Is the Amazon Ebook Market Model Broken?

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

Is Amazon about to drop self-published writers? Is there any reason why it shouldn’t if self-pubbed titles clog its Kindle Store, making it look like a hastily published slush pile? After all,  the ebook market is reportedly only worth 7% of total Amazon sales and it’s not showing much signs of growing.Yes, that’s not a typo. Ebooks sales are worth only seven percent of total sales to Amazon. Think of Amazon as a virtual WalMart – in fact, I suspect that is the real goal of Amazon, to become the biggest digital department store in the world. The publishing industry is only a side-show for Amazon.

So, if much is wrong with Amazon’s ebook market model, it is not likely that Amazon will care. And perhaps that explains the uneven performance of Amazon in foreign markets where it’s not the only player in town, by a long shot. For example, it is striking to see how Kobo is ubiquitous in Italy, it has its devices on display in most major bookstores but you don’t see Amazon’s Kindle anywhere. According to Ebook Bargains UK, Kobo has made many mistakes in expanding abroad (see first article listed below). Maybe so, but it is still doing pretty well…
Let’s list the challenges facing Amazon:
1. the payment system –  Amazon’s model for expanding abroad has proved to be antiquated; Amazon has followed the old system of expanding abroad with geographically based “offices/virtual store fronts” rather than going global digitally; this means, for example, that New Zealanders are forced to shop in its Amazon Australia beachhead. Why not have a global easy-to-pay system like Google Play (for example, they very successfully use carrier billing in the Far East)?
2. ebook subscription services and digital libraries: Amazon has ignored this new business model, presumably relying on its own Premium system – but how long will they stay out of that particular game? And if they do go in, how will the Big Five react? It’s very likely that they won’t like it and could withdraw their books from Amazon’s shelves. A conundrum for Amazon.
I’ll be honest with you, those subscription services really worry me. I’m speaking of Scribd, and Oyster, the two major subscription services and Overdrive, a digital library. The latter has managed to get one hundred million ebook downloads in 12 years, up to 2012! See here. A huge number.
That (to me) is terrifying, the start of a new trend that could change the shape of the book market forever.
The problem with an ebook is that it is not an object you hold in your hands. It’s nothing, it’s like a bubble of soap. You can’t feel a liking for it the way you might view an old book as an old friend, sitting there on your library shelf in your home. You don’t own it, it’s essentially a digital service, a permanent access to a text available up there in the cloud, somewhere on the Net.
So why own an ebook at all? Why not pay less and get access to the text for the time you need to read it?
Many authors I know are complaining about a slump in sales. This is anecdotal, I can’t prove it. My impression is that the slump which first hit the sales of new, emerging writers in early 2013 has now affected midlist authors (i.e. traditionally published authors that have recovered their rights to their backlist and systematically self-publish those out-of-print titles on Amazon).  These are the very writers who were most successful in the Kindle Store, hitting (at least for a short time) the top 100 rank with every new title they uploaded. They could count on their fans to buy their new titles. Well, it seems they no longer do; 2013 was a stagnant year for many.
Where have all the fans gone? Who knows. But the expansion of subscription services and digital libraries surely acts as a syphon on the market. You as an author may get better known to many more readers thanks to such services, but you are also likely to make a lot less money in future. To what extent this will happen cannot be foretold.
Let’s look at possible solutions.   
One thing that could be done is to fix the Kindle Store. And re-organize good gate-keeping systems to help in book discovery and let “the cream rise to the top”.
For the time being, the way things are in the Kindle Store, the cream cannot rise to the top. And the reason is very simple and can be told in one word: rankings!
To understand why this is so, let’s look first at what’s happened in the environment. Since 2012, the ebook market has changed dramatically. First, the settling of the DOJ case against Apple and the way that has played out seems to have calmed the nerves of the (now) Big Five. They have become more aggressive with their pricing, slowly but surely edging out indies.  Price was the self-published writer’s biggest weapon, it no longer is. We all know that “free” doesn’t work anymore and I fear that “cheap” doesn’t work either. Books under $9 scream out to the readers “beware, this is a self-published work likely to be full of typos and badly structured”.

