Thursday, 23 June 2016

Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Brown River by Lev Butts

It seems that Amazon.com just can't help screwing over indie writers. I don't mean to imply that Amazon has it in for indie writers. It would be self-defeating to set out to undermine such a significant source of revenue for one of your important subsidiaries. After all, without indie folks, Amazon's CreateSpace program, one of the primary venues for self-publishers and many smaller independent presses, would essentially be dead in the water.

No, the problem lies in Amazon's perhaps overzealous pursuit of quality control. More particularly, trying to ensure that its merchandise is not offensive, its book reviews are relatively unbiased, and royalties are obtained honestly.

Maybe Amazon should consider this as a motto for its quality control.

This is not a new thing, and we here at Authors Electric have certainly discussed Amazon's problematic relationship with independent authors (and with traditional writers, too) before. However, I'd like to take a closer look at the problematic methods Amazon has used to address the three concerns above.

1. Non-Offensive Merchandise

I've written about this issue before, but not with an exclusive view towards how it affects indie writers.

As an initial reaction to the Charleston, SC Killings, many retailers, including Amazon, declared a moratorium on selling Confederate flags, extending to portrayals on other products regardless of historical context. While Amazon eventually relented on the issue of book covers, so long as the flag was displayed in a historically accurate or culturally appropriate manner, the fact remains that for a while there, books were removed from the virtual shelves, and many wound up having new covers designed before the world's largest bookstore came to its senses.

So how does this affect independent writers? Well, cover design ain't cheap. A good cover can sometimes cost the publisher hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you self-publish or publish through a co-op house, that means the money comes from your pocket. Since most indie writers are not going to make enough money in royalties to cover such a cost once, much less twice to remove an offending image, this means that once a book was banned, it was gone, at least until the prohibition was lifted.

Others such as our own Reb MacRath went ahead and had new covers created, but that essentially became an extra cost to their revenue that they would not make back until years down the road, if ever.

That the new cover (right) was actually a superior cover
doesn't negate my original point that it was an unnecessary
financial hardship to force on the author.

2. Unbiased Reviews

Amazon has, what looks on the surface, like an understandable if fairly strict review policy. In it, it states clearly that "family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items." Look, I get it. It's important that book reviews, which help drive sales, be as unbiased as possible. Obviously a spouse's review of their significant other's book is going to raise questions over whether it's an accurate depiction of the book's quality.

However, Amazon is a little vague about what constitutes a "close friend": a close friend, apparently is, they explain on their Frequently Asked Questions page, anyone who has a "direct or indirect financial interest in a product, or [is] perceived to have a close personal relationship with its author or artist."

Again, on the surface this sounds perfectly fine. Except for the word "perceived." How can Amazon "perceive" a review came from such a person? While answers are not forthcoming from the company itself, evidence points to online surveillance of your social media. There are anecdotal reports of reviews being dropped because a reviewer and an author corresponded a few times on the author's website/Facebook page. I myself have had a review of a Neil Gaiman book denied once because we "knew" each other, and to the best of my knowledge, I've never met the man but once at a book signing, and he once replied to a comment I made on his webpage page about ten years ago.

I'm sure my lost review did nothing to harm the sales of American Gods, mind you, but this is Neil Fricking Gaiman we're talking about. The man could publish his grocer's list and make the New York Times Bestseller List.

Hello, I am Neil Gaiman, and this is a ledger of all the shits
the markets didn't give about Mr. Butts' lost review of my book.


For independent authors, though, every lost review counts. We struggle to get every review we can to make that minimum number of reviews that will allow Amazon to out our books in rotation on the "Others have read" and the "You might also like" and the ever popular "Frequently bought with this" lists. If we lose reviews simply because we once said "thank you" to a nice comment on our blog, or someone happened to "like" the picture we posted of our dog doing something cute, that has a direct palpable financial impact.

Though my dog is, to be honest, incredibly cute.

3. Honest Royalties

Recently, Amazon decided to pay Kindle Unlimited authors by the pages of their books read as opposed to a flat fee for whole book borrowed. There are all kinds of problems with this pay model, that I will let others discuss. The main thing from the two articles I've linked is that some folks have found a way around Amazon's page counting metrics, and they have found ways around Amazon's original solution to the scammers.

Again, I'm not saying that the scammers should win here. Far from it. I'm mainly concerned though, with the salt-the-earth policies that Amazon has enacted both for this and other perceived breaches of Amazon rules. Essentially, they can drop your books and ban you from publishing with them without so much as a token query to you.

If you write books that are "fast reads," and people finish them quickly (like overnight, because none of us have ever stayed up late nights to finish a book), Amazon may think you have paid a "click-farm" or 'bots to borrow your books and click through the pages to the end without reading them.

Amazon, stop me now!

Think it can't happen? It can and it does. It happened to Pauleen Creeden. Yes, her books are still available in paperback, but for most indie authors, the real money is in ebooks. Just as paperbacks became a cheaper and more portable alternative to hardbacks in the mid-twentieth century (thus making books more accessible to the poor and middle class), ebooks have become the new cheaper and more portable option for readers. With her access to ebook publishing removed, Creeden has lost a significant portion of her writer's income without so much as a chance to defend herself.

So what can we do?

In a word, not much. We can't delete our social media to ensure more reviews. Doing so only limits our access to the readers who may write them. We cannot prove a negative when it comes to employing click-farms or purchasing reviews, especially if we are not given the opportunity to even try to.

The main thing we can do as authors is try to lobby Amazon to institute a better appeals process to allow authors and reviewers to defend themselves before having their work summarily deleted.

How one does that, though, is beyond me. Perhaps someone in the comments has a clue.

We're sorry Mr. Butts, but we can't publish a new review on your book. It turns out
the reviewer's cousin was a caterer on a movie set where the director had once
worked with Kevin Bacon, who was in Footloose, which starred John Lithgow,
who was in The World According to Garp, based on a novel by John Irving,
who once wrote you a letter.




6 comments:

Jan Needle said...

yeah, they're a funny lot. but i guess we're stuck with em....

Susan Price said...

I have no ideas, Lev, but if that really is your dog, he really is incredibly cute.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks for the tout and the provocative post. As for me, the strong nudge for me to change covers ending up being a boon. I'd come to see the need for cover unity in a series. That said, I'll be damned if I stop my hero, Boss, from sporting mini flags on the sleeves of his jacket. He is who he is.

Leverett Butts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leverett Butts said...

And well he should be!

Leverett Butts said...

He really is my dog, Susan. His name is Lucky and you see him updating his Facebook page there.