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Amazon's Plan to Conquer the World of Publishing (theatlantic.com)
120 points by ekovarski 72 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

Last time I checked, Amazon was essentially forcing you to sell your 1000 page years of work e-book for $9.99 or less, taking "only" 35% of the price sale (used to be 30% a couple of years ago).

If you want to sell it above $10, then their commission becomes 70%!

Also, if your ebook is not exclusive to Amazon, then you don't get access to important marketing tools (KDP program) like free promotions, which are essential to build up social proof and get initial reviews.

Without a prior audience and without those tools your ebook is dead on arrival.

If this is not a horrific monopoly and flat ou author extortion, then I don't know what is. $9.99 is just too low, many books are worth more than that.

Also, they will send emails to your readers suggesting ebooks from competing authors. I think the Amazon stranglehold on authors is preventing a lot of books from even being written, as the authors know that they won't be able to make a living ou of them.

For technical and instructional books, self-publishing is a much better option, with organic marketing done via blogging. You can sell the ebook for say $49, get the whole price sale and the customer email.

I wrote an academic book several years ago with a traditional publisher. I was supposed to get a royalty of 10% but I probably never understood the legal mumbo-jumbo (it's not something I make significant income out of, so I didn't bother to inform myself much), because the book ended up selling for around $100 (!) while I was getting around one dollar per unit. In the electronic version, I think the price was a bit less ridiculous (around $50) and I was still getting $1 or less per unit.

Other academics I know have similar experiences. So getting 30% of the sales price comparably looks like a good deal to me...

I’ve taken two writing courses and both professors were best selling authors and claimed not to make a penny besides the advance, even though they made the list.

Writing a book, for the vast majority of authors, is a money losing enterprise that comes back in various other ways. Such as speaking and consulting gigs as a domain expert.

A lot of the books I’ve seen self published on amazon wouldn’t get a juicy book deal anyway. Most of it is garbage and quantity over quality.

>Last time I checked, Amazon was essentially forcing you to sell your 1000 page years of work e-book for $9.99 or less

This still appears to be true. Though TBH, similar pricing dynamics exist with traditional publishers. That's one reason that you have two and three part books rather than 1500 page behemoths.

I get where you're coming from. On the other hand, pre-Amazon your only real option was to convince some publisher to take on your book. Which wasn't easy for a first-time author. J.K. Rowling was "only" rejected 12 times. Tons of other well-known authors have plenty of stories about how long it took to find a publisher.

The real problem is that you can sell your ebook anywhere - but Kindle is where people who pay money for ebooks are. Most of your sales are going to be on Kindle.

This is a problem for the reasons that relying on a single customer is a problem. In 2019, anyone can publish! ... on Amazon.

That's not 100% true for some specialties like O'Reilly Safari. But, yeah, for the most part.

> If you want to sell it above $10, then their commission becomes 70%!

No, that's how much the author earns from each sale. I will say that Amazon's pricing model - divided as it is into geographical regions - is needlessly complicated. It's easy to misunderstand stuff and end up with a less-than-satisfactory overall price for the book.

I think he's right. See https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200634560

(This is for Kindle sales. Paperback is different.)

But you're also correct that it's complicated across geos.

You're right that he's right. 70% royalties - paid to the author - are (generally) reserved for ebooks priced under $10.

Whether or not it's a reasonable practice, it's not really shocking. Amazon tried to hold the line on $9.99 Kindle prices for a long time. So it's not really surprising that they'd use a big stick to try to hold that same line where they have some direct leverage.

And yet, the US government decided that it was not Amazon but Apple, with an immaterial market share in the eBooks market, that deserved a $400M fine for price-fixing anti-trust violations.

The argument here is Amazon being bad for authors and the above with Apple was about consumers.

But in the long run, isn’t being bad for authors going to be bad for consumers?

Can't say that for sure. I am myself a published author with a traditional publisher and I didn't make anything beyond the advance aand the revenue share was only 10% for me.

If $9.99 makes more people buy it and the share is better, I am all up for it.

> $9.99 is just too low, many books are worth more than that.

Worth is a very amorphous concept, but I personally am not willing to pay more than that for any ebook. Some books have definitely in hindsight provided me more value, but I haven't finished (and probably never will) reading most of the ebooks I purchased, since they just ended up not interesting me enough. My time is very limited and being able to read a bit of many books is very valuable to me. From this perspective, I for one am very thankful to Amazon for reducing the price of ebooks.

