We’re going to make a controversial statement here, one that may offend our indie bookstore friends: Amazon is not the devil. They’re actually—gasp—worthy of emulation, in some key ways.

Granted, there are contentious questions about working conditions in their distribution centers. (Depending on your sources, those are either downright Dickensian, or not all that different from many other jobs requiring a similar skillset.) But leaving all that, and focusing instead on their role in the independent publishing marketplace, there is a lot to like about Amazon.

First off, they pay well. If you set your books up in paperback on the KDP platform (which has replaced Createspace as Amazon’s preferred POD platform), you’ll make more from your Amazon sales than you will if you just set it up on Ingram. (For every copy of, say, North and Central that we sell via Ingram, we get $3.10, whereas selling a copy via Amazon earns us $5.86.)

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they pay on time. Relentlessly on time, all the time. We have never, in seven years of publishing, had to go ask Amazon: “Where’s our money?” If you make a sale on Amazon in, say, May, you know that two months later (on July 29th if it’s a weekday, or the next Monday if the 29th is on a weekend), you will have money in your bank account, with no effort whatsoever on your part. (In their defense, Ingram pays reliably, too—BUT it takes an extra couple months for royalties to hit your account. And because of the whole returns thing, you may be expecting money from a certain title in a certain month, and then you don’t get the money, and you’re like, “HMMM,” and then you go to Ingram, and sure enough, you got a big chunk of returns from some other title that wiped out all of your profits, which is not uncommon, since every one return wipes out the profits from three or four sales. So—sell a net of three books for a title, make no profit, UNLESS you get the return and sell it on your own. Which, if you’re drowning in inventory, you might not do for a while.)

We digress. The payment aspect of Amazon’s operations is as reliable as an atomic clock. It is a shining inspiration, a standard we aspire to ourselves—we never want an author to come to us asking “Where’s my money?”

Amazon also lets you update your titles free of charge—and I can’t overemphasize how nice this is for a publisher. You can review printed copies and make tweaks to your files free of charge before publishing. (If you order advance copies through Ingram and you catch some issue on the physical version that you missed online, you have to pay a change fee.) Also, there are, believe it or not, a few of our titles that sell relatively steadily, titles where we haven’t had many returns and we always need to order more copies to keep them in stock on our end so we can do book fair and website sales. (We’ll talk more about those channels later.) Sometimes we’ve gotten great new blurbs or awards for those titles, and we’ve wanted to update the covers to help the books sell well. And since KDP lets us do that—and charges less per book as well—we do virtually all of our post-publication reorders through KDP, rather than IngramSpark.

Amazon’s web interface is also generally better than Ingram’s. The pages are clean and reliable; the reports are simple and clear and easy to generate. And it’s very very easy to upload your titles and make them available for sale—almost too easy. The site is clearly biased towards publishing “now.” There are three relatively straightforward pages to fill out—Paperback Details, Paperback Content, Paperback Rights & Pricing—and the button at the bottom of the last page says “Publish Your Paperback Book.” Once you push that button, assuming there aren’t any issues with your files (title not visible on the cover, graphics in the barcode area, etc.), your book will be up for sale on Amazon; the site says in 72 hours, but it’ll usually be quicker than that.

The problem with that? For one, it’s hard to do the type of pre-pub work that’s necessary to get your book to sell well, because you can’t order production-quality copies of the book prior to publication. (As mentioned in the post on IngramSpark, we USED to be able to order such copies via Amazon’s Createspace portal, but when Amazon shifted its paperback POD production to the KDP platform, it started putting a big gray Not for Resale banner on all proof copies. Which of course doesn’t prevent us from ordering production-quality pre-pub copies—it just means we usually end up ordering them through Ingram, as soon as we’ve ordered a small batch through Createspace to make sure everything looks good.) And if you have done any solid pre-pub work—getting blurbs, reviews, etc.—those won’t appear on your product page unless you also set up an Amazon AuthorCentral page. And since those pages are author-focused, not publisher-focused, it’s hard to manage your product pages as a publisher. If you’ve set the book up on Ingram already, the data will flow through to Amazon and create the product page for the paperback book with all the blurbs. Otherwise, you need to ask the author to set up their AuthorCentral page and manage their own product pages. (OR you can create an email account on each author’s behalf, then use those email accounts to set up an AuthorCentral page for each author, and manage your product pages that way. Which, frankly, is a headache.)

