After I self-published my third novel Badge—both in paper and through a number of ebook platforms—in February 2014, I noticed something different about its Amazon page. In the upper right section where Amazon lists Badge’s paper-book availability, it read, “Usually Ships in 1 to 3 Weeks.” All of my novels have been self-published through the print-on-demand company Lightning Source. The availability of my other two, Stuck Outside of Phoenix and Ghost Notes, both published in the aughts, have been listed, with little variance, at the more POD standard “Only 2 left in stock (more on the way).” My books are stored in Lightning Source’s database and can be printed and mailed at will. The beauty of print-on-demand publishing is there is really no way to be “out of stock,” short of a computer crash.
How was it that my new Lightning Source-printed novel took up to a few weeks to process and ship? I know Amazon works in mysterious ways, so I waited for things to right themselves. When they didn’t, I wrote my product services manager at Lightning Source Michelle Johnson:
After almost three months, the Amazon page for my novel lists the wait time as 1 to 3 weeks … I have to ask: Is there anything I can do to change that wait time? It’s never been like this with my other two novels. I half-suspect [it’s] Amazon’s way of punishing those not on CreateSpace.
CreateSpace is the print-on-demand arm of Amazon, and the main competitor for Lightning Source. Amazon was well known in the book world by this time for its hardball tactics when a publishing entity didn’t play by its rules. The company had notoriously tinkered with ship times of books by the publisher Hachette Book Group when the two publicly disputed ebook prices in 2010, making the delay in shipment similar to my new title. Was Lightning Source now on Amazon’s shit list? As their main competitor in the print-on-demand market, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Michelle Johnson wrote back:
I believe that the 1 to 3 week turnaround time frame is what will show going forward. This does give Amazon time to get the order to LSI. We cannot begin printing until we receive the order, once we get the order we have 24 to 48 hours to get a paperback book printed and shipped. Then the shipping time depending on where the books are going to. The 1 to 3 weeks does set a customer’s expectations as [sic] when an order will arrive. In the end the availability is up to Amazon.
This didn’t explain why my previous two novels always had been and still were listed as “Only 2 left in stock (more on the way),” but that was as far as I would pursue it. This was Amazon’s world. I was just in it.
In its two decades, Amazon has done some pretty amazing things for the publishing industry. First and foremost, it sells lots and lots of books by all kind of writers to all kinds of readers, and from a large variety of publishing platforms. Whether an author is with the biggest traditional publishing house or publishing her books from her own house, it’s fairly easy to get an Amazon page and start selling your wares on an international scale.
Amazon also has been at the forefront of virtually every publishing innovation since its inception. The company sees itself as on the side of all authors, but nowhere does its advocacy ring more true than when you look at what it’s done for self-publishers. From CreateSpace to Kindle Direct Publishing to Kindle Select, it has an impressive and effective cadre of programs that makes real differences in writers’ careers. Some writers have gone straight from self-publishing with Amazon to signing contracts with traditional publishers. Some have signed life-changing contracts. Google “Hugh Howey” or “Amanda Hocking.” You’re unlikely to find either complaining about how bad Amazon is for authors, and they’re just two of the most notable examples.
And a writer doesn’t have to be self-published with Amazon to be published by Amazon. The company has its own imprints that search out writers, offer advances and publish their works, just like a traditional publisher. Author Neal Pollack claims Amazon revived his career when its imprint Thomas & Mercer published his novel Jewball in 2012. With all these forward-thinking elements, Amazon seems to be saying, “Everyone sit back, relax, and let us revolutionize the industry.” Many are content to do so.
About a month after my email to Michelle Johnson, I found out other authors were in the same boat as me. In May 2014, Amazon started giving the same “Ships in 1 to 3 Weeks” treatment to Hachette’s books, all but guaranteeing sales of those titles would be reduced to a trickle. Word of this tactic quickly traveled through many major news organizations and across the Internet. Even Stephen Colbert aired an anti-Amazon segment on The Colbert Report. Amazon issued quick, often over-reaching, retorts. For the only time I could remember, the company seemed stunned.
I couldn’t help but rejoice. Yes, Amazon is innovative and embraces the self-publishing culture I participate in, but supporting them comes with casualties. The company is famous for charging customers less than what it pays for a product, taking a loss on each of those units sold for the sake of gaining customer trust. In other words, it gives you something for a dollar or so less than it pays; you give it your future business.
