On Book Bigotry – Part 2

Platform

In my previous post, I set out three subtle forms of ‘book bigotry’ I have observed in publishing, whereby reviewers, readers, and even writers judge a book by some aspect of its publication, rather than on the basis of its written content. That post explored the first of these kinds of prejudice, based on a book’s format (e.g. physical vs. ebook). In this post, we turn to examine prejudice based on platform, and in the next, we will look at location-based biases.

Cheap books ahoy!

Recently, I submitted my debut satirical novel Number Eight Crispy Chicken to a special Smashwords site-wide discount, #AuthorsGiveBack, designed to bring a spark of light and laughter to the lives of people around the world under lock down during the Covid-19 crisis, with heavily discounted ebooks.

It’s a time in which many of us have extra time to read. A time in which most of us can’t get to the book store. And a time in which we all need a bit of humor, and a bit of humanity. Making a book like Number Eight Crispy Chicken, which readers have reported made them both laugh and think, and is available in multiple electronic formats (with no need to go to the store!) ideal. Or so I thought.

Trying to get the word out there about the discount, however, was more difficult than I had anticipated, thanks, in large part, to another form of bias in the book industry: the bias against a book depending on which platforms it is made available on.

Platform-based marketing difficulties

In developing a marketing plan for my novel, I created a database of promotional sites which permit authors to share news about their books. When I offered 60% off coupons for Number Eight Crispy Chicken as part of the Authors Give Back promo (link valid until May 2020), I dug out my list of sites, and identified thirteen which focus on discounts to which I could submit the news of this special promotion.

It turns out, thirteen really is an unlucky number.

In total, I was only able to successfully submit my book to two sites (15%) for their consideration. One no longer works at all, and another has drastically narrowed the genres of books it accepts.

But what of the remaining nine sites?

They only accept Kindle books.

It’s a Kindle world

Yes – 70% of the sites I found which specialise in discounted books (or 82% if you omit the sites no longer working) only accept books with an Amazon ASIN (the number Amazon uses to uniquely identify books, like an ISBN), or a link to an Amazon.com URL.

Why is this? Is it a form of book bigotry? Or are there legitimate reasons for websites to prefer books distributed via Amazon over other platforms?

Quality

The most important question we have to address is that of quality. The job of book recommendation sites and blogs is, we might assume, to match readers to books. A site which recommends books that are badly written, badly edited, and badly formatted would, we should think, be less successful than one which recommends high-quality books. So, if Amazon offers consistently and reliably higher quality books, then it might make sense for reviewers and recommenders to prefer them.

To test this theory, let’s consider Smashwords in comparison to Amazon.

I was initially drawn to the Smashwords platform because of the founder, Mark Coker’s, philosophy of democratising publishing. His goal, as the San Francisco Chronicle summarises, was to allow writers ‘to appeal directly to readers without having to deal with gatekeepers such as agents and editors’.

After a career in academia, during which I was a proponent of Free Software and Open Education, and grew increasingly concerned by the monopolistic tendencies of Amazon, as well as the ‘Big Five’ publishers, Smashwords seemed like a natural fit.

More books doesn’t = more readers

Smashwords has, I would argue, been largely successful in its attempts to democratise publishing. But increased ability to have your work published does not equal increased readership, as Coker pointed out himself in his annual post.

In spite of how easy Smashwords makes it for indies to be published, not only on the Smashwords site, but across a number of major platforms, we still live in a world in which authors get 80 to 100% of their sales from a single platform: Amazon.

Editorial screening? Censorship?

Could it be that Coker’s mission to democratise publishing is to the detriment of Smashwords? The platform, the SF Chronicle reports, ‘applies no editorial screening’. Yet, while the article is littered with references to Amazon and Kindle (and numerous ads relating to further articles about Amazon), it fails to mention that Amazon does not edit the books on its platform either.

Both Amazon and Smashwords are, ostensibly, mere distribution platforms, not publishers. I say ‘ostensibly’ because Amazon’s demands of exclusivity are far more akin to the demands of a traditional publisher – although authors who sign up for their Kindle Select or Kindle Unlimited programs are provided with none of the publishing and marketing support a traditional publisher would offer – at least, back in the ‘good old days’.

