Ethics or audience? Indie publishing questions the ethics of cooperating with Amazon

Catching up

I am miserably behind; not just in writing invoices, creating holiday gifts or doing my part of the brand-new Putzplan (housecleaning schedule) – I’m also behind on writing about the stimulating discussions and events I’ve attended lately. This past week or two, I was able to attend the Zugang Gestalten conference in Berlin, where many initiatives presented on their open access projects, from Europeana (European digital library site and app) to the Rijksmuseum, which has completely opened their digital archive for public use. As their digital director Lizzy Jongma says, “please use our images and make them visible” – but don’t forget to send the museum a picture so they can keep track of all the creative ways their art is being reused and reimagined. Then I was at the Netzkultur festival, which featured some thought-provoking speakers on what data protection – and the lack thereof – means for artists and writers. Juli Zeh made a strong case against allowing data to be used for prognostication, since glimpsing the future also means a certain responsibility to act – and this is a level of power which neither government nor the private sector can be trusted with. As Zeh says “wer keine Geheimnisse hat ist kein Mensch” (those without secrets are no longer people).

Data for convenience: a fair trade-off?

Yet certain internet companies are excelling precisely because their users have more or less no more secrets. Not just that, the more transparent we make ourselves, the more personalized and convenient their services are – whether Google’s customized search or Amazon’s tailored recommendations. Recently, in a rare TV interview on Sixty Minutes, Jeff Bezos explained that Amazon’s “customer-centric” philosophy. Thinking about the ease of purchasing on Amazon compared to other websites, customers’ loyalty to the online retail giant seems well-founded: they’ve created a simple and intuitive platform where one can find just about everything one wants at a competitive price. Of course this isn’t the whole story of Amazon, which has also been known to resort to bullying tactics with publishers, tax evasion and poor treatment of their workers.Fiction_Canteen

Small presses debate Amazon: Better to compromise your ethics or audience?

However, a recent panel discussion on digital publishing organized by Transfiction highlighted how Amazon has become an unavoidable if not indispensable platform which book publishers can’t get around – or they face the possibility of losing a large chunk of their audience. In Germany, the conversation about Amazon is mainly an ethical one: is it ethical to support a company which pays and treats workers poorly (evidenced by the major strikes in two of Amazon’s German warehouses)? And is it morally acceptable to support an online retailer whose competitive practices turn brick and mortar stores into little more than showrooms (e.g. one bookseller on the panel talked about how customers would take pictures of the books to buy them online)?

Amanda DeMarco of Readux Books pointed out that first and foremost, a publisher’s moral obligation is to reach readers. As this new publisher found out from her own experience, trying to bypass Amazon means that fewer readers will discover and buy your books – which is a far bigger disservice to authors and translators than it is to the online retail giant. In fact, the two digital only publishers represented on the panel – Culturbooks and Mikrotext – say that Amazon sales represent the majority of their total sales. So why would they even think of surpassing their most important sales channel?

However, to stay competitive on e-book platforms, publishers (and authors) have to sell their books at competitive prices. And for digital-first publications, low prices are also crucial to make the inhibition threshold as low as possible, since the titles cannot be found on bookstore shelves. Some of the publishers present at the Fiction Canteen admitted that they aren’t able to pay advances to authors and translators, but instead offer them higher royalties. This sharing of financial risk seemed ethically sound to most members of the panel (including Zoe Beck and Nikola Richter, who are both writers themselves), but not to a German translator in the audience, Katy Derbyshire, who elaborates on her position here.

Moderator and organizer of the event, Lucy Renner Jones, compared the changing payment models in digital publishing to the transformation in digital photography, where photographers were expected to “diversify or die”: suddenly everyone was expected to own their own digital equipment and use the corresponding editing programs, but accept lower wages. Granted, writing and translating are still much more lo-fi than photography, but it is true that authors are expected to shoulder a lot these days.

As I mentioned a while back, even traditionally published authors are expected to contribute to marketing their books, in particular by being active on social networks. As these channels require so much time and energy to use properly, there is a certain parallel to the photography metaphor. Moreover, if it becomes the norm that translators get most of their payment from royalties, then they’ll have just as much incentive to help market the books they translate. So not only does this payment model require the contributors to share the financial risk, it also encourages them to shoulder additional work. While this may not be an issue for authors, who put years of work and passion into their writing, as Derbyshire points out, it is a lot to ask from a translator, who is first and foremost providing a service to a publisher.

Trumpfing convenience with community

But where does that leave us in the David and Goliath debate about cooperating with Amazon? Everybody on the panel (which also consisted of Nerys Hudson, from Dialogue Books, and Volker Oppmann from LOG.OS) seemed to agree that boycotting Amazon is not an option, since getting books/ebooks into the hands of readers is the whole point. Mike Shatzkin recently said that publishers’ new value proposition has to be “we will help authors reach their whole audience”, which means making their books available in as many channels as possible. Until a formidable alternative to Amazon emerges (in Germany beam is worth keeping an eye on, and LOG.OS has big plans), indie publishers have little choice about working with Amazon, alongside the other ebook retailers. However, it’s still important to think about what independents can offer that Amazon can’t, and how to best leverage those advantages to win loyal readers in the long term.

Hudson made the point that where Amazon falls short is community – while it may be convenient, readers are hard-pressed to trust its algorithm like they would trust the recommendations of a friend or community bookseller. There is still plenty of room for growth and experimentation among the indies, as the Berlin bookshop ocelot has shown with their recent online store, which combines personal recommendations and blog reviews with the ability to personalize the online shop to suit each user’s taste.

As Bezos said in his interview, “complaining isn’t a strategy”. Instead, independent publishers and retailers need to get busy innovating and thinking about the long term of their business models – as these publishers in Berlin are definitely doing. This includes not only connecting with readers, but also working together with authors and translators as equals, since without them, there would be no literature to spread in the first place.

