Amazon vs Hachette and the erosion of author solidarity

Writers need to remember that both sides are making more money from our talent than we ever can

Like many other writers, I am caught in a sticky predicament when it comes to the battle between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, in that supporting what is growing into a cause célèbre for many traditionally published authors means diminishing our own work and reducing our (mostly paltry) incomes.

For those who have missed this story, Amazon has begun to delay the delivery of books by Hachette authors significantly, and to create impediments on searches for Hachette books on the Amazon site: apparently due to a dispute between the two companies over ebook pricing. (See the LA Times for details.) No less a celebrity than Stephen Colbert is now urging all of us to boycott Amazon in support of Hachette authors, of which he is one. The New York Times is outraged. So are many noted writers (Malcolm Gladwell and James Patterson are two, both also published by Hachette) and several writers’ organizations.

Those of us who are caught in the middle of this firestorm are primarily established writers who have chosen to go the self-published route for some or all of our new or out-of-print titles, and to use Amazon as our publishing partner. Typically, we ourselves have had books published with traditional presses in the past, and as a result we have strong connections (e.g., through membership in writers’ organizations) and even long-term friendships with other authors who are still published only by established presses. These presses include not only Hachette but all publishers who could receive similar treatment from Amazon in future, which is most of them. Solidarity is at stake here, and in a pre-self-publishing world, we would have easily and strongly stood together. Now, over this issue and several others related to it, such strength in unity is impossible.

For indie authors, there are many good reasons for selecting Amazon to fulfill the role of publishing partner for our self-published books, most of which involve both financial considerations and the ease of getting books created and distributed. CreateSpace (Amazon’s print-on-demand publishing arm) and Kindle Direct (Amazon’s e-book-creation arm) are easy to work with, user-friendly and professionally staffed, and they offer basic packages at reasonable prices. They also offer a range of add-on services (e.g. editing, book design), depending on what you want, need and/or can afford.

The distribution advantages are obvious: almost everyone in the universe has an Amazon account. Amazon delivers what you want, when you want it, and at a lower price than just about any other company (especially other bookstores these days, since Amazon’s innovations combined with the booksellers’ own lack of foresight have put most of them out of business). A writer may choose to make her books available on a number of platforms (Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.) but no writer can afford not to have her books also available on Amazon. Some of us even choose to have our books available exclusively on Amazon, due to the additional advantages Amazon offers us for choosing to limit our sales to its sites.

Yes, Amazon’s forward thinking–embraced by readers everywhere–has overturned the literary landscape. And yes, its innovations have driven most booksellers out of business due to its accessibility, range of offerings, and lower prices. Yes, Amazon has also started hammering at the bedrock of traditional publishing houses: its practice of treating the biggest of the big publishers no differently than it does me, a self publisher, may ultimately bring down Hachette and many other companies that have for decades made their livings off the backs of writers.

Amazon is a hell of a good company for writers who are working with it, rather than with one of its competitors. I get up to 70% royalties on my ebooks, and my readers can buy them for $2.99.  I can even give them away for free if I want to, in order to promote sales. (Publishers typically sell ebooks, which cost next to nothing to produce, for $10 to $15. Their writers get $1.50, and the publisher keeps the other $13.50. Even with print books, self publishers do far, far better financially per book sale than they do with traditional presses.)

What other writers want to do re: publishing their works is their business. However, with this Hachette-Amazon argument, if I choose to “support my fellow writers” and boycott Amazon, I am essentially telling people not to buy my books. And if I don’t support this boycott, I am a turncoat.

For a range of reasons that have to do with my choice to self-publish, in the past few years I have felt a steely and disapproving silence from some of my fellow authors, mostly the mid-range ones, and now here is another divisive issue that threatens to drive an even greater wedge between us.

Writers who ask me to boycott Amazon because of its treatment of Hachette have failed consider (and a lot of them don’t care) that my books are not accepted for sale in bookstores, not reviewed in traditional media, not eligible for most awards and grants, and not available in libraries. Why? Because I do not publish with an “established press.” But I’m supposed to give up book sales to support those companies that do have other avenues for promotions and sales? I think not.

Author John Greene is quoted in the LA Times article as saying, “The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

I disagree. American (and Canadian, and British, and Indian, and Australian, and so on) literature will thrive just fine without publishers – editors’ imprints will fill their roles in future, and much less expensively for everyone concerned.

Medium-sized and major publishers have done nothing at all for me, ever. They have not rejected my manuscripts so much as they have refused to even look at them, because they base their selections on what will sell, not on “the breadth . . . and quality of [the] literature.”

As Hugh Howey says in wading into this issue, “Publishers could have realized years ago that they are in the story development and delivery service, but they thought it was all about books. Which pretty much underscores all that has happened since.”

