Category Archives: Amazon

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Amazon, Hachette and Happy Friday

First, the headline news from the industry that seldom makes them is that the long and acrimonious struggle between Amazon and Hachette is at an end. I feel certain that the piped in white noise in the new Hachette open plan offices  cannot drown out the collective sigh of relief.  The standoff has been hardest of all for Hachette authors, whose book sales were collateral damage in the negotiation.  The exact terms of the agreement have not been released, so it’s difficult to judge whether one party or the other prevailed, or if this is, as the press release declared “good news for authors” in the long run, but it’s good to be firing on all cylinders as we head into the holiday book-buying season.

On another happy note, I read this story in Publishing Perspectives   and it made me laugh aloud. That business books (and plenty of other nonfiction as well) have long-winded subtitles is a convention of the genre, one that I rarely question.  The idea is to be both specific and alluring; to define, entice and occasionally make outsize claims—this book will change your life, change the world, reorder the stars, etc.  But this article gives novels subtitles, and thus we have  Atonement: How Making up Stories Can Make Amends for Past Wrongs and Be a Force for Healing by Ian McEwan and Gone Girl: Why Your Marriage is Not What It Seems – And What You Can do About it by Gillian Flynn.

Care to subtitle your favorite novel?

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All you can read books

It’s been very interesting to watch the unveiling of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s new subscription-based e-book program. It’s not a new concept. In fact, entertainment and media industries have been heading this way for a long time. Netflix provides consumers with unlimited streaming of television and movies for a flat flee. Spotify provides the same for music. So why not books?

Kindle Unlimited isn’t even the first to offer the all-you-can-read buffet. Oyster and other similar companies have been around for some time; yet none have Amazon’s platform. Or its ability to stir up controversy.

Some of Kindle Unlimited’s critics have historically been Amazon’s staunchest supporters: self-published authors. They’ve claimed that they stand to be hurt the most from the program, in part because of the different royalty structure. Royalties will be allocated from a set fund divided across all borrowed units, which may mean lower royalty payments. Not only that, but self-published authors who choose to opt out of Kindle Unlimited so they can distribute to other vendors, such as Nook Press and Kobo, stand to drop in the Amazon bestseller rankings because Kindle Unlimited “sales” count towards those hourly standings. Pro Kindle Unlimited authors, on the other hand, argue that authors will benefit greatly from the discoverability that Kindle Unlimited and such rankings could provide. Unknown authors can potentially shoot up in rank, even if those “buying” their books never get around to reading them.

And what about on the consumer side? On the face of it, $9.99/month for an unlimited number of books seems like a great deal. But how many people subscribing to Kindle Unlimited actually read enough books every month to make it worth it? It’s one thing to binge-watch shows and movies on Netflix or binge-listen to music for hours on end on Spotify. But binge-reading is a whole different ballgame.

I’d like to hear what our readers think of Kindle Unlimited. Will you subscribe? If you’re an author, do you enroll?

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Live Amazon-free or die

Perhaps it’s leftover patriotism from the World Cup, or that the calendar makes for a real three-day weekend this year, but it feels like the 4th is generating an extra dose of excitement and patriotic good will this year. Or maybe it’s just MY excitement for getting out of the sweltering city for a few days. Either way, I can’t wait for a weekend of beaches, BBQs, and family time—maybe we’ll even sing patriotic songs in the car…

So, in the spirit of freedom and rejection of tyranny that the 4th celebrates, I thought I’d quickly share this article from the Times  about Edan Lepucki’s California,  which I’m sure you’ve been hearing about. But the article is a nice summary of what’s been going on, especially for those of us who can’t stay up for the Colbert Report anymore. And maybe I’m stretching, but perhaps there’s a timely holiday parallel here, in how the current revolt against Amazon, through grassroots support, hard work, luck, and media savvy, created a bestseller. Heck, all we need is the French to jump on board, and we’ll have a good old fashioned American revolution!

