Velvet Rope-A-Dope

We recently conducted a poll of indie authors, asking about their general impressions regarding three areas of policy change at Amazon.

Coincidental with the recent sock-puppet scandal, Amazon began quietly marching a number of reviews off the site and into the darkness. Their stated reason for these actions are to assure the integrity of blah-blah, something or other, customer confidence, and something else.

I know a number of indie authors think Joe Amazon is the coolest thing ever and would never ever do anything to hurt his sweet little indies. That may be so. I don’t really know Joe Amazon. It’s as easy for me to see him in one light as another. But, when I see one policy change after another, all of which are implemented with ruthless inefficiency and all of which seem to impact indie authors more than trad-published authors, my spidey-senses start to tingle. Of course, Joe Amazon does not have to explain anything to anyone. Just ask him. He’ll make that perfectly clear.

It is his apologists in the indie community who do all the explaining. They know Joe just cares so much about customers, you see. That’s what is behind this whole thing. He just wants to please his customers, and the fact that Joe and the Random Penguin are hanging out at the club smoking Cuban cigars and swilling Napoleon brandy has nothing to do with anything. I know I’m certainly satisfied that nothing unseemly is going on.

Let’s look at these three areas of policy change: Sock-puppet reviews, paid reviews, and author-to-author reviews.

On superficial examination, all these seem to be reasonable changes. Unfortunately, it is at the superficial level that reasonableness changes into something else. The difficulties begin with the definition of terms.

We think of sock-puppet reviews as those written by someone using multiple accounts set up under false names for the purposes of generating numerous positive reviews of his own work, or scathing reviews of a competitor’s work. Amazon (though of course, it doesn’t have to explain) seems to think any friends or relatives who enjoyed your book might just also be sock puppets. And there goes a sizable chunk of your reviews. James Michener? Not so much.

Paid reviews? Oh goodness. We don’t want anything smacking of bribery. Wait—Joe Amazon says that includes gifting your book to a reviewer? Uh… how are they supposed to get it? Do we just wait for them to buy it on their own? No. Evidently, Amazon says we can provide a free copy of the product. They just don’t say how we are supposed to do that without “gifting” it. I guess that doesn’t bother Big Sixers. I wonder why?

And of course, author-to-author reviews are an ethical quagmire. We can’t have that. Whatever will Stephen King do if Stephenie Meyer can’t post her review of his next book? No, it won’t hurt the big guys, but a large portion of indie author reviews come from other indie authors.

So, you’ll probably end up with a mere handful of reviews on your books. Does that matter? Well, it wouldn’t except for the fact that the search engines seem to key on the number of reviews as a part of the decision engine dynamics when it pops up a few thousand pages of search results. Without reviews, guess how many pages farther behind the Big Six authors little old you will be?

Add to all this the unexplained changes in Amazon’s algorithms that keep the books in the KDP program from competing with publishing house titles as best-sellers.

Every single one of these changes hurts indies far more than it hurts the trad-pubbed authors. You are welcome to think that is just an unintended consequence if you like. You can pretend we are merely collateral damage in Mighty Joe’s Shock and Awe campaign for truth, justice and the Amazon way.

It seems to me we are being quietly herded off into a corner, away from the eyes of the public. This is how the Indie movement dies. Not in an epic battle with dinosaur publishing, but in a back room at the club with a stroke of someone’s pen. I am sure the Random Penguin is very happy.

Or maybe it is all just a coincidence. What do I know?

50 thoughts on “Velvet Rope-A-Dope

  1. I’m troubled by this, too.

    An alternate explanation, tho, is maybe somebody at Amazon has heard the complaints about indie books being crap, and decided Amazon doesn’t want to be a purveyor of crap. But a better way to handle that would be to hire the manpower to review all the titles submitted to KDP.

    Yeah, that’ll happen.

  2. I think the fact that it leans toward marginalizing indie authors is perhaps (and I’m being very generous here) a happy coincidence of their policy changes. So what do we call the reviews that result from book bloggers and fellow authors downloading free copies during KDPS promotion days? Is that considered “gifting?” But…it’s Amazon’s own policy. Ugh. And as a reader, I’m ticked. Writers read. A lot. And some of us know (not me) how to write a good, critical, useful review. I should think B&N would be paying attention to these changes, but they’ve pushed indies so far into a corner it’s as if we don’t exist. Excellent post.

  3. It would be really nice if a news organization looked into this. Because it impacts Indies, does that not make it a real story? I dunno. If we can’t get 60 Minutes, maybe Jesse Ventura would take it. ;)

  4. Great post, Stephen. My writer’s group had a discussion about this last night, and no one’s happy about it, even trad-pubbed authors. I’ve heard rumblings in certain circles about civil suits and freedom of speech, but I don’t know many indie writers willing to take a chance on angering the ‘Zon gods. It would take a concerted effort on the part of Amazon’s customers to try and change the policy, and I don’t see that happening the way things are now.

