Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Amazon to Begin Charging Indie Authors to Publish?

Will they?

Should they?

At this point, it's all hypothetical. Amazon has no such plans. At least, no such plans that any of us are aware of.

But should they?

Novelist Rob Guthrie recently posed this very question on his blog RobOnWriting.com. (And took a bit of heat while doing so.)

It's an interesting question.

I have mixed feelings about Amazon charging authors to publish their books. But some sort of weeding-out process wouldn’t hurt. As a serious, professional, lifelong writer who takes my craft very, very seriously and spends A LOT of time making my work as perfect as it can be, it is troubling to see so much hackneyed wannabe unreadable crap glomming up the marketplace, distracting readers from more professional work. Such dreck de-legitimizes indie authors & publishers.

For example, some months ago I purchased an ebook on Amazon. I believe it purported to be a vampire story. In my defense, the cover looked good; it looked like a "real" book penned by a "real writer."

Oh sweet Moses how wrong was I.

Remember that scene in "Stepbrothers" when John C. Reilly and Will Ferell built bunk beds:

To quote John C. Reilly: "It's bad! It's so bad!"

I am of course referring to the aforementioned vampire-esque "novel" which was totally unreadable. It boasted a paucity of readability unlike anything I'd ever encountered. In that, it almost ought to be commended. Almost. It was SO bad.

Ergo, the argument can (and was) made that charging authors to publish on Amazon would, er, discourage the misguided publishing attempts of certain individuals.

Furthermore, it was argued that this would in turn cost Amazon money as fewer writers would then publish with them; these writers would turn instead to publishing venues such as Smashwords (which distributes to other outlets such as iTunes, Kobo.com, BarnesandNoble.com).

Would charging authors to publish cause such an abandoning of the proverbial e-publishing ship? It was suggested that perhaps a one-time fee (perhaps $99) and a per-title publishing fee be charged (perhaps $25).

Would this discourage "wannabe" writers from publishing on Amazon?

Would this discourage "real" writers from publishing on Amazon because they lack either the funds or the willingness to PAY to be published?

I'm fairly certain that this vanity press model has been around for a LONG time and has always been considered crap. After all, one of the cardinal rules for aspiring writers is that one NEVER pays to have one's work read. Ever.

Let us also remember that for years and years Amazon LOST money on every book it sold. Because they were thinking long term. Which is smart. Are they likely to now perform a radical money-making-ectomy on themselves, thereby gutting one of the most successful business models ever devised, the same business model which has to date yielded them the lion's share of the digital publishing marketplace, leaving others playing catch-up?

Probably not.

Rob Guthrie made a great point about the slush pile being (at least partially) transferred into the marketplace, which leaves the reader to sift through it. This is not entirely a bad thing. Consider folks like USA Today bestselling-author Amanda Hocking.

She was a complete unknown. Amazon played a key role in her getting where she is now: onto the bestseller lists and into negotiations for film rights.

Would Amanda be where she is today without Amazon? Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

We’ll never know. She now enjoys a unique status as a hybrid author. She has her own self-published titles, and she also has her titles being released through a traditional publisher.

May all talented writers be so fortunate.

And let us not forget other successful indie publishers, who are still 100% independent:

Author of three international bestsellers, Melissa Foster

Bestselling science fiction and thriller writer Michael R. Hicks

and thriller master, indie publishing wunderkind, and survivor of the 30-Day Beer Diet, Joe Konrath

(and probably others I'm forgetting!). Would one of these three successful indie writers sign a contract with one of the Big 6? Would they sell the rights to their work, giving up control of everything from the title to the cover art to any and all future monies (save their royalties, of course, which are far lower than those in the still-nebulous yet always exciting realm of self-publishing)?

Would I sign such a contract?

It's a tough call.

Joe Konrath has blogged extensively on the nightmare he endured while traveling the publishing road through New York for over a decade. Amanda Hocking seems to be having a different, more pleasant experience. Mr. Konrath has also stated that for the right amount of money he would delete his entire blog. So it seems everyone has his or her price. And because our goal is to earn a living from our writing, we would be foolish not to accept an appropriate offer. Wouldn't we?

It may help to look at Amazon and indie publishing as a proving ground. I predict that more and more authors will be "discovered." Authors such as Amanda Hocking and of course John Locke, who is a New York Times bestselling author and the first self-published author to sell 1 million eBooks on Amazon Kindle.

Such authors will be "discovered" by the trads/Big6 and will be given sweetheart deals (ie life-changing money). This "discovery," this "overnight success," will of course only occur after the author has spent thousands of hours writing, editing, re-writing, re-editing, mastering the self-publishing process, acquiring a cover, etc etc etc. We all know the process.

