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Something’s Wrong Here

A friend has recommended Harlan Coben to me a couple of times.  As I neared the end of the current book I’m reading (more on that later), I decided to get the Coben book she most recently recommended — The Stranger.  I went to Amazon.  Searched for the book.  Got the details.  Hmmm … that’s interesting.  The cost of a paperback version of the book is cheaper than the Kindle version.  And because I’m a Prime member, I get free shipping.  How does this possibly make any sense at all?

Amazon vs. Hachette

For several months now, Amazon and Hachette (one of the largest book publishers in the world) have been at war over e-book prices.  As far as I know, Amazon has been relatively quiet about the situation, letting Hachette and its supporters win the PR campaign.  Until now.  What follows is an email I received from “The Amazon Books Team.”

I have extremely mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, Amazon has far too much power in the world of book publishing these days.  On the other, I’m disgusted by the prices the big publishers charge for e-books.  On the other other, I have a real problem with how Amazon is using its power here — delaying delivery of books not because the book isn’t available but because it can — which only punishes authors and readers.  On the other other other, traditional publishers have become dinosaurs trying to stave off extinction and they’re not looking too good these days.

If, as the email states, this is about Amazon’s trying to get publishers to lower those e-book prices, then I’m all for it.  Problem is I just don’t trust Amazon enough to believe that’s what it’s all about.  I also have a real problem with Amazon calling their effort Readers United.  I’m sorry, Amazon is a business, a huge business that is concerned only with maximizing its profit.  Anyway, here’s the email…

 

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

Today’s Publishing Question

Does anybody out there know if purchases made via the CreateSpace eStore count as sales in the super-secret Amazon sales algorithms?

I’ve been Amazon’d

I debated how to open this post.  I think there are two options:

1.  I have had 61 reviews of One Night in Bridgeport on Amazon.  Now I have 58.

2.  I have 61 58 reviews of One Night in Bridgeport on Amazon.

 

Yes, add me to the list of frustrated authors who have had some of their reviews magically disappear from Amazon, thanks to the company’s never-ending weeding out of what they deem to be “bad” reviews.  I want to get one thing out of the way — people have suggested that Amazon has a policy that prohibits reviews by people who are clearly friends or family of the author.  I can find that nowhere in their review guidelines discussed below.

Anyway …

For a few weeks now, my review total for Bridgeport has been stuck at 61.  Yes, it is something I check every day.  I haven’t been able to eliminate that particular addiction.  Wednesday night I took a peek and it was … wha? … down to 58.  I have heard of this phenomenon from a number of other writers and bloggers.  It had yet to happen to me.

I dashed off an email to Amazon customer service and was told this by Amy J.:

Thanks for contacting us about the missing Customer Reviews for your titles. For privacy reasons, I can only discuss specific Customer Review removals with the person who originally posted the review. However, I can tell you that reviews are removed from the Amazon.com website for one of three reasons:

1. The review conflicted with our guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/reviews-guidelines). This includes reviews which were posted as promotional material.
2. The review was removed by the customer who submitted the review.
3. We discovered that multiple items were linked together on our website incorrectly. Reviews that were posted on those pages were removed when the items were separated on the site.

If you are the reviewer, please contact us from the account you used to write the Customer Review. We will then be able to provide you with additional information about why your specific Customer Review was removed.

I responded with what is my usual grace and patience.  Job has nothing on me.

You realize how ridiculous that is … the reviews are public.  They’ve been up on a publicly accessible website for months.  They relate to a book that I’ve published and you can’t tell me which ones you deleted.

I realize that Amazon is the dominant player in this space and we authors have no choice but to go along but your service sucks.  You can do anything you want, so you basically do.

I certainly believe that there are rules that should be followed by reviewers and failure to follow those rules should result in the reviews being deleted or the reviewer being denied the right to post reviews.  For instance, a review that gives a book one star because it was delivered later than anticipated.  What was that you said?  Oh, you mean there are reviews like that on books on Amazon and they’ve been there for months and never deleted?  Hmmm

I also think books written by political figures shouldn’t be subject to reviews written by people who just call the author names because they disagree with their policies.  What was that you said?  Oh, you mean there are reviews like that on books on Amazon and they’ve been there for months and never deleted?  Hmmm.

I think we should take a look at Amazon’s review guidelines and see what they say.  One prohibited type of review is:  “Details about availability or alternative ordering and shipping information.”  Doesn’t that seem to cover the first example.  Two other types of prohibited reviews are: (1) Obscene or distasteful content; (2) Profanity or spiteful remarks.  Trust me, if you haven’t spent time reading the reviews of political books, there are thousands of these all over Amazon.

