The Peas Not the Haddock - Pondering Amazon as a Side-Order for Micro Publishing.
The world is so mixed up and imperfect that I appreciate seeing people on social media who are keen to boycott Amazon for its various incursions, but knowing the realities of life as an indie publisher I still always have mixed feelings about it. Stories about not paying enough tax and treating workers badly seem to me to be two good reasons to try and limit my personal use of this brand.
On the other hand, I know of indie authors who make most if not all of their revenue from Amazon sales, and when I see the posts encouraging people away from using the platform to buy books I feel that this has to impact them?
Some of the reasons given for the boycott is that it supports independents against the corporations, but this seems to disprove that. These writers sell a lot more books than I do at the moment and have taken time to get to know the system well enough to make quite an income. They’re managing to make money to pay bills by doing what they want, so I think this is broadly good. It doesn’t balance out the political problems but it’s a fight to support yourself doing anything creative these days, so this has to be appreciated as a financially accessible opportunity.
Quite a few years ago I set up Pudding Press Ltd as a way to get some of my own work published and as an investigation into what could be done commercially with creative projects. I knew it would be a slow burner (i.e. probably not make me any money) but the way I’ve set it up costs little enough that I can cover the costs even if I don’t get enough sales in. Being books, I thought that Amazon was going to have to be part of the plan but I didn’t want to make books for only one platform.
I’d worked as an agency digital editor and writer for a few years before this, so I knew about the very important editorial process, but it goes without saying I knew only very little about book publishing. While I was aware of my ignorance, I wasn’t ready for what a closed club it is. I’d studied fine art and worked in theatre, film, with drawing and illustration and community arts projects and teaching. All of these worlds have their hierarchies but are still accessible compared to publishing. I was certainly naïve about the potential for setting up a publishing outfit that could operate with the ethos of these sorts of projects behind it.
Amazon were part of my publishing equation for a number of reasons. One is that I set up the company, along with its first project, on a small 3 figure budget. This meant that it was going to be almost impossible to get books into physical bookshops in any meaningful way. This is obviously unfortunate for anyone who likes physical books but was actually the only one thing I knew before I started.
One reason for this is that unless you have a big budget you’re not going to be able to print enough copies to interest anyone. The chances are that you’re going to be using a print on demand digital service which pushes up unit prices even further.
Aesthetically I don’t think that is a bad thing. With the advent of ebooks I like the idea we no longer have to have thousands of dogeared paperbacks cluttering up shelves and can buy good quality books to keep. This also has to be better for the environment not to waste so much paper? Knowing I would only ever sell about 3 hardback books, I still made Murder in Marrakech available in hard back because the book cover printed up exceptionally well. People like it when they see it in the flesh, though at £25 ish they don’t often want to buy it. Luckily the paperback is a bit cheaper but still with nice paper.
Amazon is one of the platforms your books can be listed on without having already printed 10,000, so that was and maybe still is a good reason to be open to selling on them. If you have an ISBN you can get listed with book distributors, and you’ll find your book cropping up with a range of sellers on Amazon some time after it’s published. Despite problems around reliability, Amazon reviews are also still supposed to be an important part of driving sales, so this is another advantage to having your books available to buy on the platform.
Limits on Usefulness for Physical Books
One of the depressing things about the above process is starting to understand in practical terms the stitch-up that is book distribution. As I run the publishing company, I know how much it costs to print one of my books, so when I see 10 Amazon sellers offering it for £3 I know that means they don’t actually have the book. I’m still not sure how this works.
The other horror this drives home is how book pricing is detrimental to all but the middle-men. There are all sorts of rules around book pricing when you come to list your books and if you have a physical book that you want to get in shops there is no way around getting involved with a distributer somewhere along the line. The nub of this is that books need to be priced high enough to allow certain sellers (including Amazon) to discount them up to about 60%. Sometimes distributers want exclusivity, to be the only ones to market the book and the costs of that can be up to a similar amount of the cover price. The effect of this is to artificially inflate book prices but also to chip away away at any profits authors or publishing companies might need to keep going. For example, a book that costs Pudding Press around £8 to print, has just over £1 profit added to be split between publisher and author. Yet the official book list price with distributors has to be just under £20 to allow for discounts and distribution profits.
I think the only way that you can get around this totally is to only sell your books yourself, thorough a website or in person. You could also become your own physical distributor if you could afford to bulk order at cost price, which is a really difficult thing to do with higher priced print on demand books. I don’t see this as an easy way to selling tens of thousands of print books.
Nevertheless, as creating awareness is always the other big problem when marketing anything, having sellers list your book on Amazon can’t be a bad thing whether they have the book or not. You can also become a seller yourself if you want to make sure that there are accessible copies of the book on the website to buy, although that costs money and might not be worth it if you’re not making a lot of sales. In this way it doesn’t even really compete with local book shops because if anyone actually orders from these sellers the likelihood is they’ll get back to the customer to say they haven’t got the book. If you can get your stock in to a local bookshop then at least they’ll have a copy or the means to order one.
