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Self-published ebooks: the surprising data from Amazon


Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling, indie-original science fiction series Wool, has published an eye-popping, and important data-rich report on independent author earnings from ebooks sold on Amazon. Howey makes a good case that the "average" author earns more from a self published book than she would through one of the Big Five publishers, and, what's more, that this holds true for all sorts of outliers (the richest indie authors outperform the richest Big Five authors; less-prolific indies do better than less-prolific traditionals, etc).

Howey's report includes a lot of raw data and makes a lot of very important points. It certainly is an aid to authors wondering whether to do business with major publishers or go it alone. I read it with great interest.

I think that there are a couple of important points that Howey skirts, if not eliding them altogether. The most important of these is that all the authors Howey studies live and die by the largesse of one company: Amazon. This is the same company whose audiobook division, Audible, requires authors to lock their products to its store with non-optional DRM, and which has no real competitors in its space. So it is neither an angel by nature, nor is it subject to strong competitive pressures that would cause it to treat authors well when its own self-interest would cause it to treat them badly. As bad as it is to have a publishing world with only five major publishers in it -- a monoposony in which a tiny handful of companies converge on terms and practices that are ultimately more to their benefit than those of authors, it's even worse to have a world in which a single company controls the entire market. That's not just bad, it's catastrophic.

The second point is the opportunity cost of being your own publisher: almost all successful authors have to do things that aren't writing in order to sell their books (all the hustling, touring, etc that comprises the writerly life in the early 21st century), but if you're your own publisher, there is an order of magnitude more non-writing stuff that becomes your job. Going the traditional route makes sense for writers who can earn more by writing another book than they can by spending that writing time being a publisher; it also makes sense for writers who just aren't any good at that stuff.

Now, this second point does not militate against self-publishing per se -- rather, it suggests a new kind of service-bureau/publisher that provides services to authors that sit somewhere between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Companies like Lulu, Bookbaby and Smashwords already do this, and many of the big literary agents are starting to do this for their authors, especially with their backlists.

But the first point is a significant concern. In the 1980s, when the midlist collapsed and the number of mass-market distributors in America fell from 400+ to three, and the trade retail channels for mass-market books were dominated by Barnes and Noble and Borders, authors discovered that their careers could be suddenly and totally ended, merely because the mass-market distributor stopped carrying them, or one of the retailers stopped selling them. Writers who'd published a new novel every year for decades suddenly found themselves with no one willing to publish, distribute or sell their next book, or carry their backlists.

That's what concentration begets. It's a major problem, and an existential risk to the market that Howey has identified. There are ways to improve the odds for indie authors -- a plurality of payment systems, lots of different search- and recommendation services, more companies providing services to authors. These, of course, are exactly the sort of thing that extremist copyright proposals like SOPA and the TPP work against: by making the companies that serve authors and their audiences bear the liability for infringement, we shrink the number of companies that supply authors and ensure that only big players like Amazon, Paypal, Apple and Google can occupy those niches.

Pro-competitive ground-rules won't solve the competition problem on their own, but without them, no solution is possible. As creators -- and as audiences -- we are all best served by a churning and chaotic retail and publishing channel, in which many companies compete to offer us all the best possible deal.

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Mother of three boys' funny review for Kleenex mulitpacks

A very funny Amazon review for multipacks of Kleenex is allegedly "A mother's struggle," describing the travails of living with three teenage boys who've discovered the miracle of self-pleasuring ("If I don't supply absorbent paper products, I'm going to find my dish towels hidden in the basement, stiff as aluminum. The other day, I almost cut my hand on a sock"). However, the "mother" who wrote the review is called "James Otis Thatch," so, possibly, too good to be true. But funny!

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Amazon takes away access to purchased Christmas movie during Christmas

Bill sez, Last "December I bought some favorite Christmas specials for my kids with the idea they could watch them every year. Went tonight to watch one ('Disney Prep and Landing 2' if you're curious) and it was gone from our library and couldn't be found on the site at all. Amazon has explained to me that Disney can pull their content at any time and 'at this time they've pulled that show for exclusivity on their own channel.' In other words, Amazon sold me a Christmas special my kids can't watch during the run up to Christmas. It'll be available in July though!"