Anyway, have a very happy 4th of July everyone. And if you do any book shopping this weekend, keep it local…

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Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

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Amazon bucket list

Okay, it’s not exactly Amazon’s bucket list– that would probably involve gathering every shred of your personal info while putting every indie bookstore out to pasture… But seriously, folks, Amazon just put out a list of 100 books to read in a lifetime, or as they put it, “a bucket list of books to create a well-read life.” I know we see lists like this all the time, but given that this one comes from a retailer, and the dominant one at that, I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

Right off the bat, it’s really striking how contemporary the majority of the titles are–like, now contemporary, not just the last 50 years. Usually, lists like this are super-heavy on the classics and completely ignore current non-fiction, of which there are commendably a healthy number of entries here. On the other hand, a “well-read life” used to mean a whole lot of philosophy, particularly the Greeks. I know Plato isn’t as fun as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but I’d like to think the Republic is a bit more instructive…

Similarly,  as much as I enjoyed them, are Henrietta Lacks and Unbroken essential for a well-read life? Or, to be cynical, is the Amazon algorithm at work, in that contemporary titles sell more than classics? In that vein, I’d love to give them kudos for presenting a good number of picture books, MG and YA on equal footing with the grown-up books… but again, is that a statement of purpose or a sales ploy?

 Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think of Amazon’s list–is it a legitimate syllabus or a clever gimmick? Maybe both? Which omissions particularly get your goat? Discuss, discuss…

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Game, Set, MatchBook

Last week Amazon announced a new program, Kindle MatchBook. It’s  not, as some hoped  wondered, a dating site for book enthusiasts, nor is it something out of Fahrenheit 451, as the funny folks at Book Riot suggested. But it’s still something to get fired up about: MatchBook essentially bundles paper and digital together by offering you the e-book at a discount when you buy the print edition.

There’s a lot to love about this. Many avid readers still care about the look, feel, smell of a book as an object, but also love the ease and affordability of e-books, and have been eager for an affordable way to enjoy both formats at once. Do you like to buy books for gifts? Now you can delight your friends and family with brand new hardcovers, and snatch up the e-book for yourself for just a couple bucks more. Did you lend your favorite Neil Gaiman book to a friend who then moved to Australia? No worries, mate – replace it with the e-book for pocket change. That’s right! MatchBook applies to books you’ve purchased on Amazon.com going all the way back to 1995 when the bookstore launched. That’s quite a few lifetimes in internet years.

The titles available with MatchBook depend on publisher participation. So far HarperCollins has signed on, as well as all of Amazon Publishing’s imprint, and titles self-published through Amazon KDP. It remains to be seen which other publishers will jump on board as well. But it’s an exciting first step towards having your book and e-reading it too.

What do you think? Have you been wishing for bundling to become a thing?

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There’s a lacerating but effective essay in this week’s New Yorker by Giles Harvey.  In “Cry Me a River:  The Rise of the Failure Memoir” Harvey writes “a growing batch of memoirs by literary screw ups and also rans suggests that mistakes, the bigger and more luridly described the better, might be a portal to success, or at the very least solvency, that eluded their authors the first time around. The formula is simple: when all else fails, write about your failure.”

His piece surveys a number of books, but his immediate target is Benjamin Anastas’s TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, which chronicles the painful decline of a once-promising novelist’s literary career. Anastas published his debut novel when he was 28, and three years later published a follow up work. Both books were well received and he (cue warning music) quits his day job to write full time. Things go south from there: Anastas cannot sell his third novel in the US, he cheats on his fiancée, confesses, she marries him anyway, only to leave him shortly thereafter for another man while pregnant with Anastas’ child.  And yes, Anastas is bitter.

Much as he disapproves of the “mawkish exhibitionism” displayed by Anastas and his ilk,  Giles reserves some of his contempt for the publishing industry. “Anastas is a casualty of the a new publishing model, whereby editors, instead of allowing novelists to evolve and build an audience in the course of several books, bet big on debut writers and hope for overnight success. Those who don’t turn a profit are often shut out… the memoir provides a back door into print.”

I think Giles makes some good points in his piece. He’s quite right that houses are keen on the tabula rasa that new writers represent, reluctant to publish books by authors whose numbers have the “wrong kind of momentum” (i.e. a declining sales record) but I am not sure that I see memoir as a back door into print. In my experience, literary memoir can be as tough a sell as literary fiction, sometimes tougher, since the conventions of nonfiction publishing often require authors to have platforms. Literary novelists are still, for the most part, granted a pass.   It’s also hard to lay the blame at the feet of editors, who tend to advocate for their authors regardless of the sales. Indeed, I know several who advocated themselves right out their jobs.  So who do we blame? The profit-minded publishers whom the editors report? The marketing and publicity teams who are accused of having undue influence on publishers? The media conglomerates who own (and often sell) their book divisions? The reading public who fails to reward talented writers by buying their work? The antiquated return system that allows booksellers to ship back any unsold quantities? Amazon, who is underselling the competition and challenging the pricing structure? I could go on, but I’d only run out of fingers to point.

