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What’s a professional publisher, anyway?

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m not one of them. And I’ll tell you up front that if you are in the business right now I’m going to say a few things that will irritate you in this post. Some of them may seem to come from left field. Some bits may scream of ignorance (meaning mine). Thing is, that’s all okay with me. I only know and see what I know and see. Plus, I only reason within my capacity to do so. Worse yet? No crystal ball either.

I’ve tried to write about this stuff before, but let’s be frank: I’m a techie geek nerdhead all the way through. I see a business problem, and I start talking about software to solve it. Since I love the technical bits, this often means I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the business problem itself. This post is an attempt to rectify, clarify, elucidate, and also throw in the occasional serial comma.


I don’t promise that I’ll be “right” on any particular point, or even in the main thrust of my argument. I do promise that I’ll do my best to create a sort of logical framework, and that I believe there is reason to expect the role of “publisher”  to change drastically in the near future–but maybe not as drastically as it already has in the recent past. In fact we may soon discover that the role of a publisher has cycled back to what it used to be, only using entirely new technology and a far more widely distributed playing field.

Here’s the first irritating bit: I don’t see a lot of difference between publishing (and I should tell you that within this post I mean something like “e-publishing,” because I’ll only be talking about digital content today) and the rest of the businesses selling digital content on the internet. Except that publishing seems to be stuck at least a decade or so in the past. (I actually suspect it’s almost two decades, with Amazon taking full–but unsustainable–advantage of this, but I figured I’d ease into saying that. This, for me, passes as tact. You’re welcome.)

I’ve been writing fiction for a while, with a couple of novels under my belt. And a bunch of stories, and I have some more stuff that should be complete and “published” fairly soon. But I have far more experience in the software development world. Which also, for me, means the “startup” world, and I know a little bit about selling digital content on a systematic basis. (I could also irritate a bunch of writers by telling them I see more similarities than differences between writing software and writing fiction, but I’ll save that for another day. Maybe next week?)

So, when I (as an outsider) look at publishing today, there’s a lot I just don’t see but think I should. For instance:

  1. Affiliate programs (the kind with teeth)
  2. Pay-per-click
  3. Pay-per-action
  4. An open market that allows specialists to prosper
  5. Widespread understanding of “platform” and its dangers
  6. Serious subscription management
  7. A rich and well-distributed startup ecosystem. Yes, there are companies trying all sorts of stuff. But most of them seem to be stuck in an obsolete paradigm (more on that in a bit).

I know: some of you quit reading back at “affiliate programs.” After all, who wants a bunch of MLM schemes? They’re so tacky. And besides, affiliate programs do so exist! To which I say: yeah, they sorta exist. Only they’ve got the “tail” and “dog” parts reversed. Fix that and the world looks very different all of a sudden.

I started thinking this through from a non-techie perspective last Friday because Nate Hoffelder wrote a post that he said was partly inspired by a comment I’d left on another of his posts…which I could also link to, but come on. Find it yourself if you really care.

Anyway, Nate’s a smart guy and I was flattered that I started his brain a-spinning. He wrote about an indie network of startups that would be able to seriously threaten Amazon, and went on to imply that Amazon may well be very aware of the danger. It would explain why they bought Goodreads, for instance.

Let’s back up just a little. Here’s the excerpt of my comment that Nate used in his post:

There’s no obvious reason these centralized systems have to dominate internet sales at all. Set up an easy-to-use system for content owners to offer their wares from wherever they choose to host ‘em, and handle sales by at least one common protocol, and the only central system of use will be an index…which will really only be useful to most insofar as it is also a recommendation engine.

By “centralized systems” I meant organizations like Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and so forth. When I wrote the above I was just thinking about a network of indie author/publishers and how easy it would be to design a system that worked very well, was widely distributed, and could be profitable for all concerned without skimming off 35-70%+ of the gross. If you could somehow convince people to use it once it was built (not my area of expertise…unfortunately this is clear to everyone who meets me). But you know what? I was starting from the wrong end.

