Is Amazon Publishing good for writers?

A couple of big articles, including one in the New York Times, have come out touting the new publishing branch of Amazon and proclaiming it wonderful for authors and terrible for traditional publishers. But is it? I found a lot of hyperbole in the articles and a lot of red flags that leave me with some serious questions.

First, let’s look at the article in yesterday’s New York Times. It says:

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

122 books? Array of genres? That’s rather ambitious for a fledgling publisher. Exactly what makes Amazon qualified to pick quality submissions out of the slush? Who will be editing these books (and what are their qualifications)? Who will be designing the covers? What kind of publicity/marketing plan do they have? According to the article, publicity plans are top secret, as are details about the deals they’re setting up. That secrecy is NOT normal within the industry. Big red flags.

What the article conspicuously fails to mention at all is distribution. It plans to publish books in both print and digital form, but does it plan to sell those book anywhere other than Amazon.com? Will those books be available on bookstore shelves anywhere? Oh, I have no doubt that they’ll be *available* to stores, but will any actually choose to shelve them? If you were Barnes & Noble, is there any long-term benefit AT ALL to shelving books published by Amazon? Amazon is not their partner — it is their competitor, and a damn powerful competitor at that.

Next, the article discusses the case of Kiana Davenport. It presents an extremely biased version of the events. It claims that Ms. Davenport lost her contract with Penguin because Penguin is shaking in its boots about a collection of short stories she self-published on Amazon. They say:

“They’re trying to set an example: If you self-publish and distribute with Amazon, you do so at your own risk,” said Jan Constantine, a lawyer with the Authors Guild who has represented Ms. Davenport.

I… disagree. You can make up your own mind, however. I recommend reading Kiana’s original blog post on the subject AND all the associated comments (oh wait, she deleted the ones that disagreed with her, so that may not be worth your time), and then reading the thread on Absolute Write. Or just read Absolute Write. One thing I love about the people on that site, is that they have a wide range of experience (published authors, unpublished authors, agents, and editors), and so they look at situations like this from all sides.

Bottom line: Lots of authors self-publish and traditionally publish at the same time. But if the books overlap, the authors work with their agents and publishers to ensure they are not breaking their contracts or damaging the future sales of the book under contract. Those contracts are not set up to stifle a writer’s ability to write and publish but to protect the publisher’s investment. Publishers want to ensure that when their book is released, it is the newest, shiniest, best book a writer has to offer at that time so they can maximize sales. Oh yes, how evil and unreasonable those publishers are. </sarcasm>

The article then discusses a deal made with Laurel Saville. Well, sort of, since details are secret. Apparently Laurel wasn’t paid an advance. The question then becomes, what is Amazon offering her as a publisher that she wouldn’t get by self-publishing with Createspace, particularly since she seemed to be doing just fine on her own? I can’t help but wonder how Amazon picked its 122 books, and how many of them are of high enough quality that they would have been picked up by a traditional publisher — and how many non-celebrities will get a super-high advance.

Next, there was an article published in The New Republic today called, “Why Writers Should Embrace Amazon’s Takeover of the Publishing Industry.” I don’t for one second believe Amazon is taking over the publishing industry. Agents will happily tell you that there are more publishable books out there than there are publishers to sell them. Publishers can pick and choose and easily fill their lists. They are not begging for submissions, hoping for a breadcrumb. Contrary to what articles like this would have you believe, publishing is doing just fine, thank you very much.

Once you get into the meat of the story, the writer lists three services that have been “neglected” by traditional publishers. Let’s review her arguments, shall we?

  1. Discovering new authors. First, she says that agents can take six months to respond to a query. Nonsense. No agent takes that much time with queries. Not even close. She then mentions “unconnected authors,” which implies that writers must know someone to get picked up by an agent or publisher. Bullshit. Unknown writers are picked out of the slush every single day. I see nothing in what I’ve read about Amazon to make me think they’ll be better at picking books than anyone else. They’ll have winners and losers, just like other publishers. If they woo away experienced writers who are proven best-sellers, Amazon may appear to have “picked” more winners, but really that just means they have deeper pockets. Those writers weren’t exactly picked from the slush, and Amazon’s association with them means nothing for aspiring writers.
  2. Creating beautiful books. The writer claims that big publishers no longer edit the manuscripts that come to them. More bullshit. They do. They spend an extraordinary amount of time with their writers. We know nothing about the Amazon editors. We don’t know who they are, or how many books they’ll be assigned, or how talented they are. We don’t know if the big name writers will get more editing attention than the newer writers.
  3. Getting the word out. Amazon’s publicity plans are “secret,” so I’m not sure how any claim can be made that it will be better than a traditional publisher’s plan. Will their marketing dollars be more heavily invested in those proven authors or in the newbies? Gee, let me take a guess. The writer of this article complains that traditional publishers don’t market the newbies enough, but I think that depends on the book and the publisher, and I see zero evidence that Amazon will do better. I would also point out that not being able to get the book anywhere but at Amazon is a pretty significant handicap at this stage of the game.

