After the Gold Rush: Losing Faith in Amazon

S2010-lgIn 1850, after every inch of California had been picked over, after every pebble resembling a nugget had been bitten between the back molars of some wild-eyed prospector, the newly arrived came, at last, to the bitter realization that the gold rush—at least the Get Rich Quick phase of it—was over. Only a handful of the earliest miners had become rich overnight, but sensationalized accounts of their success touched off an avalanche of more than 300,000 immigrants to the state. In the end, the surest profit was made selling picks and shovels to forty-niners smitten with gold fever. (Incidentally, the San Francisco newspaper man who broke the story got into the hardware business in a hurry.)

The book world’s gold rush began in 2007 when Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing. The revolutionized business of self-published ebooks offered a generous 70/30 split in the author’s favor, making traditional publishers (granting, on average, a paltry 15% to authors) look like misers, side-stepping the need for literary agents, and sounding a siren call to the dissidents and outcasts of the industry. “Bring me your rejected, your returned, your unpublished,” Amazon beckoned. It was heralded as the resurgence of the midlist, an unprecedented opportunity for talented but unknown authors to move forward in careers stymied by the blockbuster prejudice of New York City publishers.

Boy, were we wrong.

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Authorship: some days you’re the prospector; some days you’re the jackass.

I admit, I was one of those oft-rejected authors who embraced Amazon KDP. In 2012, I self-published a novel and a novella, and made—for the first time in five years of writing—real money from fiction. My sales numbers were modest, to be sure, but since I was keeping 70% of my royalties, that first year I made a profit comparable to the average advance of a new author with a traditional publishing contract. I’m sure I speak for many KDP authors when I say that it was a tremendous, empowering experience. I was receiving enthusiastic reviews from readers and connecting to a nationwide fan base already urging me to publish a sequel. Let me tell you, until you’ve received a hundred or more literary rejections in a row you won’t appreciate the euphoria of getting even a single piece of genuine fan mail.

I wrote the sequel over the course of the next year, hoping the second book’s release would be much the same, if not better than, the first’s. But something at Amazon had changed. The countenance of our benevolent partner, as it were, had darkened toward self-publishers. And not without reason. Every day since I published my first novel, untold numbers (literally, Amazon has not told us how many) of new books were being uploaded to KDP. These were not simply honest, hard-working prospectors hoping to strike it rich online. They were, in all too many cases, shysters and opportunistic charlatans, propping up hastily formatted shills of books with hundreds of fake reviews generated from fake user profiles. The authenticity of Amazon’s hallowed product review system was being corrupted. Something had to be done.

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Amazon’s humble future headquarters

In what seems like a paranoid twist from a dystopian novel, Amazon’s bots began detecting and incriminating authors by their associations with reviewers. Rumors were that Amazon could, by matching user data, determine whether any author and reviewer had ever shared a common IP address. It would be assumed that such similarities meant the author was creating fake profiles from the same computer or cajoling his friends to write fake reviews. For independent authors, this meant that if we’d ever met our writing peers at Starbucks, for instance, and happened to look up a title on our handy Amazon app, we were assumed to be guilty of dishonest collaboration. What it meant for me, attempting to rally my little band of advance readers, was that my initial reviews began disappearing faster than extras in a Jaws movie. These were, in some cases, reviews by members of my writer’s group in other states, people with whom I had not shared an IP address in years—if ever. How did Amazon know? Were they simply deleting reviews for being too positive, too glowing? My new book was left adrift with a scant two or three reviews—in an environment where a single malicious reviewer could, at any moment, and with no more than a single snarky comment, all but sink interest in my book. To add insult to injury, an ominous and curtly-worded email from Amazon appeared in my inbox notifying me, in a Big-Brother-is-watching-you kind of way, that my friends and family were not eligible reviewers and would be sent to a gulag in Siberia if I ever tried it again. I can only speculate that it was because of the dearth of those precious initial reviews that Amazon’s bots never got excited about promoting my sequel and sales floundered.

