Yes, Amazon Is the Reader’s Friend

Konrath Turow DebateIt appeared to be a dream-come-true for advocates of indie publishing. Those who follow Joe Konrath’s blog have seen him “fisk” statements from publishing insiders, tearing apart their public statements line by line. A frequent target for Konrath’s fisking has been novelist Scott Turow, until recently the President of the Authors Guild. Usually these were accompanied by an offer for Turow to respond, either on Konrath’s blog or in a public debate. Last Thursday (January 15, 2015) Intelligence Squared U.S. held a debate with Konrath and Turow as two of the four participants.

For those not familiar with Intelligence Squared U.S., they organize debates on controversial subjects. Each is held in a New York City venue and uses the same basic format. At least this debate (I assume this is typical) is also available to watch live on the internet with video and transcript available after the event. (http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/upcoming-debates/item/1250-amazon-is-the-readers-friend) As I’m writing this the video is not yet available on their site, but it is on another. (http://library.fora.tv/2015/01/15/Amazon_Is_The_Readers_Friend)

The debate was arguing for or against the statement “Amazon is the Reader’s Friend.” Arguing for this contention was Konrath along with Matthew Yglesias, executive editor at Vox.com. Assisting Turow in rebutting this contention was Franklin Foer, former editor of The New Republic.

You can watch the video on one of the links above or read the transcript. I’d recommend it, not just to get the whole story for yourself, but if you’re into this kind of thing it was even entertaining. But for the tl;dr crowd (that’s “too long, didn’t read” for the uninitiated), or as a preview, some reporting, and a touch of opinion with a bit of counter argument, you’ve got me. (By way of disclaimer, it probably shouldn’t have to be said, but I have a definite opinion on the subject. This isn’t unbiased reporting, although some might claim it to be fair and balanced.)

The big picture is that with few exceptions, both sides used the same old talking points as you’ve probably read in numerous articles pre-debate. The For Team said that Amazon was big because they give the consumer what they want, at a good price, and with excellent customer service. The team arguing against the motion countered with fear mongering and “facts” that were frequently faulty comparisons and often not much better than bald-faced lies (or maybe honest mistakes by extremely misinformed people). The worst part is that many of the claims made by the Against Team were left unchallenged, with Joe Konrath, who clearly knows the weaknesses in these statements since he has addressed them many times in the past, appearing more focused on being entertaining than debating.

Turow and Foer didn’t challenge the contention that Amazon was good for readers today, instead depending on the argument that at some point in the future they’ll become so big and powerful that no other company will be able to compete. A key “fact” used to bolster this claim came from Franklin Foer:

So, one of the things that — the world of the Internet is a deceptive one. It looks like it’s wide open until it’s not. But the people who arrive first and establish advantages in that world are the ones who win and win in a major way. It’s what happened with Google, it’s what happened with Facebook, then it happened with Amazon.

A great claim, but not true. Not only were there search engines prior to Google, but there was one, AltaVista that at their peak was considered the go-to search engine for those in the know. Then along came Yahoo with its search engine that challenged them (later, Yahoo bought AltaVista), and then along came Google to do the job even better. Facebook wasn’t the first social network. Friendster, Myspace, and Linkedin all preceded it with Myspace being the heavy hitter of its time, until it wasn’t.

Even Amazon wasn’t the first mover in its space. If Foer was thinking in terms of an eReader and an eBook ecosystem to support it, Sony was there first. eBooks were even available before that. Project Gutenberg was providing them before personal computers existed. If Foer meant ecommerce, CompuServe (another first mover, later supplanted by AOL and Prodigy, if you remember them) had an “Electronic Mall” that launched more than ten years before Amazon came online.

Foer also claimed that Amazon played with the search results, forcing books to come up in searches based on payments from publishers. As Konrath pointed out, this is how the book business has always functioned. It’s called co-op, explaining “that’s why, when you go into a Barnes & Noble, you see 400 Scott Turow books stacked up in front and you see my one book out in section.”

