Will Amazon Hurt Small Pagan Publishers?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 28, 2008 — 15 Comments

In the past few days news has emerged that Internet book-selling giant Amazon.com has been pressuring small publishing houses who use print-on-demand services like Lightning Source (owned by Ingram), Lulu, and PublishAmerica to switch to Amazon’s own in-house POD service or have their “buy” button removed.

“Reports have been trickling in from the POD underground that Amazon/BookSurge representatives have been approaching some Lightning Source customers, first by email introduction and then by phone (nobody at BookSurge seems to want to put anything in writing). When Lightning Source customers speak with the BookSurge representative, the reports say, they are basically told they can either have BookSurge start printing their books or the “buy” button on their Amazon.com book pages will be “turned off.” The book information would remain on Amazon, and people could still order the book from resellers (companies that list new and used books in Amazon’s Marketplace section), but customers would not be able to buy the book from Amazon directly, nor qualify for the coveted “free shipping” that Amazon offers.”

This policy was confirmed by Amazon spokeswoman Tammy Hovey, who called the move “a strategic decision”, and that it wasn’t “an ultimatum” for smaller publishers to switch to Amazon’s POD service. While it may not be an “ultimatum”, it does put smaller publishers who use POD services between a rock and a hard place according to Lupa, an author and employee of Immanion Press.

“So why not just switch over to [Amazon's] Booksurge, you may ask? Two reasons … They’re more expensive – they want a significantly larger cut of the profits than many others … Their distribution isn’t as good … So why not just have accounts at both Lightning Source and Booksurge? Because the cost to upload books would double … So why not just use offset and other traditional forms of printing? Because you need thousands of dollars up front, even for a small run, plus warehousing space–and you have to hope that they all sell or else you’re out a good deal of money. Given that the big box stores are already biased against small presses, big losses are a major possibility …”

Lupa’s concerns are echoed by Virtualbookworm, a Lightning Source customer who was recently on the receiving end of an Amazon “strategic” strong-arm call.

“I’m going to refrain from editorializing on this move, since any talk of a monopoly could be dangerous (wink, wink). Instead, I just want you to think of what this could do to your title(s) and, eventually, your pocketbook. When you let everyone know your book was available, many of them probably went to Amazon to purchase it. If this new move (I won’t say threat) goes through, the only way readers will be able to purchase POD titles that haven’t also been set up through Booksurge/Amazon is through a reseller. The availability of your title will be choked, readers won’t be able to take advantage of free shipping (when the requirements are met) and the retail price will skyrocket (and just do a web search on the complaints about Booksurge’s quality).”

If this policy continues, it could conceivably hurt a number of smaller Pagan presses (Immanion/Megalithica, Asphodel, Waning Moon, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, etc) who utilize professional POD services to publish niche books that larger companies aren’t interested in due to a lack of mass-market appeal. For some of these publishers, revenues from Amazon is what keeps them solvent, since many book distributors don’t reliably carry POD titles. This trend could mean a big reduction in publishing diversity within modern Paganism, and may even result in some small publishing houses closing down.

For now, the POD publishing community seems to be waiting for the inevitable showdown between POD-heavyweights like Lightning Source and the Internet giant over the legality of this move. In the meantime, Lupa has some excellent suggestions for those who wish to support small Pagan publishers and voice their opinion of this development.

“In the meantime, you may want to consider alternate avenues to Amazon.com, such as Powell’s City of Books, Magus Books, Mystic Intentions and, of course, B&N, if you must order online. Additionally, some small pagan/occult shops, such as Edge of the Circle in Seattle, have excellent selections of books, including small press fare. And, if you feel up for it, contact Amazon (third box down on the right hand column) and let them know how you feel about this.”

Expect this news to break big as more and more publishers receive their “non-ultimatums” from Amazon reps, and POD companies consider legal action. If Amazon gets away with this recent move, the ecology of the smaller Pagan publishers could be irrevocably changed, and not for the better.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Laura Jean Karr

    This is just insane, I hope that Amazon can be fought on this one.

  • Erynn Laurie

    I’ve already sent a letter to Amazon and started moving my wishlist over to Powells. I’m also encouraging all my readers and the other authors I know to write to Amazon as well. This is going to really screw with small Pagan publishing if it actually happens.

  • fyreflye

    If Amazon Marketplace sellers can still offer books that have had their button removed not all is lost; many sellers have cheaper retail prices than Amazon. But if no Amazon Marketplace seller carries it, copy down the ISBN on the book’s main page and search for it here: http://www.fetchbook.info/ In the meantime, anyone who has a web page and sells books as an Amazon Associate should sever their connection now and find an alternate bookseller to link to. Amazon is only one online bookseller among many and can be brought down by a determined boycott. Until this is settled I’m buying my books elsewhere.

  • Lupa

    fyreflye–Unfortunately, even having third party sellers won’t help nearly as much as it needs to. As Jason pointed out, many people use Amazon for the free shipping and other perks, and third party-sold books don’t count. So while third party sellers may add a few sales, Amazon basically has us over a barrel at this point because they are the biggest bookseller, hands down. What Amazon is forgetting is one of the things that made them so big was that people knew they could find books there that couldn’t be found anywhere else. That includes lots of small press works that aren’t found in the big boxes. So now they turn their backs on one of the things that helped them become such a juggernaut.

