Gatecrashing the Cosy Consensus on Amazon

amazonhachetteA group of bestselling traditionally published authors – including James Patterson, Scott Turow, and Douglas Preston – engaged in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy on Thursday with an open letter calling on Amazon to end its dispute with Hachette.

The letter is incredibly disingenuous. It claims not to take sides, but only calls on Amazon to take action to end the dispute. It also makes a series of ridiculous claims, notably that Amazon has been “boycotting Hachette authors.”

Where do I start?

The Phantom Boycott

First of all, refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles is not a “boycott.” Pre-orders are a facility extended to certain publishers – not all publishers. Many small presses don’t have a pre-order facility. Most self-publishers don’t have a pre-order facility.

I don’t know why Amazon has stopped taking Hachette pre-orders, but both sides have stated that negotiations aren’t likely to be resolved any time soon. Amazon might be reluctant to take customers’ money for orders it doesn’t know it can fulfill. Or Amazon might be strong-arming Hachette. Nobody knows.

Either way, Amazon still displays upcoming Hachette titles (again not a facility extended to many small presses and most self-publishers) and still provides a way for customers to be notified when the book is actually released. Not much of a boycott, is it?

Here’s what a real boycott looks like.

Since October last year self-publishers have been banned, en masse, from the e-bookstore of the UK chain WH Smith. The company has given zero indication when this ban will be overturned. Do you remember Preston, Turow & Patterson writing an open letter condemning this actual boycott? I don’t either.

Barnes & Noble refuses to stock any Amazon-published titles. Many indie bookstores have joined this boycott of Amazon titles. Do you remember Preston, Turow & Patterson writing an open letter condemning this actual boycott? I don’t either.

Last year, Simon & Schuster got into a dispute with Barnes & Noble over contract terms. Barnes & Noble drastically reduced orders and didn’t stock some Simon & Schuster titles altogether. This went on for months. Do you remember Preston, Turow & Patterson writing an open letter condemning this actual boycott? I don’t either.

And I don’t remember any of that getting much play in the media. Continue reading

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Media Bias and Amazon

amazonhachetteThere is so much crap being spouted in this anti-Amazon media push that you need a nose-peg and waders to get through it all.

Let’s take a look at what happened this week.

Hook, Line & Sinker

Statements from either side in the Amazon-Hachette dispute have been thin on the ground. Both companies are said to have signed NDAs – restricting formal comments while negotiations are ongoing – but Hachette has been leaking to reporters, and marshaling authors and industry figures in its defense, leading to an extremely one-sided depiction of events in the media.

Which is fine, it’s a pretty standard negotiation tactic, and a clever one if media conglomerates like Bertelsmann (part-owner of Penguin Random House), CBS (owner of Simon & Schuster), and NewsCorp (owner of HarperCollins and Harlequin) are rooting for your team.

What concerns me is that media outlets – even those not in the same corporate family as those publishers with a vested interest in the outcome – are taking the Hachette leaks as the complete and unvarnished truth.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Amazon is demanding payment for pre-orders and other facilities and services it previously provided to Hachette for free. This story was leaked by “someone involved on the Hachette side of the negotiations, who is under orders not to discuss them and asked not to be named.”

Then this Guardian story – New Amazon terms amount to ‘assisted suicide’ for book industry, experts claim – got a lot of traction on Thursday. It was primarily based on a piece in The Bookseller on Wednesday (the editor of which is the “experts” in the Guardian headline). That article was wholly based on leaks from publishers, none of which were treated to any skepticism or critical analysis.

Does anyone see the problem here?

Reporters are supposed to aim for some kind of objectivity (or be open about their subjectivity), but that’s not happening here at all. The only attempt at balance has been to ask Amazon for comment. Naturally, Amazon has refused as it’s currently restricted from commenting because of those NDAs.

This leaves a reporter with two choices: run the unbalanced piece as is, or attempt some critical analysis on their own. I’m not a reporter, but I can think of any number of scenarios where Amazon could be asking for an increased percentage of e-book sales, or wants to start charging for pre-orders, which doesn’t mean that the world is ending and Jeff Bezos eats babies.

Here are two plausible scenarios. Continue reading

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Fake Bestsellers, Concern Trolls and Hidden Agendas

boomLast Friday we were treated to a story from the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, where Tony Horwitz claimed “I Was A Digital Bestseller” then complained about how little money this made him, and how he would now stick with traditional, print publishers as a result.

Then this Op-Ed was held up – in outlets like Gawker – as another example of how writers have it so tough in this scary new digital world which is going to lead us all into penury.

