One Writer’s Take on Amazonfail

There’s been a lot of ranting back and forth lately about the Amazon/Macmillan fiasco of a couple of weeks back, and I thought I’d take a moment to make clear what I thought (and what I believe a lot of other authors thought) about the whole thing. 

First of all, it wasn’t about the pricing.  Personally, I don’t think either pricing model being proposed is the right one.  I think ebooks should be priced like mass market paperbacks, mostly because I think mass market paperbacks are what ebooks are going to ultimately replace.  So I don’t really care one way or the other about Amazon’s or Macmillan’s pricing models.  (Not that Amazon or Macmillan care what I think about book pricing.  I have even less input on that than I do on the cover art.) 

What it was about for me was bullying.  I don’t like bullies.  I have no idea what was happening at the negotiating table – maybe Macmillan said something to Amazon that left Amazon no recourse but to pull the buy buttons from Macmillan’s books.  But I doubt it.  Mostly Amazon’s tactics struck me as those of the kid in the pickup basketball game who, not liking the fact that the gang doesn’t want to play by his rules, takes his ball and goes home.  It’s his ball, so he can do what he wants.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t think he’s a jerk for doing it. 

And, because there was a personal element involved, ie my books being affected (I probably lost only two or three sales, but still), my reaction was a bit more virulent than it might otherwise have been.  But, even if I hadn’t been involved, I think the substance of my reaction would have remained the same. 

I don’t like bullies.

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  1. 1. Sam

    I think most authors, and most of anyone who knows a little about the facts and cares about books would agree.

    The whole episode was Amazon trying to muscle in further to expand their already large profit margins at the expense of the less-than-stellar margins of the publishers.

    Amazon sees books as a commodity, it doesn’t care what $9.99 book it sells, as long as it sells more of them. If that means that some “niche” publishers would be driven out of business or that some authors couldn’t make a living, Amazon doesn’t care, because as far as it’s concerned the Dan Brownes, endless celeb autobiographies and other gumph will make up the numbers.

    In that model of the book-publishing world, we won’t get anything but those sorts of “best-seller” books.

    I personally don’t support a world where books have been reduced to being slightly beefier versions of the trashy celeb magazine market, so I fully support publishers being able to set their own price – if they try to charge me more than I think a product is worth I won’t buy it, but Amazon shouldn’t be the one to make that decision for me, nor should they get to decide which publishers get to be profitable.

  2. 2. Alec

    I don’t think anyone likes bullies, but in this case I don’t think anyone was innocent.

    A variable pricing model is fine, but I have yet to see a solid discussion on how this will affect the average price of books. Will I, as a consumer, now end up paying more for what I read? Given that I read new releases I can only imagine that I will now be paying a premium on my ebooks as opposed to having the cost passed on and diluted among the entire ebook library.

    I do not think pricing ebooks the same as mmpb is the way to go, simply because this pads profit margins while totally devaluing my investment in an e-reading platform.

    Lastly, Amazon has been demonized in this whole debate for doing what retailers like Wallmart do best, which incidentally is a piece of context which has also been sorely missing from the debate (price war between the two – amazon is between a rock and a hard place).

    Having authors whining about and demonizing Amazon’s strategy is fine and all. This helps publishers better (jealously) guard their rights in an emerging ebook market where the rules are changing rather quickly and nothing is yet set in stone. That said, I can’t help but shake the feeling that as I reader I am getting shafted regardless of who is the bully and who is the victim.

  3. 3. Clothdragon

    Wasn’t McMillan being just as much a bully as Amazon? They said ‘do it my way’ and Amazon wasn’t happy changing their several year habitual practice for that publisher and removed purchase buttons until the issue could be settled. While I might have been annoyed if those were my books lost — and honestly I have no idea if I might have lost things from my wishlist, which is the only place this could have affected me personally — but I’m not sure Amazon was the only company at fault here. Perhaps they worried that McMillan would pull their rights to sell those books, like the ones they lost last year?

    I honestly didn’t pay as much attention to this upset, but I’ve been really amazed at how quickly every jumped to blame Amazon and protected the rights of the other guy to enforce what to this point has only been the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price. Every bookstore has always had the right to offer discounts, jack the price(when they put their own sticker over the MSRP), or really do whatever they want to to try to sell their books. Except apparently Amazon.

