An Author Writes in Defense of Amazon

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 2 2014 7:36 AM

In Defense of Amazon

I’m a writer, and my experience with this supposedly evil corporate behemoth has been fantastic.

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I haven’t gotten rich, but I haven’t dropped into poverty, either. Even though none of my books has sold more than 15,000-ish copies, Amazon continues to pay me to write them. The idea is that eventually one of my efforts will hit, and then the backlist will rise. The advances aren’t huge; they’ve all been in the low—and I do mean low—five figures. But that strikes me as exceedingly fair pay for mediocre-selling serialized novels about an L.A. yoga detective. It’s not enough money for me to stop doing other, nonfiction-writing work. But I don’t want to stop doing other work. What I do want is to get paid for writing fiction, and that’s happening. Amazon has allowed my novels to be part of the mix. If, someday, they become a bigger part of the mix, well, that’ll be a bonus.

It’s almost the exact opposite scenario as the one predicted in the ominous Authors United letter. My friend Deborah Reed, a wonderful writer but not a household name, has sold more than 100,000 copies of her novel Things We Set on Fire—virtually none of them in a conventional bookstore, since conventional bookstores won’t sell Amazon Publishing–produced novels. “Being able to reach hundreds of thousands of readers through Amazon's database has allowed me to build a career and support myself, which is highly unusual for a writer,” she wrote in an email. “Rather than my books falling into obscurity after the initial launch, Amazon has the capability to keep the interest going by highlighting a book years after it was published.”

Other writers, by the hundreds, are coming out of even more obscure places. In April 2013, graphic designer Jason Gurley, who’d written and self-published three novels in the space of a year, met Hugh Howey, Amazon’s most successful author—so successful at self-publishing that he then got a huge deal from Simon & Schuster. Howey encouraged Gurley to write fan fiction based on his hyper-successful Wool series. Gurley’s fan fiction did well enough that he was able to persuade Amazon to publish an original novel, Eleanor, which has sold close to 10,000 copies since it came out in late June, at one point hitting No. 25 on the Amazon best-seller list. “It’s infinitely more than I’d hoped to sell,” Gurley told me, “and I’ve built a lot of really fantastic relationships with readers as a result.”

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So when I hear people say Amazon is “destroying” literary careers, it just doesn’t make sense—it actually seems to be making them. But while I have trouble seeing my publisher as a villain, others don’t. I asked a couple of friends, both successful writers published by Hachette, to offer their perspective; they declined. However, my friend Emily Gould, not published by Hachette (her recent novel Friendship is from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) but always willing to wade into debates, offered this perspective:

The opportunities that Amazon has given authors who write genre fiction have been great, and that's not inconsequential. But as a writer and publisher of what is unfortunately categorized as “literary fiction,” Amazon's treatment of books like widgets does seem frightening. The recent statement they released about ebook pricing is a great example of what I'm talking about: they don’t seem to have a handle on what, to most readers and writers, is a self-evident fact: that some books are priceless and others are worthless. Ergo, saying that people who want book X but don’t want to pay price X will buy a cheaper book that’s sort of like book X instead ignores how readers actually think to an almost comical extent.

That argument reminds me of what a friend said after my novel Downward-Facing Death—a masterful title if ever there were one—racked up more than 100 reviews on Amazon, the first of my eight books to ever crest that golden number. “Yeah, but those are just Amazon readers,” my friend said, as though there were a difference between Amazon readers and non-Amazon ones. I treasure and respect every review, even if 20 of them are one-star takedowns because the readers couldn’t figure out how to download the book to the Kindle, the equivalent of my grandma asking me to program the DVR.

We need to give readers, even the senile ones, more credit. Book pricing doesn’t have anything to do with a book’s worth. It’s just a sales point. Novels by Gary Shtyengart or Jennifer Egan aren’t better than other novels because they’re expensive, and the modern equivalent of dime-store Westerns aren’t worse because they’re not. People like what they like, and they’re not going to like books any more or less because they cost more or less. I like good literature, and I also like cheap books. Maybe there’s a place where quality and a decent deal can meet, and then we can stop with these  “whither the novel?” laments.

Amazon, like every publisher, releases a lot of genre pulp, much of which sells like lemonade in August. But just because a book is inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s bad. While I don’t think my books are worthless, I also don’t have a lot of delusions about how much they’re actually worth. If I can sell 10,000 books at $3.99 a download, which I’ve been consistently able to do through Amazon, that strikes me as a better deal than being able to sell 3,000 books at $12 a paperback, particularly because my royalty rates are way higher on downloads and I can jam out two or more of those downloadable books a year. It’s not a strategy that will work for every author, which is why legacy publishers will continue to thrive, or at least survive, and will continue to publish the bulk of “quality” books in this country. But for a proud Grub Streeter like me with only marginal pretenses toward literary finery, the Amazon system is a dream.

Meanwhile, I’ll get to work on my next project: two fan-fiction novellas in Amazon’s red-hot Kindle Worlds Romance category. Amazon ordered them because they thought I’d offer a funny take on the genre. I never thought I’d be a romance novelist, but why not? It sounds like fun.

Neal Pollack is the author of Alternadad. He lives in Austin, Texas. 

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