Much discussion went on this week about this post, where Smashwords founder Mark Coker asserts that authors are being played like pawns by Amazon.
Like awesomely witty writer-friend Dalya Moon, I cannot see the word “pawns” without reading “prawns” and so the term Little Prawns was born.
Little Prawn = any author who publishes independently through large ebook retailers
Is Amazon playing authors? Absolutely. In his post, Mark riles against the KDP Select program (which, for the un-initiated, offers authors five days in which to promote their book for free in a 90-day signing period as well as inclusion in the Kindle Owners Lending Library, in return for exclusivity to Amazon). In other words: Amazon is luring writers away from the other sites.
Why would Little Prawns sign up for such a restrictive deal?
Well, being largely bottom-feeders, the Little Prawns are opportunistic. There was a time that setting your book free offered enormous benefits, but trying to make a book free on Amazon was both unreliable and time-consuming. So, Amazon listened to the voices of the Little Prawns, and introduced this program. Genius. At that point in time (last December) getting reliable free days was price-less. Most of us sold 99% of our books on Amazon anyway, and nothing was lost by withdrawing from other sites.
Poor Mark was deluged with remove requests, followed by angry letters to the extent of “Why hasn’t B&N/Kobo/Sony/Apple removed my book yet”. Those retailers were in no hurry to comply, or even reply, and I would assume that Smashwords bore the brunt of the exodus. Not fun.
Amazon, of course, did this for their own bottom line, and much as I respect Mark, I have no doubt that anything he does is done with one eye on his bottom line as well. And you know what, the Little Prawns are the same. Over the months, Amazon fiddled with the algorithms of the post-freebie sales boom to the point where being in Select wasn’t worth it for many authors, and they started to withdraw from the program. One could argue that Amazon was never interested in the Little Prawns anyway, and didn’t want them in the program and therefore reduced the benefits of having free days. I am not entirely sure what benefit a traditional publisher or bestselling self-publishing author would get from the program, and I would argue that its effectiveness is diminished with every title withdrawn from it. Privately, people have been wondering why Amazon hasn’t put the program to sleep, but they probably have issues of pride to deal with, or have other plans.
Around the middle of last month, something changed substantially for a lot of Little Prawns, including myself. Where I might see an odd trickle of sales from B & N, I suddenly saw a creek. And! Kobo! Kobo launched their new Writing Life site in late August, and suddenly in mid-September, books started selling there. You know, the Little Prawns are a connected lot (it’s a matter of survival for us), and as soon as people reported about the clean Kobo interface and, lo-and-behold, sales there, the Little Prawns voted with with their little pattering feet.
However, a product of Kobo’s launching of a writer program was that people were unticking the Kobo box on the Smashwords distribution options.
I can’t imagine that Mark would have liked this trend.
The message here? Amazon is playing the Little Prawns, and if they like the bait, they will come. Kobo is playing the Little Prawns, and they liked the offering, so they came. The Little Prawns themselves are continuously assessing and re-assessing their best bets. They will have a foot in each camp, and they will let themselves be played only if the risk seems worth it and not too dire (few people would, for example, sign to be in the Select program for a year, but three months? For a book or two out of a stable of 16? Why the heck not?)
Meanwhile, all these sites need to listen to the voices of the Little Prawns. Not just the ones who sell, but the ones who buy (and they’re often the same), and, most importantly, they need to act on the opinions of the Little Prawns and offer them a reason to continue to do business, a reason that is better than “I hate Amazon”, because that is only going to appeal to limited number of people. They need to make the experience better for sellers and buyers. Or they WILL lose market share, even if they’re Amazon (or maybe especially if they’re Amazon).
So here are my wishes for each of the main sites:
As a buyer: get rid of those hideous delivery charges based on locality
As a seller: cheques? WTF? CHEQUES??? Who the **** still uses CHEQUES? You are the biggest retailer, open a proxy office in major countries and let people be paid by direct deposit (and this will take care of those hideous tax wrangles as well)
As a buyer: the site design hurts my eyes. Give me a decent search engine
As seller: I’ve never had any trouble with the meatgrinder program, but I wouldn’t mind being able to upload an EPUB file
B & N:
As a buyer: can’t buy. FFS stop being so US-centric. Improve your search engine
As a seller: STOP BEING SO US-CENTRIC! Also, get rid of meaningless troll reviews
As a buyer: give me a better search engine
As a seller: so far, nothing bad to say
Overall, I think retailers could lure sellers with subscription-based programs that market to genre readers. They could hire some editors to develop a quality-assured/recommended catalogue. They could, you know, actually engage with their content. Every site, including, or especially, Amazon, should be constantly on the ball about what the Little Prawns are saying, because once you have a stampede, it’s hard to turn around. And certainly, whining about the competition is not going to do that.