On self-publishing, community and convergence: An article round-up

self publishers

Some of English literature’s most celebrated self-publishers; Stein, Austen, Proust, Whitman, Woolf, Twain

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing lately, in part because of the discussions going on at a slew of book conferences – from the Frankfurt Book Fair talks to E:PUBLISH and Futurebook (from afar). Partly it’s from seeing the slow acceptance of self-publishing here in Germany, where authors have been fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously in the industry. Also, in doing my own research on small presses, I found that independent authors’ strategies are often similar if not even more committed when it comes to directly marketing to readers (Joanna Penn and Suw Charman-Anderson are 2 great examples). Below I’ve tried to create a snapshot of the current discussion taking place about the advantages of independent publishers and the role of community in promoting books.

The marketing catch-22

Lately, a few articles on independent authors’ role in publishing have really stood out, such as this wrap-up of a CONTEC panel, in which Jane Friedman asks “Is self-publishing the most important transformation in the industry?”. Statistics show that readership and sales of self-pubbed books are growing fast – on one hand because they get more exposure via Amazon promotions, but also because the ebooks are being promoted to a wider audience (Amazon Singles are a great example of this, since many non-book readers are more open to reading short-form prose).

Friedman’s article also points out an interesting contradiction: whereas one study found that most self publishers (75%) saw marketing as the main advantage of being traditionally published, the Bookseller found that 53% of traditionally published authors contemplate switching to self publishing because they aren’t satisfied with the marketing of their books and the communication with the publisher. Add to that the fact that hybrid authors seem to be making more money than traditional or self publishers at the moment, and it seems like shouldering at least SOME of the book marketing is paying off for many authors.

Touchy-feely community

Another red thread running through the panel was reader relationships. Friedman observes that “Everyone working in the industry is thinking more about how to directly reach their specific reader community in an era of declining bricks-and-mortar stores and an increasingly digital environment,” and quotes Hugh Howey, who found that “everything is more focused on the reader experience,” these days, from the content to customer-oriented prices.

Recently Matthew Wayne Selznick wrote on why building a reader community is more important than marketing books. He emphasizes the value of having real, two-way dialogues with readers to build up a more loyal readership (and consequently sell more books). Direct contact with readers can also motivate writers and discipline them to hone their work for an audience. Talking about how writing Tumblr affected his approach, Tim Manley writes that “My standards for my work became higher because I was writing for a real audience—[…] readers who want something to be worth their time.”

Many talk about “community” or “community-building” to describe the one-on-one style of book promotion often used online in social media. Mike Shatzkin likewise underscored the importance of these direct relationships in a recent piece, in which he considered how publishers need to become more “audience-centric” to compete with self publishers and stay relevant. Amazon’s Jon Fine considers that self-publishing and traditional publishing will soon converge, a tendency which is supported by all the hybrid authors whose approaches fall somewhere in between the two models. As Porter Anderson elaborates on Publishing Perspectives: “The shifted economics of less-expensive ebooks and the joyous camaraderie many readers enjoy with their favorite authors in this space may well be firming up an eventually discernible, separate readership—interactive, socially engaged, participatory counterparts to the more traditional, largely passive readership of standard publishing.”

The tortoise and the hare approachSmart-Rebecca-@RebecSmart-150x150

At last week’s Futurebook conference, several speakers also touched on this. Simon Scott (Push Entertainment) talked about the value of rewarding fans to spur on word of mouth. At the “Big Ideas” panel, which Andrew Rhomberg writes about here, Rebecca Smart (Osprey Group) encouraged publishers to focus on lean publishing to get books out faster. That’s because indie authors can upload (ie publish) books instantly, without the long production chain. On the other hand, Jamie Bing from Canongate Books advocated a less-is-more approach; Canongate wants to reduce their number of titles to really focus on giving each book the time and attention it deserves.

But I don’t see these two approaches as being at odds – while Smart is in favor of getting books to market faster, Byng wants to promote them longer and more individually, making sure titles find their readers all the way down the tail. Both aspects are also incredibly important to authors, who want to get their content to readers as fast and smoothly as possible, but also understand that their books need to be continually promoted long after the launch.

Whether indie author or indie press, I think those publishers that “get it” are the ones nurturing those reader relationships, however subtly. I know this as a reader when I find myself rooting for certain authors or independent presses. Although I’m probably in the “fanatical five percent” in those cases, once I’ve shown my support, whether through a Tweet or book purchase, I’m more likely to spread the word about an artist or organization.

In the spirit of Seth Godin, author of Tribes, Selznick says “We thrive in our tribe. We want the people in our tribe to thrive,” which is why writers need to “build a tribe around your creative endeavors”, a community that supports one’s ideas and wants to be involved in the conversation.

This high frequency of communication with one’s readership is hard work, and authors can really benefit from a support network/sounding board when figuring out what’s necessary for each project. These allies can include fellow authors, editors and a publishing team, or an increasing number of start-ups and publishing services providers. In a way, this means that neither indie press nor indie author is ever truly a one-woman operation. As Andrew Laties says, “There’s no such thing as independent… Interdependent. That’s what being a person means. None of us exists without all of us” (Rebel Bookseller, p 140).

In this sense, the convergence has already happened, and now it’s up to individual creators to get (or hire) the expertise their book needs to be published and promoted. Shatzkin calls this the “atomization” of publishing, while Friedman refers to authors active in both traditional and self-publishing as hybrid. Whatever label you give it, though, this is definitely the age of the empowered author, and it will be interesting to see how traditional presses change their value propositions in this new publishing landscape.

Here are links to some of the studies mentioned at CONTEC:

Click to access Global-Ebook-Report2013_final03.pdf