Foer makes a good point, that it is different if you have one big player “picking the winners and losers,” however, although I’ve seen many people claim fiddles with search results for money, they never have any proof or, what they offer as proof doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As proof Foer suggested that “right now, when you type in — you type in ‘police’ – ‘police noir novels’ into their search engine, you get a series of results,” and asked, “how do you think that series of results is ranked?” He went on to claim that “a publisher has paid for one of the top ranks there.” I immediately did that as did many others who have reported results. What my search returned was a page full of indie eBooks. Is he really claiming they’re paying big bucks for that placement? Seriously?

An example of a faulty comparison was Foer quoting a study of the income of self-published authors. The median was found to be less than $5,000 and “nearly 20 percent of self-published authors reported deriving no income from their writing.” Never stated, but certainly implied, is that traditionally published authors do better. With reports of the average advance for a traditionally-published book being $5,000 and all the money most authors see for that book, with the typical trad-pubbed author writing a book a year, that actually appears on the surface to be about the same. But it isn’t because it is a faulty apples to oranges comparison. The proper comparison is to compare writers who have written a book and how much those who pursue the traditionally published route make versus how much is made by those who decide to self-publish. We have one claim as to the median annual income for the self-publishers from the quoted study. What do you think it is for those who choose the traditional route? My contention is the answer is the same as those bottom 20% of self-publishers. They have a median income of one big, fat zero. Because the average person chasing the traditional publishing brass ring will never be published.

One last comment on the “results” of the debate. Before it began, audience members were asked to vote on their opinion of the subject being discussed, For, Against, or undecided. They would then be asked to do the same at the end of the debate. Whichever side increased the most percentage points would be declared the winner. The results weren’t even close. Pre-debate the percentages were 41% For and 28% Against with 31% not taking a stand. At the end, those voting For increased by just one point, to 42%, while the Against votes increased to half the audience, a 32 point increase. As I said at the start, I’m biased, but I’m shocked that this many people could really have heard the arguments and been swayed to vote against. The starting percentages seemed questionable to me. The website gives more information, breaking down the percentages that moved between each of the choices or didn’t change. Go look at the percentages yourself and see what you think. Most of the numbers seemed reasonable to me with one exception. The number that jumped out as suspect was the 16% who changed their vote from For to Against. (More than double those who made the long jump in the opposite direction.) I have a theory as to why this happened. Take it with as many grains of salt as you feel are needed.

I’m not much for conspiracy theories, normally feeling that they require too many people to keep their mouth shut to maintain the secret when that goes against human nature, but when you consider the limited number of seats in the audience, it wouldn’t take many publishing insiders to agree to vote For to start and switch to Against at the end to insure the results. (It isn’t as though those in New York publishing haven’t already been convicted of conspiring to break rules much more serious than this.) And really, no conspiracy is even needed. What are the odds that an audience skewed to New Yorkers who are pro-traditional publishing were smart enough to figure out how to game the system independently? I’d say pretty good.

Your assignment (should you choose to accept it) is to go watch the debate (you have an hour and a half to spare, right?) and let us know what you think.  While you’re there, on the results tab they’re taking votes from the internet audience. For what it’s worth, that voting is overwhelmingly going the other direction. Maybe those of us in flyover country see the book business differently than New Yorkers.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

21 thoughts on “Yes, Amazon Is the Reader’s Friend”

  1. I’m at a loss to explain why anyone thinks Amazon is not the READERs friend. That’s not really the question. It’s whether it’s the AUTHOR’s friend.
    Like traditionally published material, there are strata or tiers of how authors are treated based on sales and renown. The main difference is, and has always been, the entry gates. Traditional publishers have acted as narrow gatekeepers, having several gauntlets that must be passed before even publication (agents, slush piles, etc.). Amazon indie publishing has no gate, or not much of one. So all authors can enter. That is the main difference.
    But how they are the same is how authors are treated once past the gate. If you put royalty percentages aside, Amazon will promote better sellers over lower sellers.
    Now, I’m saying this without watching the video (sorry) so this might have been addressed. But it bothers me that the question appears to be badly framed. What happens to how a book comes to market is invisible to the reader, so an indie book or trad dubbed book will appear the same to the reader, for the most part.