Ebooks are where the platform really comes in to its own. I chose to publish Murder in Marrakech on Kindle because I already had a Kindle. I like that it’s an inexpensive way to buy books, is brilliant for travel and that I can download all those crime and spy thrillers I like to relax with without having a mountain of paperbacks I’ll only read once or twice.
The Kindle options have changed a lot since 2014 when I published that book but now there are even more ways that Amazon will help you market your books as well as format them. After a lot of research at the time I decided not to go with exclusivity. I knew then that it was the right decision but it does lock you out of many of the amazon marketing tools.
Plenty of people seem to publish exclusively on Kindle and get a lot of sales, so it might be worth looking in to if you’re sure that you don’t want to do anything else. I try to dissuade my illustration students from doing this, because I don’t think that they’ve covered all bases visually. It’s sort of the easy option for people who haven’t really thought too much about book design but for people with simple text books it does often seem to work. Small how-to guides and self-published novels are always hot sellers.
Does Amazon Work as a Side Dish?
So in all of this why have I been pondering how or why to move away from Amazon? While it might bother me that they own so much on the web, and that book distribution is only a small part or that, this fact alone doesn’t seem to make them different to any of the huge tech companies we all engage with every day. This power that comes from the monopolies they have is undoubtedly what gives them the freedom to pursue the taxation and employment policies they do but we also need to keep a roof over our heads and most professional creatives are going to have to use many of these platforms in order to do that. It’s something that is worth thinking about some more but there don’t seem to be any easy answers right now.
My main reason for looking at Amazon alternatives is just to do with creative autonomy. This is the reason I never wanted to sign up to KDP Select, which is the free Kindle publishing and distribution service. It offers a lot more marketing and probably Kindle success, but does have several exclusivity clauses.
While I think it probably still offers a good service for indie authors and publishers who are happy with the ebook platform, I always wanted to be able to do what I wanted with my own titles. Otherwise why go to the trouble and expense of setting up a publishing company? I’d really like to publish other people’s work once I have learned more about the system, so autonomy is important.
That said, we’ve probably sold more Kindle books of Murder in Marrakech than anything else. Certainly more than in the apple iBookstore, and still more than from Pudding Press website downloads. So at the moment this still makes Amazon a really valuable sales platform. Taking in to account the horrific distribution and wholesale problem I above, profit from Kindle books is also a lot better than from print book sales. Having a giant captive audience on their platform also helps even without the KDP Select services.
Last year I decided I started distributing books through the Pudding Press website and that seems to be a good way to go. Through this we can also sell ebooks suitable for both Apple devices and others. You can put a PDF on a Kindle, so this also means that not shutting anyone out from the market. As an author I think that this is the future but as a publisher I don’t want to shut down too many points of contact with the books. Of all the platforms, the iBookstore has actually been the least successful but that might be down to marketing, which I never really did with that first title.
At the moment I think Amazon is still a useful part of the equation of selling books but maybe just on Kindle. With the advent of the Kindle app you can now read full colour illustrated and comic books, which is interesting as the current project being published in 2021 is a graphic novel. However, at the moment I think this might be a book that isn’t published on Kindle and in that case I won’t pay much attention to getting the physical books on Amazon either. It will go off to a range of distributers, so I expect some of those highly discounted ghost copies might show up. If it gets really popular some booksellers on Amazon might even decide to stock it but I’m not holding my breath for the site itself.
As each project seems to be an experiment, this time it will be interesting to see what this does to sales. Downloads probably hold up well off the well-known sites but with print books you’re going to have to pay full price as well as postage with an independent seller. So that might understandably put some people off. Yet you can do much more on an independent platform, such as interesting pre-order packages, so I’ll be interested to see if that makes a difference.
One thing that does help independents is that we don’t actually need to make millions of pounds of revenue from book sales. As stated, Pudding Press Ltd is a fairly low-cost company to maintain, and there are minimal staff costs plus at the moment only one author and one editor who need royalties to live on. That was my original justification for starting the company to help me learn about the business, and it still means that sales don’t have to hit the million (or even the hundred) mark to prevent the company from going under. So there is more leeway for experimentation and trying out new ways of distribution until things come together.
One of the reasons, of course, that this type of micro-publishing company endeavour is affordable is the Internet. Opportunities like Kindle publishing are financially accessible for independents and cheaper for consumers to engage with, so they are still good options for getting projects completed and seen. Even though I might be looking at ways to distribute the next project differently, it’s likely I’ll return to having Amazon as a greater part of one of the few next projects which are all text-based.
I appreciate consumers making an effort to find alternatives to the platform, and I hope in the long-run that might drive people to shop on independent sites like my own. It has certainly worked that way for me, where I find myself looking more and more to buy from small businesses. In the meantime though I don’t think that the argument is as binary as big platforms bad - independents good, because the two have developed a complicated relationship in the last 20 years.