This model might be great for the consumer, but it’s horrible for independent bookstores, which by and large need to profit from book sales to stay in business. Amazon is trading a little money now, hoping either to take over the book industry entirely, or make it into a small group of large companies with deep pockets and unending borrowing utility. In other words, publishing would become Amazon, some other Amazon-like entity, and a bunch of hobbyists. Think Coke, Pepsi, and that’s about it.
Despite my thrill at watching the tide finally turn against Amazon, I’m hardly a traditional publishing cheerleader. Hachette is owned by French conglomerate Lagardère, one of the world’s leading media companies. Its General and Managing Partner Arnaud Lagardère is worth $2.4 billion. Hachette might not be as openly shrewd as Amazon, but it’s hardly David against this new Goliath of the industry. More like a titan against a titan.
The 2014 Amazon-Hachette turf war boiled over while the two negotiated a new contract. Not only did Amazon start delaying shipment of Hachette-published books, they charged more for them, and encouraged consumers to buy books other than Hachette books. Thousands of writers expressed outrage, led by famous ones like James Patterson and Malcolm Gladwell, who claimed it’s the writer who suffers when these large companies toy with each other. Eventually 900 authors signed a letter strongly urging Amazon to end its tactics. Amazon responded with the radical proposal of offering Hachette authors 100 percent of the proceeds of their Amazon-sold ebooks if their publisher would agree to it. Then Amazon invoked a misleading quote from George Orwell about his supposed dismay with paperback books to show that even great authors could get it wrong about innovations in the industry. The full quote clearly shows Orwell is actually praising paperback books. Apparently, even booksellers can get it wrong about famous authors.
Which is why—if I’m choosing sides in this corporate war—the Hachette/traditional publishing side is the one I identify with. I care more about Orwell than either of these companies, and I suspect Hachette wouldn’t misuse the words of a great writer to gain leverage in contract talks. Traditional publishing also has brought me virtually all of my literary heroes, and despite some great DIY success stories over the past few years, the traditional route is still where you’re most likely to make a living as a writer. I’ve tried valiantly over the last decade to get published by some Hachette-like entity, to no avail.
Then something like this latest Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle happens, which only pounds home my isolation at not making my traditional publishing dreams come true. My latest novel received the same treatment by Amazon as those Hachette authors, and look at all the Hachette side has done to help itself. With the backing of the traditional industry and some heavyweight writers, they’re at least in the fight. As a self-publisher who doesn’t have James Patterson on my side, my own war against Amazon would make the Yankees v. Red Sox look like the Yankees v. the Bad News Bears. Who needs the humiliation?
“So, why not swing over to our team?” Amazon says to the likes of me, and many have taken them up on it. I use their Kindle Direct Publishing platform to publish my ebooks, and have even taken advantage of their Kindle Select program for a time. The benefits of Select include, for a limited number of days, a writer can give his ebook away through Amazon. I know writers who have given away tens of thousands of copies of their books. That might sound crazy, but fledgling authors first and foremost needs readers. If the process costs nothing and might lead to a future buyer, so be it.
Of course, a benefit like Kindle Select doesn’t come free. If you participate, Amazon stipulates you have to take your ebook out of any other sales system (no Barnes & Noble Nook, no Apple iStore, etc.) for 90 days. Like every other aspect of publishing, Amazon is trying to dominate the ebook world, and by selling 60 percent of the world’s ebooks in 2013, it pretty much does.
My own 90-day venture into Select led to 763 free Badge ebooks sent to Kindle readers. Ideally, these giveaways would lead to more sales of my other two ebooks in the same series, readily available for $2.99 on Amazon. Has that happened? No. It could be that recipients didn’t like my novel, or didn’t read it, or didn’t make the connection between it and my other work. Still, as a free service, Select is hard to regret. Through my publishing efforts I’ve met people who read only on their Kindles. Select offers access to these readers, who probably wouldn’t know of me otherwise.
Few expect the Amazon-Hachette standoff to end anytime soon, which means many Hachette authors probably will continue to have “Usually Ships in 1 to 3 Weeks” as the arrival times on their books’ Amazon pages. The same is the case for Badge, which also means I won’t be selling many units at Amazon, but you won’t hear much about that. These corporate giants will settle—that’s what usually happens when there’s lots of money to be made—and life will go on for all these heavyweight writers, but I’ll still be here, getting my readers one at a time, meeting them in person, or on Facebook, or elsewhere on the Internet; in short, expanding my audience in any way I can. Maybe someday someone on a different plane of publishing—someone I respect—will champion my work. Until then, I’m on my own.