Here’s what I should have been saying all along:

  • From a technical perspective, Amazon’s content hosting and delivery, plus payment processing, is trivially easy to duplicate. This is becoming more true every year. (Incidentally, it’s also possible to buy the server space and bandwidth cheaply…from Amazon. Irony! Fun! Unless maybe that’s actually silicony!)
  • The price they charge to publishers is awfully high for mere content hosting.
  • Thing is, that stuff is just the plumbing. The real reason people go to Amazon (besides habit) is that Amazon helps them find what they’re looking for, or it suggests potential purchases in a useful way.
  • I’ve read (but not personally verified) that, although the major non-Amazon e-bookstores have duplicated all of the infrastructure above, they most often recommend what they’re paid to recommend. In other words, they’re designed to please publishers rather than readers.
  • There’s no obvious reason, if Amazon’s primary business is actually recommendations, why others couldn’t profitably get into the game…if they could do so without worrying about the hosting bits. Because that’s just the plumbing. Yeah, I said it again.
  • This, if true, would easily explain why Amazon remains dominant. They don’t actually have competitors. They have cargo cult imitators.

And here are a few more points to consider:

  • Publishers, large and small, seem to obsess over Amazon’s platform. This makes a certain amount of sense, because Amazon sells a lot of books.
  • In the software world it’s fairly common for companies to trap themselves by using some other company’s platform. If sales are good enough in the short term it can be a reasonable choice to do so, but the situation is always time-limited–because the platform owner invariably starts incorporating whatever its “partners” do that seems to be making a profit. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
  • The primary weapon smaller software companies have to counter this behavior is to offer “Software as a Service” applications, which typically generate the most overall profit when they’re set up to be offered on a subscription basis. This also sidesteps a lot of DRM and “piracy” issues.

So when I first got a taste of the current indie-publishing world, as a sort of reflexive reaction I started considering how I might offer subscriptions. I haven’t given up on that notion! But…I’m far from the only player in this publishing world, and while I might be able to make that work there are lots who could do it better. It seems to me that any of the major ebookstores, or any of the major publishing houses, could reshape the book publishing (and selling, and distributing) landscape almost right away. And this would be a good thing. For instance:

  • What if B&N gave up on laying pipe and instead considered a business model designed to directly challenge Amazon’s? Couldn’t they immediately choose to become more of a middleman by encouraging publishers to offer them a data feed of the books they have available, and instead of trying to behave as if they had a proprietary interest in the content, B&N could simply charge a transaction fee for each book purchased? B&N already has a large number of readers accessing their site. They could let publishers set up subscriptions or any other marketing/discounting scheme they liked, and remain agnostic to it all: they’d just want their percentage. Of course this should also entail spending more time on developing their own recommendation engine–but that might be crowdsourced (see much more on this below). The primary point is that B&N could immediately charge a much lower transaction fee, if they would just accept that Amazon is the only Amazon and the way to defeat them is not to duplicate the more obvious features of their website. Perhaps ten percent? Five? The expenses are fairly low for this kind of setup. Publishers would (or should) be ecstatic at the opportunity. Press coverage would be everywhere. Amazon would…have to follow suit. Wouldn’t they? Then B&N could set up some fun stuff with affiliate marketing– there are lots of interesting implications, but again…see below for more of that.
  • What if (and I like this version better) one of the major publishers decided to kick this off instead? How hard would it be to offer its wares via an affiliate program? Something like Commission Junction might work reasonably well right out of the box (assuming the publisher understood it was actually an “advertiser” in this context). Essentially the publisher would allow nearly anyone to set up an account. That person or company would become…well, either a distributor or a bookseller or both.

Whichever way the above gets started (and I think this is an inescapable development), suddenly it will become straightforward for many, many book lovers to get into the game. Do you have a popular book blog? Great; now you can either sell the publisher’s books directly or get paid for traffic you send to the publisher’s (or B&N’s) site. Are you Amazon? Same thing. You’re only as special as your sales numbers. (So obviously it works better if the publishers do this themselves. But if B&N pulls the trigger first…next week maybe…my guess is it’d be a while before anyone tried to cut them out entirely. And even then they’d just keep selling books as best they can, same as everyone else.)

