The Great Amazon Debate

My co-author, Andrea, and I had decided to sit out the great Amazon vs. Hachette debate. Then, last month, a local bookstore declined to carry Queen of the Court because it was (in their view) published “by the Amazon Empire”, which (in their view) is cheating authors and squeezing out independent booksellers.

For those of you who are Amish or members of an Amazon (no relation) tribe with no access to technology, Amazon and publisher Hachette have been warring over ebook prices. Amazon says lowering them would drive up demand, and also wants a bigger cut of ebook sales. Hachette claims this is unfair to authors. Amazon has delayed shipping and pre-orders of some Hachette authors to pressure the publisher into agreeing. Both parties are actively asking writers – and readers – to take sides and vote with their book-buying dollars. Hachette is a huge multinational company, although not the behemoth that is Amazon. Hachette is presenting itself as the defender of writers, Amazon as the champion of readers. I think we all know that Hachette and Amazon are really fighting over profit share, which is totally appropriate for corporate entities. However, positioning it as anything else is ridiculous.

So our local bookstore enthusiastically entered the fray on the anti-Amazon side by banning Queen of the Court and any other indie book published by Amazon  its shelves. We were rejected despite the fact that we own our own ISBNs and imprint, so therefore are not technically published by Amazon or its Createspace subsidiary. (The only service we purchased from Createspace was an interior design template for around $250.) Amazon does receive a portion of our profits.

I have absolutely no problem with an independent retailer taking this stand, but last time I checked, this store was selling books by Hillary Clinton and other big name authors who market through Amazon pages, ship through Amazon and fuel the Amazon Empire’s profits. Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet Amazon makes more from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch than  from our book, otherwise the online retailer would not have named it book of the year. So, in other words, this bookstore is supporting the Amazon boycott by freezing out only those authors who are not likely to make them much money. Way to stand up for the little guy, folks!

I empathize with any author who believes his or her literary work is being devalued and whose livelihood is threatened. I know authors signed with major publishing houses don’t like Amazon’s stranglehold on book sales, but neither do independent authors like the stranglehold  publishing houses have on which works make it to the marketplace and which don’t. The same is true of bookstores. I love and support independent booksellers, and my co-author’s mother owned a bookstore for many years. But most independent bookstores show little encouragement for independent authors. Yet despite all this, we’re being asked to abandon Amazon and market through less viable channels to support Hachette’s case. Throughout history, folks with nothing have been asked to throw themselves on their swords for one glorious cause or another. Usually this involves saving the kingdom for a guy who has a whole lot more at stake than they do, and who isn’t going to invite them to the palace for drinks once the war is over. I don’t think it’s any different this time.

So I’m going to say thanks but no thanks to the boycott. I respect the position of all my friends with conventionally published works who have decided to take a stand against Amazon. I hope they’ll respect and understand my position as well. Right now, Amazon has provided and continues to provide support and market access for my book. So far, publishers and retailers on the other side are doing the opposite. And to my local retailer I would also add: if you expect me to give up Amazon, why don’t you lead the charge? Refuse to sell the work of any author with an Amazon page, and maybe I’ll take your boycott seriously.

 

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FIVE MYTHS ABOUT INDIE BOOKS

ImageOne of the most first questions I’m asked when someone finds out I’m an author is always “so, did you self publish?” I wouldn’t mind, except that it’s usually asked with a smirky “yeah, I could be that kind of author too” look that implies that I’m cranking out pamphlets about alien abduction on an ancient mimeograph in my garage. I try not to go into self-justification, and instead point out that indie authors – those of us who publish using services outside mainstream publishing houses – represent an increasing slice of the book publishing pie, and that readers who snub indies are missing vibrant new voices and some very enjoyable books. However, often that isn’t enough. So I’m taking a few paragraphs to correct some of the myths that keep people away from indie books.

1. I DON’T WANT TO READ A BOOK WITH A LOT OF MISTAKES

Time to stop reading altogether then! Here’s a link to a paper by an irate English professor excoriating the editors of Harry Potter for all their many grammatical mistakes. http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Fairfax_Magnet_HS/faculty%20pages/Education%20Week_%20No%20Wiz%20at%20Grammar.pdf There are also a legion of websites pointing out content errors, such as bikes being returned to characters who already had them, and Harry’s birthday being on the wrong day of the week for that particular year. I don’t know about you, but both my kids and I loved Harry Potter and never noticed any of these, because we weren’t looking for them. I won’t deny that online publishing, especially uploading an eBook, is now so easy some writers do decide to just throw something up there that hasn’t been properly edited. But I know our book, Queen of the Court, went through numerous edits, both professional and amateur. Are there a few mistakes? Yes. Just as there are in most books, since they’re products of human endeavor. I think a high quality indie offers readers a similar experience to a high quality book from a publisher. And let’s face it, a crappy book is a crappy read, no matter who publishes it, or how many mistakes it has.