Just like the story I wrote in January – Fake Controversy Alert: Hitler’s Mein Kampf Was Not A Digital Bestseller – the key “fact” in Horwitz’s tale of woe doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Can you guess what it is?


Tracker1Boom was published on January 29 this year. According to KND’s Tracker, before the Op-Ed, the highest rank it achieved in the Kindle Store was on one particular day in February when it peaked at #2,345, selling ~50 copies a day. Sales declined in March (best rank: #3,255), again in April (best rank: #5,797), and more in May (best rank: #9,396).

By June, Boom had slipped further, bouncing between #10,076 and #79,820 in the Kindle Store, selling between 15 copies a day on some days, and maybe just one on others.

In other words, Boom did okay, and sold reasonably consistently for a few months, but was no bestseller. Tony Horwitz’s confusion seems to stem from seeing his book on a sub-sub-sub category “Best Seller” list and assuming it meant he was selling lots (and not having access to actual sales figures).

As those more familiar with the Kindle Store will know, Amazon has extremely granular sub-categories, particularly for non-fiction, which will allow a title to “chart” with very few sales. But this doesn’t mean that actual e-book bestsellers don’t shift a lot of copies or make good money.

Of course, after the Op-Ed was published on June 20, Boom jumped to #625 in the Kindle Store. Finally it was a digital bestseller. Kind of.

Well, technically the first time, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

At the end of his Op-Ed, Horwitz gave his thoughts on why he felt his “success” hadn’t translated into enough cold, hard cash:

One reason “Boom” sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.

Continue reading

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Writer’s Digest Dumps Author Solutions 

I have some huge news: Writer’s Digest has terminated its partnership with Author Solutions.

Abbott Press – the imprint launched by Writer’s Digest, parent company F+W Media, and white-label vanity press provider Author Solutions – is still operational, but all ties to Writer’s Digest have been cut.

It appears that Abbott Press will now be run directly as yet another Author Solutions brand but Writer’s Digest and F+W Media will have no further connection with it. (If you are unfamiliar with Author Solutions and its awful history, this will bring you up to speed.)

Cached version of Abbott Press showing Writer's Digest links.

Cached version showing Writer’s Digest links.

Writer’s Digest and F+W Media refuse to comment, despite being given several opportunities, but I’ve had this news confirmed by multiple sources. As Author Solutions only tends to allow early termination of partnership agreements if the partner signs a series of non-disclosure agreements, a formal announcement or comment is unlikely.

However, it’s clear from the websites of Writer’s Digest and Abbott Press that all links between the companies are in the process of being severed.

Abbott Press has removed “A Writer’s Digest Company” from its masthead and logo, and Writer’s Digest is in the process of scrubbing links between its site and Abbott Press, although you can still find several older articles touting the vanity imprint’s virtues – like this shill piece from Writer’s Digest staffer Chuck Sambuchino.

While this is a welcome development, it’s important to note a few things before this entire episode is airbrushed from history.

Current version, Writers Digest links removed

Current version, Writer’s Digest links removed

Author Solutions aggressively pursues strategic partnerships to lend credibility to its scammy practices. More importantly, these partners help keep the pipeline of email addresses and phone numbers flowing. As I detailed two weeks ago, Author Solutions needs huge numbers of leads because it only converts 5% of queries into customers.

Author Solutions first floated a partnership in 2010, but Jane Friedman – then publisher of Writer’s Digest – was unhappy with the idea and the direction the company was taking in general, and resigned.

Her successor, Phil Sexton, announced the partnership in January 2011.

We can only speculate as to why Writer’s Digest made the decision to terminate this agreement, but it’s clear they were aware of the dangers ahead of time. Away from the constraints of a corporate press release, Phil Sexton was more open with his thoughts in the comments of this post criticizing the deal. He acknowledged the issues when he said:

We’re well aware of the dangers here, particularly given who we are. It’s a scary line to be walking, particularly if we don’t handle it properly… The last thing any of us want to do is screw up a 90 year old brand.

Continue reading

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Who’s Afraid of Very Cheap Books?

CheapthrillsA common meme in publishing is that cheap books are destroying the world or literature, and that low prices are undermining the viability of publishing or writers’ ability to make a living.

I’ve long thought this position is nonsense – a narrative which plays on misplaced fears of change and a confusion of price and value, which is also based on flawed assumptions and analog, zero-sum thinking.

And, if anything, the opposite is true.

Why So Cheap?