In this new paradigm, I strongly suspect that specialists will rise to the fore in many categories. Trying to sell “everything to everybody” is a tough business. But what if I want to sell only Pacific Northwest thrillers, and I put a lot of time into finding my target audience and reviewing/selling this type of book? All of a sudden I can sell the books, from any participating publisher, directly on my site. Or not–it’s up to me.

Speaking of which, what if I want to build a brand-new business based on getting print books into bookstores? Well, how good are my sales numbers? I’ll bet some of the stores in the Pacific Northwest would look at them. Maybe give me a little piece of the action in return for my recommendations. It doesn’t necessarily have to be much–just enough to keep me interested.

For a publisher this could be fun. Like: here’s my price for this book. Or you can get a bulk rate for sales on your own site if you earn that. Or you can sell it as part of a subscription of some sort. Would you like to set up your own subscription plan, using eligible books and basing this on search criteria you select? Or would you like to form your own curated list, which we’ll even make exclusive to you if you sell enough subscriptions? Or do you have another idea we could try out? Because trying out new stuff is fun, because as a publisher I don’t actually care which downstream business models actually work. I just make stuff available in various ways, and keep track of the numbers, and talk to people.

A lot of folks at all levels of this would make…well, coffee money. Sometimes. Which is actually fine! Some would make millions, and most people would mostly be involved because they love the game. There’s room for everybody, and those who developed a following could be directly paid for the influence they wield.

Confession time: I hate centralized systems in general. It’s the geek in me. They’re designed to be non-responsive to stimuli, and they’re designed to have single points of failure. Yech. So I naturally expect ’em all to fail in really ugly ways, and real soon too. Which doesn’t mean I’m right in any particular instance.

But…think of all the problems that simply go away when all this happens! Maybe!

In this new ecosystem, nobody would have to design a book review system that worked for all books everywhere. The very idea would become silly. Instead, lots of people would recommend what they liked or found worthwhile, and those who earned a substantial following would…again…be paid for it. On the other hand, there might well be a bunch of generalized book review sites that all somewhat work, and they’d all make whatever money they’d earned.

There might or might not be any value in a sort of “central index” of books for sale. There could be several of these, and of course anybody at all could sell nearly any book…but the index itself is nothing compared to the recommendations. And just how hard is it to subscribe to a bunch of publisher feeds to create that index, anyway? This service won’t make much money, will it? Hmm. Maybe people ought to focus on giving readers what they want instead?

There will be room for lots of new businesses. Want to help indies put a subscription or an anthology or both together (please)? Want to build and sell an app that helps people (Facebook users?) gather major-publisher feeds and sell the books they select on their own sites (or from Facebook pages, or from LinkedIn, or…)? Hey, do you have an idea for a new sort of subscription or combo product? Cool. Try it out!

Where’s Amazon in all this? Unless they get out in front and help make it happen, they’re probably nowhere. They for sure won’t be charging 35-70% plus “applicable” fees per transaction for very long. Right away they’ve got a problem: current ebook prices include paying 35-70%+ to Amazon. So what if Joe Schmo can sell a book on his own site but chooses to go only 10% above his cost (which is, by no coincidence whatsoever, the same as Amazon’s)? Suddenly…everybody else may be able to undercut Amazon’s current prices. Everybody. For fun, as a hobby, without paying the author/publisher any less than they’re making now and without depending on those sales to make a living. So what does Amazon do about it? Price-match, keep their cut the same, and irritate authors/publishers by paying them even less than they do now? I don’t think Amazon could take that kind of hit. They’d have to get out in front of it, and change the way they do business. And see just how well selling everything to everybody works, in the long run, with lots of specialized competition.

Okay, so if any book can be sold for less, how is there still money in book sales? Well…sometimes there might not be much. I think the way you sell books for money is through customer loyalty and appreciation. Let’s face it: that’s how it works now, too. You have to earn that kind of response from readers. If you can’t…try another business, I guess.