It is the publishers I am refusing to support, but that’s not how a lot of authors see it. But I can’t afford to be politically correct on this one. My unwillingness to support Hachette (and their agitating authors) vs Amazon is partly principle and partly economics – not being James Patterson, J.K. Rowling or Stephen Colbert, I can’t afford to support a cause that impacts my own income so directly. But here’s the bottom line: I’ve fought long and hard to get what I (and my reader-reviewers for the most part) believe to be quality books into print and available on the market, and any boycott of Amazon prevents those books from reaching readers. How can I urge that?

So my message to my fellow writers is this: do what you want when it comes to getting your books to print. Just don’t let issues like this one rip us apart. We’re all in this together, talking to our readers. The rest of them are only intermediaries who have figured out how to make more money off our talent than we ever can.



Self-Published Writers Make (Lots) More Money, New Data Suggests

HoweyData released earlier this week provides stunning evidence that self-published authors in several popular genres are selling many more books and making a good deal more money than most of us had previously suspected. Their success in comparison to traditionally published authors may be a wake-up call for everyone in the publishing business, from first-time writers to the biggest of the Big Five publishers. (It certainly has been a wake-up call for me: I’m dropping prices on my e-books as we speak).

Until now, the only evidence for strong sales of indie vs traditionally published books has been anecdotal reports from individual authors, many of whom seemed to be making a disproportionately large amount of money compared to the rest of us. These authors were considered to be “outliers.”

Now Hugh Howey, one of those disproportionately successful authors — well known among avid readers and the publishing cognoscenti for his best-selling self-published fiction series, Wool — has made data available (and will continue to collect and update it, he says, at his own expense) that indicates that he may not be alone when it comes to successfully selling books online, particularly e-books. His report on author earnings (cleverly entitled Author Earnings: The Report) suggests that indie-published books are getting higher scores on reviews and selling more copies than those of small- to medium-sized presses, and that the gaps between positive review scores and sales are even greater when you compare self-published books with those from the “Big Five” publishers. The primary reason? Indie authors tend to publish e-books rather than paperbacks and other formats, and they tend to charge much less for them than traditional publishers do. And e-books are selling like hotcakes.

Howey’s figures are derived from an analysis of data collected by an unnamed writer “with advanced coding skills” who has created a program that can gather and break down data from bestseller lists at a speed that was previously impossible. The initial data collection and analysis looks at book sales on Amazon and includes three genres: Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance. These genres were examined first because they account for nearly three quarters of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, and more than half of the top 1000. Howey and his “data snoop” will look at the entire range of fiction titles in future reports, he says.

Among their findings so far:

  • In these three genres, indie authors are outselling the Big Five publishers. “That’s the entire Big Five. Combined.” [Words and italics Howie’s]
  • E-books make up 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the Amazon store, and 92% of the top 100 best-selling books in the listed genres are e-books
  • Although books from the Big Five account for just over a quarter of unit sales in these genres, they take half of the gross dollar sales — and the authors of those books typically receive only 25% of that profit
  • Indie authors, on the other hand, who keep about 70% of the purchase price of their e-books on Amazon, are earning nearly half of the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon
  • Self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books than are those with traditionally published books being sold through the same (i.e., outlet.

A Few Conclusions

The Report is long and complex (but not complicated). I encourage all serious writer entrepreneurs to read it carefully — and to stay updated with future installments.

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

(It is also very pretty. I am including an image here from The Report, with proper attribution and an embedded link but used without permission, so if it disappears, you’ll know why. Whether it does disappear or not, I suggest you go and have a look at all the other pretty charts in Howie’s report. They are impressive and illuminating as well as colourful.)

For those who don’t have time to read The Report straight through right now, I’ll extract some conclusions that became clear to Howie, as they must to anyone who examines the data he’s presented:

  • E-books from indie authors tend to be priced much lower than those of mainstream publishers
  • Readers are more likely to buy and review books with lower prices than higher ones
  • “Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck.” — Hugh Howey, Author Earnings: The Report
  • Most traditional publishers are paying authors only 25% of e-book sales, despite the almost insignificant overhead associated with creating e-books
  • Readers are buying many more e-books than they are paperbacks and other book formats, at least from amazon (which is the biggest bookseller in the world, by a huge measure — like it or not).
  • Readers are not buying traditionally published e-books as frequently as they are indie published e-books, because indie-published books cost less. Therefore, traditionally published authors are getting read less often, and are making less money per book sold than indie authors are.

This is important news for traditionally published authors.

It is also important news for major publishers, who are going to lose their authors if they don’t smarten up.

We won’t go into the impact all this is having on good literature, but Howie believes that the data suggests that “even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”

A call to Action

In addition to publishing The Report, Howie’s new website,, invites authors from all sectors to work together to help one another “make better decisions” when it comes to publishing their books.

Howie says that the site’s “purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.”

When you go to the site you will be invited to subscribe for updates, contribute to a survey and/or to sign a petition.

I for one will be closely following the activity on that site — right after I lower the prices on my e-books.