How is this a monopoly? Serious question - do you know what a monopoly is?

Another question - how does Amazons practice compare to the other publishers? Is it better, same, or worse for authors?

"How is X a Y?" is a trollish trope to begin with, but "Serious question - do you know what a monopoly is?" crosses into personal swipe and that breaks the site guidelines. Would you please not post in this style to HN? We're trying for a bit better than internet default.


I don't ever post on HN, but this article convinced me to create an account and respond.

>But experts who spoke with me said that the publishing house serves not authors but another master—Amazon Prime.

This is intentionally written in a way that describes Amazon and APub as being nefarious.

I worked in APub for almost 4 years before moving to a different FANG. It was a fantastic place to work. I'm sure engineers in other parts of Amazon get paged all the time. There was essentially no on-call burden for my team. We got to launch some really cool programs and learn about the publishing workflows end to end (ideation all the way to an ebook or physical title). This company was where I became a really strong engineer (my previous job was at a non-tech company building small scale CRUD apps).

First and foremost, authors were our customers. We did anything and everything for authors - it was meant to be a VIP experience.

Does Amazon want to increase Prime subscriptions? Absolutely. But portraying that I or my team "served another master" is disingenuous horse shit.

The article seems pretty well Amazon-friendly to me, generally spinning Amazon Publishing positively and quoting only supporters and one neutral analyst.

Amazon is a monopoly which (a) exerts huge control over the whole culture’s literary output, and (b) has driven / is driving many competitors and suppliers at every stage of the publishing process out of business, using its combination of vertical integration, scale, and ruthless contract negotiation.

I’m not sure “nefarious” is the right word. But it is dangerous having unaccountable private institutions wield such power. Some of Amazon’s business practices seem to me like violations of anti-trust law (disclaimer: I am not a lawyer or legal expert), but the past few decades of Supreme Court precedent have reinterpreted/eroded antitrust laws to the point that there will probably be nothing done about it.

I don’t see what their treatment of engineers making the software has to do with the business model or larger cultural impact. (But if you’re worried about labor relations, how do you feel about Amazon’s mistreatment of warehouse workers?)

At a minimum, you're replacing/have replaced a huge number of publishers of various sizes and booksellers of various sizes (including very boutique and personal operations in both cases) with Amazon. OK, that's an overstatement. You have other major publishers especially in specialty areas like textbooks--but as a general rule...

On the one hand, the barriers to actually publishing something are way down. You don't necessarily need to submit your proposal and sample chapter to 100 different publishers. You can just self-publish on Amazon if you're so inclined and do your own marketing.

But discoverability is now significantly in the hands of Amazon's algorithms. And those algorithms are designed with Amazon's interests at heart--such as driving more Prime subscriptions.

A more efficient and data-driven world isn't necessarily worse than schmoozing with New York or London-based editors over lunch. But it certainly tends to concentrate power.

Amazon has been great for authors and for readers. I've read several books by authors that started out by self publishing on Amazon. People like Andy Weir, Hugh Howey, Ernest Cline, John Scalzi, and indeed Robert Dugoni. Of course it doesn't work out for everyone but lowering the barrier of entry to the market for authors is a good thing.

Of course for serious authors, marketing and editing are still essential and there seems to be a notion of successful self published authors quickly getting deals from publishers for exactly that reason. But undeniably the middle men industry is being affected. I'm not even sure that's a bad thing. Marketing and PR is a function that you can pay people to do. Dead tree production and associated logistics is a service as well. Same with editing. There's no need to get all of these things under the same roof.

> I've read several books by authors that started out by self publishing on Amazon. People like Andy Weir, Hugh Howey, Ernest Cline, John Scalzi, and indeed Robert Dugoni.

Scalzi's first novel was Agent to the Stars (1997), which was indeed self-published but via his own website, not Amazon. His breakout novel was Old Man's War (2005) which was published traditionally by Tor.

Right, I did not read everything he wrote. Amazon was barely a thing in 1997.

Yeah. To some degree you've replaced the getting published lottery with the getting people to discover your book lottery (though, even with publishers, that lottery always existed). But I'm not convinced that's necessarily a bad thing because authors arguably have more control over the latter. Amazon certainly isn't the only way people discover new authors.

