Amazon, KDP Select, Monopolies and Asshattery

Seems like everyone is weighing in on this debate and I can’t help having my say too. First and foremost, I’m all about seeing things from every side and not throwing out babies with bathwater. Seriously, who the f*** throws out babies!? So it’s fair to say that I still really like Amazon and all they’ve done. There’s no question that they’ve changed the face of publishing and bookselling and, for the most part, in very positive ways. Of course, brick and mortar booksellers will have a different view, but that’s life and progress.

[Publetariat Editor’s Note: strong language after the jump]

Amazon single-handedly made ebooks the ubiquitous force they are today. Others helped it along, of course, but Amazon made it happen in the timeframe we’ve seen. They’ve opened up the playing field to let indie authors and small presses compete realistically with the Big Six. They’ve made books and other items readily available and affordable to millions of people who may have had trouble accessing those things before. I don’t like everything about the Kindle model – exclusive file format, etc., but it’s very good overall. Amazon are very good overall.

There’s no question that I would rather have Amazon around than not. Although, on a slight digression, when the hell are we getting an Seriously, Amazon, why do you hate Australia?

But there are changes happening at Amazon that I don’t like. I’ve never been able to ignore a bully and I don’t like monopolies. They’re bad for everyone except the person in control of said monopoly. And while Amazon are still doing many good things, they’re starting to do many questionable things as well.

The major problems are these:

– Setting up as a publisher, not just a retailer;
– Starting the KDP Select program;
– Cutting publishers out of control;
– Propogating the cheap and free model.

Why are these things bad? Let’s look at them one by one.

Setting up as a publisher:

This is not a bad thing per se – another opportunity for writers to get published is a good thing, right? Well, not if it restricts the writer’s ability to sell their work. Whenever Amazon set up a service, they make it exclusive to themselves. For example, their CreateSpace POD printing venture means stock is only available through – not even the other Amazon branches internationally. As a result of in-fighting, Barnes & Noble have said they won’t stock any Amazon published books. This is a direct result of B&N’s problems with previous Amazon exclusivity policies, and I can’t really blame them. But it means that writers being published by Amazon have a greatly restricted range of outlets for their work. And Amazon encourages that in order to gain monopoly share.

Starting the KDP Select program:

This is a program where authors can make their Kindle ebooks available free for 5 days out of every 90. The idea is that it will greatly enhance their profile, drag more readers to their work and they’ll see greater sales in the long tail. Amazon have a pool of cash and for every author with a free book, Amazon distributes a share of that pool based on how many free downloads that book saw. Sounds great, but it’s not. That distribution pool is already getting smaller, the vast majority of people involved will only ever see a tiny fraction of it and, worst of all, those books can only be included if they’re exclusive to Amazon. No iBooks, no Smashwords, no Nook, etc. That means that once again, Amazon are forcing exclusivity and using sweet, sweet cookies to lure authors into snubbing every other retailer. Then you find out that the cookie is made of mud and dog crap.

Cutting publishers out of control:

It’s getting harder and harder for publishers to manage their stock at Amazon. My novels are published by Gryphonwood Press. They recently commissioned new cover art for both books and tried to get Amazon to update the art. Nothing happened. No responses, no changes, nothing but huge frustrations. Eventually, after talking to my publisher, I went to my Amazon Author Central page and requested the changes myself. The update was made inside 24 hours. This is Amazon responding to authors, not publishers. That means they’re actively cutting publishers out, which actively encourages authors to do their own thing. That’s not an author’s job. It’s their publisher’s job. But this strikes me as an underhand way of getting authors to distrust their publishers or decide they can do without them and go the indie route, which is better for Amazon.

Propogating the cheap and free model:

So many novels are on Amazon for 99c. I’ve already talked about the free option on the KDP Select program. This is a big problem. For one, many readers are starting to undervalue work. They decide to wait until something is free or reduced to 99c before buying it and that’s bad for authors. This is our job – we’re trying to make a livng here and there’s a lot of work in writing a novel. It’s worth more than a single dollar. But Amazon don’t care. They’ve got something set up where anyone can upload an ebook, charge a buck for it and think they’re on the author gravy train. 99.9% of those people are unlikely to sell more than a handful of books. But that’s all right with Amazon. After all, if they make 75c for every book sold, they don’t need to sell millions of every book. They just need to sell a few copies of millions of books. Each author is making fuck all, but Amazon are raking it in. And those authors who stick exclusively with Amazon are told they’ll do even better, with no guarantee that that is actually the case.

You can see how all these things are set up to benefit Amazon, at the expense of everyone else – authors, publishers and readers. It’s better for all of those people if price points reflect the effort involved in making the work being sold; if product is available through a range of outlets for a range of devices to give readers a choice and therefore give authors a greater chance at more exposure and sales, leading to a stronger career. The only beneficiary of the models described above is Amazon.

Now I don’t mind Amazon doing well for itself, but not by monopolising an industry and not at the expense of authors and readers. That’s where I have to step in between the bully and bullied and say, “Wait a fucking minute, here, what do you think you’re doing?”

What can you do about it? Lots of things.

If you’re a writer or publisher:

Don’t make your work exclusively available in one place. It benefits everyone to have it available in as many places, for as many devices as you can.

Don’t price your work ridiculously low and devalue it. Equally, don’t price it stupidly high and drive all the readers to pirate sites instead.

Don’t saturate the work with DRM, inconveniencing readers who can’t read a book they paid for on seperate devices.

Stand up against monopolising policies wherever you can.

If you’re a reader:

Check various venues for the availability of the work you want and don’t always buy in one place.

Try to buy non-DRM versions in order to encourage greater openess in the future. DRM is not the way to fight piracy.

Don’t go for pirated work. If you respect the authors you’re reading, pay them for their work.

Don’t only read free books and those you can get for 99c. At the very least, you’re cutting yourself off from some really good stuff out there and only encouraging the lowest common denominator.

Chime in with a comment below if you have an opinion or an idea about this. Or if you completely disagree with me – I’d love to hear why.


This is a reprint from Alan Baxter‘s The Word.