    • I don’t think there is anything to be done from a legal angle. I think Amazon can put whatever they freaking want on their own site and apply any rules they want. I just don’t like all the kissy-face backstabbing. This is a good reason for indies to support Coker and Smashwords. The end of the road for indies may not be that far off with the ‘Zon.

      DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer and do not play one on T.V.

  5. There should be no illusion that Amazon is a champion of indies. They have no reason to be. Indie authors publish their books for free, most of the best sellers are only priced at 99 cents, and the rest sell on average a few hundred copies, if that. So Amazon grosses maybe a couple hundred dollars on average for each indie book, and that’s over the life of the book.

    Let’s say they make it all in the first year the book’s published. Even if Amazon grosses an average of $1,000 per title and they publish 100,000 new indie titles in a year, that’s $100 million gross.

    Amazon’s net operating loss just in one quarter of 2012 was $274 million, so indie books are a really, really small part of the business. We’re already marginal.

  6. There should be no illusion that Amazon is a champion of indies. They have no reason to be. Indie authors publish their books for free, most of the best sellers are only priced at 99 cents, and the rest sell on average a few hundred copies. So Amazon grosses probably a couple hundred dollars for the average indie title, and that could be over years.

    Let’s say they make it all in the first year the book’s published. Even if Amazon grosses an average of $1,000 per title and they publish 100,000 new indie titles in a year, that’s only $100 million gross.

    Amazon’s net operating loss just in one quarter of 2012 was $274 million, so indie publishers are a really, really small part of their business. We’re already marginal.

  7. Cynical I may be, but I do not believe in coincidences, happy or otherwise. Well, we don’t really have any clout: nothing we can do, individually or collectively, would affect Amazon one way or another.

    Having said that, ‘You can’t stop an idea whose time has come’ (paraphrasing Victor Hugo); it would only take an entrepreneurial visionary to set themselves against the establishment (and, let’s face it, that’s what Amazon has become), to provide a better service for writers and deliver a better product for readers. Some would say that person has already begun (Mark Coker), and that may be so; however, there is still some way to go on both service and product (keep at it Mark).

    Perhaps a meeting of minds is needed: maybe Otis Chandler and Mark Coker?

    Great, thought provoking article, Stephen.

  8. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what this means to our future efforts, but it seems to me that we should continue as always, reading/reviewing each others books, “liking” them, doing all the same things we’ve always done and just drive the Zon gods nutso trying to keep up with us! I agree that Smashwords has been and will continue to be a really valuable spot for our books. Personally, my novels sell almost as well on Barnes & Noble, Sony and Apple as they do on Amazon and I’m not posting my reviews on them. I, for one, would be willing to gift to a reviewer using Smash! Let Zon have a virtual breakdown trying to weed out all our reviews while they blissfully go through on Smash!

  9. I didn’t know this was happening, though I witnessed the whole sock-puppet hoopla. Thanks for the piece, I shall see what happens to my Gunshot Glitter reviews, so far none have gone AWOL but they’ve all evolved naturally from readers.

  10. Call me cynical but …. is this affecting ALL Indie writers or just those of us who do not want to use CreateSpace? I have a suspicion that Indie books published by Amazon;s own company are not affected….. But what can we do? Is there an alternative distributor we can use that offers quick, free, delivery and keeps our books in stock? If the Book Depository offers these, maybe we should troop over to there and abandon Amazon.

    There was a comment above along the lines of “maybe they don’t want Indie because a lot of it is crap”. ( Actually, a lot of it isn’t, many Indie books are superb, but that’s not the point….). CreateSpace publishes just as much SP rubbish as the next guy….

  11. I’m a TP author but I also self-pub and I have notice that for my latest SP release, I’ve had no marketing email sent out by Amazon, and reviews have been removed, when I did get email marketing support from Amazon and no reviews removed at the beginning of the year. I sell quite well – currently around 2500 copies at $2.99 this month for my latest book. My other two books are selling well as well. I’m going to keep building my own brand. If I can build a brand – like any other business can – it may take a few years but I’m in it for the long term – then sell off my own website – direct. Like most businesses do. Cut Amazon out altogether. I’m looking into that as my long term strategy.

  12. Thanks for this post Steve.
    I think, if we write good books. We’ll find a way to get them to market. The Indies need their own Amazon. I believe it will happen over time. Meantime. we best keep our day jobs :)
    W4$

    • I certainly hope you are right. I don’t know what that market is turning into, though. If the trads buy up the avenues indies use to get to market, leaving the door open, but making it exorbitantly expensive to publish, they will have effectively killed off the indie movement.

