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Saturday, February 20, 2021

A few words about the book business


As we work to get Stupefying Stories rebooted and up and running once again, a few observations about the evolving book business seem in order. I have been in the publishing trade in one capacity or another for about forty years, and while I’d thought the changes that occurred between 1980 and 2010 were dramatic, the changes in the past ten years have been breathtaking. More importantly, the rate of change continues to accelerate on an exponential curve. At some point it must top out—the supply of content being produced has already far outstripped the number of people demanding to consume it—but when that will happen or what the fallout will then be for we who create that content, I haven’t a clue.

I suppose at least one outcome is obvious. At some point AIs will take over the job of producing mass market genre fiction. There are already sweatshops filled with writers cranking out, to use the French term, merde that is published in ebook form on a weekly basis under corporate pseudonyms. The crucial advantage humans have right now is that unemployed MFAs and Creative Writing majors are still cheaper to hire than machines are to buy, but that state of affairs can’t last.

If you’re in the book business, you can’t help but develop a loathe/hate relationship with Amazon. Amazon is the business. Other retail outlets may move a decent percentage of print copies, for some new titles, but the bulk of new book sales have moved to ebook, and the overwhelming majority of those ebook sales are on the Amazon Kindle platform. From the beginning we have made periodic attempts to branch out into wider distribution of our titles, but every time we’ve tried it, we’ve end up reaching the same conclusion: that a good month of sales on all the other platforms combined—Nook, Kobo, iPad, etc., etc.—is at best a slow week on Kindle, and going wide costs us sales on Kindle, because of the way Amazon incentivizes putting your ebook exclusively on Kindle. How they avoid antitrust prosecution continues to amaze me.

Over on the other side of the house—literally, the other side of the house, the K&B Booksellers office is about twenty feet from where I now sit—we are also back up and if not running, at least hobbling along at a decent pace. Physical copies of old used books continue to sell; the older, odder, and longer out of print, the better. However, Amazon has really bombed the crap out of the used book business, too. At one time Amazon let us have our own little virtual storefront, and that was nice. Now, while you can still see our inventory listings on Amazon, if you should try to click through to buy a book from us, you will immediately see the comparative prices of all of our competitors as well. When you’ve made it a point to hand-select books and carefully curate your inventory, finding yourself in a race to the bottom with some sweatshop in California can be … frustrating. 

Lately Amazon has begun to do something else that I as a free-speech advocate find very disturbing. Their bots now comb through the inventory listings of theoretically independent sellers, like us, and they will cancel the seller’s listing if it violates some nebulously defined policy. At first they were targeting books for strange pricing practices—which I sort of understand, but again, antitrust? Then they moved on to canceling listings for books that contained “unacceptable” speech—which again, I sort of understood. We stock a large number of out-of-print theology books, and some of those older Catholic theologians could get pretty blatant in their anti-Semitism. We select books for condition and relative scarcity. We don’t have the time to read every page of every book we stock, to see if we approve of what the author had to say.

Most recently, Amazon has taken to combing through all of your listings, both active and inactive, to see if you have ever sold a book that Amazon has now declared unilaterally and retroactively to be forbidden. The penalties for failure to comply are Draconian. If you use the “fulfilled by Amazon” service (we don’t), in which you basically pay Amazon to warehouse and ship your inventory for you, you have 30 days in which to arrange to get your inventory back from Amazon at your expense, or else they will destroy it. Even if you don’t use FBA, in any case, you have 48 hours in which to permanently delete the offending book listing from your inventory—even if it’s an inactive listing for a book you haven’t had in stock in years—or else Amazon can shut down your bookstore and confiscate any money that may be in your account.

Last week we received take-down notices for five titles. I have to think it was a mistake; two of the books were biology textbooks published by McMillan, one was a book on probability published by Princeton University Press, one was a Norton anthology of fiction by Black authors, and one was a particular edition of The October Country, by Ray Bradbury. All the same, since the penalties are so drastic and the appeals process is so Byzantine, we deleted the listings. Still, I keep thinking of that last one, and what happens to inventory being held by the FBA service.

Apparently the irony of burning a Ray Bradbury book is completely lost on Amazon. 

—Bruce Bethke 



GuyStewart said...

Surprised? I'm not, really. Disturbed -- oh, yeah.

Don't get me wrong, I use Amazon, but when the Hennepin County Public Library started to LEND ebooks through Amazon, I started wondering exactly what was going on. Why wouldn't the county be able to hire someone who would program the computers to simply lend the book to me? Why do I have to go to Amazon to get the book to download...I know I own a Kindle (White, the simplest little thing in the world...comparatively...) and that it's an Amazon machine. But I bought it from them; I'm scared to think that my Kindle owns ME to the extent that I can't download a book from the library without going through Amazon...

I bought my car from the neighborhood Honda dealer -- they don't REQUIRE that they are the sole mechanic to work on my car. Aside from charging usurious prices for parts that while "Authentic Honda Parts" are no different from cheaper parts from NAPA and my car still runs just fine...

How would I even know if the book I get from the Library is the SAME as the original book once it passes through Amazon's filters? At what point will I order Fahrenheit 451 and receive a novel "corrected by Amazon to reflect current appropriate thinking"?

~brb said...

Footnote: This was written as a meditation on the disturbing and growing power of Amazon to control what people see and think. I suppose it could be shortened to, "If a book is published and Amazon doesn't sell it or let any of their third-party independent dealers sell it, does it actually exist?"

It turns out that these last five take-down notices were the result of some sort of glitch. For some reason Amazon recently reclassified these books as "pesticides," and no one can sell them unless they can produce the EPA certification and registration information for these products. Since you need to pass Amazon's pesticide supplier certification process just to get to the point where you have standing to declare that these books are not in fact pesticides and therefore require no EPA certification, we said to Hell with it and deleted the listings.

Even Amazon's mistakes have significant consequences.