Is Amazon Publishing Ready For Prime Time?

I've been getting a lot of questions about Amazon's publishing services in the last couple days. Questions about the contract terms of Amazon's two publishing entities (Booksurge and CreateSpace), pricing, quality, and Amazon title visibility. Since I've never personally used Amazon to publish a book, my answers to those questions are second-hand or based on observation. Here's a link to a post by Angela Hoy about Booksurge quality (it's halfway down the page). On the subject of Amazon visibility, you can definitely get into the "Search Inside The Book" program, but it doesn't appear to be required at this point. Using Amazon's publishing services certainly doesn't hurt your ranking in Amazon search and recommendation algorithms, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it may help.

On pricing, I ran a bestseller sort on books published by CreateSpace this morning, and for the top 12 titles, calculated an average price of $24.56. That compares to $10.75 for the average price of the top 12 bestsellers sold on Amazon this morning, or $13.46 for the average price of my self published books. Interestingly, none of the Amazon published books showed a discount, while the top 12 bestsellers are currently sold at 45% off the list price, and my humble titles are currently sold at 10% off the list price. One question I received just last night was on that very subject, asking if Amazon's discounting of the cover price to "whatever figure they felt would sell well" would affect the author's CreateSpace royalty share. I responded that I think they discount books to make their price competitive or superior to that of other book retailers. If no other retailers sell the book, or if Amazon gets a contractual commitment from the author that they won't advertise the book cheaper elsewhere, then discounting strikes me as unlikely. I spot checked the list of 1,200 books that come up on Amazon when searching for CreateSpace as the publisher without finding a single discounted title.

The delivery times of all of these books were ready for prime time, meaning Amazon Prime, which is Amazon's main claim about better serving customers through trying to take all on-demand printing in-house. But if authors who do the math figure they need to price like the current top 12 CreateSpace titles to make it worth their while, Amazon's customers may find themselves paying more for niche titles than they would have before Amazon decided to better serve them. And this comes at a time when some Amazon customers are feeling just a little overserved by Amazon's recommendation of books printed in house.

Now, throughout this post I've referred to CreateSpace as a publisher, while authors and Amazon themselves may prefer to see CreateSpace as an authors services company that simply enables authors to access the Amazon platform and obtain printed books. I base this on the well established principle of how to categorize birds that look like ducks and quack like ducks. CreateSpace provides ISBN numbers to authors who don't have their own, an interesting application of language since anybody who has their own ISBN numbers is a publisher by definition. The research I did this morning was based on Amazon's "advanced search" tool, with "CreateSpace" as the publisher - Quack. While Amazon allows the author to set the book price, they pay the author "royalties", and perhaps even more tellingly, they refer to the author as "the author" - Quack. It's only when they talk about "wholesale orders" direct to the author, that they double up on terminology using both the trade publishing term and "owner orders", a new term they are apparently trying to introduce.

So why is the distinction between acting as a publisher and as an undefinable entity better serving both Amazon customers and authors important? Maybe the small matters of libel and liability have something to do with it. There have already been libel cases successfully prosecuted against author services companies, and those companies are very small beans as a litigation target compared to the mighty Amazon. As a vertically integrated publishing company who not only offers a paid service to authors to get into print, but also prints the books, sells the books and to some extent markets the books, it's hard to see how Amazon can avoid stepping on a lot of toes. If they publish every book that comes in the door without editorial control of the content, they are going to offend a lot of people to the detriment of their customer base. Most people will excuse a bookstore for selling inflammatory texts in the interest of freedom of speech, but it becomes a different matter if that bookstore is printing and promoting those books as well.

But if Amazon starts excercising editorial control of their publishing efforts, while carrying out their threats to dissable the "Buy" buttons of other on-demand publishers, they'll be limiting the access to their platform for many authors. Since access to the Amazon platform is the only viable outlet for many of these authors, the net result will be a new form of censorship. In countries with an independent judiciary system, power and responsibility often go hand-in-hand, as much as corporations would like to take the first and leave it at that. My own feeling is that Amazon may live to rue the day that the ducks come home to roost.

No comments: