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Amazon as Publisher

by Christopher Gronlund on November 30, 2011

I’ve chatted before about how I see some parallels with self publishing e-books and self published comic books from the mid 90s. And I still wonder if it’s possible for an unknown writer of literary or upmarket fiction to find the same kind of success as some unknown genre self publishers. (There’s a great article about reasons not to self publish, here — with some great discussion in the comments.)

But what I’m most interested in today is what people think about Amazon acting as a publisher.

We Knew It Would Happen

From the moment Amazon mentioned that it was going to allow people to self publish their own e-books, it seemed only a matter of time before they sought out authors and let the world know, “We are now a publisher!”

Lee Goldberg

I’ve followed Lee Goldberg’s blog for awhile. His “The Mail I Get” entries are a riot, and I’ve loved reading about his adventures in ebook self publishing. (The quick version: Goldberg had a pile of out-of-print books his publisher felt couldn’t make money. Goldberg got the rights back and released them as e-books, and now makes $70,000/year off of the books publishers said wouldn’t make money. That experiment was all he needed to convince him self publish e-books. He even stepped away from writing Monk novels.)

Recently, Golberg announced that he accepted a deal with Amazon to relaunch the Dead Man series he started with William Rabkin. Goldberg’s gone from self publishing his out-of-print books on Amazon to striking a deal that has Amazon acting as publisher.

And he’s not alone.

Barry Eisler, Publish It Forward Lecture Part 1 from Grub Street on Vimeo.

Barry Eisler, Publish It Forward Part 2 (Q&A) from Grub Street on Vimeo.

Barry Eisler, Publish It Forward Part 3 (Q&A) from Grub Street on Vimeo.

Do We Need Gatekeepers?

One of the rallying cries about the e-book self publishing revolution is that the gatekeepers no longer matter. Gone are the days of querying agents, waiting for them to reply (if they reply at all), and then hoping for representation and a deal that takes a long time to get your book on a shelf (where it most likely won’t sell). And there’s some truth to it. (Although I still think the traditional route — at least right now — is the best bet for upmarket and literary authors.)

A friend [somewhat] recently sent this article to me. There are some interesting comments about the article — pro and con for self publishing e-books. Some replies are mellow…some not so much.

What I found interesting are replies like this one. There seems to be no loss of people out there who believe that publishing needs barriers. I’ve seen a bestselling writer I follow online talk about how there needs to be even more restrictions on who’s published so those who are published can make a decent living, instead of having so much out there that the market is watered down. (I heard the same thing about comic books — even experienced it myself, but so what?)

A Little Soapbox-y

I get where these people are coming from. It’s human nature to be a little pissy when you’ve put years into something and along comes somebody who hasn’t put in the time — “paid their dues.” These new writers, some feel, not only have the same opportunities (and shouldn’t, the feeling goes), but even — in cases — sell more with a thrown-together e-book full of typos than the book that took them such a long time to write.

My thoughts: people have a right to publish…even if what they publish is absolute shit. And if what they put out isn’t crap, all the better. I can’t imagine an America where those who came before me (e.g. American revolutionaries, Frederick Douglass, and many others who self published), had been barred from publishing…not that I’m saying that “yet another YA fantasy story” is on par with the writing that led to American freedom, but still.

I’ll be a little snobbish:

  • John Irving is a better writer than Stephanie Meyers, and Meyers is better than many self-published e-book authors out there.
  • Jacob Sharp (NSFW: language) is a better juggler than the party clown that can eat an apple while juggling and do little more.
  • A beautiful, handmade piece of furniture is better than something purchased at a big box store.

But…more power to Stephanie Meyers and people who take their time to write a self-published e-book…even if it’s rushed and not-so-good.

I’ve only liked a few clowns in my time, but hey — I can’t knock a party clown making a living doing what they do while most of us have jobs we do out of necessity, not love.

And while my wife and I have some nice furniture, the desk I’m writing this on was purchased at Office Depot years ago and has served me well.

The Thing about Literary Fiction

If I’m going to pitch a fit about some genuine hack writer cranking out 12 shoddy e-books and making more money than me — going as far as saying it’s not their right and that it signals the fall of civilization — I’m not doing myself any favors.

As much as fans of literary fiction talk about what a shame it is that many literary masters can’t make a living writing books, if those same writers went mainstream, I have to think many of their fans wouldn’t like it. Part of the appeal of literary fiction — even though many won’t admit it — is its exclusivity…that ability to say, “I have more taste than that person over there reading a Twilight novel.”

I understand the reaction to feeling like gatekeepers are needed, but I have much bigger concerns as a writer: putting my all into the best book I can write and being happy that people can read it — whether it’s a physical book picked up in a store, or an e-book I published online.

How ‘Bout You?

What do you think about self publishing e-books and Amazon acting as a publisher? Good, bad, indifferent?

Do you think people like Gary Vaynerchuk below are being over the top when they say traditional publishing is on its knees and about to die, or is he onto something?

One thing’s certain: wherever you stand on the issue, people are buying more e-book readers than ever and open to reading e-books.

Anything that keeps people reading is good for us all.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Tubbs November 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Is Amazon acting as a publisher a good thing for:

Readers – YES! More content is always good. Amazon has great tools that help connect readers with the content that will interest them. One persons pulp trash is another person’s ambrosia, so more content can only benefit readers.

Writers – Yes and No. New writers who are not established, Amazon as a publisher gives them a way into “print” that they didn’t have available to them. Established writers could lose readers to lesser quality works and feel cheated out of sales. This is akin to the big 3 TV networks loosing ratings to cable networks.

The Publishing Industry – NO. See also the music and newspaper industries. These money machines are now broken. They will NEVER produce revenue the way they used to. They will need to completely remake themselves to continue to be investment quality businesses.

My 2 cents.

Christopher Gronlund December 1, 2011 at 9:10 am

No arguments here, Larry. And if I were a midlist writer, I’d definitely go the Barry Eisler route and do it on my own. I know the videos of his talk I included are long and don’t expect everybody to watch, but the general sentiment is: “I walked away from a half-a-million-dollar deal because I was only making just a little money off each book when I was published traditionally. Doing it myself, I can sell my books for less and make more from each book.”

Even if other writers cut into his sales, he wins because he doesn’t have to sell as much to make up for the loss. And I know people who never heard of him until he started self publishing, so I have to think he’s doing better than ever.

I think the only people who have a tough time with e-book self publishing are people writing literary or upmarket fiction. I don’t think we’ll see somebody like Amanda Hocking come along on their own and make millions with those kinds of books anytime soon, but I’d love to be wrong; after all, somebody has to be the first!

The concerns about an Amazon monopoly and things of that nature don’t hold a lot of weight with me, either. I think small presses will always be there, and only a handful of publishers own all the recognizable publishing houses out there anyway…even those that seem smaller and self contained.

I’m still waiting for the day somebody with a massive following bypasses it all and goes direct. Stephen King could hire an editor directly, do it all himself, and sell from his website, keeping it all if he wanted. There are quite a few writers out there who could go that route.

As somebody who’s published a novel and some short stories on Amazon, I love it. Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors (HCWWPD) sat for years while I worked on other things. At the time I shopped it around, agents liked it but said it was too quirky. People have told me I should send it around again because the environment’s changed.

And that’s what I like about Amazon: the environment is always right for me if I want to put something out there. There are no guarantees of sales, but there never has been. But I look at publishers telling Lee Golberg the environment for his out-of-print books wasn’t right and now he’s making $70,000 a year publishing those books on his own.

I don’t make much with the stuff I have out there, but I sell something every few days, with little bursts of more sales. That’s more than if HCWWPD was still just sitting on my hard drive…

CMStewart December 1, 2011 at 9:12 am

At this point I read as many self-published e-books as I do traditionally-published paper books. As I am very selective in what I will start to read, I find the number of e-books I like and the number of paper books I like are about the same. I know the self-published market is flooded with crap, and maybe it IS too easy to self-publish. But I wouldn’t support a vetting process for a system which is inherently anti-vetting. That would be like supporting a dress code for Halloween night.