Self-publishers are fond of 99c pricing for a number of reasons. It’s the lowest price you can set at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo without making your book free, and it has an obvious impulse buy appeal to readers. This price point is particularly popular for the first in a series or a limited-time sale in conjunction with an ad spot, but some have used it more aggressively.

I launched my latest novel Mercenary at 99c (logic here) but plan to raise it to $4.99 this week. Authors like Joanna Penn went further and kept that launch price for several months (reasoning here, stunning results here). And, of course, lots of writers like Amanda Hocking built enormous readerships with perma-cheap pricing.

The obvious downside of such an approach is a financial one. Amazon pays 35% royalties, instead of 70%, at prices below $2.99. Apple pays 70% on 99c books (curious how Amazon gets charged with encouraging a race to the bottom, rather than Apple) but the iBookstore simply doesn’t shift books in the same quantity – and particularly not for self-publishers.

As such, 99c is no magic bullet. The royalty rate disparity creates a very real chance that it can backfire in financial terms, particularly these days when more authors experiment with pricing. However, critics of aggressively cheap pricing don’t tend to center on results for the author, but rather the effect on the market as a whole. Continue reading

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Launching A Book By The Seat Of My Pants

mercenaryI’m launching Mercenary today and you can grab it from Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords for just 99c, and you can add it on Goodreads here.

I recommend grabbing it now because the price will be jumping to $4.99 in a few days. The reasoning behind 99c is below, but first here’s the blurb:

Lee Christmas gets drunk and falls asleep at the throttle of his locomotive, plowing straight into an oncoming train. Blacklisted from the railroad and his marriage in tatters, he flees New Orleans on a steamer bound for the tropics.

In Honduras, he begins a quiet new life. But trouble has a way of finding Christmas. With unrest sweeping the countryside, he’s kidnapped by bandits. Soon, he finds himself taking sides in an all-out civil war–as leader of the rebellion.

MERCENARY is the story of the USA’s most famous soldier of fortune: the hard-drinking drifter who changed the fate of a nation.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords $4.99 $0.99

And if you want to spread the love, here’s a tweet you can use:

The paperback will be out in a month and Apple should go live later today – it was rejected yesterday for breaching Apple’s trademarks. For the first time, I uploaded vendor-specific editions via Draft2Digital so that the Apple version would have direct links to iTunes instead of my site.

But I made the mistake of putting “Apple Edition” on the copyright page – one of those weird things which only Apple doesn’t seem to like. Lesson learned, and not the first lesson I learned with this launch… Continue reading

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The Case Against Author Solutions, Part 1: The Numbers

authorsolutionsPRHThe more you study an operation like Author Solutions, the more it resembles a two-bit internet scam, except on a colossal scale.

Internet scammers work on percentages. They know that only a tiny fraction of people will get hoodwinked so they flood the world’s inboxes with spammy junk.

While reputable self-publishing services can rely on author referrals and word-of-mouth, Author Solutions is forced to take a different approach. According to figures released by Author Solutions itself when it was looking for a buyer in 2012, it spent a whopping $11.9m on customer acquisition in 2011 alone.

This money is spent on:

I could fill ten posts on the various deceptive ways that Author Solutions gets customers, but the idea should be clear enough. The sum of all these efforts is an impressive number of leads: in 2011, Author Solutions managed to capture the phone numbers and email addresses of 475,000 writers.

Some complain that prospective customers of Author Solutions should do more research – caveat emptor and all that. This is a little unfair for three reasons.

  1. Quote from Phillips "All our marketing is permission based... and our website is very clear that we offer a range of imprints so we are not trying to deliberately confuse anyone."

    From an article by Alison Flood which will appear in the summer issue of The Author – the UK Society of Authors quarterly journal. Read it here.

    The deceptive practices outlined above.

  2. Author Solutions keeps launching new brands (20 at last count) with similar prices and practices, but without the internet baggage. This makes a mockery of Author Solutions CEO Andrew Phillips’ recent claim that “we are not trying to deliberately confuse anybody” (pictured right, and more thoroughly debunked here).
  3. Finally, it appears that most prospective customers do actually research the company thoroughly and step away. Out of the 475,000 leads, Author Solutions only converted approximately 5% into customers.

Now you can see why Author Solutions needs to adopt the spamming business model. It knows that if a prospective customer starts googling thoroughly, it is going to lose them – so it must work on a giant scale. And this is probably why they spend so much on Google ads and SEO – it certainly doesn’t want people scrolling through those search results and reading the horrific experiences that customers have had (and the class action the company is facing). Continue reading

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