It didn’t seem to have made much of a ripple in the political blogosphere, but two years ago among the various writers’ discussion groups, websites and e- newsletters, discussion of the Amazon-Booksurge imbroglio achieved a melt-down-and-drop-through-to-the earths’ core degree of nuclear passion. Amazon basically announced that they would require those independent and publish on demand (POD) presses who wanted to sell through Amazon to print those books through Amazon’s Booksurge publisher-printer entity. (It’s now called CreateSpace, BTW.) The implications of that policy were chewed over like a mouthful of rubbery and vile-tasting bubblegum for weeks.
A short background refresher in the vagaries of independent publishing may be in order here. Once upon a time, in a universe far, far away there used to be two ways of being published. The first kind was the respectable kind, with one of the big name publishing firms that with luck and if you were any good, or fairly good or even a literary genius, and you had any sort of agent, you would wind up with stacks of copies of your book in all the bookstores, a nice royalty check, maybe even an advance, good reviews in the right magazines, and hey, presto – as my daughter says, pretty soon you were a “real arthur.” The other kind of publishing was disdainfully known as “vanity”publishing. The assumption was that untalented hack with lots of money would contract with a publisher to print quantities of a book that “real” publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole and no one but the author and his family and friends would ever read. Classically, the assumption was that such an author would wind up with a garage full of expensive books that would never go any farther than that.
That whole picture was turned upside down and shaken like some vast etch-a-sketch, what with the internet, the development of POD, or print-on-demand technology, just as the big-name publishing houses became risk-adverse, unadventurous and stodgy. Rather like Hollywood and the music industry, come to think on it: stuck on established big names, carefully constructed sure-fire blockbuster hits and guaranteed big returns. The quirky, original, eccentric and genuinely creative will likely never be invited in the door – even if they are talented, too. The result was an explosion in the numbers of writers who have gone “indy” – just like filmmakers and musicians, because the technology has allowed it. Getting in through the doors of the big-name publishing houses was no longer the only game in town.
Print on demand technology allowed a printer to print up copies of a particular book as they are ordered from a formatted electronic text file. Because they are usually printed in small batches, not in 10s of thousands at a whack, the cost of the individual copy is somewhat higher. And being printed to order, the matter of warehousing thousands of copies doesn’t come up; all very ecologically sound. It allowed writers who couldn’t or didn’t want to publish through a traditional publisher and couldn’t afford to pay for a print run from a vanity press to pay a small set-up fee for their text and cover, which would be available to the printer. Whenever orders came in for their book, the printer could run off as many copies as needed and drop-ship them to the customer.
Sensing an opportunity, a whole host of new publishers sprang up or morphed from their previous incarnation. Most of these were and are internet-based: just check out the IAG books and members page to get an idea of the range. A fair number of authors set up as publishers themselves, since the actual printing of the books was now relatively inexpensive and accessible. While a good many of resulting POD books are just as much vanity publications as ever were, and are pretty dreadful besides – quite a few are not. In fact, the best of them are as quirky, literate and as high quality as anything available from the big traditional houses and those authors who took it seriously have reached a wider audience. As another IAG indy writer pointed out, readers don’t much care how a book that they love to read was published – they just want to read it. Nothing is in stasis for long: POD publishers grew, or were absorbed by others.
Amazon.com purchased the POD publisher Booksurge in 2005; not a large publisher or a particularly well-regarded one. In fact the worst POD book I ever reviewed was a Booksurge product, although that seemed to have resulted from author stubbornness rather than Booksurge incompetence. Still, it didn’t seem to be terribly out of line for a book retailer to be also in the book publishing business – and Booksurge books didn’t seem to be given any special favors among all the other POD books available from Amazon – until a little less than two years ago. (Up until then, I thought it might indicate that the bright sparks at Amazon thought that POD published books were the wave of the future.)
The main printer for many, if not most POD publishers is called Lightning Source; it’s owned by Ingram, the mega-huge book distributor, and puts out a darned good product at a reasonable rate. It’s also essential for POD books to be included in the Ingram catalogue; it’s a main line into brick and mortar bookstores; otherwise you might just as well be back in the vanity-press days, with a garage full of copies to hawk around.
But it’s also essential for your books to be available on-line, and on-line means Amazon.com, the proverbial eight hundred pound gorilla of internet book marketing. If it’s published, it’s available from Amazon. Over the last couple of years, Amazon.com was relatively welcoming to readers and writers alike; offering opportunities to review and blog about our books, to do Kindle reader editions of our books, to do wish-lists and recommendations, to set up discussion groups; as a matter of fact, the IAG – the Independent Authors Guild started as an Amazon discussion group.
So the demand by Amazon.com, that a number of small POD publishers had to have their books be printed by Booksurge, or else their authors books would not be sold directly through Amazon came as a rather thuggish slap in the face. In essence, POD writers were told to make a choice between doing business with their chosen publisher and printer – or being sold through Amazon. Richard and Angela Hoy, at Booklocker.com (who published two of my books, and printed and distributed three others) declined the offer of a contract for Amazon-Booksurge’s services with the vigor and force of a concrete block thrown through a plate-glass window – in fact they went ahead and filed a class-action lawsuit against Amazon, alleging their actions violated federal antitrust laws. Just this week, Amazon has moved to settle – just before the phrase of discovery would have begin. More about Booklocker and the Amazon settlement here, from Angela.
For myself, I was just asounded to discover that there are actually real people at Amazon. Ordinarily, my vision is that of a huge, cavernous underground warehouse, piled high with books and other goods, sort of like that in the final scene of the first Indiana Jones movie. Up in the dim ceiling overhead, there is some kind of vast, clanking machine, with tracks and pulleys and long arms which reach down and pick up something, and carry it away. I visualize those items being dropped into a huge hopper, and eventually they emerge on the other end – which is an anonymous UPS drop-box on an anonymous street in a featureless urban warehouse development. The point is, there don’t ever seem to be any humans involved, save for someone in a long gray cloak that slips around the corner and runs away, immediately you catch sight of them … or the whole place may be run by rubbery-tentacled aliens, like the Thermians in Galaxy Quest. In any case, interaction with a real human at Amazon always seemed just about impossible, to me. But Richard and Angela did it – and made them back down. Victory is sweet – even if it took two years