The disclaimer comes first. In Amazon’s early days, I had a regular gig reviewing mystery novels — it was like being a taster at the chocolate factory! Still, it wasn’t enough to convince me to invest in their stock, which could then be had for even less than my occasional $50 review checks. As a writer myself, I knew the sorry economics of publishing — an industry where 90 percent of the product lost money, 7 percent broke even, and the rest made the owners enough to cover the others. Why throw good money after bad?
Of course, that was back when Amazon only sold books,its stock was $9 a share, and I thought of the company as being part of an industry that was even then on life support..
Today books are such a small part of the company’s bottom line and Amazon is such a big part of the online economy, you wonder why they fight so hard with publishers who won’t give in for such (relatively) small gains. And why they keep triangulating authors like me — the midlisters — between a rock and a hard place. Sure, a larger share of on-line profits would help us keep writing in spite of the dismal financial returns. But it’s the publishers who take the first chance on us, and even if they don’t nurture our careers and books the way they once did, their backing legitimizes writers in a way that Amazon can’t: Even in a self publishing world, publishers matter.
After a dozen editors who fell in love with my protagonist told my agent they couldn’t sell a book with an elderly (60) romantic heroine, I self-published it with Amazon. Hardly the great American novel — more like chick lit for older women — Sugar Timewas smart and funny and I wanted it out there . But “out there” is different in cyberspace, which was the only place it went — sort of like George Clooney spinning into the void in Gravity. I’d always assumed that even if I couldn’t figure out how to break it out via social media, I’d sell enough copies locally and regionally to make a few dollars, and I’d at least get it reviewed in the Seattle papers, which had reviewed my previous 11 titles.
But any home-field advantage I might have reasonably expected evaporated. Not one bookseller would stock it unless ordered and paid for it in advance. “And even then, we wouldn’t put it on our shelves,” added a buyer from Powell’s. “Why would I sell a book by a company that’s driving me out of business?” “Do you know how many regularly published books we get every day?” said an editor at the Seattle Times? “We can’t possibly cover the self-published ones, too.”
What’s ironic is that I once held seminars on “How to Sell What You Write” at a chain of bookstores (remember b.dalton?) , and consulted frequently with writers who wanted help writing proposals, finding agents,and getting published. And one of the first things I told them was never to self-publish a novel with what were then called “vanity presses.”
I don’t blame Jeff Bezos for my failure to take my own advice, Sugar Time has a few sexy scenes, but 50 shades of gray described my heroine’s hair, not her libido. However, like a battered wife, I am still insanely devoted to my (fifth) Kindle. I am a sucker for its instant gratification, low prices, and ease of use.
No, what I blame Jeff for is how stupidly and arrogantly he’s squandering the cultural capital he’s earned with readers like me by pitting them against writers like me and trying to blame it all on the publishers who built the industry in the first place. I’m not going to make an impact on this standoff by putting my name on an ad in the New York Times, refusing to shop on Amazon any longer, or even stop reading books on my Kindle (although I’m downloading them more of them from the library now.) It’s not like I’m breaking up with Jeff entirely… I’m just trying to understand why he’s turned into such a lousy lover.