It is, however, worth noting that Anastas’ new publisher, New Harvest, is the Harcourt Houghton imprint fed by Amazon’s publishing arm. There’s an extra little frisson (or knife twist) in that Anastas’ critique of establishment publishing is the work of the very company that is, for good or ill, threatening to remake it.

What do you think? I’ve not yet read Anastas’ book and once I do, my opinion may change. But it seems to me that plenty of good memoirs have been generated out of other sorts of failure stories—romantic, familial, financial—so I’m not sure I see anything especially ignoble about this particular variety.

Not only do the French not get fat, understand the subtle arts of seduction, scarf-tying, gastronomy and most recently (per Bringing up Bebe) parenting,  it seems that even the Gallic booksellers are in a better spot than their American colleagues http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/books/french-bookstores-are-still-prospering.html?_r=1.  Although I am skeptical of the many hyperbolic  claims associated with French culture—Americans have a peculiar love hate relationship with the French (remember “freedom fries?”) that often renders the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in a less than accurate light, it does seem that French booksellers, thanks to  legal price-fixing (no collusion charges here!)  and government subsidies, do enjoy a considerable advantage over our anemic and Amazon-eviscerated ecosystem. Depending on your politics, the French respect for/protection of booksellers epitomizes everything that’s right or wrong with government, but it does mean that the market for books has remained both stable and lively.  From my French clients—who send me photos of reading tours and well attended signings filled with well-dressed people— I get a glimpse of what seems a pre-lapsarian booksellers’ paradise.  Do I romanticize? Mais bien sur.

I’m not sure that given the present climate in the United States that there is really much likelihood that our model will borrow something from the French, but it is, however, interesting to look abroad at a very different literary landscape and indulge in some armchair travel.

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Did your city make the cut?

The Huffington Post came out with a great article today about Amazon’s second annual list of the most well-read cities in the US. This list is, of course, based on Amazon’s sales, and as the Huffington Post points out, doesn’t properly represent places where a lot of people are still visiting traditional bookstores. Indeed, our own city doesn’t make the top ten, but I’d like to think that’s because you’re never far from an independent bookstore or a Barnes & Noble.

To that end, the lovely folks at Huffington also provide people in the #1 town of Alexandria, VA with a list of alternatives to Amazon. Still, it’s always interesting to see who’s buying what online.

Which leads me to my questions for the day: What are the top genres you tend to buy online? And which ones do you tend to buy in person?

I’m going to investigate my own book buying habits tonight, and I encourage you to do the same!

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Censor censure

I’ve been on a bit of a Words With Friends kick lately (okay, more a debilitating obsession than a kick but no one’s kicked me off a plane yet) and one of the frustrating things I’ve found about the game is how it censors what it considers unacceptable words. Not sure what geniuses (or algorithms) decide what works and what doesn’t but when you’re behind by 15 points and you’ve got the letters to wipe your opponent out with a word you know is a word but that WWF won’t allow…well, it makes you a little short tempered.

Thing is, censorship is all around us and, by and large, we tend to overlook minor instances of it as long as the big freedoms aren’t compromised.   I can shake my head and keep playing WWF, say, because who cares about a silly app game.  But, is that the right attitude?  When you hear about Seth Godin’s experience with Apple refusing to carry one of his “manifestos” because there are links in it to the Amazon store, the whole Big Brother thing becomes a bit sinister.  This is censorship seasoned with monopolistic bullying, in my opinion.

How much freedom of speech can be guaranteed when behemoths like Apple and Amazon censor what is available to consumers for any reason other than that the work(s) in question poses a real physical threat to individuals?  Sure, a privately owned retailer may choose what goods and services it wants to offer, but when you have two or three entities responsible for the dissemination of vast amounts of information, it seems to me that it should not be morally, ethically, or legally okay for those entities to decide what consumers may or may not be able to buy.

Those of us in the publishing business have a rather bedeviled relationship with Apple, Amazon and B&N (especially the first two).  On the one hand, we need them in order to place our authors’ wares.  On the other, we are increasingly concerned with the practices of these soulless corporations whose only interest is the financial bottom line and for whom books and the entire publishing world are but a blip in their massive spreadsheets.  Is it time for the government to step in and regulate how content is served up?  What can we do as consumers (and book lovers) to safeguard our ability to buy any book (or story or manifesto) we want?  Should we be outraged or should we shrug our shoulders and lump this with the Word With Friends shenanigans?

What’s your take on all of this?  Am I over- or under-reacting?