    1. Grokdad, thanks for the comment. If they framed the question that way, I wonder if it would have resulted in a debate that was much the same. Or maybe that would have spurred a discussion over whether that was the right question to be asking. 🙂

      You’re right about Amazon treating some authors or at least their individual books differently.I’d claim that is part of being the reader’s friend. Giving more attention in bringing books the collective of all readers have shown more interest in to the attention of other readers is playing the odds. Amazon’s interests (selling more books and stuff) is served best by helping the readers find what they want, even if they don’t know they want it. Amazon’s and the reader’s goals align.

      1. I would state the caveat tho, that promoting books that sell well already is not necessarily an alignment between seller and reader at all. For example, Snooki’s autobiography might sell well, but be a piece of steaming crap. Does the reader want to be pushed a pile of steaming crap? no. Does the seller want to sell more pieces of steaming crap? yes.
        because something sells well does not make it the best or even a good product for the reader. It does make the best product for the seller.
        I think this exemplifies the overall problem with these debates, which is attempting to argue that what benefits group A is automatically a benefit to group B. As a reader, I would rather read a book that is well written than a book that is well sold. In other words, the comparisons stop short at the point of purchase. At that moment, the seller is no longer interested in the product. But that is the point at which the product is of more interest to the customer, because they have to (or want to) read it. Reader satisfaction outlives seller involvement.

  2. Great post, Al. Your synopsis summed it up perfectly. I have to admit, I thought the debate question was a little silly. Amazon is a company; while they’re not anyone’s “friend,” they certainly want to please the customer (or reader) with cheap and easy access to products. The debate, IMO, kept devolving into the same self-pub vs. trad-pub arguments, which really had nothing to do with the question.

    1. Thanks, Melinda. You’re right. No company, but especially not a large corporation, is going to be a “friend” in the normal sense. The question is silly in that sense. But as much as this is possible, I’d say Amazon is it. 🙂

  3. Traditional publishers also promote bigger sellers over smaller sellers. I mean, duh, they’re in it to make money, just as Amazon is. That’s why the author whose debut novel flops is going to have a hard time getting another shot, even with positive reviews in the New York Times, etc. That’s why books you can pitch as some-insanely-popular-title crossed with some-other-insanely-popular title or mediocre-book-written-by-popular-celebrity are easy to get published. An individual editor may be passionate about serving readers, but the successful publisher and business manager and marketing manager care more about meeting their division’s corporate performance targets. Amazon is no doubt much the same, but can afford to look at books as loss leaders. Honestly, this just seems like an idiotic debate to me. You want to find someone whose goal in life is service to readers? Find a writer or a librarian or a teacher.

    1. I mostly agree, Sandra with one (kind of) exception. Amazon has always (at least so far) has been to focus on the long term and on customer satisfaction. I would argue that while they don’t come close to a writer, librarian, or teacher, that their corporate culture brings them closer than that of a subsidiary of a large conglomerate, which is what all of the Big 5 are. (Smaller publishers are a different animal.)

  4. Good post Al. I also watched and listened and was shocked at the final vote. I tried very hard to have an open mind but the nay sayers’ team didn’t produce valid arguments only the same message, touting too big and dominating. Amazon started as a small company filling a need to get books into the hands of readers at a sensible cost. They still do this successfully while promoting other formats, so how can they not be a friend to the reader. It amazed me that they talked of authors losing choices ( skirting TP collaborations) and didn’t mention the additional readers gained. It seemed a bit rigged. The results made me question the validity of the debate all together. Yes, it tirned off topic and the audiance planted? Who knows?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Elisabeth. I can’t say that I was shocked at the outcome. I’d anticipated the possibility given the audience. But I was very shocked at the size of the victory.

  5. Great post, Al. I saw the debate and was just shocked by the result. No one who actually watched the debate and was opinionless, would have come out Against the conclusion that Amazon was the reader’s friend. While I’m generally not a conspiracy theorist, the idea that the audience was packed with NY publishing cronies who voted undecided at the beginning in order to manipulate the end result, sounds fairly plausible. If the question had been, does Amazon devalue books, or is Amazon good for the publishing industry, then maybe you get a result like that. But is Amazon good for the reader? I just don’t see how you get that result.