Also, Amazon’s pretty committed to allowing other sellers to sell copies of your books—even in situations when the book is brand new and there’s no conceivable way that anyone could have legitimately obtained a used copy already. If you sell on Amazon, you’ll see that a book is available from other sellers virtually as soon as it’s set up. Obviously it’s Amazon’s right to decide what they want to do on the product pages, but it’s hard to figure out how that sort of selling is even possible on that timeframe, unless the sellers actually can’t fulfill those orders, or unless they’re somehow in cahoots with Amazon. (This is an area that, frankly, we don’t know much about—we’d love an explanation from someone who does.)

Lastly, Amazon’s committed to allowing sponsored product advertising on your product pages. It’s one of those things everyone has to live with. (Even traditionally published authors and classics have sponsored products on their pages.) Still, it is moderately annoying—you really don’t have any control over the types of books that show up here, so you can put a lot of work into targeting a certain type of reader (blurbs from respectable blurbists and news outlets, well-designed covers, etc.) and have that vibe totally undercut by a couple rows of ads for self-published drivel that may be completely unrelated to what you’re selling. (Bob Hartley’s North and Central, for instance, is a literary crime novel about a blue-collar bar in Chicago, but contains two full rows of sponsored links for books about ghosts and vampire rapists, and one about an armed time-traveler—a book called Schröedinger’s Gat.) Again, traditionally published authors and even classic books have this issue as well, but the sponsored products on their page seem to at least have a mix of reputable and disreputable books.

Long story short, you can set up to sell paperbacks on Amazon very easily using their POD portal, and you can do so in the confidence that you’ll be paid better and more quickly than by going through Ingram. (Or, presumably, other distributors.) And their portal tends to be much better for ordering new books once your title’s been published. But one way or another, you’ll need to do the work to make sure the product pages are as professional as possible—and even then, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because Amazon forces you to associate with riffraff.

An Open Letter to Michael Pietsch on Amazon v. Hachette

Dear Mr. Pietsch:

As an Amazon KDP author and fledgling publisher, I recently received an email suggesting I send you my thoughts on the Amazon/Hachette dispute. It took me a while to get around to it, because tortoise. And I didn't want to spam you, because that'd be rude, and politeness is in such short supply on the interwebs. So here goes:

Please, please, please keep doing exactly what you’re doing. (Please!)

As a reader, I would greatly prefer that eBooks be less expensive. While I value, to some extent, the traditional industry’s role curating titles and authors, I’m also tremendously reluctant to shell out ten dollars or more for an eBook, and price is a major concern in my reading decisions. (Case in point: I was going to purchase Don DeLillo’s White Noise recently, because I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but it was at the upper end of the price spectrum, whereas Underworld, which I read when it came out, was briefly on sale for only $3.99. So I reread that instead.) The longer I live, the longer my reading list gets, and since I know I’ll never get to the end of it, I’d just as soon make the journey as economically as possible.

Now that I’m dipping my tortoise toes in the waters of independent—or rather, Amazon-dependent—publishing, though, I realize it’s to my great advantage for you to stay obstinate on this issue. Frankly, the slower you are to change, the better it is for me, and the more time I have to build my company as a viable alternative.

I’ll skip all the normal metaphors about publishing, about castles and gatekeepers and blah blah blah. From my experience, all of these are true to some extent, but they’ve grown a bit shopworn. And I prefer to think in terms of ecosystems.

We’ll call the traditional industry Normal Sea. And I’ve started thinking of this vast new body of publishing waters as the Indie-an Ocean. Where these bodies meet, one finds snark-infested waters—and for good reason. The latter’s a little chaotic, and frankly there are a lot of awful creations therein, ungodly abominations destined to sink without a trace. Whereas the former’s a little too obsessed with purity and homogeneity, despite its protestations to the contrary. Traditionally published books may be edgy, but they’re often edgy in similar ways, depending on the tastes of the particular moment.