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Amazon Prime Air: drone-based 30 minute delivery

Jeff Bezos took to 60 Minutes to announce Prime Air, a drone-based 30-minute delivery system for densely populated areas that comes with its own video design-fiction illustrating how it might work. The vision is an exciting one, but the designfic elides some important questions like the regulatory framework under which thousands (millions?) of drones might share the sky as businesses compete to do airborne delivery; whether that framework would be sufficient to actually maintain public safety (hello midair drone collision over a busy highway with attendant plummeting shrapnel into the path of speeding cars!); and what the energy and carbon footprint of drones would be, especially with comparison to conventional delivery logistics.

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Amazon discounts Kindles to commemorate FAA devices-during-takeoff/landing rulechange


The FAA's rare display of sanity in allowing electronic devices to be used during takeoff and landing is being celebrated by Amazon in the form of a 15% discount on Kindles when you use the discount code ThnksFAA.

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Even Amazon can't keep up the "you only license ebooks" shuck


There's a whole bunch of things you're allowed to do with books that you own: sell them, give them away, lend them out -- stuff you can't do with your ebooks, by and large. Why not? Because ebook sellers characterize the transaction that you undertake when you plunk down your money as a "license" and not as a sale. You don't buy an ebook, you license it -- hence all the fine-print "license agreement" you click through at regular intervals in the course of paying for and reading books.

But everyone knows that's a shuck. Buying books is what we do. Owning books is what we do. To get a sense of how ingrained the idea of buying and owning ebooks is, have a look at this screenshot from Amazon, shown after a "license" to a book: "Now that you own your Kindle book..." it begins. If you own it, rather than a limited license to it, then you should get the full suite of ownership rights. Let's label this one "Exhibit A."

Amazon requires publishers to use Kindle DRM


A leaked Amazon ebook contract [PDF] shows that Amazon's default terms for ebook publishers is that they must use DRM, unless they can convince Amazon to leave it off.

Like most DRM vendors -- Apple and Google, for example -- Amazon spends a lot of time implying and flat-out stating that it only uses DRM because the big dumb media companies require it of them. The reality is that DRM's primary beneficiary is the DRM vendor. Once your book is sold with Amazon's DRM on it, only Amazon can give your readers permission to move them out of the Kindle jail and onto another device of your choosing. Of course Amazon wants to force copyright holders and creators to use its DRM -- it's a one-stop way of converting the writer's customer into Amazon's customer. Forever.

Remember: Any time someone puts a lock on something of yours and won't give you the key, that lock is not there for your benefit.

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Indie bookstores on the rise


The number of members of the American Booksellers' Association is slowly creeping up, a welcome sign after a steep decline from 5500 members in 1995 to 2191 in 2002. ABA is comprised of indie booksellers, and though the dominant narrative has it that the indies were slaughtered by Amazon, the numbers suggest that the decline had more to do with the rise of the big-box chain-stores (ironically, these are dead [Borders] or dying [B&N] and were almost certainly killed by Amazon).

More interesting is why the number of indie bookstores is growing:

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Amazon textbook rentals: fine-print bans taking books over state lines


If you thought Google deleting your ebooks when you cross a border is unreasonable, check this out: Amazon's textbook rental service comes with fine-print that allows the company to bill your credit card for the full amount if they think you've crossed a state line with it. It's not clear exactly what's going on here, but all signs point to this being part of Amazon's strategy for avoiding having to pay state sales-tax.

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Jeff Bezos's letter to the WashPo staff

With the announcement that Jeff Bezos is acquiring the Washington Post, Bezos has published an open letter to WashPo employees explaining what he plans on doing with the paper. It starts with, "The values of The Post do not need changing." Nevertheless, "There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years" -- mostly related (obviously) to the Internet.

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Big Telco uses shills to smear book about Net Neutrality and telcoms corruption

Susan Crawford is an eminent telcoms scholar, former government official (who resigned because of corruption in telcoms policy) and the author, recently, of an important book on telcoms corruption and net neutrality called Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. This book has scared the pants off of big telcos.

Their anti-Net-Neutrality front groups like NetCompetition, Broadband For America, and Media Freedom have been smearing Crawford and her book since it was published, and now, at least 31 people have posted highly similar one-star reviews of her book to Amazon, quoting talking points from these organizations. Most of these reviewers are not in Amazon's "real name" program, and the ones that are work for big telcos and the think-tanks they fund. Mike Masnick investigated the reviews in detail and it's pretty clear that nearly all the five-star reviews are from legit, named, disinterested parties (albeit with a few people who have a dog in the fight, like activists and scholars, and a couple more who say they are trying to balance out the one-star smears); meanwhile, nearly all the one-star reviews are from shills or telco people.