Overnight successes usually come after years of determined effort. Like Joe Konrath says: There’s a word for a writer who didn’t quit: PUBLISHED.

Luck, after all, is when preparedness meets opportunity.

Click HERE to read Rob's original post and the voluminous, often heated discussion which followed.


  1. Interesting post. My gut reaction to the title was "What?! Well that figures, no surprise there that Amazon is going to put up a dam to staunch the flow of Indie books flooding the Amazon book market." But then I read the post. Ahh...speculation. Although my initial reaction was rather negative (please, Amazon, don't start charging us!), I started to see the benefits of such a move.

    My worry is that at some point Amazon is going to decide who can and can't publish books. That would make them just as difficult a nut to crack as the big traditional publishers are right now. Then again, it would be nice if there could be some sort of process to go through to help eliminate the "bad"(unedited, grammar-has-nothing-to-do-with-it, who-cares-about-plot and so-there's-a-few-misspelled-words-who-cares?) books that are currently in the offering. Even if I pay nothing for a bad book, I am still annoyed that I used up valuable time looking for it, downloading it and then reading it (though I usually don't make it through the first few pages).

    Maybe there should be some sort of "seal of approval" process for Amazon's book offerings...meaning the book passes for proper format, grammar and punctuation usage, and spelling. As for plot, entertainment value, great-stuff-to-know factors and the like...well, readers get to decide that.

    Yes, this could create problems, authors who don't get the seal of approval might feel outraged and unfairly judged but at least readers will be getting what they expect when they buy a book in the book store...minus the this-is-the-book-I-think-readers-want control that the big publishing companies currently maintain.

    It is a bit troubling that anyone, absolutely anyone, whether they can actually put coherent words together or not, can publish, but the freedom of choice to do that shouldn't be snatched away ... especially now that it's been given. BUT it would be nice if something were done to help us readers out when looking for a relatively "clean" (minus those bad elements mentioned earlier)book to read.

    The review process is helpful to a degree but I've read books with great reviews that had formatting problems and the grammar usage was terrible. So, though it helps, it can't be totally relied upon. What a conundrum!

    So anyway...an interesting post. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Deborah. You make a lot of valid points.

      I especially like the notion of a seal of approval. Though, like you, I don't know for certain how Amazon could go about offering such a seal; perhaps it could be based on a certain vetting process.

      I suppose the number of stars a book receives combined with its reviews serves this process, but it takes time to build each of these qualifiers.

      Though now that I think about it, perhaps it is this very process, which is governed by time, that yields the readily-perceived quality of a book. Unless authors create their own reviews or have friends do it. And if you've ever taken the time to read the 1-star reviews of a book, they're often the most honest reviews given by astute readers.

      Ultimately one must simply download the free sample, give it a few minutes or pages, and see if it looks like it's worth continuing. The crappy books will sink to the bottom and the good books will be praised, and the writers of said crappy books will either give up or improve. Either way it's a win for us.

    2. Frankly, I think the "look inside this book!" feature works pretty well. Because, as you said, you can generally tell in the first few pages -- sometimes the very first sentence -- whether an author can write or not.

  2. Yes, I agree with what Deborah says - it's an interesting post, well done! And q good question: should Amazon charge and therefore raise the barriers to entry? Will slapping on a price, say $25 a title, change anything to the quality of the product?

    Quite frankly, I don't think so. What's needed to improve quality is some kind of vetting process - not as heavy and as time-consuming as trad publishers...but SOMETHING! Because this tsunami of titles on Amazon - really a transfer of the slush pile - is not helping any of us newbies to emerge!

    1. I feel you, Claude. Big time.

      As I said in my original post, I have mixed feelings about paying a fee to publish. I currently have 21 titles available on Amazon. If I'd had to pay $25 for each one, that would be roughly $500. I certainly would have published in spite of this fee, but it would have been a bit more challenging.

      As far as emerging as a writer, I think it simply takes time. Time and diligence. Amanda Hocking spent about a year doing it before her sales suddenly took off, and she herself has stated that she doesn't know what exactly caused the upswing. Obviously she had the right product for the right niche at the right time, and she's enjoying the results.

      Mike Hicks also spent about a year with his sci-fi books available until he published his thriller, at which time his sales really took an upswing. So it seems diversification may be part of the game.

      It is also a simple matter of building a following, much as musicians must do. Overnight successes are made over years of trial and error, combined with a passionate refusal to give up.

  3. But this is silly. Amazon DOES charge authors. They simply take their fees at the back end instead of up-front, which is why you receive 35% or 70% of what your book sells for. You don't receive 100%.

