In the two previous blog posts we have examined how developments in the business of book publishing and sales have affected publishers and booksellers. Today let’s look at what it has meant for authors and readers.
Amazon promises readers two things: access to more books than have ever been available to them, and personalized recommendations tailored to each individual.
On the first score Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, "We want to make every book available—the good, the bad and the ugly." With Bowker, the company charged with issuing ISBN numbers, estimating the now published annually at over one million there are plenty of all three.
But the sheer volume of choices available to Amazon buyers has had something of a perverse impact on book buying. As Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, explains, "When the choice set is larger, people tend to make worse choices. They choose on the basis of what's easiest to evaluate, rather than what's important to evaluate...the safe, highly marketed option usually comes out on top."
As Colin Robinson, publisher of OR Books, explains in an article in The Nation, one of the reasons is the result of the algorithm Amazon uses for its personalized recommendations. He cites a comment by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus who said, “Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want—or what they think they want—it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist. And that's a problem."
Amazon’s algorithm doesn’t point readers toward that vast array of choices but toward a limited number of recommended choices. As Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press says, "Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you're looking for. But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel?”
The other element of the algorithm that most readers are unaware of is that recommended titles may be based on paid promotions not juts purchase data.
The impact of tactics at both big box retailers and Amazon are having an impact on authors as well. Consider a recent price war between Walmart and Amazon. They went head to head selling hardcover bestsellers by authors like Stephen King and John Grisham for $10. In the case of Kings thousand page plus Under the Dome that was a 75% discount off the publishers recommended price.
The American Booksellers Association requested that the Department of Justice look into possible “predatory pricing.” The New York Time’s reported that Grisham’s agent, David Gernet said, “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s Ford County, for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25?” He might have noted that arbitrarily setting the price of ebooks at $9.99 might have a similar effect.
Authors of somewhat more literary novels face a different impact. Publishers are less inclined to publish books that aren’t likely to be blockbusters. . "Look at books like Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies or Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives," says Paul Yamazaki, chief buyer at City Lights in San Francisco. "These are serious, sophisticated books that began life with modest expectations, but after dedicated work by the publisher and independent booksellers, they went on to reach wider audiences. This sort of publishing is under threat today."
Finally, authors can expect smaller advances for books that are published. As Colin Robinson reported, “…a boss at Scribner, where I was a senior editor for two and a half years, announced at an editorial meeting that when it came to advances, ‘$50,000 is the new $100,000.’ Speaking with agents at this spring's London Book Fair, I found widespread corroboration that advances had indeed dropped precipitously.”
Should we be concerned? American Booksellers Association warned, "If left unchecked...predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public."
Click here to read Colin Robinson’s, “The Trouble with Amazon” in The Nation
Click here to read Onesha Rouchoudhuri’s, “Books After Amazon” in The Boston Review