Incidentally, besides buying up sites like Goodreads (which, if it became a major source of influential book recommendations, would also bring about the distributed future I envision–because I don’t think many people would choose Amazon as their primary source of books if they could either find lower prices or be guaranteed that the author/publisher would receive more of the purchase price elsewhere, and again I say setting up the plumbing isn’t too hard or expensive), what else can Amazon do to protect themselves?

Well…they can keep buying startups as Nate suggested, for as long as that remains practical. And they can get as much contractually exclusive content as they can, while that still seems reasonable to writers. But hey–wait a minute! If they were worried about this and thought they could get away with it because nobody was really paying attention…wouldn’t their imprints require exclusivity for the life of the copyright? And wouldn’t they also do this with Kindle Singles, and Kindle Worlds? Oh wait. That’s exactly what they’re doing, isn’t it? Hmm.

Hey David. Aren’t you one o’ them rabid indies? Whyfore are you suddenly talking about publishers? Good question! The answer is that a publisher who did this would be offering me an actual service. One that would be worth money to me. Sure, I could probably duplicate the tech eventually and offer my own feeds, but who would care? Also, just how good at managing multiple-author subscriptions and anthologies am I really going to be? And do I really want to jump feet-first into this new world, where Amazon’s algorithms may well play second fiddle to personal relationships with those who successfully recommend and sell books? I mean…sheesh. This is what a publisher should do. From my perspective, anyway. Probably not just mine, but you never know. Sometimes I’m odd.

Okay, so I’m a publisher and I want to remake the ebook world. What does this mean I need to do, in simple terms?

  • Set up affiliate programs.
  • Allow not just referrals to your site, but also actual sales on affiliate sites.
  • Pay more to those who sell on their own sites rather than yours. Because you want them to build a successful business. You want lots of businesses out there selling your stuff. That way nobody’s an Amazon anymore.
  • Speaking of that: always pay the affiliates well. Pay them lots of money. Offer something like what you’re currently paying Amazon, and maybe even a little more in special cases. They’re doing the actual work of selling the products; honor that and see if you can make up the difference (or more) in volume.
  • In other words: crowdsource your sales team. Partly, at least.
  • Also crowdsource reviews and recommendations wherever possible. Don’t you already mostly do this?
  • That’s all automated, once the basics are built. What you actually do is spend your time building and maintaining relationships with influential sellers/distributors/recommenders. Do lunch. Talk to people. Get them excited.
  • Occasionally try a new idea, if it looks like it might work.

I think it means “professional publishing” is what you need to do. Only in this century. Amazon? So 1990s.

Okay, there are caveats. Can traditional publishers actually do this today, without violating whatever contract terms they generally have in force? Beats me. On the other hand…if they need to renegotiate those terms to get the necessary rights, and they have something to offer writers, could they do so? I don’t see why not.

How about newer and smaller “indie” publishers? Can they get together and start doing this? Come to think of it, since Smashwords automatically opts all its authors in to new distribution channels…could Mark Coker find a way to make this happen all by himself? Maybe. (Also, where’s his indie-book-of-the-month club? Come to think of it, why doesn’t Smashwords have twenty of them?)

Here’s the thing, though. I think whoever gets this rolling needs a larger market share than Smashwords has, if it’s going to happen quickly. And probably needs to offer bestsellers too. Though…I could be wrong. Maybe we just need the right catalyst. That’d be cool.

So, who wants to try? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Have fun out there!

Published inPublishingRandom RantsWild-Ass Speculation


  1. Smart, insightful and absolutely spot on! I’m selling digital books from my own website in exactly the fashion you describe, and it works wonderfully. (I’m still wrestling with Affiliate programs, however, as it might be seen as penalizing those sites that have been referring buyers to me for years)

    But yes, something like Gumroad or any of the many Paypal based ecommerce programs work great and cost 4-6%. No need whatsoever to pay usurious fees to iTunes, or Comixology or Amazon.

    • David

      We do what we can, eh? It’s a fun game, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next. I do think I could match my Amazon sales right from this website, but OTOH that’s just because my sales are awfully seldom of late. I really need to get the next book(s) out there!


