Is It OK to Self-Publish through Amazon?

A few days ago, one of my favorite local bloggers (and customers), Javacia Harris Bowser, asked me to answer a few questions for her blogs, See Jane Write and The Writeous Babe Project. It was a lot of fun, but one of her questions was tougher than others: While I can certainly see how Amazon hurts independent bookstores, some would say that Amazon is encouraging storytelling because it offers people more opportunities to get published. Can you talk a bit about why you believe Amazon can be harmful to storytelling?

I’m a big proponent of people writing (this is me promoting Nanowrimo a few years ago). But what do you do when your book is finished? Is Amazon an option?

Since my answer to that question is so complicated (and crazy-long), Javacia and I decided she’d run a brief answer to the question on her blog, and I’d give the unabridged verson here. For the rest of the interview, which focuses on my bookshop and shopping locally, click here. But here’s my answer to the Amazon question:

Why is Amazon harmful to storytelling?

I’m glad you asked about Amazon. I’m pretty vehement about Amazon, and a lot of people think that’s only because it’s a competitor, but that’s not true. Starbucks is a competitor, but I don’t have any problem with them as a company. But Amazon has made a business strategy of trying to squeeze profits out of the book industry without contributing to it creatively. They sell books for less than they’re worth, even lose money on them, in order to undercut competitors and put us and publishers out of business. They’re trying to get a monopoly on bookselling and on publishing, and I think having one entity — whether it’s Amazon, government, or any physical bookstore — in charge of the publishing and distribution of stories and ideas is terrifying. Also, they’ve captured the market on digital publishing and made a device that will only display books purchased from them — it’s as if, when Apple made the iPod, they’d designed it so it would only play songs bought from Apple, and you could never buy an album from a local shop, or from a live show, or from the artists themselves. That kind of control isn’t good for competition, for artists, or for consumers.

A lot of people see Amazon’s self-publishing arm as separate, or as a positive entity, because it gives writers a chance to self-publish. But it’s really hard for me to understand why any writer would put their work into the hands of a company that has a business strategy so opposed to artistic expression and freedom of readership. I’m not against Amazon because I’m a bookseller — I’m against Amazon because I’m a writer and a reader, and I became a bookseller again so I’d be in a better position to try to fight what they’re doing. I don’t know if I’m making a difference or not, but I’m trying.

But let’s pretend for a minute that Amazon’s overall strategy doesn’t matter. I’ve talked to lots of writers who believe they’ll make money by self-publishing through Amazon, but I don’t think that’s true in the majority of cases (at least not on the scale people are imagining). A writer who frequents Church Street used a YouTube analogy that I think is appropriate: For every Justin Beiber who’s discovered on the Internet, there are thousands of people who’ll continue to get lost in the crowd. Do self-published Amazon authors sometimes succeed? Sure. But what are the chances of that, really? There’s also the idea that, once a writer finds an audience, it will only grow. As a bookseller, I know that’s not true — one misstep, one bad story, and most your audience will abandon you. Your publisher, in most cases, won’t. Amazon’s system is so flooded with titles that hitting it big is kind of like winning the lottery. And even if you win once, you’re likely on your way to being a one-hit wonder. If you’re looking for a career instead of a quick windfall, go with a publisher who has a interest in carrying you, even through books that don’t have stellar sales.

I’m also concerned with the need for an author to be not just a master storyteller and good writer, but also a PR genius, a marketing professional, a copyeditor, a designer, and a public speaker. Remember, if you publish through Amazon, you’re going to have to do the jobs of all those people that your publisher would have hired. I’ve actually held all these jobs. I’ve done them professionally, and even I think that task is too daunting. Also, good luck getting your book carried by independent bookstores if you’re using Amazon as your publisher. This is doable, of course (we’re hosting an open house for an Amazon author later this month, and he’s been fantastic to work with), but it’s the exception and not the rule. For one thing, Amazon is trying to destroy our shops, and that doesn’t sit well, but there’s also the fact that the percentage a small shop can make off your Amazon-published book doesn’t really make it worth it for us to sell. (We have to keep the lights on, pay booksellers to sell your work, and pay more taxes than Amazon does — we’re not being greedy, but we can’t promote your book for too small a markup.) You might think it’s not important for independents to carry your book if it’s available on Amazon. But remember, as a self-published author with no publisher promotion, your hometown is your biggest market. If your book isn’t in stores where you live, you’re missing a huge sales opportunity. And lots of people still won’t think your book is “real” if they don’t see it in stores.

Also, as cheesy as it sounds, I believe in the publishing system. Yes, it’s flawed. But look at what publishing houses are still producing. Just this year, I’ve read incredible literary fiction from Jeffrey Eugenides, brilliant comedies like Sisters Brothers and Where’d You Go Bernadette, and gems like Ready Player One, a crazy and wonderful story about gaming and the 80’s. Publishers not only discovered these stories, but they also developed them and promoted them. Except for Eugenides, I’d never have bought these books without publisher promotion and backing. Yes, publisher rejections are incredibly frustrating for writers. Yes, there are amazing books that were rejected by multiple publishers before they hit shelves. But almost any published writer will tell you that these rejections sharpened their work, and that their editors and agents were essential to making the best book. Frankly, I think it’s egotistic to think you’re the one writer who doesn’t need an editor, who doesn’t need your story polished, who knows so much you won’t benefit from the wisdom of an agent and an editor.

Basically, I think aspiring authors need to ask: Why are you writing? If your primary focus is to get your ideas or your story in front of people, a blog can do that. We’re incredibly lucky to live at a time when you can publish your work for free and distribute it to anyone who wants to read it. But if you’re trying to make a quick buck, is writing really the way to go? I happen to believe a writing career takes a lot of time and a lot of work, and, yes, a lot of rejection — at least, it has for me. Yes, publishing through Amazon is incredibly easy. But, when it comes to honing your craft or creating great art, the easy answer usually isn’t the right one.

Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.

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