So, there should be rules, but shouldn’t those rules make sense and be applied rationally?  After my response, I got another email, this time from Zac J.  Is it me, or do you also find it weird that Zac has the same last name initial as Amy does and they both have names that are three letters?  I’m thinking that these emails are templates and that one of Amazon’s infamous algorithms is to “sign” them with names that follow a particular formula.  What do you think?  It makes about as much sense as what some of their other algorithms do.

Here’s “Zac’s” response:

Again, for privacy reasons, I can only discuss specific Customer Review removals with the person who originally posted the review.

In general, Customer Reviews are removed from the Amazon.com website for one of three reasons:

1. The review conflicted with our guidelines ( http://www.amazon.com/reviews-guidelines ). This includes reviews which were posted as promotional material.
2. The review was removed by the customer who submitted the review.
3. We discovered that multiple items were linked together on our website incorrectly. Reviews that were posted on those pages were removed when the items were separated on the site.

If you have additional questions, please review our Customer Review Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/reviews-guidelines) and FAQs in our Help pages (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?nodeId=201077870).

I’m sorry for any frustrations this may cause. We won’t be able to provide further insight or assistance with your request.

So, let’s dispense with these “reasons.”  #2 is easy — I’m pretty sure that three people didn’t simultaneously wake up one day and decide to delete their reviews of Bridgeport.  #1 is a little more difficult.  You can click on the link and look at all of the different guidelines they have for good reviewing etiquette.  What I can tell you is this — after reading all of my reviews, sometimes more than once — I can guarantee that none of them violated any of Amazon’s guidelines as provided to me.  As for #3 — I’m not sure what that means but it doesn’t seem like it could fit here, with all of my reviews they are clearly solely dedicated to the book.  I’m not sure why they would be linked together on Amazon’s website incorrectly.  And, if they are, isn’t that Amazon’s problem, not mine?  I know this — every single review was of Bridgeport and there were no duplicates.

I don’t know who “owns” a review.  And Amazon certainly has the right to police its website.  I support that.  But, as I said, there has to be some rationality to it.  I would love to know which of the three reasons they used to delete the comments and then know which comments they are.  If three people deleted their reviews on the same day, I’m fine with that and I don’t want to know who they are.  But, if it’s because of a violation of their guidelines I sure would love to know which reviews they were because there was nothing in any of the reviews of Bridgeport that violated their guidelines.  And now I’m down three reviews that I believe were four or five stars and Amazon doesn’t have to explain itself to an author who depends on good reviews to hopefully garner more attention for the book.

Thank you, Amazon, for demonstrating once again that the bigger you are the more of an asshole you can be.

I’m Just Saying…

If you haven’t bought it already, here’s a chance to get Weed Therapy at a discounted price.  Discounted from $4.99 to $1.99 for today only, going up to $2.99 tomorrow.  Here’s your chance.

Click here to buy this.

weedtherapy.kindle cover

From the reviews:

The first thing I would have you understand is that Mr. Paxson has a wonderful writing style, a great way of putting words together to paint a picture or convey a feeling in a story. The narrative about visiting the village, learning how these simple people find their happiness, and the conversations with the old priest remind me of Hermann Hesse’s writing. There’s something mystical and spiritual about the experience, and I wanted to soak in the aura as long as possible.

* * * * *

I loved the craftsmanship in the way this book was written and the author’s writing style. The word pictures created were superb. The beauty of the well written story was magical. The novel really moved me in a deep and spiritual way. Paxson’s insights and intuitions were well woven into this account of a man’s quest for understanding his own unhappiness. It reminded me that men, whom we often regard as the stronger, less emotional sex, really do have feelings, hopes, and desires.

* * * * *

It took me less than a couple of chapters to fall in love with this book and clear my schedule of everything else in order to give it the appropriate attention.

* * * * *

For those of us who have enjoyed his previous work and follow his blog, Mark Paxson throws a gentle curve ball with this poignant look at a marriage in crisis and a man seeking more from life than just routine. This novel is insightful and touching in its honesty. His language is expressive, his characterization of a father trying to relate to his sons in an uncommunicative marriage rings true, and his evocation of the Baja California landscape and a village of loving, open people invites the reader to make an escape from the humdrum rush of daily reality and find a quieter inner life. Great writing…looking forward to his next work.

Seriously, if you haven’t already, why not now?

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