  2. I’ll keep my response really short:

    – a lot of hard-core readers, those who buy lots of books, owns Kindles and love their Kindles and thus would like to read any ebook they buy on a Kindle; the “rest of the market” i an awefull lot smaller

    – most consumers have a very positive view of Amazon, after all their customer service if fanatically good; the “Amazon is a monster” view is what publishers think, not consumers

    – payment processing has gotten aweful lot easier with Braintree and then Stripe, but getting a consumer to trust you and pull out their credit card detail (and it is a pain for first time users) is still a barrier

    – the publishing start-up ecosystem is anemic; yes, it is, VCs shun the sector and that has something to do with (a) Amazon’s dominance and (B) VCs viewing the book publishing industry as only marginally more attractive that the automobile or utility industries where incumbents are notoriously difficult to work with

    – most authors would rather write their next book, then understand all this “tech” stuff

    • David

      Sure. I agree with all of your points. I’m not sure how much it matters, though–I wasn’t suggesting that authors get into the tech stuff as much as that publishers should. As far as how easy it would be for individuals to sell ebooks directly from their sites…well, both Paypal and Amazon (among others) can make such purchases fairly risk-free for consumers.

      Thing is, most people still don’t read ebooks, so in the long run it may not matter much how people are buying them today. And sure, many people like Amazon and are in the habit of “buying” ebooks there. So? Do you think publishers want that to last forever? It’s not actually a lot of work for them to implement the tech I describe, and I imagine businesses would start springing up. Including some I (for one) wouldn’t have considered possible.

      I should have included this in the original post, but here it is: an immediate likely effect of publishers’ adoption of a system like the one I propose is lower prices for readers without reducing the income of authors or publishers. If Amazon can retain readers in that scenario, without lowering their own prices and also without reducing their overly-large cut of every transaction…well, more power to ’em. I’ll be impressed.

  3. Wow, long one here! I love your first paragraph, David!–it’s a real cool disclaimer. “Cool” because I understand and feel egggxactly the way you do, it appears; only in an entirely different venue. It’s also possible that I’m reading my own sense of things into what you wrote, and the way I’m understanding your comments has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re actually saying…

    Anyway, I didn’t read the entire post; my apologies and it is NOT personal. So please don’t go take valium or something to deal with it. Being completely outside your technical field, I can barely make sense of much that you say. But on a pure gut level, even just scanning the bugger, it seems that you’ve got a Ton to offer and you have outstanding outside-the-box ideas.

    Your self-deprecating tendencies are very popular among writers nowadays, I’ve noticed. I do it myself, for crissake, mostly because it’s fun. (?) The point is, just in case you’re seriously Not sure of your capabilities w/ regard to being a main player in the “new” publishing field, I would vote against that type of thinking. Chances are you’re standing right in centerfield and the ball’s heading for your mitt. I hope you have one on you.

    I look forward to your next blog.

    • David

      Thanks! And I’m way more arrogant than I claim to be. You mean it doesn’t show?? {8’>

  4. William Ockham

    There is one assumption that invalidates your argument:

    “I don’t think many people would choose Amazon as their primary source of books if they could either find lower prices or be guaranteed that the author/publisher would receive more of the purchase price elsewhere…”

    There is no way to undersell Amazon on a consistent basis. While many readers would like to see authors get more of the purchase price, I don’t see that being strong enough to pull most people out of the Amazon orbit.

    In your answer to Andrew, you say that most people today don’t read ebooks, but in the English speaking world, that’s just not true. Of the people who read, almost all of them have read an ebook. I don’t think that is a barrier to dethroning Amazon. But you have to give them something better than they get at Amazon. Not a weak tea imitation. And honestly, I don’t see anything in your proposal that is better for readers than what Amazon offers.