At first glance, I’m indifferent to Amazon getting into the publishing business. It’s just another big business getting bigger. It’s expected. But in the long run, I suppose it will mean more opportunities for writers and readers alike, and that’s good, I suppose. But sometimes, for example, when strolling the aisle of my supermarket, I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the CHOICE- row after row of a single type of product, each row displaying a slightly different variation. Choosing takes too long. That’s why I don’t randomly browse the self-published e-stores. I’ll usually only buy or read a book- self- or traditionally published- if I’ve happened to read a sample of that author’s writing and enjoyed it enough to warrant the investment.

I completely understand the reasons to self-publish and to traditionally publish, both for debut and established authors. As a pre-published writer, my own reasons to pursue traditional publishing outweigh my reasons to pursue self-publishing. I’m still on a steep learning curve, and I don’t know when I’ll reach a skill level with which I’ll feel comfortable enough to publically share as an “official author.” Plus I’m not sure I would even recognize this skill level maturation. I’d rather trust a vetting professional.

Great post, I like your snobbishness. ;)

Mark Felps December 1, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Cream and bastards always rise. The good writers, the writers people really want to read (as opposed to the writers they’re told to read by the cognoscenti) will sell regardless of the medium or format. And the shitty writers who are great at self-promotion will do the same. So I don’t expect it to be much different than it is now, since that’s currently who’s selling.

Christopher Gronlund December 4, 2011 at 11:42 am

CMS: There really IS something to people you don’t know seeing something in your writing. It wasn’t until having a couple close calls that didn’t happen (budget issues — nothing to do with higher ups not liking my writing), that I really started trusting in myself and shooting for bigger things.

A mix of traditional publishing and self publishing really seems to be the way for many writers to go. The thing that gets me about the “Self publish or die!” people are the same things that always got to me about indie comics and music: to each their own. Whatever works for a person is the way to go.

From experience, when people have read my self published stuff, I’ve always heard, “It was good,” said in a surprised tone, indicating that what they really meant was, “I expected it to not live up to a certain standard because it was self-produced, and it’s actually good compared to my experiences with self published things.” When somebody’s read something “professional” that I’ve written, there’s never that stigma.

Like you, I’ve read a fair amount of self published stuff. Once I’ve checked something out and made the commitment to read it, I’ve enjoyed it. But I will admit that when I browse self published writers I’ve never heard of, it takes longer to find something I’ll actually spend time reading than when I browse traditionally published books by authors I’ve never heard about.

Christopher Gronlund December 4, 2011 at 11:44 am

Mark: No arguments, here.

M.E. Anders December 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I appreciated your getting on your soapbox, Chris. This is relevant news that all authors should be investigating for themselves. I do think that Gary is a bit extreme in his prediction about traditional publishing, but I understand his perspective.

Christopher Gronlund December 7, 2011 at 6:51 am

M.E.: There’s no doubt that things are changing, but I think Gary’s prediction is a bit extreme as well. Publishing will have to change, but I don’t think it will die. They’ve always known that some people just like books…and special books at that (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/books/publishers-gild-books-with-special-effects-to-compete-with-e-books.html). I will always want physical copies of certain books, and I’m not alone.

What I found interesting about Gary’s clip (the reason I included it), is when he talks about Amazon coming to him. He’s wrapped up in a big publishing deal and it’s clear that Amazon is being aggressive in seeking out many authors publishers reply on and offering them a better deal. I know the Barry Eisler videos are long, but in one of them he discusses criticisms of Amazon’s publishing offers. One of the big things he hears is that they will eventually drop the percentage they offer writers, but even if they cut their offer by considerably more than half, it’s still a better deal for a known author.

In a way, Gary’s prediction seemed like his way of saying, “Damn! I signed a BIG deal and now I’m stuck and not part of this new big thing…”

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