  4. 4. Alma Alexander

    “Wasn’t McMillan being just as much a bully as Amazon? ”

    No.

    The way things stood were untenable in the long term, and they were dictated by Amazon – and their policy of undervaluing actual e-books (and selling them at a loss) because what they were REALLY selling were $400-a-pop Kindles as a dedicated and very much circumscribed platform for which they were then the oNLY supplier of compatible material formatted in a highly specific and protected way.

    Macmillan suggested a more equitable pricing system.

    Amazon basically responded by pitching a fit, sitting down on the metaphorical floor and saying like a metaphorical toddler, “fine, I’ll hold my breath until YOU turn blue”.

    The reporting out there was biased and one-sided in a lot of ways, leaving out the sliding scale that Macmillan proposed and generally just saying, oy, the big evil publisher wants to raise prices. THis then got the Kindle owners – who had been promised cheap fodder for their expensive readers – into a tizzy, and, well THEY weren’t about to blame the hand that fed them, as it were, so of COURSE greedy old Macmillan was to blame.

    What really got me is that eventually it all devolved into “it’s the fault of the greedy authors, and I won’t buy ANY more books by this author” – as though the authors had any real influence over what formats their works would be published in (publishers decision) and at what price. And as though the AUTHORS were the ones raking in all that extra moolah.

    But there’s been plenty written on that topic out on the blogosphere if you care to go out and search. I particularly recommend John Scalzi, Jay Lake and the very detailed article that Tobias Buckell published on the pricing and general idea of how an e-book works (look on the SFWA website if you can’t find it elsewhere).

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Clothdragon – My understanding is that Macmillan offered Amazon two options – either they could go with the agency agreement Macmillan wanted to use with its sliding scale and concurrent release of hardcover, trade, and kindle titles, or Amazon could continue pricing books however they wanted, at which point Macmillan would return to the practice of windowing the release of different formats. (Windowing is the process by which a publisher releases books in different formats at different times, ie mass market paperbacks coming out six months to two years after the hardcover release.) Amazon hates the idea of windowing, which has been a standard publishing practice for 60 years, because they want to be able to sell books to Kindle owners immediately.

    I still see Amazon as the bullies here, not Macmillan.

  6. 6. Clothdragon

    Maybe that was why I — well, not sided with Amazon, but didn’t see them as the sole bad guy, at least — is that I hate windowing. I hate hardcovers. They hurt my hands to read them, they’re harder to carry around and they seem to be a sign of prestige so whenever an author I like hits a certain level of popularity, I’m punished by being forced to either buy a book that for me is useless for anything other than bookshelf decoration or wait another year to get a book in a format I’ll actually read. (I haven’t moved to e-reader yet, so I don’t have that option to argue about and don’t feel right arguing about an option I’m not paying the entrance price to become part of the issue.)

    I do not believe the 60 years of publishing practice is doing as much for these companies as it should. I LOVE books. OK, no, I love reading. I honestly believe that I if I could afford the readers or decide on a reader to pledge an allegience to, I wouldn’t feel the need for paper — my biggest issue is comfort in reading. The ability for the vehicle to disappear. I hate hardcovers altogether and hate that they only offer that format in the beginning.

    But I also hate the idea of paying nearly paper prices for a format that is so much more limited, a format I can’t lend to friends, is device-specific, and may not work next year as the tech advances.

    I don’t have solutions, only issues, so I’m sure I’m not helpful at all. I would love to see these people working together instead of fighting. There have to be better solutions than this.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Clothdragon – I don’t like paying paper prices for a DRM format either, but then that’s what Kindle prices are even at their lowest. My feeling that ebook prices will be the same as mmpbs is based on what I think the maket will be like 10 years from now, when DRM will probably be less common. And the cost of producing the paperback is less than a dollar (as is the cost of the author’s royalty) – pricing ebooks the same as mmpbs is really not that far-fetched. Once the DRM is removed.

    I think hardcovers will be around for afficianados the same way you can still get vinyl.