    • David

      I don’t think you read this carefully enough… 🙂

      The quote you give is referring to what I think might happen if Goodreads rose to the fore as a book discovery service, and only that. In that scenario, Goodreads would already have supplanted Amazon to some extent–and none of my other ideas depend on that concept. I simply said that trying to stay in front of that scenario might explain why Amazon bought Goodreads. I’m not sure how this invalidates anything. Are you saying no other service can ever supplant Amazon as a source of recommendations, even if they don’t also try to handle sales and content delivery, and thus the Goodreads purchase was only for some set of unrelated reasons? I doubt this is the case–in fact I argued it would be much easier to out-sell Amazon on a basis of hours spent for books sold for those who specialize in some genre or other division of the market…perhaps you disagree with this bit as well? IOW selling all books to everybody is more efficient than specialization, in your view? (Note: in fact you didn’t say that, just as I didn’t say what you implied I did.)

      Also, suppose a publisher gets $3.00 from a given book, and Amazon gets $7.00, for a purchase price of $10. Now suppose the publisher makes the same book available to Joe Schmo, and only asks for something close to the same $3.00 cut. IOW, there is no attempt at “agency” pricing–there is only a wholesale price. In this scenario, I imagine a “book price search” app would make it difficult for Amazon to sell many copies at all until they changed something. Could Amazon survive the press coverage if they price-matched all the lower prices but kept a large share of the proceeds? I don’t think that’s a good long-term strategy for them.

      I suppose I could say the publisher “recommends” a $10.00 retail price, but only insists on receiving $3. Same thing; different marketing slant. How does Amazon respond? By drastically changing the way they do business, I think. Though maybe I’m wrong.

      Do you have evidence that suggests most people have read an ebook, or numbers to show what percentage read them regularly? I’m not sure your assertion is true–in fact I doubt it. It might be true in urban communities, but even if it is…most people don’t live in them. I’ve run into many people who find me via Twitter and my blog who (in spite of being active online) have told me they only read print, and most of my friends and relatives only read print, but that’s all anecdotal so I suppose I simply don’t know. I do know that when I did a “giveaway” last summer, mostly via Twitter, more than half of those requesting a free ebook ended up wanting it in PDF form. Which to me means they’re not drinking all that much Amazon Kool-Aid.

      Finally, I don’t get the “weak tea” thing at all. I think it just means you don’t like my notion for reasons you haven’t explained in a way I can grasp. Which of course may well be my own fault. I fail to grasp the obvious several times a day, on average. But I remain unconvinced thus far.

      • William Ockham

        You might not think the success of your ideas depending on being able lure readers away from Amazon, but I do. My data on ebooks and reading come from comparing Pew’s surveys on the subject with sales data for adult fiction (in all formats). What would you expect to be larger, an estimate of the total number of books read by people 16 and older in the U.S. in a single year based on Pew’s data or the number of adult fiction books sold by traditional publishers in the U.S. in a single year? The books sold figure doesn’t include self-published books, YA, children’s books, non-fiction, books bought second-hand, etc. but it’s still larger than the number of books people claim to have read. Weird, huh?

        There’s two things going on that explain that. First, tons of fiction is bought and never read (and it’s mostly best-sellers). Second, there’s a small group of people who read a vast number of books every year and they already have ereaders. There’s no undiscovered market for ebooks. At least not until the ereader costs less than the retail price of a bestseller, but that market isn’t really “available”.

        My guess is that most of the people who tell you they only read print are being honest, but neglecting to mention that they haven’t actually read a novel in years. People who are on Twitter are using their computer and PDF is the best format for a lot of them. You would be surprised at how many people don’t know how to sideload an ebook to their device.

        Let’s put some real numbers on your scenario about pricing. For hardcover novels, publishers charge retailers about 49% of the cover price. Amazon will sell most of those books at roughly 51-55% of the cover price. If you send someone to Amazon through an affiliate link to buy a hardcover, Amazon almost always loses money on that sale.

        The ebook situation is a little different, but if you want to sell on Amazon, you have to agree to give them the lowest wholesale price. And they will match the retail price of almost any book. I stand by my statement that no one is going to beat Amazon on price in the books market.

        I would argue that your ideas are quite sound and someone is executing them brilliantly. His name is Jeff Bezos. He got into the business, undercut everyone else in price, offered a lucrative affiliate program, and crowdsourced a recommendation engine. The only difference is that he recognized that he needed to drive the traffic to his site. That’s what I meant about a weak tea imitation. Bezos and Amazon are already doing the essential elements of your idea.