And, truth be told, a lot of publishers today don't do a huge amount of author service, e.g. marketing/PR/etc. especially if they're not a specialty publisher with a built-in readership and channels.

There is still some prestige associated with being published by a known brand. Although one sometimes wonders how much of that incremental prestige is really warranted.

> Amazon has been great for authors and for readers.

Good for authors/readers of genre fiction, where only the words matter but the presentation doesn’t matter much. Especially good for readers who prefer reading on screen to reading paper books.

I’m not so convinced it’s good for authors/readers of other types of books. For example, the quality of printing and binding of most technical books is in freefall. (Obviously the change is not solely attributable to Amazon. The takeover of many major publishers by finance people who have no pride in their product has a lot to do with the quality decline.)

Totally agree.

When I read the title my mind ignored the "... of Publishing" because this is just one part of this "hydra".

Amazon seeks to dominate & assimilate as many things as it can like the Borg. It's not too much of a demand by some to break up such companies as it's not good for the people & govt that single private entities have such power.

Amazon certainly isn’t a monopoly. You’ll want to provide more evidence to back up these claims.

More of a meta point - there’s generally an anti-FAANG article about everyday on HN, and the underlying editorials are typically these same batch of outlets who directly compete with Facebook, Google, or Amazon directly in ads or video content.

I take the latest pieces on Bezos forcing warehouse workers into slavery with a pinch of salt. You can certainly believe whatever you want, but these absolute claims with no evidence are hard to take seriously.

What did you think was anti-Amazon in this article? That Amazon has its own agenda as a publisher? Of course they do.

>Amazon certainly isn’t a monopoly.

Expensive lawyers spend lots of money arguing about what is and isn't a monopoly. But I think it's hard to argue that, monopoly or not, Amazon is approximately an 8000 pound gorilla in book distribution and, as a consequence, discovery.

Do you support corporations using their superior knowledge and cheaper capital to snuff competition?

That’s a rhetorical question. This isn’t Reddit.

For ebooks, Amazon is de facto a monopoly.

Not only can I can buy ebooks from amazon, google play, barnes and noble, and itunes, but I can also upload books/pdfs/files from elsewhere onto each others apps (albeit, sometimes requiring changing the file type). I wouldn't call that a monopoly.

"Including indie books (published without ISBN), Amazon accounts for 83% of US ebook purchases – and the rest is almost entirely shared between the Apple iBookStore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo US and the GooglePlay Books."


Under US law¹, a monopoly is a firm that holds monopoly power, and monopoly power is "the power to control prices or exclude competition"². I don't think it's a stretch to say that Amazon has the power to control prices in that market.

¹ Under EU antitrust law, the word "monopoly" is not used

² See United States v. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

How is amazon able to control prices or exclude competition? If you don't like their terms, just list your book on one of the other 3 sites and tell your fans to buy it there and if they really want to read it on their kindle, send them a guide on how to upload it to kindle which is very easy to do.

"Control prices" doesn't mean for every single product, but for the market as a whole. Most authors don't have a fanbase that sustains their sales alone.

That said, remember that being a monopoly is not illegal. Only abusing it is.

Buying the book somewhere else and uploading to the Kindle is far from being easy for an average reader.

You can read on other devices too - such as android phones, tablets, and iPads. Im willing to go on a limb here and say these devices probably sell more than Kindle. Kindle is not the only device to read this content.

The mental gymnastics you’re going through here to support the Amazon monopoly claim is funny.

Bork et al (Federalist Society, Cato Institute) believe that consumer prices is the only criteria for determining anti-trust. They utterly exclude anti-competitive behaviors.

How a fare price can be determined without healthy competition is left unanswered.

I don't have a dog in this fight and I don't really have a strong opinion about Amazon either way, but I think it's important to note that your experience as an engineer in the publishing group isn't necessarily indicative of the group's business goals.

It's entirely possible (and, honestly, probable) that the author-focused projects you guys worked on were themselves in service to the larger goal of driving Prime engagement. It doesn't need to be an explicit OKR to be true, and it's also not nefarious: it's just good business.

The article does a horrible job making the case though. It makes the case for prime video, which is exclusive to prime and therefore incentivizes you to be a prime member. Then it tries to connect a Bezos quote about the Golden Globes to an award won by “You Are (Not) Small”. But how is “You Are (Not) Small” driving prime membership? It is only available in paperback and hardcover, so it is not part of prime reading or amazon first reads, which are benefits of amazon prime. Sure, it may be included in a Prime Book Box, but that is squarely an Amazon publishing program that solely deals in books and is just cobranded with prime.

