Amazon Adopts GoodReads: “Never Go Against the Family, Fredo.”

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By Shawn Stjean

An old bestselling book, from the 1970s, featured a hand controlling marionette strings in its logo, indicating how manipulation becomes second nature to those in power.  I’d like to offer an image that accords better with today’s book news.  For those of you whose talents lie more in visual analysis than in literary, look abstractly at the photo-logo above–ask yourself, what other series of upright oblongs, when stacked in series, topples easily with the right application of very little energy? (answers at bottom)

For us self-appointed oversight-eers, keeping an eye on the Amazon.com A-to-Z monopoly  has become something of a full-time hobby.  They’ve done self-published writers a lot of good with their CreateSpace program, and their big (and free-to-enter) Breakthrough Novel Award contest is currently underway, though the jury is still out on whether the KDP Select program is a boon for exposure of obscure authors, or a cheap parlor-trick designed to put Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble out of business, by locking up the new talent into an exclusivity contract for months at a time (see more on the pitfalls here and here).

And now they’ve added GoodReads to the “family,” as GR co-founder Otis Chandler put it in this announcement on their blog.  Immediate reactions (only within the last few hours) from the membership have been mixed, to put it mildy.  They range from a sense of outrage and betrayal, to genuine enthusiasm. Many of the concerns mention money as the primary motivation behind such a merger, and echo the sentiment that Amazon has become too big, grasping for anything and everything it can chew and swallow.  Others are comparing AZ to Wal-Mart, and still others wonder what will become of AZ’s own Shelfari.  So what will this mean for the “Good Guys'” mammoth independent sharing site many of us have loved for years now?  Will AZ influence the reviews on GR, now that their interference in their own reviews, taking thousands off their site arbitrarily and without explanation, has become legend among authors?  Will GR become a venue for sales that profit the corporate bean-counters?  Will the planned integration of GR with the proprietary Kindle platform mean some books will become “more available,” “better-rated,” or suddenly more popular than others?  Will the Listopia voting scheme be affected?

It’s hard not to be happy for Otis and Elizabeth, if they are indeed doing well out of this deal.  Capitalism pays off the smart and good folks who’ve worked hard sometimes, as well as the ruthless and backstabbing pirates (when you link to their photo, you’ll agree its not possible to cast them in the latter role). I’m going to assume that what they’re claiming is true: that they think this will improve the experience for the membership.

Personally, as a small publisher/indie author, I’ve felt safer with GR out there before today, as if there still weren’t an offer AZ could make that I couldn’t refuse.  Havens still exist, of course: Lightning Source, for one, though they don’t host e-books.  Problem is, those that do are not in the strongest position: Barnes & Noble’s Nook series of electronic readers, though a stellar bunch of devices, is looking like a financial e-albatross.  Smashwords is already in bed with Amazon, too.  Don’t even bring up the audiobook market.

“Divide and Conquer”–the old strategy has turned itself inside-out, has transmogrified into “Combine and Conquer.”

Is it time yet to go to the mattresses? (if that film reference isn’t familiar, you might be able to just catch The Godfather on Netflix, before Amazon absorbs that, too.

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Indie Authors: Beware Amazon’s Auto-Renew (and Miscellaneous Pitfalls of KDP Select)

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Activision’s Pitfall Harry finds a new way to get his heart broken

As 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 (I’ll return to this further down,) I’d like to draw attention, especially for the benefit of new and aspiring authors, to a few of the other potential landmines in your path, if you choose to go with a program specifically designed to benefit fledgling writers: KDP Select.

First, I want to be clear that you’re making a good choice. It’s a great way to get launched. I’m not embarking on some anti-Amazon crusade—my own books are published there, and likely to remain, no matter what other steps I take to sell them. But the system is not perfect—and its flaws are, without question in my mind and whether designed consciously so or not, biased toward the building of the Amazon monopoly.

So if they’re going to police us and our reviews, we’d better police them. While we still can.

There’s a “convenience” feature (their word, not mine) built into KDP Select that renews you for a second (and third, etc.) three-month period, which requires you to UNCHECK the default setting of “go ahead and do it.” This obligates you to publish your book EXCLUSIVELY through Amazon for that period. At first, I thought I was unique in my blunder at overlooking this. Once you’re aware of it, it’s easy to locate within your author’s dashboard—one might say, it hides in plain sight. You will not, among your dozens of other Amazon e-mails, receive a reminder. I’ve since discovered several other authors who’ve essentially committed the first SIX, not THREE, months of their book’s existence to the the giant bookseller by this same lapse in vigilance.

At the end of the first 90-day period, you may feel comfortable enough as an author/bookseller/promoter/agent to want to branch out with outfits like Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Lulu, Google Play, and a host of other players in the market. You may also have given away hundreds or thousands of copies through AZ’s program, and feel that’s plenty to get your toe in the door of the electronic marketplace, especially if you are channeling those readers in venues like GoodReads, LibraryThing, blogs, and forums like the UK’s Kindle Users Forum (you should be).

Now, should you stumble into an Auto-Renewal, it may occur you to shrug and just do as you like, anyway. If you feel like it’s too much trouble for Amazon to take legal action against you because you’re so little, just don’t forget they have other options. First, it’s their store: they can ban you and your works. Second, due to the royalty payout structure, Amazon will have custody of up to three month’s of your royalty money at any given time. If you breach, and they counter-breach your agreement (somehow your money doesn’t arrive,) are you willing to pursue legal action against them, given they’re so big? Oh, and if I’ve reviewed the guidelines correctly, the 72-hour grace period for withdrawing only applies to the first signup period. I found it all-too-easy, assuming all along I would not renew, to miscalculate the exact day I thought to withdraw, and became obligated for another (big holiday) term.

Perhaps needless to say, this really does look like another of the many, many moves it takes to corner a market, build a monopoly. And you may not really be selling that many books, but as long as you’re also not selling any through any other channels, well, Amazon doesn’t need to concern themselves about you, do they? You’re not contributing to their competitors becoming a threat.

A quick update on the review removals: I’ve confirmed through several sources that it isn’t just certain reviews that AZ’s software bans: it’s certain reviewers from reviewing certain books (products). So that means, if you as an author are in contact with a reviewer (very common, and often very legitimate) and can persuade them to reword or even completely re-write a review, even in strict adherence to the guidelines, it will not stick. I wish to emphasize the importance of this. In my view, it reveals that the official line about reviews violating guidelines is baloney. And in the final analysis, if you can’t get enough positive reviews (the fundamental, traditional means of selling books,) then aren’t you even more dependent upon the Amazon distribution machines, like KDP Select and its giveaways, or whatever they come up with next?

By contrast, if you get stuck with a one-star review by someone who obviously did not read your book, did not buy your book, and for perverse reasons of their own would clearly like to sabotage your book, AZ had provided a “report abuse” button for you to push. I have not discovered many authors getting justice this way, however.

As several sensible folks have already remarked, blenders and generators and computer motherboards are one thing—you NEED reviews to help make an informed decision—but as far as content like books and music goes, perhaps it’s time we began behaving, as consumers, in a non-traditional way: READ the SAMPLE. At least several pages—and decide for yourself. As a literate person, you don’t need Amazon’s robots, or friends and family of the Author, or some ex-girlfriend with a vendetta, telling you who, and what, and how, to READ.