Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market

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poster for High Plains Drifter

The last few years have been a revolutionary ones for book publishing—five centuries shackled to the mechanical printing press are over. Yet, with all that free-for-all, a new sheriff was bound to come to town, to corral the anarchy. One of the largest distributors and retailers of both physical and e-volumes has aided, but not unequivocally endeared itself, in 2012, to the largest, most sensitive group of content providers: self-publishers, and “Indie” authors.

It’s no more a secret that Amazon.com would like to be the default sales engine for books, than that Google wants to be the default search engine for the internet, Microsoft Windows wants to be the default OS for PCs, and Intel the default hardware manufacturer. It’s all too easy to forget that ITunes (and Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and your local library, and many littler guys,) Bing, Linux, and AMD make great products/provide great services, too. Why so easy? Well, we as consumers are so busy, we’d just like a nice comfortable place we can be sure of, in many aspects of our lives. Everybody loves having a go-to restaurant, or saloon: “Ahh, that’s one load off my mind.”

For the record, and from this consumer/content-creator’s perspective, at this point I think Amazon has it about 75% right. Remember when they were just books and movies? But, in their apparent quest to be and sell all things to all people (just look at the logo, with its arrow from “A” to “Z”,) they must necessarily do a lot of experimenting. Some of those attempts, as in any general store, fail to produce the expected or hoped-for results.

So, first take a paragraph to give them their due: they have certainly provided a valuable opportunity for authors (not all of them first-timers, and some extremely talented) to bypass the stranglehold of the traditional, brick-and-mortar publishing establishment–whose time had certainly come. Amazon’s KDP Select Program, which currently balances a modest exclusivity agreement with attractive royalty terms and good exposure schemes, deserves particular praise.

Now, the not-so-good: I was lately asked, in an interview, if I’m afraid that Amazon will try to gain a monopoly on ebooks. My response was that, in order keep relative parity with a self-regulating market, they will have to play fair with creators and consumers. I still believe that, today—but apparently, some of us may have to put it to the test, ourselves.

I have heard a few, varied, and repeated charges against the giant bookseller, ranging from shorted royalty payouts (a serious problem, if true,) to frustration with the arcane ranking system that no one seems to be able to adequately explain (but which is clearly sales-driven to a large extent. Unless one is a best-selling author, I don’t consider unknown variables in ranking to be too bothersome. My own rises and falls several hundred thousand places, every week.) The current experiment I’d like to focus on is the “review-policing” that has recently caused an uproar on message boards and blogs.

I don’t have to cite the experiences of others (just “Google” it—sorry, Blekko, I jest). I personally had two 5-star reviews taken down. For a first-novel that was published only two months ago, this is fairly devastating—those reviews are hard to get. And for all the wide and sundry types of promoting we self-publishers do, reviews are really our lifesblood. I received a belated, boilerplate e-mail from Amazon informing me that “during a quality review of the Kindle catalog, we determined that one (or more) of the reviews associated with your book does not meet the Amazon General Review Creation Guidelines.” Upon consulting these guidelines, and in considering the seven reviews I had up at the time, I could glean no clue as to which guidelines had been violated. In even the most broad interpretation, I can at least say that the reviews, as a group, were not targeted consistently. My attempts to complain, and requests for restoration of the seemingly random victims, have gone ignored. I was even able to track down one of the reviewers (who had been provided with an ARC, but who also had officially purchased a copy, as had the second reviewer whose text had disappeared,) and convince her to re-post with best-guess modifications. This was summarily removed within several minutes, obviously by a ‘bot. Is this person then banned from reviewing my book?

Furthermore, I had a reader (whom I have never met, but is a friend of a friend) denied a posting because, even though he has an Amazon account, he had not purchased the book from them. Does this mean that the thousands of people who downloaded it for free will be denied, as well?

If this doesn’t seem like a big deal to some (“oh, just wait for more good reviews,”) that attitude would be misconceived. I worked very hard at producing a nontraditional, non-formulaic novel that some will love and some will hate. That’s fine: I wanted no compromises, and Clotho’s Loom is certainly not for everybody. But the wrecking of my average (I had four 5-star reviews, one 3-star, and two 1-stars) is not just a blow to my fragile, writer’s ego—in fact, to me the positive-biased spread helps confirm the book’s legitimacy to my target audience of potential readers. But going to a much more dismal review distribution has effectively put, in the short-term at least, a stake-to-the-heart of sales. Let’s face it: it’s quicker and easier to scan a few two-sentence condemnations, and assume you’ve run across a hack who couldn’t find a “real” publisher, than to actually read the generous sample provided. And that smarts.