Do you really consider kindle exclusivity a VIP experience? Do you really consider replacing organic discovery with pay to play advertising a VIP experience?

>Do you really consider kindle exclusivity a VIP experience?

What do you mean by Kindle exclusivity? Personally I purchase an ebook or physical book on Amazon just about every month. I read these on my iPad and sometimes on my iPhone if my iPad's battery is dead. I don't own a Kindle device and would never buy one because my 2018 iPad Pro is leaps and bounds better for my use cases vs. anything Amazon offers in the tablet space.

>Do you really consider replacing organic discovery with pay to play advertising a VIP experience?

Citation needed.

Look - if you despise Amazon, that's fine but at least post something with more substance.

Personally, I hate that there's so much Chinese knock off garbage on Amazon, and it's not clear to me which reviews are legit and which ones are fake. I've adjusted my consumer behavior so that most of my purchases end up being books or specific branded items "sold by Amazon" instead of Chinese sellers.

Quite the apposite. Love Amazon and a stock holder. That doesn't mean I'm blind to some of their faults and would like improvements.

> What do you mean by Kindle exclusivity?

I'm talking from authors perspective. To be part of KU you must be exclusive which is anti-competitive.

> Citation needed.

Again, an author thing. Have you noticed that "also bought" have gone away? (https://davidgaughran.com/2018/11/03/amazon-also-boughts-apo...) Authors are forced to advertise using AMS to get their content in front of users when previously discovery was more organic.

Not very VIP.

Did your "learning about" include sitting in meetings with legal during contract planning and C-level strategy meetings for market domination ?

I worked at a startup that was doing NLP/AI stuff on Amazon books for a while (a "smart" email newsletter book recommendation service).

You'd be surprised at some of the books that top those Amazon sales charts. The biggest consumers are middle-aged women and Amazon self-publishing is where the giant harlequin novel industry moved to.

One of the more bizarre books that popped up included a Dinosaur/cave girl love story [1] and some other fantasy related themes mixed with romance. Each of those would have tons of real reviews.

There was also tons of sketchy business books and self-help stuff.

I'm sure this stuff was really popular before too, but people tend to be less shy and far higher quantity when buying 'anonymously' online with a Kindle. Bookstores would only carry 'respectable' titles'. So the quiet online bestsellers look very different than NYTimes list just from consumer behaviour alone.

[1] NSFW https://www.amazon.com/s?k=dinosaur+romance

I cannot believe what I just read. The top search result was shortlisted for a Hugo award (for Best Short Story). Pasting from Wikipedia with some light censoring:

> In April 2016, Space Raptor B??? Invasion was shortlisted for a Hugo Award for Best Short Story in the prestigious Hugo Awards for science fiction. This stemmed from a campaign by the alt-right "Rabid Puppies" group, a faction of the Sad Puppies movement that laments the perceived politicization of science fiction. However, Tingle disavowed the campaign, saying via his Twitter account that it was the work of "devils", and that if his book were to win, video game designer and anti-harassment activist Zoë Quinn would accept the award on his behalf. His story did not win. Tingle subsequently published Pounded in the B??? by My Hugo Award Loss.

That was a sort of glorious fiasco in the annals of science fiction. The Rabid Puppies basically decided to troll the Hugos (anyone who purchases at least a supporting membership to the World Science Fiction Convention that year can make a nomination). It apparently never occurred to them that someone who wrote books with titles like "Space Raptor Butt Invasion" just might be better at trolling than they were.

In a similar vein of authors trolling the trolls, after receiving complaints about his decision to use female sysadmins as examples in his tech books (IIRC he usually alternates genders in examples), Michael Lucas published a "Manly McManface" edition of Ed Mastery which has an all-male cast of sysadmins... at a much higher price.

This is pretty funny

>Every so often, men contact the author complaining that his books use both male and female pronouns. This special edition, using only male third-person pronouns, is for those special people. As the market is so much smaller, it’s u̶n̶f̶o̶r̶t̶u̶n̶a̶t̶e̶l̶y̶ priced higher.

>For each copy of the Manly McManface edition sold, the author will donate one dollar to his local chapter of Soroptomists International.

This is what Soroptomists International is

>A global volunteer organization that improves the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment.