As others far more astute than I have observed, two main streams feed the Normal Sea: NYC and MFA. And however one gets to the end of those streams, one must then (according to tradition) pass through a series of gratings to gain entrance to those hallowed waters. And any life form that doesn’t fit those narrowly defined openings gets shunted aside and discarded. (Case in point: the first outside novel I picked up, Giano Cromley’s excellent The Last Good Halloween. The main characters are teenagers, but it’s too good, too literary, and too mature to be lumped into a genre like “Young Adult.” And Giano had been working with agents, but none of them quite knew what to do with it. So I read it, and I found myself laughing out loud and enjoying the hell out of it, and I decided to help him get it out there. And I crowdsourced my second round of edits, and most of my readers told me they were laughing out loud, too—except for one or two, who might have been somewhat cranky because they're trying to squeeze through the gratings in the MFA stream. One of them said, “I don’t know how to read this. Is it YA, or what?” And I wanted to scream: “Who cares? Who the fuck cares, really? Did you read it? Do you like it? Do you think other people should read it?” That’s all that matters, really. If it’s good, it’ll sell eventually.)

As far as the Indie-an Ocean goes, it’s fed by a greater range of streams and rivers, and, of course, Amazon. (I know my metaphor is falling apart here and contravening basic geography, but bear with me for a minute.) Amazon is muddy and far too big to filter, except by cutting off bits at the source. And, of course, the Normal Sea also feeds it. (OK, my metaphor is definitely falling apart. I have no idea whether any of this is hydrologically possible. But you get my drift.) You, of course, have long had a preferred relationship as a source. Now, of course, that relationship’s under review, and I don't blame you or your authors for the positions you're taking; I'd probably do something similar if I were you. But I suspect the river hasn’t gotten noticeably smaller, and I doubt anything you do will change that. The balance of components in the ecosystem may change a bit, that’s all. And some of the readers fishing for their next meal may complain, but I suspect they won’t stay too hungry for too long. Advantage: tortoise. (I think. Wait, do I want to be eaten? Yes, as long as it’s by an actual person with good taste.)

Different people have different tastes, and obviously not everything in the sea matches everyone’s palate. (Oh wait. Crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap! According to Wikipedia, tortoises are land-based, so this metaphorical world has completely fallen apart, and has actually become self-defeating. We're not swimming at all! Maybe we're on the Galapagos Islands or something. Then again, those are on the wrong side of South America. Fuck it, if I don't get this blog post up this week, it'll be completely irrelevant.) ANYWAY, I do believe that you get a greater range of tastes by getting things out there and letting them evolve than you get by trying to control the ecosystem. Plus, tastes are also evolving. Plenty of my friends still wax rhapsodic about the physical book, and I used to, too. Someone actually had to buy me a Kindle to get me on the whole eBook thing. But once I actually started reading eBooks, my taste started changing. And taste, to me, calls to mind another good way to look at the industry—less like what it has been, and more like food service, with low barriers to entry, and a great range of tastes, and places, still, for those who want exclusivity and trendiness, but plenty more options for good cheap eats.

Is Amazon's KDP program as good as it possibly could be? No, of course not, and I do have a couple things I'd change. But it’s pretty damn good, and it's improving all the time. Do I have all the resources I want, or all the resources you do? Again, no. (Given the business trinity, the three things you can't have at the same time--fast, good, and cheap--I'll always be picking the last two, at least until my bank balance is over four figures.) But unless the regular industry suddenly offers me a life-changing amount of money or publicity—which, let’s be honest, is probably not going to happen—I’ll keep rooting for Amazon, as a reader and a writer and a publisher. For unlike the regular industry, Amazon’s giving me SOMETHING—a chance to age and mature and have some fun and be part of the ecosystem, not apart from it. A chance to swim, or trundle, or whatever it is that tortoises do--grow old, perhaps, or win the race, or just find our place.


Gerald Brennan

Founder, Tortoise Books