  • David

    I’d recommend that authors and small publishers adopt an independent bookstore as their fulfillment venue. Amazon is a hydra that will suck the lifeblood out of every aspect of independent publishing and bookselling.By setting up fulfillment relationships with an independent, you create a symbiotic community relationship that serves both the pagan community and the local community and lets us live out the values we profess. Feeding the large corporate beast does none of this.T. Thorn Coyle aka yezida had an excellent discussion on other aspects of this problem under her LiveJournal post Reserved Books. It’s worth reading the thread.

  • Lupa

    David–That’s a nice idea in theory. However, most of the indy mainstream book stores use the same distributors as the big guys (usually Baker and Taylor or Ingram). Small pagan shops often either just become LLewellyn affiliates, or stick with specific distributors that may not have that great a selection. And there’s the issue of returnability; lots of book stores may not want to carry nonreturnable books (which, as I explained in my post, are almost universally necessary to POD publishing survival).The thing is, POD simply doesn’t work the same way as traditional publishing. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is slow to change, and so it is still heavily biased towards traditional publishers. So we POD operations continue to forge our way through the mess ;)

  • fyreflye

    Lupa–If prospective buyers can’t get free shipping from Amazon they won’t find it anywhere else so they’ll go ahead and buy from a Marketplace seller or look for an even cheaper one at FetchBook. The real problem is bringing worthy books to the attention of potential buyers in the first place. The reviews in the pagan magazines are too few and too uncritical. Amazon makes a lot of money off its 15%+ commission from Marketplace sales and will continue to list books they don’t carry as long as Marketplace sellers are offering the product. Publishers and authors need to become Marketplace sellers themselves; many already are.

  • And Little Fishes

    Another reason that changing from Lightning to Amazon is bad is that independent stores prefer to order through Ingram or another traditional wholesaler, rather than do anything through Amazon, which is happily stomping on their market share. I own an independent bookstore, and would rather cut off my arm than fulfill customer requests by ordering from Amazon. Readers not directly involved in sales, writing, publishing, or distribution: please consider your local independent, whether it is a Pagan store or not!

  • Lupa

    fyreflye–You are right in that it isn’t completely hopeless. However, the Marketplace is pretty competitive–all of our books have third party sellers selling new copies for anywhere from one to four (or more) dollars off the cover price. And most people are going to want the cheapest one; I’ve sold signed copies of my books for the cover price, and I sell less than half a dozen a year through Marketplace. There’s really no way to make up the profit that we would get through regular Amazon sales.And Little Fishes–Yup. Amazon is not nice to the little guys anywhere. I do wish more indy pagan shops would carry a bigger variety; a lot of them just become LLewellyn affiliates–which is a good program, but thehn they don’t get books from other publishers. The best shops I’ve seen are the ones with wide variety.

  • Jane

    Many of us local pagan stores would love to carry more quality titles from independent publishers, and we do so when given the opportunity. But we rarely are. I suspect many stores partner with Llewellyn because they are so easy to do business with. Why don’t the independent presses team up with independent distributors like magusbooks.com (they are going into wholesale), azuregreen.com (a pagan wholesaler and retailer) or newleaf-dist.com (a new age wholesaler)? If the coolest new pagan title, with great reviews in indie press and on the web is only available from indie sources, don’t you think people would go there to get it? I mean, think of the karma, people. When indie publishers ignore indie distributors and retailers, and put all their faith in amazon . . . what exactly do you expect?

  • Lupa

    Jane: Because a lot of the distributors ask for a lot bigger discount than many small POD presses can afford. Immanion Press, the publisher I work with, worked out a contract with New Leaf last year, but we really had to crunch the numbers to make it work, and even then it’s not really much of a money maker for us–it’s more to make the books more widely available. Same thing with Counter Culture Books in the UK–they’re a good resource for us, but many small presses may not be able to offer that big a discount. As to Azuregreen, we sent them several books for review, and they never got back to us.Please don’t make the assumption that we’re all ignoring indie distributors–it’s a matter of money. Indie distributors are still primarily geared towards traditional publishers, who have a lower cost per book and therefore can give a bigger discount. POD presses, because the cost per book is higher because we’re not printing 10,000 copies at once, often can’t compete unless the distributor is willing to work with us because we can’t give that big a discount. Amazon has been one of the few major powers in publishing that have been accomodating to us (until recently) and even then they don’t make much profit on POD books anyway.I do want to thank you for tipping me off on Magus Books going wholesale, though–I visited their store years ago and it’s still one of the best I’ve seen. I’m going to contact them about their wholesaling now that you’ve mentioned it :)

  • Erynn Rowan

    An idea from a comment by RoseWelsh in my LiveJournal about the Amazon situation: Erynn: After looking through your posts on this outrageous tactic and realizing that one letter or 10 *saying* that you will buy elsewhere isn’t going to hit home. I’m thinking that for the next month or so every time I buy a book elsewhere, I’ll let Amazon know: send them a brief letter why I bought elsewhere with a copy of the receipt :-) If enough people do this maybe the bean counters will have something interesting to say at the next staff meeting *wink*. RosePlease pass the idea along!

  • Jane

    Thanks for the Eye-opener, Lupa. I guess I figured Azure Green and New Leaf would be different than the Ingrams and Baker & Taylors because of their specialty nature.They need to figure out that the biggest slice of a pie isn’t necessarily the best. Hopefully Magus Books can get their wholesale humming and fill that gap in distribution.

  • Lupa

    Jane–The indy distributors do their best. It simply comes down to the existing constraints of the publishing industry as a whole.Thanks again for the Magus Books tip–they do indeed have their own distribution service, and I got in contact with them about it :)

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