But it is only Smashwords that is singled out for concern: ‘many Smashwords e-books’ the article continues ‘are riddled with grammatical errors, typos and writing that would make a sixth-grade English teacher cringe.’

Having read a number of Smashwords books – I’m actually in the middle of a project of reading #20IndiesIn2020 – I can say that, yes, there are some books on Smashwords that exhibit poor editing. (Not those I’ve chosen for this challenge, but some I browsed through samples of during the selection process)

But I would certainly say the same about books on Amazon.

And not just about books published ‘independently’ on Amazon.

I’d even argue that quite a few books I’ve read recently from the ‘Big Five’ publishers have had quite jarring copyediting slips. One, for instance, failed to capitalise the main character’s name almost as frequently as it managed to. Another contained doubled, and other times, missing punctuation. And a third ebook had such poorly formatted tables, they weren’t readable on any device.

In other words, issues that would make a sixth-grade English teacher cringe.

‘Traditional’ vs. ‘DIY’ publishing: For most authors, it’s all DIY

Authors have known for a long time that if you want your book to be promoted, you have to do it yourself – even if you have a publishing contract. Many authors shell out for their own marketing – and even pay for their own author photographs, as Under the Cover points out. But the same appears to be increasingly true of even basics like editing.

A number of publishing experts, such as Euan Mitchell, author of Your Book Publishing Options and Carolyn Howard Johnson author of The Frugal Editor and The Frugal Book Promoter recommend that those seeking or with traditional publishing contracts hire their own editors since so many big publishers are cutting back so much on the support they provide authors, and their own traditional role of gatekeeping.

Platforms like Smashwords, I believe, have been unfairly demonised when it comes to editorial standards. Certainly, there are issues with some Smashwords books. Just as there are issues with some Amazon books. (For what it’s worth, however, I found Smashwords’ quality controls far more strict (and frustrating!) to deal with than Amazon’s. Publishing on Amazon was, comparatively, a breeze. Anything an author doesn’t want to fix, they can pretty much hit ignore on. Smashwords, on the other hand, will not approve works for its ‘Premium Catalogue’ until any issues flagged in the publication process have been corrected).

Regardless of which platform has the ‘most’ poorly written books or the ‘worst’ grammar and spelling issues, tarring all books on a particular platform with the one brush is a form of pre-judging a book.

Size

So, if quality isn’t the issue, maybe it’s size. Perhaps it is simply that Amazon is so prevalent, it’s not worth bothering with smaller sites.

Amazon is a hugely important platform to authors for two reasons. Firstly, it has almost all of the readers. As I point out in my original post responding to Coker’s annual observations, Amazon has somewhat of a ‘monopoly’ on ebooks (or, more accurately, it appears to be a ‘monomesazon’ – acting as the primary middleman between many authors and many readers). Close to 90% of all ebooks sold in the US are purchased from Amazon, along with close to 80% of all e-readers. As a result, Amazon controls almost all access to readers.

Secondly, Amazon has enticed authors (or, more accurately, has punished those who do not conform) by giving ‘privileges’ to those who agree to sign over exclusivity to the platform, with programs like ‘Kindle Select’ and ‘Kindle Unlimited’. The sorts of controls that authors can take for granted on a platform like Smashwords, such as the ability to set a time-limited sale using coupons, or to give away copies of your book for free, are extremely difficult to achieve on Amazon, and accessible only through complicated, time-consuming, hit-and-miss loopholes – unless you agree to publish your work solely through Amazon. As a result, Amazon increasingly controls almost all access to writers – especially when combined with the third and final factor below.

That hardly sounds ‘independent’.

And yet, just like quality concerns, Amazon’s size doesn’t fully explain why it would be not just preferred, but exclusively required as a distribution channel by 70 to 80% or more of the promo sites examined.

Money

Another, less often discussed, way in which Amazon has built up its status as THE middleman of choice, is through affiliate marketing.

Through the use of special ‘affiliate links’, book reviewers and promotional sites can receive a commission for each sale made when a reader clicks on the link and goes on to purchase a book.

