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Amazon buying Goodreads? Can’t we have anything nice?


The word is out. The biggest monopoly in the history of the book business is buying the biggest independent book review website. Most of what I’m reading about Amazon’s pending purchase of Goodreads is positive, but personally, it sends chills down my spine — and not in a good way.

Goodreads logo with books

If a big retailer like Barnes & Noble bought an independent objective review site like Goodreads, that would be bad. If a big publisher like Penguin bought an independent objective review site like Goodreads, that would be bad. Well, Amazon is both a big retailer and a big publisher.

Amazon’s recent lawsuit against book publishers and Apple allows Amazon to continue to set prices in the eBook industry, which takes money right out of the pockets of authors who have the chutzpah to have their books published by someone other than Amazon. They have purchased a number of small publishers and opened their own publishing imprint, so they are in direct competition with the publishers whose books they sell. And by purchasing Goodreads, they are taking control of the most influential independent book review site.

I was slow to get involved with Goodreads in the beginning. I rated and reviewed a few books, but didn’t really spend much time there. Then I discovered that the site was a great way to interact with my readers. All but one of my books was already listed there, and adding that remaining book was an easy process. Their author pages are easy to customize and easy to integrate with your blog.

Overall, I love the fact that Goodreads is independent, with no single publishing company telling them what to do. A book from Penguin and a book from a tiny regional publisher get exactly the same placement and the same amount of attention. No publisher controls the site. But we are losing that. Amazon is a publisher. A huge publisher. And when they purchase Goodreads, the site will lose its publisher-agnosticism, becoming another shill for a a company that isn’t lacking for shills.

One of my favorite features is that individual users can set the book buying links to include the vendors of their choice. If I want to buy from Barnes & Noble but not from Amazon, I check and uncheck the appropriate boxes and the links on every page change accordingly. I wonder how long that option will last when they become yet another subsidiary of Amazon.com? Farewell, objectivity.

The publishing world is a hard one for independent bookstores in the age of Amazon. It’s also a hard place for authors who have chosen traditional publishing. It’s about to get harder.

The Wrong Way to Promote Your Book


I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly back in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website. I’ve placed it here on my blog because of something that happened last month that got me thinking about it. See that story at the end of the article.

Websites for writers and publications like WritersWeekly.com are filled with information about scams perpetuated upon writers. We see everything from “contests” that bilk money from aspiring writers to markets that never pay the promised compensation. One subject that’s rarely discussed is scams perpetuated by writers.

Often, a new writer will come up with innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas for promoting a book without realizing that (a) they may actually hurt sales and (b) it’s been done many times before. “Scam” is probably too harsh a word for many of these ideas, but some of them are downright unethical and illegal. That’s what we’ll focus on in this article.

The book buyers at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have seen it all. It’s hard to pull anything on them that hasn’t already been tried. You may assume that owners of small, independent bookstores exist in a vacuum, but that isn’t the case, either. Over 1,200 independents are members of the American Booksellers Association, and members communicate through newsletters and online members-only message boards.

Do we really do this? Yep. There are regional book shows around the country, and owners of bookstores do sit around and share tales of scam artists and unethical book signing conduct. If you own or manage a bookstore, I’d recommend joining your regional association. My home state of Montana is claimed by two regional associations: Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA).

Some authors have placed false orders for their own books through bookstores, hoping to pump up sales. Since most POD (Print On Demand) books are non-returnable, they figure the store will be stuck holding the bag and that they can pocket the royalties on the “sales.” This is actually inaccurate. Bookstores that are the victims of this scam WILL return the books and they WILL receive credit from the distributor or publisher. If they don’t, the bookstore will alert their fellow bookstore owners and everyone else in the industry to not do business with that distributor, publisher, and author. If your book is involved in this type of scam, you can kiss your future as an author goodbye, because nobody will do business with you. There are blacklists of authors in the industry and they are shared.

Authors may also face legal consequences for scams like this, and it isn’t difficult to prove who perpetuated a scam. Despite the huge number of books published every year, the publishing industry is a small world. Bookstore owners, book buyers, and librarians communicate with each other, and are eager to press charges if it will drive unscrupulous people from the business.

