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That one time I sort of met Jeff Bezos.
And why Amazon is not necessarily the writer's friend.
::On my blog site, julieneidlinger.com, I have several sections. I send an email from the main blog, but one section is dedicated to writers (and artists). It’s called Prairie Writers and I share thoughts and tips and even the questions I still have as I try to work it out. If you are already a paid subscriber to the Lone Prairie Blog, you have full access to Prairie Writers. Otherwise, some posts are available for free while others are behind a paywall. ::
I heard Jeff Bezos, head honcho of Amazon, speak on January 18, 2006, at the Marketplace for Entrepreneurs event here in North Dakota. This was what I wrote on my blog at the time:
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, was the keynote speaker for this year's event. I figured I had to go since I was doing my best to keep his company solvent.
After the usual mumbo-jumbo by Senators Conrad and Dorgan and Representative Pomeroy in which everyone remotely connected to the event and beyond was thanked and the audience instructed to clap, the real reason everyone was there walked on stage.
I thought he'd be taller.
But, though shortish, he was funny and personable, which I could clearly see from directly in front three rows from the stage. And anyone who puts clips from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" in his presentation gets a vote in my book.
Another reason I know he was funny, besides the fact that I was frequently laughing, was that the guy sitting in front of me kept turning around and telling no one in particular that "He's funny, he really is!"
Bezos spoke about customer service and gave some tips for entrepreneurs.
I scribbled notes madly like the good former-reporter that I am. So here is a Brief Outline of Hilarious Speech from my Favorite Online Seller Whose Shipping and Prices Kill Barnes and Noble Which I will Refine Later When I'm Not in this Public Internet Area with a Guy Talking on His Cell Phone Next To Me:
Reduce cognitive load. He showed examples of good doors which obviously let user know whether to push or pull and bad doors with warning signs and excess
Don't reinvent Chinese. Showed example of old-fashioned clothing tag which used English words to tell how to care for it versus new tags which use confusing symbols (because of different languages used and a global economy, I'm assuming, but yes, they are confusing) - guy in front "Man, he's funny!"
Don't be different just to be different. This is something I see a lot of in the graphic design world, confusing labels and packaging just for the sake of getting accolades from other designers, but Bezos' point was well made here, using shampoo, conditioner and lotion bottles from a hotel that were overly arty and labeled "smooth", "lather" and "shine."
Don't ignore naturally evolved standards
Empower people to do right for customers. From the many jobs I've started and quit, yes, this is an issue. I have to run things by a boss or higher-up when I'd really just rather give the customer a break; Bezos played a clip from that Michael Douglas movie where he gets caught in a traffic jam and goes nuts (Falling Down? What was it called); the clip he showed was the one where he goes to order breakfast at the fast food restaurant and they only serve lunch because it's past 11:30
Start with customer service and work backwards.
Focus on needs that don't change.
Be simple minded.
Don't listen to critics. Showed headlines from 12/14/98 Business Week "Amazon.toast" and 5/31/99 Barron's "Amazon.bomb" (which featured a caricature that Bezos said his mother hated)
Remember the customer isn't at the meeting. That is, be there to speak up for the customer because they aren't present to do it themselves
There was more, but this is the meat of it.
A lot has changed since 2006, including what Amazon has become and how I feel about it and Bezos. Those might be great customer service tips and Amazon might feel pretty good from the buyer’s viewpoint, but as a seller and creator, it’s an entirely different experience.
Amazon changed the publishing world many times over, often to the detriment of most writers.
1. The power of the random reviewer is woefully abused.
For one thing, they’ve essentially crowdsourced book reviews which seems like a good idea, to get it out of the hands of leftist coastal elites, but then, when you read some Amazon reviews, you have to wonder if it was good or not.
In one of the issues of my Lone Prairie magazine, I tried to point out the problem using a bit of humor. We’ve all seen those people giving a product a poor review based not on the product, but on the shipping or some other unrelated experience in the purchase.
However, those starred reviews carry real weight in how your book gets listed, found, and sold. Not only do you have to beg people for pre-orders so major booksellers and Big Box stores take notice and shelve your book, but the reviews people give are also something you beg for. More than once I’ve gotten a random email from an author offering me a free PDF copy if I’d read and review their book.
I don’t do that with my own work, mind you, though in light of the protest (more in a minute) I did let people know that if they bought the book, a review would be appreciated to offset trolls.
I understand why authors are doing this begging. Since Amazon has pretty much become the biggest seller of books, the reviews matter.