Assuming this all gets straightened out, not just for me, but for all the authors out there (a BIG assumption,) it troubles me because it may be symptomatic of the slide toward monopoly. I was already bothered by the fact that links to external blogs are disallowed on product pages—this seems needlessly restrictive, as blogs are many writers’ primary promotional channel. ITunes has alienated a lot of potential repeat customers with its (some say) fascistic Digital Rights Management protection. I personally paid nearly $40 for books I cannot read, because I don’t own an IDevice. It strikes me that the review-policing we’re seeing, across town, is really the same kind of problem: designed in intent to protect consumers and creators, what happens in practice is that Amazon/ITunes actually dictates what gets read, and how, and to some extent by whom. Too much control, which can be called a form of greed. Remember, I started out by calling them a distributor and a retailer. Publishers and authors own the texts and rights. And just as we had to bow to the conditions of the people who “managed” the printing presses for 500 years, or to the railroad barons, so too now we’re in the position of negotiating our rights with the new technology-holders.

The difference is, there are now a lot more choices for us.

When we sing America’s praises (which many equate with capitalism and the free market, as much as basic human rights,) one of the things we’re endorsing is the value of competition. I certainly was, until recently at least, willing to put all my horses in the Amazon stable: I’m currently producing an Audiobook edition (to be sold on Amazon-owned Audible.com) and a mass market paperback for Createspace (also a creature of Amazon.) I’m continuing research on the alternatives, and there are some very viable ones out there. I’m particularly interested in watching the extreme potential of the audiobook marketplace over the next several years, as no single contender has yet risen to dominate it (entrepreneurs, take note.) There is no better way of sending a message to a corporate entity whose practices one deplores, than to not only withhold one’s money, but to redistribute it to a competitor.

So how badly does the sheriff want my vote, for re-election? Or will it be shoot first, answer questions later?

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Clint Eastwood and Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales

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9 thoughts on “Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market

  1. shawnst says:

    Since posting this article a couple of days ago, I have confirmed from three separate reviewers that, not only have their legitimate reviews been removed, but they cannot even submit completely new reviews for the products, in strict conformity with the guidelines. In other words, Amazon is banning PEOPLE, not just REVIEWS. The business about violation of guidelines is nonsense.

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  2. A very interesting post indeed. I agree that Amazon has done a lot of things right (heck, they have the best search engine and tagging system for their products, including books, and this is invaluable in helping readers find you), but I agree that the review debacle is very disturbing. I, for one, try not to buy anything through Amazon…it’s not much, but I’d like to keep the competition alive, and since they are personally hurting my publishing and royalties by removing valid reviews, it’s my small (very small) way of taking some control back. Money talks more than anything else.
    Maybe if enough of us make a stink, they’ll listen. I doubt it, but we can try.

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  3. shawnst says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Renee. I am looking at LightningSource for my POD book edition, rather than Createspace, and when my KDP Select run is up, GooglePlay and Smashwords for the e-book. The only real problem is the audiobook–which will be done soon. Audible (ACX) is the closest thing to a big player I can find.

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  4. Wow – I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with the amazon bots. It’s a real testament to how far we’ve come from the ‘lets be reasonable and get along mindset’. Amazon is always sending out automated emails about reviewing things I’ve purchased from them. So if I take the time to help their customers (okay I so I really do it to support the authors I like) – I’m at risk of having it removed if they don’t like it? Makes me mad. Although I must admit as a customer I’m not so bothered about the reviews (good or bad) – the sample is the thing that makes me purchase.

    Best of luck getting it sorted!

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  5. shawnst says:

    Thanks for the read and comment, Raewyn. Not only are you in danger of having a review removed, as I’ve discovered in the past two weeks, you may be banned from posting ANY review on that product, no matter HOW you alter it.

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  6. [...] a follow up to my post, Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market,  in which I joined the chorus of e-voices lamenting Amazon’s latest wave of review removals [...]

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  7. I like your commentary on the monopoly issue. I had my paperback edition with Lulu (a print on demand competitor) which was listed on Amazon until this last January, when Amazon changed their policy and decided to list only paperbacks from their own company, Createspace. With the release of my second book, I had no choice but to switch my first book as well as my new book to Createspace if I wanted my paperbacks listed on Amazon along with the ebooks. Thanks so much for reading my blog on this subject and your comment including this link.

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  8. shawnst says:

    You’re very welcome. So I take it AZ has no “grandfathering” for writers who works are already listed there, before they make such sweeping policy changes? This is the first I’ve heard of this particular issue. Anybody ever play the board game Monopoly? At first its, “I’ll buy it, I’ll buy it,” then later, everything is disposable as long as there’s anything at all more desirable out there–but eventually it all converts to money.

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  9. [...] up the new talent into an exclusivity contract for months at a time (see more on the pitfalls here and [...]

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