This is pathetic. But good on the author for not taking that crap.

For the not extremely prudish: The story is called "Space Raptor Butt Invasion" and the section quoted above is the second paragraph from here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Tingle#Career

HN is so respectful with its warnings.

I'd rather assumed the title makes the work's nature and themes abundantly clear?

Chuck Tingle is an absolute gem of a human. The silly titles of his stories hide an extremely sharp wit and fabulous from-the-first-minute takes on current events.

Yeah he’s basically satirizing this stuff with a cult style following looking for a laugh. There’s tons of serious tacky romance stuff published on there which is where he got the idea.

I wouldn't call it satire. Chuck is still what a lot of people could call profoundly weird, but we're all here with him not laughing at him.

The series of events that lead to that was really bizarre. To cut a long story short, a bunch of more right-leaning authors who thought the Hugos had turned into soapboxes for left-wing politics decided to push back by putting together a "Sad Puppies" slate of eligible works they considered good (so called for the photo of its' creators dogs looking sad they used to encourage people to support it). It met with... unexpected massive success in 2015, with quite a few of the works becoming finalists. Folks responded with a fairly effective campaign to vote every work on the slate below "no award" by signing up people en masse as Worldcon supporting members so they got votes, including paying the fees for them in some cases. They also handed out wooden asterisks to every nominee on the slate at the official ceremony to imply their nominations were all illegitimate .

The thing that made this really interesting is that in the major categories, there was quite a bit of overlap with what would've likely got nominated anyway. Apparently the only reason the Best Novel winner didn't make the slate and then get pushed below no award in the finals as a result is because the people who came up with the list hadn't got around to reading it yet! (Some of the less hotly contested categories did end up with right-wing schlock being nominated though.)

I can't really tell which parts are satire, which parts serious

As one does with the best satire.

A sprinkle of kayfabe on top of a sharp wit is delicious.

I have no relationship with Amazon Publishing, nor am I ever likely to. My experience of publishing with Amazon is entirely restricted to their (now defunct) CreateSpace platform and its successor, Kindle Direct Publishing, alongside publishing works on 3rd party self-publishing platforms and attempting to get those books listed on Amazon.

My personal view, developed over a number of years, is that Amazon is a toxic environment for self-publishing authors:

- Their price modelling is designed to undercut other self-publishing platforms to the point of damaging them. If an author publishes on a 3rd party platform, Amazon will demand that the price point for the book is double the viable price listing on Amazon - so that they can offer the book to readers at a 50% discount (from day 1 of listing). Authors have no control over when the discount is applied, or the level of discount, or for how long it will last. The last time I checked (several years ago, things may have changed since) authors were paid a percentage of the price at which the book was sold, not its original price point.

- Publishing both on Amazon and on a 3rd party platform is not prohibited; however Amazon demand that the list pricing on their platform must be as cheap (or preferably cheaper) than on those other sites (before any discounts are applied). If they find a book listed elsewhere at a cheaper price they will automatically price-match without warning the author. Running a temporary price reduction promotion for a book on another platform can lead to a permanent price reduction for the book on Amazon.

- If an author wants to give away a book for free, this is possible on other platforms, but not on Amazon - unless the author enrolls the book in their KDP Select program, which will allow the author to offer strictly time-limited free giveaway windows ...

- Except an author can only enroll a book on KDP Select if they remove that book from all other platforms and agree to publish exclusively on Amazon. This includes removing the book from profitable venues such as Google Play and Apple Books (which are ideal for iPad/iPhone and Android devices).

- I could go on (but won't).

Many people will disagree with my personal 'toxic environment' view. That's fine. Self-publishing on the Amazon platforms is often enough to meet the needs of many self-published authors, and quite often profitable for them too.

But for me the above points all indicate that Amazon is interested only in killing diversity and creating a readership monopoly, which in the longer run will damage self-publishing and prove to be toxic to both authors and readers alike.

How about start with fixing the completely garbled by the OCR science ebooks they already selling through kindle platform before trying to conquer the universe of publishing and be taken seriously?

Amazon’s self-publishing product is horrible. Basically there is only 1 type of book that can be made from it (i.e. no color, only 1 type of cover, only 1 type of paper... only 1 font). Im surpried they wouldn’t start with proper options, if they want to conquer the world.

Sounds like they save a lot of cost by pointless variation in the process.

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