As I learned after the pipeline protest, any book you have on Amazon becomes weaponized.
Consider Amazon a social network that doesn't give you any control. Anyone can leave a review, with an anonymous fake name if desired. They don't even have to be a verified purchase to leave the review, so Amazon runs no checks to attempt to make their review system legitimate. In an effort to build the biggest product review database in the world, they allow severe abuse that has a direct financial component affecting your livelihood.
I have no problem if a verified purchaser leaves a one-star review because at least they put their money where their mouth is. But anonymous non-buyers having the ability to hurt the author and tank sales? Not awesome. The internet is full of George Costanzas wandering around telling people the book is interesting but terribly overrated, having never even read it.
During the protest, my work on Amazon was targeted by these reviews.
I reported the comments, some of which were protesters who had harassed me in other places. After several days and multiple email messages, as I was passed from one support person to another as they slowly "escalated" my complaint, I was finally told that they "understand your concerns, but the review doesn't violate our posted guidelines, so I'm unable to remove it in its current format. We try to encourage our customers to give their honest opinions on our products while staying within our guidelines. As a retailer, we are interested in cultivating a diversity of opinion on our products. Part of that is allowing our customers to air their honest thoughts on items they have received."
Remember, Bezos is customer-centric, concerned with customer experience, seemingly not as concerned with sellers and creators.
Having your book listed on Amazon provides trolls a place where they can both damage your reputation as well as your income, and there are no safeguards or possibilities for you to get any serious justice out of it. And as you’ll see, it’s difficult to remove your books from their system if you want to close this harassment outlet.
2. Books are made widely available, but wildly less profitable.
It is true that some authors have had wild success with Amazon, particularly in the early days of the ebook/Kindle phenomenon. There are, now and then, breakout successes thanks to the Amazon system and its huge customer base.
But most of us aren’t that story.
As a young artist and designer, I would fall for the “do this work for free for us because it’ll give you great exposure” trap that so-called clients would pull. I did a lot of free work for exposure, but exposure, unless you’re an exotic dancer, doesn’t really generate income. This is even more the case in a world where the online realm is ever more crowded with creators and writers flooding their websites and all sales outlets with their wares.
“You have to be on Amazon to get the exposure!”
(Or, “I won’t buy your book unless I can get it on Amazon because I have Prime and want free shipping.”)
With an ebook listed on Amazon, you can choose to get 70% of the ebook royalties or 35%. Here is what 35% looks like on my Blogathon Bob ebook:
If you choose the 70%, Amazon charges you the download costs each time it’s downloaded, costs that vary based on the country. If your book has a lot of images, that’s going to be expensive.
So the safest thing to do is let Amazon take all but 35% of the profit with your ebook.
With a print book, you’re dealing with something called a “wholesale discount.” Here’s what I wrote about my experience with my first self-published book several years ago:
Unless you publish your book through their self-publishing system, you will not make much profit listing your self-published books there.
I did not want to use them as the printer, because it put my book's entirety of existence in the hands of Amazon as both publisher and seller.
Amazon's rules are that if you want to list your book with them, they must have the lowest price online. If that book is found anywhere else online available for less, they mark their price down to remain the lowest. Readers think that's great but consider some realities for writers:
The actual cost to print my first full-color book was $17.87. To account for standard wholesale discounts, I have to add to that cost or I would lose money. That wholesale discount, however, has an Amazon component to it, as you'll see in a minute.
Amazon has additional markups that add to the cost and make that wholesale discount as high as it is.
In the end, to meet the profits that Amazon wants to make on each sale of my book, you can see from the first graphic that I only make about $1 for every book I sell on Amazon. Sure, I could mark it up higher, but $30 is high enough for a soft cover. Even for a full-color book with lots of imagery in it, my goal price had been to charge the reader no more than $22. Had I not listed on Amazon, I could have charged less (even with shipping, it would have been less) and still made more than $1 a book.
Books I sell on Amazon amount to next to nothing (I've done better selling off of my website), but Amazon makes about $7 off of each sale, all while letting online trolls abuse the review system.
Even if you make the decision not to list on Amazon, your book will find its way there (sans profit to you) through other systems (e.g. used booksellers). But at least you can have some up-front control on the initial release and a lower price by not putting it on Amazon.
In summary: to get my first book on Amazon for the convenience of consumers who insist on “free shipping” and who don't realize how Amazon works, the book was made far more expensive for everyone than it would have been simply so that Amazon could make the cut they wanted which were more profits than the author of the actual work made. You might think you're getting a deal on Amazon because of “free shipping” with your Amazon Prime, but if I didn't list with Amazon and set my price as I had intended, even with shipping, it would have been less than ordering off of Amazon with "free shipping.”