        Let’s go point by point:

        •Set up affiliate programs.
        [Check, Amazon does that.]
        •Allow not just referrals to your site, but also actual sales on affiliate sites.
        [Check, Amazon does that. No, really. Take a look at Amazon Login and Amazon Payment.]
        •Pay more to those who sell on their own sites rather than yours. Because you want them to build a successful business. You want lots of businesses out there selling your stuff. That way nobody’s an Amazon anymore.
        [Check, if you change that to charge less for selling on their own sites. Also, Amazon’s pretty good at making sure that no one else is an Amazon…]
        •Speaking of that: always pay the affiliates well. Pay them lots of money. Offer something like what you’re currently paying Amazon, and maybe even a little more in special cases. They’re doing the actual work of selling the products; honor that and see if you can make up the difference (or more) in volume.
        [Check, this is exactly Amazon’s strategy. They often pay more to affiliates than they make themselves. And they make up the difference in volume.]
        •In other words: crowdsource your sales team. Partly, at least.
        [Check, Amazon does that.]
        •Also crowdsource reviews and recommendations wherever possible. Don’t you already mostly do this?
        [Check, Amazon does that.]
        •That’s all automated, once the basics are built. What you actually do is spend your time building and maintaining relationships with influential sellers/distributors/recommenders. Do lunch. Talk to people. Get them excited.
        [Ok, this is one that Amazon could do better at, but check out Amazon Publishing and how their authors felt about the last shindig.]
        •Occasionally try a new idea, if it looks like it might work.
        [Check, Amazon does that.]

        • David

          I almost hate to reply to this at all. I know there’s good Will here (yeah, pun intended; sue me) because this isn’t the first time we’ve discussed interesting topics and disagreed, but it seems we’re largely talking past each other this time. I think it means we likely have some fundamentally different views, and will each tend to interpret data accordingly. I don’t particularly like the notion, but Thomas Kuhn had a lot to say on the topic–which, since it dealt with humans, had applications beyond the realm of scientists. Paradigms are a dime a dozen, y’know?

          So I’ll just say a couple of things, and then stop. Okay, three.

          First, I don’t particularly “trust” surveys to mean anything in particular. I think they’re very useful for generating hypotheses, but the next step–testing–is often hard or impractical to take. This has all sorts of implications in all sorts of areas, the one which gripes me particularly at the moment being what passes for nutritional “science.” So…I know my mind likes anecdotes (stories!) and is nearly blind to the sort of analysis of large datasets that I’d like it to be able to do. So is everyone else’s, though, which is even worse. So I’ll just note that I recently took a trip on an Alaskan ferry and saw at least twenty people reading books. Fiction, most of ’em. I was the only person I saw using an e-reader of any description. Does it “mean” anything? Well…not really, no. But neither does a survey. I know that may seem like quibbling over a minor point, but I really don’t see the point as minor. All that said? I agree that my previous statement that “most people don’t read ebooks” may not have been correct or meaningful.

          Second, Amazon prefers (but does nothing of which I’m aware to enforce, other than sometimes price-matching) that publishers list things elsewhere at the same retail price. At any given retail price, the wholesale price (aka the publisher’s cut) currently varies considerably between the various e-booksellers. And there was a bit of a kerfluffle not too long ago when Amazon started discounting the retail price–thus, the rise of “agency” pricing, and court decisions, and all that mess. Thing is, as I keep trying to point out and it seems to me I’m being reasonable when I do it, if a publisher lists books elsewhere than Amazon with a “suggested retail” of…some number…and only insists on the same wholesale price they’d get from Amazon, it’d be trivial for lots of people to undercut Amazon’s current pricing scheme. This would, I think, cause readers to desert Amazon in droves–unless Amazon cut their own prices to match, and I don’t think public opinion would let them do so while also reducing their payments to publishers. IOW, Amazon’s current (large, IMO) markups would simply melt away. This would likely lead to more sales for publishers (due to the lower price) at no loss in income. It would be a good deal for readers too. And…it’s easy. It’d be really funny if Amazon suddenly started objecting to discounting! And did you see how I got through the whole paragraph without saying “disintermediation” until now? It wasn’t easy.