  8. 8. Steve Buchheit

    Clothdragon, you might be amazed how low the actual physical costs of printed material is. In fact, for MMP, it’s still cheaper for bookstores to pulp the book than to have the publisher absorb the cost of shipping the book back (and preparing it to send out again). Hard covers are just barely worth returning (mostly because of the cost of the binding, not the actual materials used – perfect binding is very cheap in bulk, book binding is still expensive). Depending on the print runs, the cost per piece is negligible compared to the cost of preparing the manuscript.

    If you want the e-book at the same time the hardcover is out, obviously what Macmillian offered should be your choice. If they release the hardcover, e-book and trade or mmp at the same time, the cost of production of the book (editing, formatting, publicity, advertising, etc) needs to be spread out between formats (raising ebooks and MMPs, maybe lowering hard-bound books). If they didn’t do that, and Amazon continued their pricing schedules (even with loosing money on every sale to keep the 9.99 price) ebook sales would soar, removing any chance of profit for the publisher (remember, bookstores pay negotiated wholesale prices, and if Amazon could get a lock on the ebook market, they could then dictate those wholesale prices). The end result is you would get books that haven’t been edited or polished.

    Having read many books in their second and third draft phase, trust me, this is a future you do not want. If you’d like to see a sample of it, purchase some PublishAmerica books. Even the better or more popular ones. That’s what the market would look like in a “The Author publishes directly to the people skipping the big publishers” future.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Steve – Thanks for the breakdown. I didn’t get into it because, a) I’m not that good on th details, and b) it was the bullying that pissed me off more than anything else, and a lot of readers’ complaints were ignoring that aspect.

  10. 10. peacerenity

    this whole debate reminds me a lot of the one that itunes got into with one of the networks. apple insisted that all songs be $0.99 (at the time) and shows be $1.99, and the network wanted a more flexible pricing model so it could make more profit. part of the reason why apple cared so much is because they saw these pricing schemes as a sort of guarantee to the customer, as something they were known and loved for. and changing the format for one network wouldn’t only decrease sales for that network, it would negatively impact its entire inventory because people wouldn’t understand the who and the why of it, and so think that it was apple’s idea, and was universal, and would take their business elsewhere.

    personally, i have no idea why people would pay large amounts for ebooks, but thats just me.

    oh, and the “standard publishing practice for 60 years” thing doesnt really work, since everybody knows that book publishing’s business model is pretty much crap.

  11. 11. Doug Hulick

    peacerenity: The reason the apple/iTunes comparison doesn’t work in this is that Macmillan is actually making *less* per book under the model they proposed than they were making under Amazon’s model. Yes, less.

    This was not about short-term profit for either company (Macmillan is making less, and Amazon was selling at a loss before the fight), but rather about the future of distribution and price. Not only did the Amazon model help move Kindles, but it also locked the publishers into releasing e-books in one format — Amazon/Kindle — rather than in the more flexible ePub format (I say “more flexible” knowing that there are various versions of it out there as well, but since it is not owned by one company, the odds of eventual stadardization is better, IMO), or any other option. By comparison, the agency model proposed by Macmillan allows Macmillan to offer their e-books in more than one format, through more than one distrbutor. And, by allowing Macmillan to set the price (which, when you think about it, they do in part with the MSRP on paper books already), it means more price flexibility in the long run, again because it will not be just Amazon’s game.

    If you want a tech-realm analogy, I think a better one is the VHS/BetaMax battle from years ago, or the HDVD/Blu-Ray we saw recently, and neither of those touch the pricing side of the argument. But don’t think that Amazon (or apple) was being altruistic in their pricing motives and looking out for the consumer. That’s a nice spin on their part, but in the end they want to control as much market share as possible, and being able to dictate price (and under-cut the competition by controlling the standard format) is a tool to gain that control.

  12. 12. Doug Hulick

    P.S. – On re-reading my post, it sounds as if I am painting Amazon as the sole villain and Macmillan as the guy looking out for the reader. That wasn’t my intent. This was a fight between two big dogs over the future of publishing and distribution of e-books. Both of them were looking out for their bottom line first. I just happen to like the idea of e-books being available from someone besides Amazon in five to ten years, but that doesn’t mean that it will be all peaches and cream for consumers under either plan.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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