America has some of the worst Internet infrastructure in the developed world, and it's getting worse year by year. It's thanks to the crooked phone companies and their corrupt pals in Congress, the state houses, and the regulators. These titans have the country by its nervous system, and they're so afraid of criticism that they engage in petty, corrupt astroturfing to attack books that call them out. Now is a great time to buy Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, read it, and give it an honest review.

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Amazon reviews of Wendy Davis's running shoes

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis did something amazing when she filibustered for 13 hours solid to kill the state's omnibus abortion bill: standing, without help, food, water, or bathroom breaks, for 13 straight hours. In a pair of Mizuno Women's Wave Rider 16 Running Shoes. Fans of Ms Davis have taken to Amazon to show their support in the reviews, a strange form of public commentary with some precedent: "Guaranteed to outrun patriarchy on race day," and "I tried on a pair at the local mall and suddenly Texas Republicans started telling me what to do with my genitals." Cory 1

The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight

Andrew Albanese, my editor at Publishers Weekly, has been tracking the antitrust action the DoJ brought against the big six publishers and Apple over price-fixing very carefully, and he's written a great-looking, DRM-free ebook about it called "The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight." Here's what he had to say about it:

It is mostly about the backstory of the case, how publishers' antipathy to $9.99 led them to what turned out to be a pretty fateful decision. It is also available in all the major e-book stores, Sony, B&N, Apple, and Amazon. Amazingly, Amazon is featuring it on their Singles home page here in the U.S.

So one note that might be of interest to you, I was surprised to learn in writing this essay how little the publishers negotiated their initial e-book retail terms back when the e-book market was just beginning. And, more to the point, that the thought they did put into e-books was all related to the negative aspects of digital: how to stop piracy, DRM, controlling unauthorized use. This is kind of where this whole legal saga begins. When Amazon came to launch the Kindle in 2007, the publishers were so focused on the bad things that digital might bring that they never really considered, hey, what if this e-book thing really works? What if this Kindle thing takes off?

Remember, at the time Amazon launched the Kindle, the publishers were stumping for the Google Settlement, so their attention was focused more on stopping the digitization and indexing of long out-of-print books that were making money for no one. As a result, they barely negotiated their initial financial terms with Amazon. Amazon officials testified that, in some cases, they just accepted the financial terms publishers had already proposed for e-books, while publishers mostly sought to address DRM, and security concerns. No one apparently stopped to ask Amazon, “Oh, by the way, how much are you planning to charge consumers for our e-books?”

It is easy to say in hindsight, but the major publishers’ fear of digital piracy had kept them from considering the prospects of digital success. And, of course, all of this was exacerbated by the fact that the Kindle was a closed platform, so, the more successful the Kindle became, the more power the company had over the publishers' customer. As you once wrote, the DRM and security they'd insisted on became a whip to beat them with. Another interesting chapter in the way DRM has impacted the publishing industry.

The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight

Having your account frozen at Amazon means losing ongoing access to your ebooks

A woman who placed a big computer order at Amazon had her account frozen while they tried to verify her credit-card, a process that went horribly awry (they demanded that she fax them her bank-statement, which she did, eight times, but they never got it, and who knows where those eight copies ended up). As a result, she is no longer able to access her Amazon account, including her Kindle ebooks. She can still presumably read them on her existing devices (assuming they don't remotely wipe them), but can't activate any new devices and until and unless she resolves this bizarre situation, her books will disappear forever when her Kindle breaks or its battery wears out.

That's right: if you order too many computers from Amazon, they might take away your books.

Amazon Cancels My $6,000 Order Because It Doesn’t Know How To Use A Fax Machine

Kindle user claims Amazon deleted whole library without explanation

When your Kindle is wiped by Amazon without explanation, refund, or appeal, it’s time to wake up and realize the truth: ebook readers treat you as a tenant-farmer of your books, not an owner. You have no rights, only a license-agreement that runs to thousands of words, and that you’ll never fully satisfy.

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