Needless to say, my feelings of empowerment were gone. Looking back, I probably should have pulled my ebooks from KDP out of sheer principle. But I needed that worldwide distribution network, you see. I was in an odd, drag-me-by-my-hair-back-into-the-trailer-park sort of co-dependent relationship with a hulking, monolithic dragon of a website (a dragon that was busy scorching the independent book world to cinders, but more on that later) and without it I would be nothing more than another peon writer with a worn and rejected manuscript, plaintively knocking at the doors of imperiously disinterested publishing houses. I had no choice but to leave my books on Amazon KDP so that, one day (for reasons, apparently, of pure dumb luck) my sales could “take off.”

hummer-super-stretch-limo.detailsWhat I should have known then (and only reluctantly admit now) is that the old adage that the “cream rises to the top” simply does not—cannot—apply to a market so incomprehensibly stuffed with merchandise. The idea of our books “taking off” on their own in the Amazon marketplace has turned out to be every bit the lottery dream of “being discovered” by a New York City agent and propelled overnight to limo rides and multi-city book tours on nothing more than the good old-fashioned merits of our work.

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Another Tolstoy selfie? What a poser.

More sober contemplation, now that the gold rush is over, leads us to ask what good Amazon’s worldwide distribution network is if our product has zero visibility. Even the greatest book ever written won’t sell if no one knows it exists. Admittedly, I could have done more to promote my work. I could have spent more time than I did atop the digital soapbox, tweeting, blogging, friending, and following, as did every other independent author striving for success, until it struck them one day, as it did me, that a startling majority of our so-called followers and friends were independent authors themselves, gasping for the same precious air of online visibility. One blogger I read suggested that serious entrepreneurial authors should prepare to spend at least 25% of their career (i.e., life) promoting their books on social media and elsewhere. Self-promotion has become a shouting contest. Where will it end? What major works would be missing from the western canon if this had been true for self-publishing authors of bygone eras? Would we have Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but not War and Peace, simply because Tolstoy burned that time trolling Goodreads for unsuspecting readers, instagramming selfies, tweeting out hashtagged links to his ebook, and sprinkling blog posts with popular tags certain to boost his ranking in search engine results? By the twisted logic of Amazon’s brave new world, the more time an author spends neglecting his craft in favor of online promotion, the less likely it becomes that he will actually write anything at all worth reading.

And now I’d like to turn your attention to something I tried very hard to suppress in my own conscience while I imagined I was partnering with Amazon to sell a quadzillion digital copies of my books: the death of independent bookstores. Now, wait a minute, you say, those little mom and pop bookstores had it coming. They were charging full retail for books. Full retail. That should be a capital offense, right? How many times did you and I enjoy perusing the aisles of brick-and-mortar bookstores, surreptitiously photographing the covers of interesting books so we could later order them from Amazon for 30-40% below retail? I did. And now, not coincidentally, many of those brick and mortar bookstores are gone or subsisting on sales of kitsch, comics, and coffee-spiked slurpees.

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Symbol of disposability? One of Alicia Martin’s many enormous discarded book sculptures

Worse still, and perhaps the single greatest unintended consequence of Amazon’s ascendancy, has been the devaluation of all books. The same lack of substance that made ebooks so darn convenient, has, in turn, made real books seem significantly less valuable. Why blow $26 on a hardcover when you can wirelessly zap the same text to yourself for $4.95? The prices of “real” books—prices readers happily paid for trade paperbacks and hardcovers in decades past—began to seem downright outrageous. The predictable enthusiasm of readers to purchase the most book for their buck would, ironically, gut the companies that produced those cherished books. And while ebook aficionados concern themselves over which device has the most print-like screen quality and the fastest page-turning speeds, profit margins in the book business are quickly disappearing—margins that once sustained an entire industry built around real books and real people, from brick and mortar bookstores to printing presses to editors and proofreaders, literary agents, publicists, and yes, even the royalties of authors like myself who write the stories in the first place.

Quite apart from the ongoing debate of ebooks versus real books, we should, perhaps, be more concerned—much more concerned—about the looming monopoly of book distribution by Amazon, to say nothing of the gradual starvation of traditional book production, in light of Amazon’s recent forays into that role itself. How long will remaining publishers last if Amazon—a distribution monolith largely comprised of HTML code, bots, and low wage warehouse workers—takes an ever-expanding bite of the profits of publishing houses dependent on book lovers, interns, and quirky authors? New Yorker columnist George Packer is, I think, rightly concerned that “the prospect of a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution is especially worrisome: it would give Amazon more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in U.S. history.”