I believe this factor explains the preference for Amazon among book site curators, more than concerns about quality. And I believe that this factor has also helped account for Amazon’s enormous size. By having Associates and Influencers across the web and social media linking to products sold through Amazon, it has become the default place to buy things for many people, especially in the US, where shipping is fast and cheap, or even free for Prime customers. And not just books: in 2018, almost half of everything bought online was bought from Amazon. Now, it’s probably even higher, as Covid-19 ravages the planet, forcing more shopping from bricks-and-mortar stores to the online space, and Amazon is what we keep hearing about time and time again in the news.

This hasn’t happened overnight: Amazon launched its Associates program in 1996, which allowed website owners to place text links and banner ads on their sites to earn them a commission on books sold. The following year, in 1997, they applied for a patent on certain components of their affiliate marketing system, which was granted in 2000.

This is something Amazon have been working hard at for over two decades, making simply enormous losses along the way – the sorts of colossal losses that would have caused most businesses, without wealthy family or angel investors or rich connections – to fail.

The commercialisation of the internet

Personally – and this is entirely anecdotal – I believe the commercialisation of the internet has had an enormously damaging effect on a tool that many hoped would promote greater democracy and diversity of voices. When I first became interested in blogging, Amazon’s and other affiliate programs were in their infancy. One of the key ways I started to see the influence of commercial concerns online was in various ‘sponsored’ posts, where home bakers were provided with ingredients by manufacturers which they then had to try and work into recipes – sometimes with disastrous results. (I was always reminded of the episode of Friends where Monica had to try and make foods containing ‘mockolate’).

Nowadays, you’re more likely to see underlined hyperlinks in an ingredients list that will whisk wannabe cooks off to Amazon to purchase their cumin or wholemeal flour, or even, on some foodie blogs, the exact coconut spoon used to serve the curry, or the bowls used to present the salad.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t object to bloggers making money from what they do. I don’t make a dime from my blogging (I don’t try to), but I absolutely recognise how much time and effort it takes. And if bloggers can recommend something they truly believe in, and readers can buy it with a portion of that sale going to the blogger, without any additional cost to them, that’s a fantastic win-win.

But where recipes are mangled just to get more sponsored ingredients in, or reviewers feel the need to gush about everything solely so they’ll get affiliate sales, or content ‘creators’ promote tips and hacks that don’t work and set their followers up for failure, simply because they look good, it’s a terrible situation for both those who came to blogging for the love of cakes or the love of books or whatever, as well as for their readers.

What can we do about this?

I concluded my previous post by suggesting some ways in which readers, reviewers, and writers can combat book bigotry when it comes to the format a book takes (electronic or paper), including reviewing submission guidelines, working together to overcome obstacles like a lack of pretty pictures, or a lack of an ereader. (In fact, platforms like Smashwords which allow authors to publish books in many formats, not just proprietary files like those suitable for Kindle, are an important step in this).

But things are a little more complex when it comes to the question of platform-related bias.

First, it’s going to take a lot more than individual reader or writer action to disrupt a behemoth like Amazon’s business model. At least in the short-run. In the long-run, individuals doing this is the only way anything has ever been accomplished.

Secondly though, it’s not even clear to me whether this really is a case of ‘book bigotry’.

Bigotry or bias?

Certainly, there does appear to be a bias against non-Kindle books (or, at a minimum, a distinct preference for Kindle books). This can be seen both in terms of sales figures, with Kindles accounting for 80% of e-reader sales, and somewhere around 90% of ebooks selling on Amazon, and in terms of promotional opportunities, with somewhere around 80% of sites accepting only Amazon links.

But I don’t think my analysis demonstrates that this is a form of bigotry, per se.

Bias simply means that we see a particular tendency. A distortion that is not random.

Bigotry would imply a sort of prejudice. A judgement about the book based not on its content, but on the basis of the platform it is distributed via.

Judging a book as poor quality simply because it hasn’t gone through the traditional publishing mills (the first type of book bigotry we talked about), or because it’s on Smashwords or another independent site instead of the behemoth Amazon, is a form of prejudice. Leaning towards Kindle books not because you think they’re better quality for your audience, but because Amazon incentivises you to is more akin to bias.

