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An open letter to Hachette r.e. Amazon

As an Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) author, I received an email today from their KDP team. It laid out their side of the Amazon-Hachette dispute and encouraged authors to write a letter directly to Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch supporting Amazon’s position. They drew a faulty parallel between changes in book format (hardback -> paperback -> ebook) and Amazon’s attempt to completely control the e-publishing world. I wrote the letter, but it’s not what Amazon asked me to write. I stand with Douglas Preston and the other writers at Authors United, not with Amazon. I want what’s best for the book business, including readers, not what’s best for Amazon to everyone else’s detriment. Here’s what I sent:

Dear Mr. Pietsch;

I’m sure you’ve seen Amazon’s plea to its authors to back them in the Hachette dispute. You are probably getting a lot of emails, mostly from authors who have thrown together an ebook and tossed it on the Kindle store unedited. Yes, I’ve self-published, and I hired editors and proofreaders when I did it. I’ve also been published by one of the big houses (Elsevier), a regional press (FarCountry), a trade association press, and a historical society press. I haven’t been published with Hachette, but I’d be honored to be one of your authors someday.

My opinion isn’t what Amazon wants to read.

I believe that publishers have the right to price their own products. My last book with Elsevier went through a cover design team, an editor, a proofreader, a fact-checker, a book designer, an indexer, and a peer review team. These things cost money. If you decide that Hachette needs to sell a book — paperback, hardback, audio, or electronic — to wholesalers or retailers for $10.00, that is your decision to make. Amazon has become the 500 pound gorilla in this industry, and they believe that it gives them the right to run your business for you.

Amazon is not after lower prices for consumers. They are after control. They wish to push the profits out of ebooks for everyone but themselves, killing as many publishers and competing stores as they can to solidify their market, so that they may raise prices once they have a monopoly as secure as their monopsony is now. They have hurt the book trade badly, and I applaud you for standing your ground.

I support Hachette in this battle, just as I support the the agency model that Apple used. It’s good for publishers, good for authors, and ultimately produces higher quality products for readers as well. I hope that more publishers will have the guts to stand up to Amazon’s bullying, and that we will return to a free market on books instead of a “whatever Amazon says” market.

Thank you for your time.

Gary Robson

I hope that authors who have only looked at Amazon’s side of the story will step back and look at what Amazon has actually done to publishers, writers, and competing stores. Online book sales are great. Ebooks are great. Having both of those completely controlled by a single company — especially a predatory company like Amazon — is not great.

Selling books in the modern era

When I was growing up, we did two types of shopping. Commodity items came from department stores like Sears, and specialty items came from specialty stores. To this day, if I walk into a book store, I expect to encounter a book expert behind the desk, who can help me find what I want. If I walk into a hardware store, I expect someone who can help me to fix a problem with my sink. If I walk into a feed store, I expect someone who knows the difference between red oat hay and alfalfa hay. In a department store, I have no such expectation.

Most of us who still have independent bookstores have survived because we know our products. When someone comes in my store looking for that mystery by a Montana author with a detective that works in a topless bar, we can find it. Same thing if they’re looking for last month’s bestseller with the pink cover, that long poem about Hell by the Italian dude, or a good book about building tree houses. That skill alone, however, will not allow indie bookstores to survive much longer.

The Wal*Mart generation has grown used to walking into stores and finding employees who know nothing about the products they sell. When they go shopping in brick & mortar stores, they’re either browsing randomly, or they’ve researched what they want. To me, it’s worth paying retail if I can engage with someone who knows what they’re talking about and get tailored recommendations. To the current generation, it’s not.

So we face a dilemma. We can try to cut our costs and compete on price; we can specialize, go high-end, and develop a reputation people will seek out; or we can diversify.

Option 1 seems on its face to be a disaster. With rents and wages up, we can’t possibly compete on price with Barnes & Noble, much less Costco. But there are stores out there that are making it work with used books, remainders, overstocks, and “scratch & dent” books. If you know what you’re doing and put in the time to build your stock well, you can even compete with the e-reader crowd. Why pay $10 for a new book on Kindle or iPad when you can buy a used copy for $3 and then sell it back to the store for $1 when you’re done reading it?

Option 2 (the “Nordstrom” option) works in larger communities where there’s a big customer base to draw from, but it’s getting harder and harder to pull off in small communities. The only way to make it successful is to specialize and build a stock that nobody else can match. This will require a great deal of time tracking down those small publishers and vanity-press books that don’t show up in book distributor databases — or even in Bowker’s Books in Print database.

Option 3 is an extension of the route most bookstores are already taking. I remember attending a bookseller conference five years ago where one of the panelists said every bookstore should have candles and wind chimes because they sell. Coffee shops in bookstores are so common they’re expected now. Book-related products like journals, calendars, and magazines have been bookstore mainstays for years.

It’s possible to combine options 2 and 3. A good example would be Barjon’s Books down the road from us in Billings. Their specialty is “alternative spiritual” books, and they stock it deep. Where my store has a shelf for pagan and earth-based religions, Barjon’s has a whole section. And they also stock everything from herbs to candles to tapestries to belly-dancing outfits. This approach has kept them alive and thriving since 1977.  Just don’t go there looking for a copy of Huckleberry Finn.

It’s taken us a little bit of time to settle on our direction. We’re keeping the “general bookstore” selections like bestsellers, thrillers, and Sudoku, but we’ve heavily tailored our stock to local themes and children’s nature/science. We still have a used fiction section, but it can’t compete in sales with our tea bar or cigars. The children’s books are augmented with educational and nature toys.

How are people taking this? For the most part, very well. A few customers have come in and declared that we’re obviously not a bookstore anymore because of “all this other crap” even though our book inventory is the highest it’s ever been. That’s a risk we took when we packed the shelves tighter to make room for tables and chairs. Our sales of tea (both bulk and served in-store) and cigars have more than compensated for the steady slide in new book sales over the last four years.

(The “all this other crap” comment amused me, because it was made by someone who was looking at the spinner rack of my Who Pooped in the Park? books, which has a selection of authentic Montana Turd Birds sitting on top of it.)

What will Red Lodge Books look like in another ten years? Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be selling kilts and swords. But if we continue to adapt with the times, try new things, and drop what doesn’t work, we’ll still be here.

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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