    It was an interesting debate, but I think it would have been more fair to open it up to online voting or better screen in-house participants.

    1. True, RJ. I can see different questions they might have asked that even while disagreeing with the likely arguments, I could understand how they could go either way. This one, not so much.

  6. I’ve been a big fan of Intelligence Squared for many years, both the NPR version and the original BBC version. Both are great, with exceptional debaters chosen for both sides in most cases. In my opinion the BBC version is even better, taking a less U.S. centric view of things. I don’t watch videos, but I do listen to the podcasts on my long commutes.

    As for the vote results, Al I suspect you are right, and have suspected this for some time. If you and I can figure out the voting dynamics, so can every other person with half a brain. Still, for me, it doesn’t detract from the thought provoking arguments presented by each side, on what are usually complex, multidimensional questions.

  7. P.S. While I sympathize with most of the points raised here by others, I hardly think the IU crowd is an unbiased sample, any more than a NY audience loaded with traditional publishers and their friends.

    1. I don’t remember hearing of them before, John, but looked at some of the other subjects they’d debated and think they’d be very interesting. As for your US Centric complaint, that’s one of the big (among many) faults of the US media. One morning I was at a friend’s in Calgary and started flipping back and forth between channels showing me the difference in how certain stories were being covered on US networks compared to Canadian.It was eye opening.

      And no, the IU crowd is no less unbiased. I did put a disclaimer in my post, right? 🙂

  8. As Big Al says there is bias towards forming a positive opinion about Amazon. And the sample size and audience selection may well have been questionable.

    As writers who benefit from selling on Amazon, maybe we tend to turn a blind eye to the unacceptable tactics they sometimes adopt. (poor HR record, tax avoidance, gradual reduction in payments to writers),

    One example of an unfair practice which indicates the direction that Amazon will take the stronger their foothold gets. Readers in #Thailand are charged an extra $2 per book whenever they buy. What’s more unpalatable is their lying about the practice. Over several emails I was told the surcharge did not exist. When I sent a screenshot of my pricing page on KDP and another on the Amazon site they said the explanation was to do with “currency exchange”. That’s utter nonsense, of course, and a deliberate attempt to hoodwink writers and readers. A $5 book is always $5 if sold in dollars. Only when it is sold in a different currency could there be a currency difference.

    One of my distributors confirmed Amazon’s practice, Readers are not aware of course because they don’t see the author’s pricing page and the difference is always $2.

    Amazon is the reader’s friend because it gets cheap books to market. Readers are the customers; and writers, the supplier. All businesses seek to minimise their payments to suppliers and maximise their revenues from customers. Amazon is already on track in doing this by increasing prices to readers and reducing payments to authors.

    I use Amazon and will continue to use them but that does not mean i have to agree with their tactics.

    1. Except I said just the opposite, Matt.

      You raise some good points. (The surcharge Amazon charges in some countries for deliver of a book, is one.) Others, not so much. Tax avoidance is one. They’re playing by the rules set by the governments that have jurisdiction. If they should be paying more in taxes, change the rules. It’s silly to expect they’d voluntarily pay more than they’re required or purposely setup their business to maximize the taxes paid. I know

      Your comment about a poor HR record is another one that I’m not so sure about. I’m guessing you’re talking about a few stories about working in Amazon’s warehouses. Are they breaking laws? (If not, should there be some different laws? If so, why aren’t they being enforced?) I’m in agreement that I wouldn’t want to have the jobs described. But that’s comparing to the wrong thing. The stories I’ve seen, when you compare what’s described to working in a comparable job (a warehouse picker in the same general geographical area) it turns out that the Amazon jobs are no worse and in many ways better. I’m not arguing for or against the job conditions being okay or not. Only that singling out Amazon as though they’re doing something especially bad is not reality.

  9. I watched the debate on playback and I agree with everything you’ve said, Al. I’m not an unbiased observer, either, of course, but it seemed to me that nobody was arguing whether Amazon was the *readers’* friend except Matt Yglesias.

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