The Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla


Question: Where does the eight hundred pound gorilla sit?
Answer: Anywhere it wants to!

It hasn’t made much of a ripple yet in the political blogosphere, but among the various writers discussion groups, websites and e- newsletters, discussion of the Amazon-Publish America imbroglio is achieving a melt-down-and-drop-through-to-the earths core degree of nuclear passion. The implications of Amazon’s recently announced policy of requiring that small independent and publish on demand (POD) presses who want to sell through Amazon must print their books through Amazon’s Booksurge publisher-printer are being chewed over like a mouthful of rubbery and vile-tasting bubblegum through this weekend, ever since this story was posted in the Wall Street Journal.

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 Blondie 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 vanity author and his family and friends would ever read, and the vanity author would wind up with a garage full of expensive books that would never go any farther than that.

Clear so far? Good. It’s different now; between the internet, the development of POD, or print-on-demand technology, and the big-name publishing houses becoming 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 has been 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 is no longer the only game in town.

Print on demand technology allows 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 higher, but not all that much. And because they are 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 so-called 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 are internet-based: Author House, iUniverse, Booklocker, Booksurge, Publish America, Lulu: just check out the IAG books and members to get an idea of the range. And 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 member 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 this last week. If anything, 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. It’s essential for POD books to be included in the Ingram catalogue; it’s a main line into brick and mortar bookstores; other wise 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 has been 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 Independent Authors Guild started as an Amazon discussion group.

So last Friday’s action by Amazon.com, demanding that POD publisher, Publish America now and henceforward have their books be printed by Booksurge, or else their authors books would not be sold directly through Amazon comes as a rather thuggish slap in the face. (Publish America’s news release is here.)

Worse – as reported here by Angela Hoy at Writers Weekly – it looks like other POD publishers are or will be getting the same treatment. (there’s a long bloglist of other reactions to this at Writers Weekly)

In essence, POD writers are being told to make a choice between doing business with our chosen publisher and printer – or being sold through Amazon. Amazon might be able to make this stick – they are, after all, the eight hundred pound gorilla. But pissing off people who bought as well as sold a fair number of books through them is perhaps not as good a business model as previously assumed. There’s a petition here, and a place to comment. I hope it does some good. (Donation not needed, though!)

(Crossposted at Blogger News Network, and at the Independant Authors Guild Blog)

11 thoughts on “The Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla

  1. I’m a regular Amazon customer, and I have a lot of respect for them, but this smells pretty bad. Go sign the petition.

  2. Pingback: LB's Rambles

  3. Hmmm. I wonder, might the DOJ be interested in this? Like this smells of restraint of trade.

  4. Can anybody find a way to send an email complaint to Amazon? I am a long term user of Amazon and am quite willing to go elsewhere if this and other stunts they are pulling are not ended. I tried for a while to find an address but never found the correct link.

    I was not aware of this stuff and it really irritates me that creepiness has overtaken one of my favorite online sellers. Who do they think they are Microsoft of Apple?

  5. Interesting to speculate about what Ingram might do as a counterstrategy. They might consider doing something jointly with Borders, which is in the process of decoupling its website from Amazon. Indeed, Borders could position itself as a consumer source for POD books from *all* publishers (except the Amazon one, obviously.) Of course, this would assume Borders is smart, of which I have seen little evidence.

  6. I don’t know if anti-trust law would kick in, or if the DOJ has an interest; there are lots of things that are technically legal, although morally scummy – this is probably one of them, although someone with more expertise in trade law might be more certain than I.

    There’s a link and address in the Writers’ Weekly link for getting in touch with Amazon- and I have no idea yet of what Ingram/Lightning Source would do in response, although it would be interesting to see. Being a corporate entity, they are probably trying make sense of it and catch up this morning. It all seems to have blown up out of the clear blue as of last week.

    According to the Writers Weekly update, the deadline for Author House/iUniverse, Xlibris and Lulu to fall in line with Amazon’s new contract demand- or else! – is tomorrow.

  7. augustr–You may be better off sending a snail mail letter. Amazon seems to be mostly sending brush-off form letters in response to email (or nothing at all). Here’s the address:

    Amazon.com, Inc.
    P.O. Box 81226
    Seattle, WA 98108-1226

  8. Hmmm …. has Amazon hired a bunch of cast-off Sears execs? This is the sort of numb-skull stunt those corporate bullies would have undertaken.

    B.T.W., I like the Ingram-Borders suggestion, but also doubt its chances.

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