    If Amazon wants to charge me a fee up-front to publish my work, yes, I will feel insulted, and yes, that makes them a vanity press, and yes, I will go elsewhere.

    And fees paid up front never discouraged the wannabes, folks. That's how vanity presses earned their bread & butter all these years -- charging unpublishable authors to publish their books.

    Diane Farr
    "that's my story & I'm sticking to it"

  4. You're exactly right, Diane. Amazon DOES charge authors in the form of a sharing in the profit, but I would suggest that this is not the same as the up-front fee everyone is talking about; the same fee which would drive you to publish elsewhere (and quite possibly me, too; I guess I wouldn't know for certain until it happened and I had to choose).

    But your last sentence is absolutely brilliant: "Charging unpublishable authors to publish their books."

    I once paid $15 to a writer who'd had his book published through iUniverse. He was a smart guy, owned a used/rare book store. The first few pages were good (fantasy), but then typos began to appear, then plot inconsistencies began to appear, everyone was on horses, but then all of a sudden they were walking, and then I stopped reading. The manuscript simply wasn't ready. And I think that is one of the biggest problems with this digital publishing revolution; people are publishing their work before it is ready. A sloppy manuscript can be made readable and perhaps even enjoyable if the writer would simply employ a good editor. But often the rush to get the thing for sale on Amazon wins out, and it becomes one more pile of steaming pseudo-literary excrement we must navigate lest it squish between our toes.

  5. If Amazon charged writers to publish it would then become a Vanity Press. And thus tarnishing all indie authors who self-publish there.

  6. I suspect that if Amazon were to start charging an upfront fee (which I don't think is even a remote possibility at this point), it would make authors more reluctant to publish there - not because of the money involved, but because it would damage Amazon's reputation by making them look like a vanity press.

    (And a good way to avoid the unreadably-bad stuff on Amazon is to read the sample first.)

  7. I must say, the article presents two very good points of view.

    On one hand, the accessibility of Amazon is what made it big and also a great help for new authors, who have an easier time getting their books to people's attention and also write it in a language other than their original one. I'm Italian but I have a great -there goes my modesty under a pile of prideful sludge- grasp of English, and I prefer writing in the latter because: 1) more people can read it; 2) the Italian eBook market is currently non-existent. I was probably one of the first italians to ever get a Kindle -no joke- because I bought it on a trip to London last year and it has only recently started being sold in Italy.

    On the other, we live in a world where erotic fanfiction about Twilight becomes a bestseller. *shudders* Everyone can write and try to publish anything, without sometimes putting any effort in it, simply writing as a way of fulfilling their own fantasies -which, by the way, probably lots of authors do, but the good ones try to make it entertaining for everyone who reads-.

    Sure, being bamboozled -did I really just use that in a sentence?- by reviews or a nice cover happened long before the Kindle, but now there's a higher percentage of possible traps. At least they're cheaper. Most of the time. And if you're an experienced reader, you learn to dodge bad literature. Most of the time. Sorry about your vampiric suffering, Ryan.

    I don't think a fee is the way to go, because, again, we live in a world where wannabes stop at nothing -Friday (the song), I'm looking at YOU- if they get something in their head. Another alternative would be Amazon hiring people to read and see which books are readable and written well before allowing them to be published, although that could lead to Amazon taking the chance and orient the selection towards what's economically-Oh, wait.

    I can understand the frustration that comes by reading something written without much care when you put in so much work yourself -my web novel is still not over, but I'm already rewriting/editing what I've posted on my blog and will only become an ebook after a second rewriting to get rid of anything excessive/bad/plotholish and grammarrible- but the alternative is the traditional system or a fee system that would discourage everyone BUT wannabes, I fear.

    So, yeah. I guess we're stuck with total freedom of self-publishing for anyone with the ability to type the word monkey on a keyboard. But to be honest, I prefer it that way.

    Meinos Kaen

  8. There's some junk out there. I picked up a book by a well known author, something she had tabled for years. It was pure crap. So, it works both ways with new and known authors. Three of the best books I have read in years were by writers who would never get a contract - just excellent books. One author renewed my faith in science fiction. The other had a thriller that I couldn't put down, something quite rare these days.

    I love the wild west atmosphere of the self-publishing industry. Then again, in my field - the Wild West - 95% of non-fiction is self-published. The market is so small, no one is publishing it, but the writers. It has been this way for many years. The only difference is now things need to be put on Kindle, also.

    Contracts are nice, but, now that I've been approached with one, I don't know if I want to go that way. Five years ago I would have jumped on it. Today, I'm just not sure if I want to do it.

    Suddenly, writing is becoming fun again. There are no limits. I think an unknown now has a better opportunity to succeed than even a year ago. I suspect someone will figure this out and put an end to it.