Really, Amazon?

I’ve been sitting on the fence about this Amazon/Hachette thing for a while. Mostly because I just don’t give a damn. As far as I can tell, it’s one big company against another in pretty much standard big-company negotiations, moderately more amusing than most because each party is trying to suck in its gut and call itself “the little guy”.

This last letter from Amazon, though, contains a bunch of things that piss me off. And this is my blog, so I’m going to rant. Let’s start off with the thing that pisses me off the most: “Unjustifiably high”.

OK. Prices are high. But that word “unjustifiably” bothers the hell out of me. It’s an absolute, a blanket word. And it bothers me when that word comes from a bookseller, because it completely elides the bizarre concept that one book might actually be different from another.

News flash: Some books are different from other books. They might be different in ways that justify different pricing. Maybe, gasp, even higher prices.

Let’s approach this from the simplest metric, of length: everyone can agree that one book can be longer than another, right? If Tor released the Wheel of Time as a single ebook, should it suddenly be $9.99? It is, after all, widely touted as a single story (as I’ve heard a billion times since it got put on the Hugo ballot); what’s so magical about being in one volume instead of a dozen? Forget the “small number of specialized titles” weaseling; it’s pretty plain that they think the vast majority of ebooks should be $9.99 or less (they even begrudge that last penny to make it ten bucks!) Thanks to the strong focus on series in SF, fantasy, and mystery, just about everything I read is part of a series that could be packaged like that. Or what about the Lord of the Rings, or Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear pair? Both were originally single works split up because of mechanical printing constraints. Should The Fellowship of the Ring ebook be $3.33 because it’s only a third of a book? And if you allow that a combined ebook of the Lord of the Rings “can” be more than an X-note, what about the latest doorstop from George RR Martin? Sometimes $15 or $20 or even $30 might actually be a justifiable price for a single ebook based purely on the qualities of that book.

But wait! A 200,000 word book entertains me longer than a more standard 80,000 word book. Should the maximum for most books actually be $4.99, so that the maximum for the longest books is $9.99? Enquiring minds want to know, Amazon! Or is the policy that a book is a book, a Commodity Unit Of Entertainment, not to be price-differentiated except by discount?

Length is also useful to argue because, as Amazon points out, books compete against video games and TV, and those things all consume time. Time’s a good one! The Big Lebowski DVD costs $6.99 on Amazon ($9.99 if you prefer to partake in the video equivalent of e-books and watch online.) The run time for the Big Lebowski is 2 hours. I’m not the fastest reader in the world, but it takes me at least four hours to read most books. Should books be $13.99 (christ, what is it with that last fucking penny? Is it bad luck?) since by this metric they’re twice as entertaining as The Big Lebowski?

Since Amazon brought up video games, why not look at the thriving indie scene against which books are competing for reader time? There’s no one magic price for games. Some games are longer, better, more of a sure hit, or just incurred more costs that need to be recouped in order to produce the next one. Letting the blockbusters charge their higher prices opened up a space at the low end for indie games, many of which are just as good but lack a marketing budget or an art budget, or just have to be shorter because the indie developer can’t go that long between releases. (That’s something that indie authors should think a LONG DAMN TIME about before cheering for Amazon against Hachette, by the way.) More than that, a higher price lets a developer signal, “We think this game is so good that it’s worth a higher price.” And that’s a very important statement to be able to make about an artistic work.

Look. Amazon is probably completely right that when you adjust pricing, the sweet spot for volume vs. profit for most books is around ten bucks. So what? For some books it’s probably lower, and for some books it’s probably higher. It all depends: some books or shorter or crappier than other books. That’s the problem with doing large-scale analysis and treating a class of goods like a commodity: the individual differences wash out. But as an author, I live in those individual differences. If I ever self-publish a novel on Amazon, I’ll pay very close attention to their price analysis… and then make my own damn decision based on a combination of their analysis, my subjective valuation of my own work, my comparison of it to the prices of similar titles, and my own desire to experiment with price and see for myself what the sweet spot is for my work and my audience. I might screw up, I might strike it rich, Amazon might decide I’m too stupid to do business with. Many things could happen. I’m a grown-up, and will do the grown-up thing: whine about it on Twitter and circulate petitions.

That’s what really rubs me the wrong way: this notion that it’s Amazon’s job to prevent anyone from screwing up. If I’m publishing through Hachette, and Hachette prices my books too high, then that’s between me and Hachette and my readers. Thanks for the price elasticity data, absolutely, but it’s none of Amazon’s damn business. What if I decide that my professional strategy is to write books that only appeal to millionaires, and sell them for a ton of money apiece like that thousand dollar iPhone app? I may be bloody stupid to try it, but who the hell is Amazon to tell me I can’t? I can screw myself by selling for $.99 a copy, but not by selling for $99 a copy? They can decide to carry my books, or not: I think that’s the limit of Amazon’s right to unilaterally poke its nose in.

(Now, that said. There IS an argument to be made here that putting prices too high invites piracy and so cuts into Amazon’s expected return on its very small investment in putting up a web page and thirty cents worth of disk space for your book. But they’re not making that argument, probably because it would shine a spotlight on just how vanishingly little work Amazon does for its profit per ebook. 35 percent to the author who spent 6-18 months (what’s that in GRRM years?) writing it; 35 to the publisher who edited it, commissioned cover art, and marketed it; 30 to Amazon who …put up a fucking web page?? You want to talk marginal costs per copy, Bezos? Sure, let’s talk marginal costs per copy.)

Their whole post is a smokescreen. Even if everything in it is absolutely true, it’s all completely beside the point. Here’s what I see behind it: Amazon sells everything at a discount, and it’s bleeding money. So, they want Hachette to bring down their prices at all vendors closer to the price point Amazon picks, so that Amazon doesn’t have to discount as much to sell at the price it wants to sell at. It’s good old-fashioned squeezing the suppliers just like every other bookseller does (or would if it could); it’s standard business, and I respect that. Just don’t cloak yourself in sanctimonious bullshit while you do it.

And since any post criticizing Amazon is taken as pro-Hachette and anti-independent author, I present the traditional running of the caveats: 1) Hachette has shown evident incompetence in every single stage of this whole nonsense, at all corporate levels. The main difference is that Amazon’s bullshit comes in little easy to kick piles like this, while Hachette is more of a pig lagoon. If they’re so stupid in their pricing that Amazon doesn’t think it worth selling their books, that’s Hachette’s fault and it’s not up to Amazon to strongarm them into saving themselves. 2) I rather like Amazon’s practices taken as a whole. I buy a lot of stuff there, including books, and other than the sanctimonious bullshit PR posts, they’re engaging in standard negotiations (which, now that I think of it, is also standard negotiations!) I, like Amazon, am large and contain multitudes. 3) If you feel the need to knee-jerk protect Amazon from any criticism whatsoever, especially if you feel that criticism of Amazon threatens your livelihood (as some have claimed) then you need to rethink the adjective “independent”.

(EDIT: It was pointed out that my earlier post on Amazon and used e-books might also be of interest)

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