2. I WANT A BOOK WRITTEN BY A REAL WRITER

Really? Good! I’ve been a writer for twenty-five plus years, had stories in major magazines and won a slew of awards. My co-author was the Washington correspondent for SPY, one of the smartest, funniest magazines ever published. So please, if you’re looking for work by “real writers” buy our book. (Maybe instead of the latest conventionally published memoir by a twenty-something who has never written anything before. Just sayin’.)

Major publishing houses may be known for their bestseller lists, but they publish the work of unknowns as well, it just gets little attention unless it takes off. I’m not picking on J.K. Rowling, but her first venture into adult literature sold only 1500 copies under a pseudonym, despite the might of her publisher’s publicity efforts. Only when her name was “revealed” (oh, yes, that had nothing to do with boosting paltry sales, I’m sure) did The Cuckoo’s Calling start selling. Some recent bestsellers, such as Hugh Howie’s Dust and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey were originally self-published. Dust, in fact the entire Silo Saga, was great. I haven’t read Fifty Shades and don’t intend to, it’s not my thing and I have heard nothing good about the writing. But the formerly self-published author was at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party scouting talent for the film, so I don’t think she’s waiting for my stamp of approval to consider herself a “real writer”.

3. WHEN I SPEND MONEY, I WANT A QUALITY PAPERBACK

I can’t speak for all indie writers, but our book is beautiful, with a professionally designed cover and interior. We’re more than happy with the quality of the paper and production from Amazon’s Createspace, and our book looks comfortable on shelves with conventional novels. My UVa classmate K.M. Topping has produced an absolutely stunning looking young adult novel, Hunter Crispian and the Little Brother of War independently as well. Go ahead and judge a book by its cover! Many indie authors hire wonderful creative designers for their covers and interiors and work with them to make sure the cover truly reflects the content. Amazon has to refund money when a customer returns a book for poor quality, so when they handle production through Createspace, they have a vested interest in the outcome. Quality sells, and they know it.

4. I JUST TRUST CORPORATE PUBLISHING TO DECIDE WHAT IS GOOD AND WHAT ISN’T

Really? I don’t. I read a lot, and we’re talking upwards of fifty books a year. Some of them are awful, even those from major writers that get major publicity. I recently picked up the new mystery by Isabel Allende, a writer I adore. Ripper was a major disappointment, with a meandering plot and cardboard characters. If it had been an indie book, I would have thought it was not professionally edited, or edited at all. I don’t blame Allende, who in her seventies has the guts to flex her writing muscles by trying out a new genre. I do blame the editors and publisher for not sending this major talent back to her drawing board. There was a good book somewhere in there, but Harper failed to tease it out. I am sure some readers loved this book, but my point is that buying a book is a risk, you are not going to love everything you read no matter who publishes it.

5.A LOT OF INDIE BOOKS SEEM TO BE ABOUT WEIRD STUFF

Indie publishing does seem to have more than its fair share of paranormal romance, Fifty Shades knock offs and dystopian sagas. Some of these books are quite good, but if it’s not your style – and it’s not mine either – looking at a page full of these can be a turn off. Fortunately, Amazon and other online booksellers have sort functions, so you can rid yourself of sexy vampires, bondage babes and rotting zombies with a couple of clicks. I think sorting by genre is a gift to readers, but can be tough on novels like ours. Queen of the Court is a social satire that really crosses categories. It’s humor, but has some substance, it’s chick lit, but many male readers love it, it has an mystery element, but that’s not the main focus. In your friendly, neighborhood bookstore (the one that went out of business five years ago) it would probably be shelved somewhere near Carl Hiaason’s novels and Bridget Jones’ Diary. The lack of identifiable genre makes our job as indie authors – finding readers – even more difficult. But we work at it every day. The eBook version of Queen of the Court is just $.99 through March 8 because we want to introduce more readers to our work. We hope you’ll take a chance with your hard earned dollar and explore the world of indie publishing, starting with our book. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A