I spoke to one POD publisher who found out that one of their authors had tried this stunt. They instantly canceled the author’s contract and alerted the distributor and the bookstores of the attempted fraud. Rather than building up thousands of dollars in royalties, the author ended up with nothing; no contract, no book and, of course, no royalties. Not only that, but there are now hundreds of bookstores that will never order one of that author’s books, even if they do get it republished (which they probably will not).

I don’t want to imply here that all, most, or even many POD authors behave unethically. The overwhelming majority are honest people trying to sell their books the right way. It’s a shame that scam artists make so many bookstore owners and managers nervous about POD.

Needless to say, this scam can’t be pulled off at all with returnable books. Even if the author’s timing is perfect, and a royalty check is issued before the books are returned, the returns will show up on the next royalty statement, and the author will have a serious problem and some explaining to do to the publisher and bookstores.

There are plenty of variants on this scheme, like the “I’ve been getting lots of people from your town looking for a place to buy this book” lie and the ever-common yet never-believed “I used to live near your store and I have a ton of friends and family that want to buy copies from you.” The common factor in all of them is trying to trick a bookstore into ordering a stack of non-returnable books that they may not be able to sell. And, like I said, they’ve heard it all. I got one such call and told the author if he’d send me the list of people who called him, I’d be happy to get them the books right away. As it turned out, he didn’t even know where my store was located.

One author contacted a bunch of small bookstores and organized book signing events. The stores ordered stacks of books, and the author canceled the events. Now, many stores tell authors to bring along their own books, and they don’t order anything up-front unless it’s arranged through a publishing house they know. The author who pulled of this scheme will never have another book signing.

Another trick is misrepresenting the content of a book. A store thinks they’re ordering a big fat book of local bicycle trails, and they get a 60-page book of trails (and only one of which is within 100 miles of that town). A scam like this might work once, but if it does, your name is mud.

Another dishonest “program” that’s making the rounds is authors trying to get everyone to buy their book from Amazon.com within a 24-hour period in an attempt to get on the Amazon.com best seller list. Trying to twist the outcome of the Amazon best seller list in this way is unethical and does not represent a fair and legitimate tally of daily sales for your book (meaning calling your book an Amazon.com best seller when you tricked the system is being dishonest to your future readers and to the press when using this statement on your press releases). Booklocker.com is one publisher that won’t allow its authors to scam the Amazon.com system in this manner, and other reputable publishers are following suit. The scam is now so well-known in the industry that an author that claims to have an Amazon.com Best Seller is now considered by many to be dishonest unless it can be backed up by data spread over a period of weeks or months.

It’s unfortunate that some authors feel the need to lie to and steal from others in this way. It hurts all of us, and makes bookstores much more wary about stocking POD books at all. When marketing your book, remember that the tried and true methods are the most successful ways to market your books and achieve an excellent reputation: pound the pavement, pay your dues, send out press releases, arrange book signings, take out ads, and arrange radio interviews. I have sold thousands of copies of my self-published books by attending trade shows, putting on seminars, and marketing through my website.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, and market your book to others as you would want other books marketed to you.


So what happened last month that got me thinking about this article? A small publishing house that my bookstore buys directly from gave me a call to tell me about a new book they had out. It’s not the kind of book I normally sell, but it is local-oriented, so I had them throw a single copy in with my next order. When the book arrived, I took a look and decided not to carry it in the store.

A few days later, someone called and asked if we carried the book. I said I had one, and the caller asked me to set it aside to pick up later that day. I set the book on the desk, and nobody showed up to get it. The following week, another call asking if we had it, and another “customer” who never showed up to get the book. This happened four times in three weeks — always people I didn’t know who never came in.

Was it the author (plus friends and family) calling me, hoping to get me to place a larger order? I’ll probably never know. But I most certainly won’t be ordering books for inventory based on phone inquiries like that, and I view that publisher with a bit of suspicion now.

Kindle store vs. Apple iBookstore – An author’s perspective


Darkest Hour eBook CoverIn 2003, I created a booklet based on a pamphlet written by Fay Kuhlman. Entitled The Darkest Hour: A Comprehensive Account of the Smith Mine Disaster of 1943, it sold pretty well both at my bookstore and at the Carbon County (Montana) Historical Society. When 2010 rolled around, it seemed like time to update the book a bit, so I went to work on building a 3rd edition.