Bottom line, I don’t think we know enough about the Amazon publishing venture to know how good it will be for writers or readers or whether it will, in any way, impact publishers. I’m willing to keep an open mind, but I’m definitely not drinking the Kool-Aid yet.

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12 Responses to Is Amazon Publishing good for writers?

  1. Fascinating post. I agree with you regarding our limited knowledge of how Amazon’s publishing ventures will pan out. A friend of mine signed with Amazon because it was his only apparent option. He’s excited about their marketing capabilities, although the royalties are lower in his case compared than traditional publishers.

    I’ve heard mixed opinions from booksellers and publishers. It’ll be interesting to see what happens…

    • Melissa says:

      I, obviously, have no proof, but I have a feeling that Amazon is going to have different “levels” of not only advances, but also royalties, based on how they expect a book to sell. They’re going to play up the big deals they offer to celebrities and proven best-selling authors, but I bet they’ll be offering unproven authors a crap deal all while playing up how they’re the “only publisher willing to take a risk” with them.

  2. Sharon says:

    Loved reading your perspective on this. Here are my thoughts:

    Getting out of the slushpile is HARD. Publisher budgets are tight and that means smaller editorial staffs. New writers have an even harder time finding that one editor who connects with their work. And heaven knows the poor midlist is being squeezed just like the middle class. Amazon is a new publisher – that means more options for writers, and that’s a good thing.

    But as with any publisher (new or old), writers need to do their homework and make sure they have someone to help them scrutinize contracts, etc. (traditionally an agent or IP attorney’s role).

    Does this represent the end of publishing as we know it? I can’t understand why anyone is making this claim. Why would it? “The end of publishing as we know it” may come, but not as a result of Amazon joining the fray.

    Your “truth check” on the list above gave me a little chuckle. I am wondering who they asked?

    Because let me tell you, having just sold a book to a traditional publisher, they absolutely DO still work with writers on editing and improving books. I am waiting on my second round of feedback/edits right now. And it’s not just me. I can’t tell you how many excited FB status updates I’ve seen from writing colleagues that say something like “I just turned in my revisions!”

    On the 6 months point…I queried more than 30 agents on my agent quest. There were a FEW agents who never replied, per their stated policy, but not a single one of the ones who did reply took anywhere near 6 months. In fact I had a number who responded in hours or days. (One well-known agent/writer/blogger responded in 10 minutes!)

    • Melissa says:

      Thank you so much for weighing in! In my opinion, someone like you — who has gone through the query-as-unknown, snag-a-great-agent, rewrite-until-eyes-cross, and land-a-killer-multibook-deal process — is a much more reliable source than the biased writers of these articles.

  3. Sharon says:

    PS – Please stop writing interesting things. I have a deadline.
    ;D

  4. Sharon says:

    Wow, when you say it like that it sounds pretty cool! 😀

    Yes, my experiences, for what they’re worth. I discussed this with another writing colleague, and she told me she HAD in fact experienced 6-month waits on queries (during the same time period that I was querying).

    I did a truth check on myself, and did come up with 1 query response (out of more than 30) that took 5 months, with no explanation. But the other longest response times were 3 and 4 months, and were the result of a glitch in one case and extreme busy-ness in the other, and both came with apologies.

    I have noticed one interesting change in just the past 6-8 months, though this is probably a topic for another post. I know 2 writers personally – one who has an agent and had submitted to a few publishers, and another who had finished a manuscript and was about to start querying agents – who switched gears and decided to self-publish. In my own experience (it bears repeating, this is just what I observed personally), this wasn’t something you would see a writer do until all other options were exhausted. So at least to some, self-publishing appears to be a more viable alternative than it used to. I have also seen MANY writing colleagues sign contracts with e-only publishers. One particular writer, who has an agent and a very strong contest track record, but was turned down by all the traditional houses because they were having a hard time categorizing her work, found a home at one of the newer epublishers with the no-advance, higher-royalty models. This particular publisher also does print versions.

    What does this have to do with your post? 🙂 I guess it’s more toward the point in my first comment – more options = good.

    • Melissa says:

      I have to say, though, with the replies that came after three, four, five months, hadn’t you already counted them as rejections? If you were trying to circulate only a limited number of queries, wouldn’t you have LONG BEFORE counted those as rejections and sent out the next batch? The article makes it sound like waiting six months to hear from someone is routine. I wouldn’t WAIT that long.

      • Sharon says:

        No, absolutely. I never waited that long to send out more. Though I did check back in with the ones who exceeded a stated timeframe for reply. (And it was worth it, because they turned out to be requests.)

  5. Hey thank you for posting this, and for the links, as well. I just self-published my first book to Kindle, now we’re kind of shut down trying to swim thru the waters of Nook, iTunes and hard copies.

    Strange times, publishing-wise.

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks for commenting, Nancy! Good luck with your book. These *are strange times, but also exciting times. I don’t think there’s one path to success. The challenge, instead, is finding the right path for you — a path that will make YOU feel successful and happy.

  6. Pingback: Is Amazon Publishing good for writers? | RandomThoughts

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