Friday, April 04, 2008

Amazon's Smiling Logo is a Sneer, and Jeff Bezos is Looking Like Snidely Whiplash

There's a firestorm that's been brewing in publishing over the last week or so, and the flash point is In the matter of a few days, this behemoth of the book world has managed to rile up thousands of authors and small publishers with a greedy monopolistic grab for a few more dollars.

Having purchased a print-on-demand publishing company a couple of years back, and then tried to build a printing business, they were apparently not satisfied with having that piece of the pie. Nope, they wanted it all.

So they sent the sales reps for that company, BookSurge, with orders to contact print-on-demand (POD) publishers. Oh, no! Don't put anything in writing! But call the POD publishers like iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Xlibris, PublishAmerica, and many more. Tell them that if they don't switch all their on-demand printing to BookSurge, Amazon will make it really, really hard for people to buy those books. And gee, if that hurts their customers, the authors who write, pay for, and sell those books, well that's too bad. Oh, and if your contract with those authors promises to get them on Amazon, well we can still make that happen for you. But it will cost more. Of course, you'll have to pay to meet BookSurge's printing specifications which we can just about guarantee are different from whatever printing service you're using now. Too bad.

Sure smells like a protection racket, but then maybe I've seen too many old movies. The deal then was that a shop owner would pay the local thugs to guarantee that nothing unfortunate would happen to his property. Naturally, some refused. They had mysterious accidents that caused damage and, in some cases, put them out of business.

Amazon doesn't have anything to do with unfortunate accidents. They make it clear to publishers. Use our more expensive printing service, the one known in the industry for shoddy quality and lousy service, or discover that the "Buy It Now" or "Add to Cart" button disappears from every Amazon page of every book you publish. And just to drive their point home, they removed those buttons on many books.

There have been hundreds of blog articles and thousands of words written on this that I can't begin to summarize. Angela Hoy's Writer's Weekly is information central – I recommend it highly and am grateful that she and her husband who own BookLocker (a POD publisher) are the standard-bearers in the fight against Amazon's folly. Though Amazon was forced to release a statement that tries to clothe their greed in customer service, Angela points out some inconsistencies that put the lie to the press release.

Did Bezos and his crew forget that they are not just selling books and software and cosmetics for heaven's sake? Every time someone goes to their site, every time a box with that smiley swoop arrives at someone's door, they are promoting the Amazon brand. For years they have built a brand that people saw as positive, friend of the consumer, and a good thing. Then they went and threw the equivalent of dung at it. Wash as they may, the stain and stench won't go away soon. Neither will all the authors and publishers who refuse to be cowed by a bully, and who refuse to be silent about the bullying.

So why am I all worked up about this? I'm not an uninterested party; later this year I will be publishing the first of what I intend to be a series of niche non-fiction books through The Silloway Press. The reality is that Amazon is the first choice for most people when buying books on line. If Amazon manages to force even micro-publishers like me to use their inferior service, it will affect my reputation and viability as a business.

But mostly, I hate injustice and bullying. So I'm adding my voice to the chorus of protest, and signing my name. I also sign my name to protests against warrantless wire-tapping and the invasive aspects of the so-called "Patriot Act" that allow the government to find out what books I take out of the library. Phooey on them both. Margaret Mead had it right: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."


Anonymous said...

Someone with Microsoft Press told me that when Microsoft created it, the executives were told in no uncertain terms that Microsoft had no interest in running a vanity press, that they had two years to show a profit or go out of business.

Amazon bought BookSurge in 2005, just over two years ago. The ensuring time has done nothing to fix problems that make going with Lightning Source rather than BookSurge one of the easiest decisions any publisher can make.

It's easy to expect that Amazon execs may have given BookSurge a similar ultimatum and, with the warning about to come due, BookSurge demanded one more opportunity, the ability to threaten POD publishers with removal from Amazon sales. Amazon execs might not have thought through the implications of what they were doing.

If so, then hanging tough for a little bit longer, stalling off or even refusing to talk with BookSurge's sales staff when they call, may pay dividends in the long run. BookSurge might just go away and Amazon might learn to leave the printing and publishing to others.

Peg Silloway said...

There's so much we don't know about what is going on behind several closed doors. One thing is for sure, though: If Amazon thought they could fly beneath the radar on this, they have been reminded of the power of the Internet to unite people. When we are a few months further down the road, it will be interesting to see what effect the spotlight has had on Amazon's decisions.