To be honest, when I sold my first book in person directly to someone, I chopped the price down to what I had originally intended, to just below $20. I simply couldn't list it cheaper online or Amazon would respond negatively.
The required wholesale discount has recently gone up, like everything else in this tanking economy. That means booksellers want more of a discount meaning authors make less or the book price goes up to cover this forced discount.
Let’s take a look at that same first self-published book I shared the pricing image of above, but how it looks for today’s situation:
A 36% discount isn’t an option anymore; now it has to be 40% or more. That minimum list price is what the book costs without me making any profit whatsoever.
This chart is a scenario example of what that all ends up being. That’s why Amazon can list a book at 40% (or more) less than the “list price” because their discount is built into bloating that list price.
If Amazon didn’t demand to be the cheapest listed price on the internet and demand so much money from every sale, your books would be cheaper, authors would be paid better, and it wouldn’t matter if you had your “free shipping” (which isn’t technically free, but that’s another post for another day).
3. Amazon wants to control your book and limit where and how you can sell it.
Kindle Unlimited is a great program for readers. You pay a monthly fee and get access to all kinds of ebooks in the program.
For writers trying to list their ebooks on Amazon, though, KDP Select—the back side of Kindle Unlimited—is a bit of a trap.
Unless the program has changed since I first looked into it, KDP Select appears to give you better royalties, better exposure, and…doesn’t allow you to list your ebook for sale anywhere else. That includes your own website. They get the exclusive.
Unless they’ve changed their policies, you, the writer, get paid a percentage based on who actually reads your book and how many pages they read (because Amazon, as you know, tracks your reading habits when you’re reading their ebooks).
If you want to make it available elsewhere, don’t click that innocent and tempting KDP Select option when you’re uploading your ebook.
And speaking of uploading your ebook…
Here’s the other creepy thing: when you upload your ebook file to Amazon, you can’t delete it. You can unpublish, you can archive, you can remove it from people being able to buy it. But you can’t delete it easily from their servers. Once they have it, they have it. Sure, you might have the “rights” to it, but it ought to bother a person to know that their writing is permanently stuck on some server even if they don’t want it to be.
A lot of authors still use Amazon as their POD publisher and for ebook sales. I still have a few things listed there (though I don’t use them as the publisher). Yet there’s no shortage of blog posts and articles sharing, in great detail, the concerns authors have with Amazon. Back in 2014, there was a publicized battle between Amazon and Hachette (a publisher), as well as a battle between the DOJ and publishers; that opened the eyes of some consumers as to what was going on and started a push to get people to buy their books from anyone but Amazon.
The problem is that if you want to make a living (or even a side income) from your writing, you’re battling a consumer mindset that trained—and is trained by—the Amazon model: cheaper and faster.
Just as with sellers on Etsy who realized if they didn’t offer “free shipping” they wouldn’t get top listing, the costs of creating and distributing a product are still there. There is no free shipping. Someone has to pay the shipper.
Shifting those costs around to hide it so you feel better about supposedly not paying for shipping or getting the lowest price available ends up hurting the guy at the very end of the line, the creator. The cost of shipping and everything else are shoved into the cost somewhere, and if anyone is going to eat that cost, it won’t be Amazon.
It’ll be the creator.
The creator isn’t creating the product in this system; they are the product.
Using Substack as my blogging platform was new in that, for the first time in two decades, I started putting my content behind a paywall. Until then, everything had been free and we all, myself included, grew used to the idea that information should be free.
But there are bills to pay. And though I’ve marked down the subscription price on Substack to as low as they’ll allow me ($5/month), I know that it’s a frustration (and in this economy, a hardship) for some readers to pay for content. Some have told me as much.
Understandably, in a world absolutely flooded with every kind of content imaginable, there’s nothing special about this blog (or the author) that would make many determine it’s worth paying for…except for the person who, now and then, decides that there is.
At the very least, there is no significant gatekeeper between you, the reader, and myself, the writer. Substack takes standard sales fees (as does the payment processor) so that out of that $5 each month I make about $3. But at least for now, they are not actively trying to crush the creator or dictate exclusive terms for their benefit.
Thank you to all of my paid subscribers. I don’t know all of you personally but I am very, very thankful for you, not just for the income, but more because it’s a vote of encouragement to keep creating.