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Amazon's Arrogance

Apr 12, 2008
It was a shot heard round the publishing world in record time. Once Writers Weekly's Angela Hoy, co-owner of Print-On-Demand services company BookLocker, got off the phone with an Amazon rep last month, she posted the warning that Amazon was issuing an ultimatum to POD and small press publishers: print through our on-demand service, BookSurge, or the "buy button" on their Amazon page will be turned off.

It gets better. POD publishers who do strike an agreement with Amazon to use BookSurge must pay for the privilege. These publishers will pay Amazon to print their book, plus pay setup fees for new books, and on top of that Amazon will take 48% of each sale. Or, the alternative for these publishers to ensure their buy buttons remain activated is to join Amazon's Advantage Program, which costs $29.95 per year, plus shipping costs AND 55% of each sale to Amazon (You can find this analysis as well as a comprehensive overview of the issue and many, many related articles put together by Angela and her husband Richard at their site, Writer's Weekly).

PublishAmerica, which refuses to kowtow to Amazon's demand, has posted a release on its website to explain why it will not comply with Amazon's "strong arm" tactics.

What Amazon says: using machines in its own warehouses to print books saves time, making titles ready for shipment faster. It also allows them to combine the title with another product to be shipped in the same box and utilizes Amazon Prime shipping times. Amazon claims it also makes more sense to print books on site in order to save on transportation and fuel costs.

What we say: It may be legal, but trying to increase BookSurge's market share at the expense of other publishers looks, sounds and feels like a monopoly. And that's not good business for anyone: publishers, authors and readers.

While we have relationships with many POD and small press publishers and certainly sympathize with their dilemma, we are particularly disturbed by how this undercuts the independent author, who is going to pay the price for this one way or another. Where is the choice to publish now? With corporate Amazon calling the shots, it undermines the concept behind POD.

Perhaps the handwriting was on the wall when Amazon first purchased BookSurge - why did Amazon need or want an on-demand printing service? More than 80 online blog posts, news articles and forum posts later, the consensus is clear: if it's not illegal, it's unethical and unwise for Amazon to put the squeeze on POD publishers and authors.

Hoy, like PublishAmerica, says that she will not be blackmailed into Amazon's ploy; she's encouraging other POD publishers to combine forces to fight back. The major players, however: AuthorHouse/iUniverse, Lulu and Xlibris for instance, have remained mostly silent in public.

Meanwhile, the Net is buzzing with activity, and there's a clear consensus rendered by headlines that include:

* Amazon Tightens Noose on Print-on-Demand Publishers

* Amazon to Force POD Publishers to Use BookSurge

* Amazon pulls a Microsoft

* Amazon puts the screws to small publishers

* Is Amazon Getting Greedy?

And a personal favorite: Use BookSurge or Die?

One independent author has even posted an online petition. Authors have filled message boards and blogs with comments trying to grapple with this issue and what it means to them and their books. Most authors are not pleased, although there are some pragmatists who see it as business as usual - Amazon's only doing what any other company would do (if it could), the same way Microsoft dominates software. Some points raised include:

* Can books be ported over from a POD publisher directly to BookSurge? Over at Lulu forums, authors noted that Lulu's standards differ - to be published by BookSurge could mean that the authors would have to purchase a BookSurge publishing package even though they chose to publish with Lulu. Lulu's CEO was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he believed BookSurge had "slightly" higher prices than other printers.

* Is it really about faster customer service, or is Amazon simply looking to make more money by printing more books? (It should be noted that Amazon/BookSurge has been approaching publishers for a while and trying to get them to print via BookSurge - unsuccessfully of course).

* Consternation over being forced to use BookSurge's services when the authors are happy with their current publisher.

* The fact that if books were printed through BookSurge they'd have to be set up again with LSI/Ingram (a BookSurge competitor) in order to be distributed to bookstores. Again, more costs.

* A boycott of Amazon, by not doing business with the company, not purchasing books through the site and removing Amazon buttons from websites, blogs, newsletters etc.

Sure, Amazon's a business and can do whatever it wants. Perhaps it would be more convincing if Amazon could make a better argument. Comparing this issue to its earlier decisions to add reader reviews, despite publisher's objections, and to allow used books to be sold, again, despite publisher's objections, don't work.

Why? In the case of reviews, Amazon allowed outside people to provide those reviews (interestingly enough, it used to be anyone could review a book on Amazon, now you have to be a registered member of Amazon to do so...). The same with selling used books - these books are sold by people who are not part of Amazon. With BookSurge, however, Amazon realizes the profit because it owns BookSurge. So authors have lesser choice, POD publishers face more costs, and in the end, who gets less? That much-touted consumer Amazon loves to pretend it cares about. That may be big business in action for you, but it's not good business.
About the Author
Penny C. Sansevieri, CEO and founder of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., is a book marketing and media relations expert whose company has developed some of the most cutting-edge book marketing campaigns. Visit AME
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