’d recorded on my four-track tape recorder and uploaded to Mp3.com. They will either give up writing, or they’ll realise that things like reading through what you’ve written to make sure it’s in actual sentences are good ideas, and no-one will buy, or even see, the rubbish they shovel onto Amazon by the ton.

What I don’t like are those who act in effect as lobbyists for Amazon, the people who encourage this mindset. There is a group of people, mostly former mid-list thriller authors who’ve been published by the major publishing companies and built up a small fanbase, who have set themselves up as self-publishing gurus. They write short ebooks about how to make a million dollars a month on Amazon, constantly blog about the evils of the big publishers, and generally act as propagandists.

Several of the usual suspects recently released a “petition”, which I won’t link to but which has had media attention and received thousands of signatures, about the ongoing dispute between Hachette and Amazon.

Now, I don’t have any time for either party in that dispute, though I end up giving both a substantial fraction of my income.  Hachette’s problem is largely of their own making — by enforcing DRM on their books, they’ve helped cement Amazon’s near-monopoly position — and when multi-billion-dollar multinationals fight I tend to want both to lose.

But the arguments in favour of Amazon are so disingenuous it’s almost unbelievable:

[Publishers] paid authors as little as possible, usually between 2% and 12.5% of the list price of a book.

Amazon, in contrast, trusts you to decide what to read, and they strive to keep the price you pay low. They allow all writers to publish on their platform, and they pay authors between 35% and 70% of the list price of the book.

Which is not so much comparing apples to oranges as comparing apples to an orange seed that’s been chewed up and spat out.

Publishers edit, proofread, clear intellectual property licenses where appropriate, do market research, create cover art and designs, typeset, produce a physical paper book as well as an ebook, and distribute those books into bookshops. And a chunk of the money in a book from a publisher also goes to the shops such as Amazon that sell them (and that “between 2% and 12.5%” is strictly true, but the 12.5% is a standard figure, while the 2% definitely isn’t…)

Amazon, meanwhile, have a form that lets you upload a file, and then they take between thirty and sixty-five per cent of whatever you charge for that file.

These two things are not the same.

(And incidentally, these authors are here talking about only ebooks in the latter category. When I self-publish a paperback book on Lulu.com and it gets sold through Amazon, I get between 94p and £1.50ish on a £10 book, depending on the number of pages. The average of 9.4% and 15% is 12.2%…)

Amazon, on the other hand, has built its reputation on valuing authors and readers dearly.

I know the Supreme Court in the US just ruled that businesses can have religions, but I have seen no sign of Amazon having any values. To the extent that publicly-held corporations can have values, they’re pretty much all psychopaths…

They go on to talk about Amazon’s dispute over costs as being Amazon standing up for the little guy…

No.

Amazon have, thanks to publishers like Hachette’s short-sighted insistence on DRM, attained a near-monopoly on ebooks, having something like 80% of the market. They now want a monopsony as well — they have spent the last few years offering greater and greater incentives for self-published authors to pull their titles from all other vendors, while also making it easier for them to see other authors as competitors rather than colleagues, with things like their zero-sum KDP Select book-lending promotions.

If Amazon succeeds in its ultimate aim of cutting the publishers out of the loop, that doesn’t make things better for authors. Rather, it means that instead of those authors having several big customers and a large number of small ones, they will now only have one customer, Amazon, and if they lose that customer they will have no market at all. This is, incidentally, already the case with audiobooks, where Amazon owns the only publisher, Audible, with any significant market share.

Now, some of the more libertarian types may see this as a perfectly good thing — and this is the line often taken, “that’s capitalism, capitalism’s a good thing!” — but as I keep meaning to write in a post, capitalism is the enemy of the free market, not a synonym for it, and I far prefer markets to capitalism.

But the thing about these authors, of course, is that they’re paid shills, not people expressing an honest belief. It’s not a coincidence that many of the loudest voices praising Amazon’s self-publishing programs don’t actually use them themselves any more, but instead are published by Amazon Publishing, a subsidiary of Amazon that acts in every way like a traditional publisher — one of those “elitists” that “want to tell you what you should buy” — including editing, paying advances, and so forth. Authors for Amazon’s imprints, unsurprisingly, get a lot of publicity on the site itself, and at least some of them are getting very large advances.

What we have here are people who can see who the biggest bully is, and who are making sure they stay on the bully’s side, and are promoting Amazon’s cause for their own short-term gain, and damn the consequences for the culture.

Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing tool is a useful one. Their dealings with authors are, in my experience, relatively fair, and there are many authors for whom it’s a great option. My problem is that by trying to compare it to the totally different situation of traditional publishers, and by defending Amazon’s predatory practices against Hachette, these propagandists are trying to make it the only option, and that would be an unimaginable tragedy.

And they’re doing it while claiming to speak for self-published authors. Well, they don’t speak for me.

[NB this is a topic that often attracts rather heated debate. While I do moderate comments, please don’t assume that if your comment didn’t get posted that it was censored by The Man and try to post another twenty comments saying so. All comments on this blog by new commenters get held for moderation, and I won’t have net access from Saturday morning til Sunday evening, so they won’t get approved til then.]

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10 Responses to Selling Themselves Down The River

  1. Nathaniel Dean James says:

    “- and when multi-billion-dollar multinationals fight I tend to want both to lose.”

    Music to my eyes!

    This is a great piece of insightful writing and a very sane look at the current landscape. I would happily share it on both my own blog and Indie Spotlight, but I can see you have not provided the option. And particular reason?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Several reasons. Firstly, I’m not keen on the whole “sharing” thing when it comes to the web — I prefer linkbacks so discussions all happen in one place (this is one reason I do regular linkblogs). I understand I’m in the minority there though.
      Secondly, and far more importantly, most “share this” functionality requires the website to load and run JavaScript from multiple domains, many of which track the user. While this blog is hosted on WordPress’ servers I can never completely get rid of tracking JavaScript, but to the best of my ability I try to ensure this site minimises both the necessary processing power and incursions on users’ privacy.

  2. THANK YOU!

    I, for one, loath the “gatekeeper” argument, as it ignores the fact that quality control is indeed necessary. I’m not particularly keen on arguments related to money, either, as they tend to ignore the services performed by publishers (as you’ve said) as well as the start-up costs associated with a good self-publishing venture.

    Most good self-publishing arguments, in my view, revolve around the freedom and control it gives to the author. Personally, I don’t feel that I’m experienced enough for such freedom; at the same time, I can see why others would want to have it.

  3. About 2% royalties would be fairly typical for academic monographs, but academic publishing is very different from popular books, so you’re right that the 2-12.5% range is misleading. Academic journals don’t pay authors anything for articles, so they could have made it 0-12.5% without being much more dishonest.

  4. Pingback: Weekend Links: Ebooks, editors + “eyeball-hours”

  5. Mike Taylor says:

    This looks pretty simple to me. Amazon’s DIY e-book publishing deal, where they pass on 70% of the cover price, is A Very Good Thing. Many of the other things Amazon does are Very Bad Things. Anyone who complains about the former is simply mistaken. Anyone who generalises from the goodness of the 70%-royalty KDP into assuming that Amazon more broadly is good … well, let’s just call them naive.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Either naive or a paid propagandist. I believe many of the more well-known people making that argument fit into the latter group…

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