An observable pattern

As outlined above, some concerns have been raised about the quality of books in the Smashwords catalogue. But not only do these concerns appear unfounded (at least in the sense they do not afflict Smashwords books alone), they also doesn’t seem to be the primary reason for the bias we observe.

Rather, Amazon’s financial incentives to bloggers, reviewers, website curators, and influencers to flog its wares, which grows its mammoth size, appears to be behind this observable pattern.

With that being said, what can we do?

If you’re a blogger or other influencer, consider whether you might like to give readers other options for purchasing books (or other goods). Personally, I use booko.com.au, which is, itself, an affiliate of many booksellers, but it allows readers to choose from a big variety of sites (and bricks-and-mortar stores), and compare their costs, including shipping to many different countries. Booko, however, will get the money from any sales made. If income is important to you, you can always support indie books by signing up as a Smashwords affiliate. Promoting multiple options for your audience to purchase a book is an excellent way of diversifying your income streams, and an important way of putting your readers first.

If you’re an author, take a read of the Indie Author Manifesto, and my previous post ‘Are indie authors truly independent?

If you’re a reader, take a read of the Indie Reader Manifesto, and consider taking part in a challenge that supports indie authors, like my 20 Indies in 2020 challenge. And next time you see a link to Amazon, do a little research before you click buy…

How comparisons can save readers money

Let me preface this section by saying I know nobody who works at Booko, and I am not a member of any affiliate program (in fact, seeing as Booko itself is an affiliate, I don’t think they even have one!)

On Booko at time of writing, the five most-clicked books are Magda Szubaski’s Timmy the Ticked-Off Pony, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, Lesley Chenoweth’s The Road to Social Work and Human Service Practice, Gytha Lodge’s She Lies in Wait and Kris Bordessa’s Attainable Sustainable.

Title Cheapest price at Amazon price
Timmy the Ticked-Off Pony
by Magda Szubanski
Aus: $15.07
USA: $14.03
Book Depository
Amazon Canada
$29.77 (.com.au)
$30.30 (.com)
The Splendid and the Vile
by Erik Larson
Aus: $31.49
USA: $32.09
Boomerang Books
Abbey’s
N/A*
N/A*
The Road to Social Work and Human Service Practice
by Lesley Chenoweth
Aus: $36.00
USA: $63.28
ebay
Amazon Canada
$79.95 (.com.au)
$73.74 (.com)**
She Lies in Wait
by Lesley Chenoweth et al.
Aus: $30.39
USA: $13.82
Blackwell’s
Book Depository
$31.38 (.com.au)
$16.98 (.com)
Attainable Sustainable
by Kris Bordessa
Aus: $53.99
USA: $28.80
Boomerang Books
Super Book Deals
$59.99 (.com.au)
$35.47 (.com)

Amazon (.com or .com.au) was more expensive for every book on this list, excepting The Splendid and the Vile* which did not show any availability.

Amazon vs. the rest

To purchase the four other books would have cost $135.45 (in AUD, including shipping to Australia) from the cheapest retailers found by Booko. The same books would have cost $201.09 from Amazon.com.au.

Equally, in the USA, the four books would have come to $119.93 (in USD, including shipping within the US) from the cheapest retailers found by Booko. The same books would have cost $156.49 from Amazon.com.

It’s also probably important to note that The Road to Social Work** is an Australian textbook, published by the Australian division of Cengage for local university students, which explains its unusually high cost in the USA. (The other books are published by Scholastic, HarperCollins, Random House, and National Geographic). Excluding this textbook from the comparison, the remaining three books would cost $56.65 from Amazon.ca, Book Depository, and Super Book Deals, vs. $82.75 from Amazon.com.

In other words, checking some of the less commonly used retailers can save you around a third of the cost ($135.45 is 67% of $201.09, and $56.65 is 68% of $82.75).

And this is the problem with monopolies: while companies often start out offering highly competitive services and prices, at a certain tipping point, when they have cornered enough of the market, they no longer have to offer good service or good prices, because they are, even if not the only option, the default option.

Stay tuned for the final post in this series: location!

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