I had monkeyed around with eBooks back in the 90s, but that was well before their time. Delivery mechanisms were limited, there was no copy protection, and few devices that would qualify as readers. I decided this would be a fine time to see what’s involved in becoming a Kindle author and an iPad author.

I must confess that I went into the experiment with a bias. I’m not your typical Apple fanboy, in that I definitely recognize the flaws in Apple’s products and I use a wide variety of competing products. I have, however, done consulting for Apple, owned many of their different products, and currently use an iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, AppleTV, and more.

On the flipside, I own a bookstore. That means I deeply resent some of the things Amazon has done to the book business. That hasn’t stopped me from selling used books on their site and promoting my own books there, but I’m certainly not an Amazon fan.

Nonetheless, I resolved to do both at the same time and compare the processes with as little bias as possible.

Getting Started

I began the process by applying to be a publisher on Kindle Direct and on Apple’s iTunes Store. I filled in the forms, submitted them, and set out reading whatever information was available on preferred formats. The Kindle application went through fast. I was up and ready to publish in a day. The Apple application took well over a week, and I couldn’t find any way to speed things up. It was far more complex and the agreement far more restrictive than Amazons. This is definitely Advantage: Amazon.

As for file formats, Amazon uses a format called MOBI. You can use color in your cover image, but the inside of the book is black & white. Amazon didn’t have any tools of their own for doing the conversion, but recommended a product called Calibre. Once I stripped out tables, removed all color, and generally took the book back to text-only format, I could reformat the illustrations, build a table of contents, add in the cover art, and convert it using Calibre. It took several iterations, but I finally got what I wanted.

Apple, on the other hand, uses the open ePub format. Since Calibre does ePub, I did a quick reformat of what I’d done for MOBI, swapped the color pictures back in, and did the conversion on Calibre. Looked smooth and easy, but wouldn’t upload. I wrestled with it through several iterations, and finally resorted to reading the help files on Apple’s website. As it turns out, they specifically tell authors to avoid Calibre, as it creates incorrectly-formatted ePub files. Argh! However, the “Pages” word processor on the Macintosh outputs beautifully-formatted ePub, and everything went smoothly from there.

Since I don’t own a Kindle, I had to download a “Kindle Preview” app from Amazon to see how the book would look. On Apple, I simply dragged it to iTunes and synced the iPad. In both cases, I saw what I expected.

Given the formatting capabilities, availability of color, and openness of the format, I’d have to call this Advantage: Apple.

Making the books available for sale

Once your contracts are in place, uploading books is easy with both companies. Again, Amazon’s is faster, but that wasn’t a big deal. Setting prices and royalties was similar. Amazon made the book available in the U.S., U.K., and Germany. Apple gave me all three of those, plus Australia, Canada, and France. One rather significant difference is that Apple requires an ISBN for each eBook. I bought a block of ISBNs when I self published a couple of books years ago, so that wasn’t an issue for me. If you’re a first-time self-publisher, however, that could be a problem. Amazon, on the other hand, makes up a code themselves (they call it an ASIN rather than an ISBN), and you’re ready to go.

You can see what the book looks like in Amazon’s store and Apple’s store and compare for yourself. The Apple iBookstore looks quite different in a web browser than it looks on an iPad, but you’ll get the idea.

Both companies offer online sales and royalty reports and trend charts, and both make it easy to remove or update your book. It’s a close race here, but not requiring an ISBN probably makes this Advantage: Amazon.

The bottom line: Sales

The Darkest Hour, 3rd edition went on sale through both venues in March. Aside from a quick announcement on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve done no promotion whatsoever. It’s a highly-specialized booklet about a mine explosion that took place over 65 years ago. How has it done? According to the royalty reports, 25 copies on Kindle and 1 copy on iPad.

I’ll probably come back and update this after doing some promotion and giving it more time, but for the moment I have to declare Kindle the winner from the author’s perspective. I still like my iPad much better for many reasons, but as I release eBooks, I know where I’m putting my priority for first release!

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