Twenty years ago there were more than 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States. That number has already been cut in half.  What does the future of books look like, in a market dominated by Amazon? If my own adventure in self-publishing is any indication, we can assume Amazon’s business plan will be to 1.) destroy the industry’s traditional gatekeepers, 2.) flood the market with a vast array of inexpensive products, (after all, it matters much less to Amazon what consumers are reading than what device they are reading it on) and 3.) let the bots sort out the most popular by means of consumer choice—hardly a significant democratization when one considers that the books readers see first on the site are those that publishers have essentially bribed Amazon to display most prominently.

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Samuel Brannan, Top Shovel Salesman of 1849

By the way, Samuel Brannan was the name of the San Francisco newspaper publisher that announced the discovery of gold in 1848. His hardware store was fully stocked with picks, shovels, and supplies when he walked down the center of the street holding aloft a vial of gold dust, shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” In much the same way, we now realize that Jeff Bezos’ call for “Reading! Ebooks! Incredible opportunities for authors!” had less to do with reading itself and much more to do with the Kindles waiting in the store behind him.

Certainly the book world has been forever changed by Amazon’s innovation and ambition, but Silicone Valley technology nerds are forever overestimating their own significance. They are not the unstoppable horsemen of an inevitable ebook apocalypse, and the future of reading is not wrapped up in an electronic device. The future of reading is reading, no matter what nifty devices may, for the sake of enormous profit, be thrust between the reader and the page in an attempt to host and monopolize that experience. After all, a book is not dependent on the survival of any one brand or corporation. A book is an idea, a now-ancient innovation for delivering the reading experience that has served the human race well. Anyone, anywhere with enough raw materials and gumption may, even if their labor resembles the efforts of a 14th century monk, manufacture their own book. The problem at hand, for us moderns, is that if we do not wish to find ourselves in such a Dark Ages of book production, we need to understand that market dynamics are not simply a matter of loosely held values that no longer hold sway over our choices. We may imagine that just because we value having both real books and ebooks at our fingertips, those options will always remain—that our favorite books will always be offered to us, as they are now, in 17 different formats on Amazon. I like options, too. I like the feel of a real book in my hands, but I also enjoy being able to download an ebook instantly when I’m stuck in traffic or stranded on a rooftop (don’t ask) or simply don’t have the patience to wait for the print book to arrive. You know what else I like? Video rental stores. Been to one of those lately? I’m sure there are plenty of people who feel the same way, but our choices have led us to the place where there is no longer the array of options we once enjoyed. Loss-averse industries can’t survive for long, hemorrhaging money, while their once-loyal customers decide to dabble in multiple formats. This is the world of our making. Whether it’s such seemingly benign choices as buying berries from a local farmer’s market instead of having them imported from Chile, or purchasing a book at an indie bookstore rather than ordering it online from Amazon, we need to realize that the ways we choose to spend our money have world-changing ramifications.

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Jeff Bezos was not available for comment.

In my own judgment, Amazon’s offering of cheap books for readers and high royalties for self-publishing authors has proven to be something of a Faustian bargain. But, seriously, what kind of treatment could we reasonably expect from a corporation that Bezos nearly named “Relentless.com” and refers, in company memos, to writing as “verbage”? And, yes, we have already entered a dark age of reading, in which hardback books are either exorbitantly expensive or nothing more than a paperback slapped with cardboard covers; an era in which a kind of small, portable television is being heralded as the ultimate book. But even if readers, for a time, surrender the rich sensory experience of printed books for the sterility of ebooks and the ersatz white screens of Kindles, so long as reading remains a uniquely human experience, and so long as real books are remembered to be the aesthetically superior means of providing that experience, books—real books with real ink and printed pages with texture you can feel between your fingers, and the scent of an old library rising from deep in the binding—will continue to be discovered and loved, and a Renaissance will eventually come, because, just as Montag says, wondering aloud over the volumes he has smuggled home in the dystopian future of Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine…”