      I don’t think it was the huge number of indies that bothered the big publishers. I think it was when they started losing their mid-listers by the handful. Even some top-tier traditional authors have begun experimenting with going indie. I believe that got their attention.

  13. This sounds a bit like a storm in an inconsequential tea cup,

    There is nothing to stop an author adding a Buy Now button to their web site and delivering a PDF or .mobi file. With a good blog and social media, indies have as much if not more ability to engage with readers than trad. Certainly less inertia.

    Personally I think authors should focus on writing good stuff and let the Zon God (love that) (and Illuminati) sort their own problems out (noting they are human too with their own issues and some of them might even be readers).

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  15. I agree that Amazon’s cutting of reviews has been hasty and ill-thought. They could discontinue usernames in favor of real names confirmed with a VISA. That would eliminate the sock puppets.

    Let’s clarify something you’ve misconstrued here: Amazon DOES allow a gifted review copy to be given to reviewers. What we aren’t allowed to do is give said reviewer money to buy the book as that is considered payment for a review. Amazon also wants full disclosure, so if a reviewer receives a gifted copy, they should note that on their review–and authors should request they do so.

    • Hi Cheryl,
      In reference to your clarification, the source material I linked to above reads:

      “The only form of compensation that Amazon allows is a free copy of the product (provided up front) in exchange for an unbiased review. Refunding of a product or providing funds to purchase the product are considered compensation and not allowed…There appears to be a problem (as of September 2012) whereby there is no way of supplying review copies of Kindle applications except using the above method.”

      It seems Amazon’s interpretation of this is inconsistent in both interpretation and application by its own staff. Authors report widely varying responses from different Amazon personnel.

      As a matter of technicality, a “gifted” copy is not free, but is purchased by the author and given to the reviewer. It counts as a sale. There is no way of which I am aware to give a free copy of a Kindle book through Amazon.

  16. Excellent post, Stephen: Thanks. You mentioned “Add to all this the unexplained changes in Amazon’s algorithms that keep the books in the KDP program from competing with publishing house titles as best-sellers.” Do you have any more information on this statement, or where I can get more info? Thanks again for posting this.

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  18. Nice article, and thanks for the great information. I don’t disagree that these things are happening (many of them are inarguable), but your analysis may be leaving something out of the equation. Motivation. When I put myself in Amazon’s shoes to try to figure out why they seem to be making the road tougher for indies, I come up with “quality control.”

    The argument many people were making 2 years ago about the “tsunami of crap” may have been an exaggeration and an over reaction, but it was not completely wrong. If i’m Amazon, I think it helps me to keep self-pubbing viable, but make success harder to come by. That approach offers no guarantees that everything published will be great, but it does makes it less likely that someone currently putting up a lot of low quality work will keep doing it if it doesn’t pay in the end.

    Maybe. Of course Amazon seems to shift its approach by the month, so who can really knows.

    • Interesting theory, Stephen, and you may be right. On the other hand, their motivation aside, the effect is the same. A bullet fired in anger passes through a brain at the same velocity and does the same damage as one fired by accident. If Amazon wanted to promote quality indie authors, I think they could have found a more effective way to do so.

      • Well, I can’t argue with that. :) Nor am I defending anyone, just trying to see the big picture.

  19. Yep. Now the indies have done their job of filling up the Kindle bookshelves at Amazon, and persuading the public to buy the gadgets (at a loss to Amazon), the real feeding frenzy begins. That is, the majors now have a market that makes it worthwhile to publish their lists as ebooks at “real” prices. And thank you, indies. Don’t let the doorknob hit you on the butt as you leave.

  20. Nice site, by the way… (OK, enough suckin up!)

    I think there’s a good bit of truth in this article. I just got my MBA and it makes sense from ‘their’ end. I tend to think of Amazon as a big checkout counter and nothing more. Imagine if they were a real store down the street. You could walk all day and you’d never find the books I have on sale in there. It’s simply too big to be of any use.

    But this does say that there’s hope for the self-publisher. Get your book reviews and blogs posted somewhere else. I built my own site to do just that. If you’d like to check it out, search for Pebblefoot Park and sign up. (OK, self-promotion out of the way!)

    The sad thing is that Amazon makes a lot of money off of just being the channel between you and the customer. 30% at the least. And the big 6 have bargaining power, which we don’t. That means look for the niche markets. Long live the long tail!

  21. A great post, thanks. I’m not sure what the future holds for indie authors, but I think being exclusive to Amazon with KDP Select is probably not the way. Amazon certainly seems to be trying to corner the publishing market by creating their own publishing firms and then offering higher advances than the Big 6/5 can, drawing authors away from the big publishers, and then everything with all the Kindle stuff and trying to corner that market, but then what? If there’s little or no competition, where might this leave self-published authors? I don’t know…

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