And then there’s the matter of sheer volume of published titles. The tsunami of self-pubbed authors has totally changed the environement. I know what I’m talking about, some of my books, like the earlier ones I published are buried under one million books or more! Literally buried under and forgotten. That’s because Amazon publishes everyone’s ranking. I’ve complained about this before and done so publicly on this blog only to get comments from indies like “Oh, but nobody pays attention to ranking”. That may have been true once but it no longer is. Readers are savvy and they’ve learned how to navigate Amazon’s Kindle Store. Readers do look at rankings, I’m convinced of it. And the theory that “quality books rise to the top like cream” is a non-starter. How can they rise if readers before buying glance at the ranking and decide it’s not worth buying because the book is sitting down there at the bottom of the ocean of published books?

In other words, the Amazon environment has become toxic. Even Kobo, the latest one on the Big Boys scene, also exhibits rankings. BIG mistake. Rankings should be reserved for the top 100 selling titles, maybe the top 1000 but no more! Then, and only then, if your book is good, you might have a fighting chance to rise with good reviews

If you still have doubts, take a look at the ranking of books that you know for a fact are good. I’ll do it here with just one book as an example, but do take time to navigate the Kindle Store and you will see. The example I want to use here is Amelie Nothomb’s “Fear and Trembling” (see here). Now this is easily a masterpiece of French literature, one of the best books published in the last 15 years. She’s a huge success with young adults, hardly your dowdy old writer. And it is probably the best book she ever wrote, lively, fun, suspenseful, not at all a high-brow literary bore. Yet, in the Kindle Store she is sitting at a ranking around the 300,000th range and has only 46 reviews!! This says a lot about the Amazon environment…

Speaking of reviews…What is truly missing is a gatekeeper system to keep out poorly edited books and help readers find quality reads. Amazon regularly makes efforts to improve its customer review system and sweeps out reviews that are deemed misleading (the famous “sockpuppet” reviews). Unfortunately, when Amazon does that, it creates a lot of discontent among writers and doesn’t really solve the problem.

Perhaps what Amazon should do is set up a two-tier system, with customer reviews and expert critiques.

Most customer reviews are not professional in the sense that they are not comprehensive reviews touching on all aspects of a book (i.e. character development, plot structure, POVs and writing techniques etc).

They are merely opinions written by readers.

Don’t misunderstand me. That is how it should be: a customer has a right to voice his/her likes and dislikes and we authors are very happy when they do, we love to be in touch with our readers! That’s one of the best things about the digital revolution: it has given us, writers, the possibility to be close to our readers and that’s wonderful. But a customer review is not the same as a professional critique, fully structured and substantiated by evidence and references to literary criteria.

This suggests that there is space for two different types of reviews, the customer reviews and the literary critiques. And perhaps an online website linked to Amazon should collect all those critiques and list them for each title…It could be a start towards a system to guide readers to the better reads and finally allow the “cream to rise to the top”.

Any other ideas?

Photo credit: wikipedia

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. i had a really nice but long comment as lost it 😉 oh well, enjoyed the article – and, re authors getting less $ via Scribd & Oyster i’d recommend the Smashwords blog for the details on the terms for authors; i think they’re good, and am giving them a try (56 titles). Best wishes, hope you do a follow-up, thanks 🙂

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    1. ps – liked the idea of the two tier-review system too, couldn’t hurt I’d think, thanks again!

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      1. claudenougat says:

        Thanks for the comments, I’m glad you like it, Felipe. I wish Amazon would do something to improve their review system. There’s a petition out signed by Anne Rice to try and get rid of those author-busting trolls posting false one-star reviews on the books of authors they (for some unexplained reason) they dislike. And that’s all to the good, of course, but more would need to be done, to distinguish between customer opinions and real, professional-level reviews…

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      2. I’ve notice on Netflix one has the option of saying that one feels what they are reading isn’t a review. But no idea what comes of that 😉

        This is all part of the reasons (among a very wide spectrum) why I’m whole hog trying out Scribd & Oyster. I know that in Netflix, if my wife and I are intrigued by a movie title, it being either unknown or even having mixed reviews (of a quality nature or not) we’re much more apt to give it our own try. If we don’t lke it, we don’t lose money, we’ve experimented, and we send it back. With streaming, it’s even more immediate. It’s that that makes a subscription service for books the lynchpin for us.

        Anyway, best wishes. Glad I found your site (via a list of blog posts WordPress showed had something about Scribd).

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  2. claudenougat says:

    Felipe, it looks like your nice long comment didn’t get lost after all! I find your reaction to Scribd and Oyster extremely encouraging because I’ve been feeling a little afraid and negative about such services. But they are undeniably in our future. Let’s hope you’re right and that such services will help writers to get their work know and not cut into their (often already meagre) royalties!

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