          Third, I simply find it unlikely that a more open market (which could be achieved by publishers’ letting go of the reins and letting other people figure out how they want to sell books) would be less efficient than the current mess. I think lots of people would come up with (and implement) ideas, and some of them would work well. Books would be sold in so many more places than they are now…it’s hard for me to see how this would work out badly for publishers.

          But although that seems very straightforward to me, I suspect it all means something else to you–possibly that I’m delusional, or missing something obvious (which I guarantee I am, ’cause that’s how brains work). So…there may not be much point discussing it further (which is not to say that I wouldn’t enjoy reading your reply or replies; so far I always have and I very much appreciate the time/effort you put into them).

          It’ll be fun to see what happens. {8’>

  5. Hi, David… Hope everything is going well.

    Was flying around the internet a little the last few days and one interesting item came up:

    Amazon has an un-mentioned limit on how many ebooks you can return.

    More on this. A user commented on their account being approached in some way, due to this and it made me think on how doing JUST first coupla chapter previews is not always helping a reader know if he wants to buy a book. Everyone has a different approach to deciding how to buy a book.

    So he buys the book, an ebook and is unsatisfied with the read and is able to return it, no questions, relatively, at Amazon. But unbeknowst to a particular user, there IS a limit on how far you can go with this. (Probably, mostly, cos they’re thinking you’re pirating stuff.)

    Thing is: I believe the user; they’re not trying to pirate anything; it’s how they figure out books they want to read and that’s not completely possible for them, online, the way it was, offline, in a book store.

    Which led me to thinking about how much one shows to a customer so they can or may buy a book; which led me to the Amanda Palmer (and duh, maybe the whole music industry idea) that you give the customer the product, let them enjoy it–all of it; and ask to be paid, (like Amanda is talking about).

    It could be a possible approach to selling here; that places like Amazon won’t do cos it’s all about the money, upfront.

    Books are nothing but a service. And good writers, hopefully, provide a good service. And most old style readers are USED to this.

    More on this.

    Have fun.


  6. And I’m reading select bloggers and this woman is STILL it:

    wife of the guy YOU follow and a good post here:

    on Thursday/Friday, of this week.

    • David

      I didn’t, no. Now I do. It looks interesting, but I wonder how many readers know about it yet? I have opinions about how Google handles stuff like this…

      I saw the thing about returns over at The Passive Voice, and thought William Ockham was on target when he did the math–that was a LOT of returns before Amazon reacted to ’em. And their reaction (cutting off future returns but leaving the account otherwise intact) seemed okay to me. Of course the person doing all the buying/returning wasn’t actually hurting anybody, and I’d probably have just left the situation alone if it’d been up to me, but I don’t think Amazon is being all that evil. A little maybe. 2 points out of ten. They’ll probably do better next week! {8’>

      I liked that blog post you linked to. I don’t know how accurate it is–it’s more of the “all I ever did was write and it worked for me once upon a time so therefore you young whippersnappers don’t need to do anything else either” stuff that’s easy to find from people for whom it was true once upon a time. Doesn’t mean she’s wrong, but I didn’t see a compelling reason to believe she was right either. I think lots of things have worked at different times, and lots of people have taken advantage of them, but that doesn’t point the way to the next successful idea. Those who say “all you have to do is write” have probably NOT had the experience of publishing a novel and seeing only a dozen sales over six months–or a short story with none at all. But that seems to be the norm of late, so…if I knew what to do I’d be doing it. Meanwhile I figure it won’t hurt me to focus for a while on the writing just so I have more content available, with which I may or may not get either lucky or smart at some future point. {8’>

      Also, sorry it took me so long to reply to these. I hid from the internet for over a week, and I’ve been killing my brain with writing new stuff lately so I haven’t wanted to even look at a computer. That said? I appreciate your comments and feedback, always.


  7. Great info. Lucky me I recently found your blog by
    accident (stumbleupon). I’ve saved it for later!

    • David

      Thanks! Hope you find more stuff you like.

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