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Thoughts on Amazon

I had a novel published at the end of 2010, almost exactly four years ago. Here's an actual question we asked ourselves after its release:This got me thinking about Amazon.
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I had a novel published at the end of 2010, almost exactly four years ago. Here's an actual question we asked ourselves after its release: Should we also put out an ebook edition?

In hindsight this sounds, at best, like an incredibly naïve question. Hahaha, YES OF COURSE we should put out an ebook edition, unless we don't want to sell any books, in which case no, let's not bother.

But in 2010, that question was legit. I had two or three interested readers send me emails after the print edition was released, asking for an electronic copy, but those emails all began with the same semi-embarrassed apologia: "I know it's weird, but I'm actually starting to read books in that format more often nowadays..." It was still a new technology, something only a few early adopters did, and only if the thing they wanted to read just happened to be available.

Now in 2014, I have a number of stories published exclusively as ebooks and I'm asking a different question: Should I also put out a print edition? I legitimately don't know if there's a market for them in a paper format.

This got me thinking about Amazon.

The Hachette thing

After my column here, I found myself explaining to a number of people what was going on between Amazon and Hachette, and always ended up saying something along the lines of "No you're right, what Amazon is doing is horrible and wrong and I don't like it at all." This is certainly true. I don't like the idea of a company using a negotiation tactic one only generally sees in mafia films. ("That's a nice looking bunch of books you got listed there. It'd be a shame... If something... were to happen to them...") At the same time, in four years Amazon has changed the ebook from a potential option for a published book into the default format in which a book is published. Amazon didn't improve an existing market; they created a market where none existed before. If we're sticking to the mafia analogy, Amazon is the mob that built Las Vegas and turned gambling into an industry.

That market -- books, not gambling -- is now large enough and important enough that if Amazon went away tomorrow, the publishing industry would probably go with it. This reality has to change the power dynamic.

The shift

Publishers -- the big ones -- are large, multinational corporations with a lot of money and a lot of clout. That clout could be used -- and was -- to broker deals with bookstores that were favorable to the publisher because they were the ones with the power. A publisher could always walk away from the negotiating table and sell their books elsewhere, but a bookstore couldn't really walk away unless they wanted to stop being a bookstore. This was especially true as the number of big publishers continued to drop, because they kept buying each other.

It's a truism that ebooks killed (or are in the process of killing) the bookstore, but I'm not so sure this is correct. I think publishers consolidated to stay alive because fewer people were reading, and then to keep their bottom line they negotiated more advantageous deals for themselves with bookstores, and that did more damage to the smaller bookstores than the larger ones. Honestly, I don't know if this is true. But I live about a mile and a half from Harvard Square, which used to have the largest concentration of bookstores per square foot in the world and now has three. That didn't happen in four years.

And there's that part about fewer people reading, which is (I suspect) no longer true. It's only that now, the people reading are more often doing it on an e-reader than not.

All this means Amazon is the one bookstore a big publisher can't negotiate with from a position of strength. Hachette can't walk away from the table, because Amazon doesn't need Hachette's books to survive, but Hachette definitely needs Amazon. Amazon is the bookstore that could just stop being a bookstore if they felt like it.

I don't know how this makes me feel.

I know monopolies are bad. I know that in any industry, as soon as a company has little or no competition, the company can and probably will behave badly. (See: Comcast.) I'm half expecting that sometime in the next ten years Amazon is going to turn around and declare that they have changed the royalty structure, writers are getting screwed now, and hah, what are you gonna do about it?

I just don't know if that's what's happening right now.

Clearly, the power in the publishing industry has shifted from the publishers to the company primarily selling their products. But, "agree to our unreasonable terms or we just won't sell your books" doesn't look all that different to me than, "agree to our unreasonable terms or we won't let you sell our books." It seems like Amazon is doing the same thing publishers are used to doing to bookstores, frankly. And I don't think I have a side in that fight.

Gene Doucette is the author of the Immortal Trilogy -- Immortal, Hellenic Immortal and the upcoming Immortal at the Edge of the World, available for preorder now. His short stories include The Immortal Chronicles -- Immortal at Sea, Hard-Boiled Immortal, and Immortal and the Madman, and the thriller Surviving Hector. He has also written the sci-fi thriller Fixer, and as G Doucette the dark erotic novel Sapphire Blue.