Over at The Passive Voice, lawblogger Passive Guy has linked a series of interesting articles about the ongoing saga of e-tailer All Romance E-Books, which has announced it is shutting its doors without paying the authors and publishers who used the store more than 10 cents on the dollar for Q4 2016 sales commissions.
Court documents have turned up some oddities in the way the business was run, and it seems likely affected authors and publishers are already banding together to file suit. But such a lawsuit will be costly in time as well as money, and may not bring a return worth the time and effort authors pour into it in any event.
- Publisher All Romance Ebooks: Closing Hits New Low In Stealing From Authors
- Court Documents Regarding All Romance E-Books’ Disturbing Business Practices Surface
- All Romance Ebooks & Visions of The Future: Part One
I’d link to the original articles, but this is a case where Passive Guy’s own insightful commentary is just as worth reading—particularly in the case of the first link, in which he explains at great length how and why those authors’ and publishers’ claims are likely to end up before a bankruptcy judge.
I don’t have too much to say about the specific details of this particular case—Passive Guy has that covered pretty well. But this incident does remind me that this is hardly the first e-publishing-related business to go by the wayside. Our own archives are replete with stories of e-stores and e-publishers who have fizzled due to the fickleness of the market or lack of much customer interest in the products they’re trying to peddle. (For example, The Atavist, Wowio, Oyster, Entitle, Librify. Even Scribd, one of the more successful non-Amazon ebook subscription services, had to cut its service offerings way back multiple times.)
What moral can we draw from this? And what does it suggest independent authors should do?
First of all, it probably wouldn’t hurt to diversify, and avoid putting all your eggs in any one basket—such as the basket of All Romance E-Books. But no matter how many eggs you put into how many baskets, losing a basket is going to hurt.
It also occurs to me that, for all that Amazon is one of the publishing industry’s favorite scapegoats, Amazon shows no signs of collapsing into bankruptcy any time soon. Love it or hate it, there’s no question Amazon has been successful, and has a pretty good reputation for paying authors and publishers what it owes them.
It would be a mistake to say that all independent authors and publishers should simply get over their objections and work with Amazon. I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate reasons to avoid Bezos’s corporation. But when I see competitors go under, harming the authors and publishers who had been counting on them, I wonder whether authors who avoid Amazon run the risk of cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Might they be too willing to take a risk on a less-than-stable business simply because it’s not Amazon?
In any event, it seems more clear than ever that the ebook market suffers from a great deal of instability the farther away you get from the biggest players. Is it ever going to settle down? We can only wait and see.
Reblogged this on HubBooks Literary Services and commented:
Understanding and making decisions to avoid Amazon could be costly but as an author and publisher I Can understand both sides.
Chris, you clearly haven’t been that deeply involved as an author and publisher. An Amazon bankruptcy isn’t the real issue. Amazon abandoning particular publishing schemes is.
Years ago, perhaps about 2001, I created some PDF-based versions of my books, released through Ingram but sold by Amazon. I was quite aware that most sales would come through Amazon. Then Amazon released Kindles and almost overnight dropped my first set of ebooks. That made them so unavailable, I doubt I sell more that two or three total in a year.
And when I lived in Seattle, I became a beta-tester for an Amazon idea called Shorts. It wasn’t a bad idea. An author would publish a book a chapter at a time, with readers paying a modest sum. When the book was finished, the reader would get the entire book. It was a bit like how Charles Dickens and others published via magazines in the nineteenth century.
I never released a book that way. My only real contribution came to naught. I warned Amazon that the draconian non-disclosure agreement that came with signing to publish through Shorts would turn away many authors. In the end, Amazon dropped the idea. Those who’d released parts of books through it were left out in the cold as much so as those with All Romance ebooks.
Look around at what Amazon offers authors. Many aren’t simply ways for ebook distribution. They’re proprietary workflows involving apps for creating various kinds of ebooks and publishing them only through Amazon. Were Amazon to decide one or more of them wasn’t worth the cost, authors would be out of luck.
And their latest scheme, a text-messaging-like story telling scheme for kids called Amazon Rapids, takes that to an extreme. Authors not only use Amazon tools, incompatible with anything else, to create the story books, the resulting storybooks are likely to be so different from traditional children’s stories that it’ll be difficult to impossible to publish them through anyone but Amazon with its special player app for them.
And will the Amazon Rapids idea succeed? I doubt it. The resulting reading reminds me of the horrid whole-word readers I had as kids and I hated them. In a post, I think it was to Publishers Weekly, I offered illustrations of two children’s classics changed to fit that Rapids format. They were awful.
You can’t confine good children’s story writing into the narrow confines of two characters sending messages back and forth to one another. And if Amazon Rapids bombs in the marketplace what then? Then authors who’ve tried to make a business out of writing for it will be as out of luck as some of these All Romance ebook authors.
My point is simple. Authors should diversity, on that we can agree. But we disagree about whether Amazon can be trusted to maintain all or even most of its proprietary publishing workflows. Amazon, like Google, has long demonstrated a pattern of dropping any scheme that doesn’t show a profit. That’s good business practice for Amazon, but trusting Amazon not to drop some scheme is a bad business practice for authors. Savvy authors not only don’t put their eggs in one basket. They don’t grow too dependent on the one labeled Amazon.
Also, I’m not quite sure there were that many romance authors who put their trust in All Romance ebooks alone. I’ve seen postings by authors who said that ARe was their second largest source of income next to Amazon. That means they were publishing through Amazon.
The distinction may lie between authors who like to write and nothing else, who tend to hire out all the other functions of publishing and those who, like me, do it all. The former leave themselves open to having their books controlled by whoever they’ve hired and limited by the channels it provides. They may even find that this service provider ‘owns’ their copyright. That’s apparently the case with some ARe authors.
When you do that, you’re moving onto dangerous ground. Vanity publishing has long been haunted by shady people who exploit newbie authors desperate to get published. That’s apparently what ARe either was or became after one of the two founders was kicked out. Authors should regard moving into author service providers like crossing a minefield. There are good companies out there, but you have to look for them.
Nor are there any grounds for trusting Amazon simply because its big. Jeff Bezos’ “gazelles” remark illustrates the zeal the company has to dominate and reduce to insignificance the options that authors and publishers of all sizes have. Shrewer people can look at its Byzantine royalty scheme and see that Amazon means them ill. Why should a $9.99 book pay 70% royalties but a $10.99 one only pay 35%? In part its because Amazon wants to force prices down since it’s profit margin on ebook sales is huge. But it’s also true that Amazon simply doesn’t understand books. There are books, typically textbooks and professional handbooks, that cost much to produce and their sales aren’t altered by pricing.
I watch people carefully, so carefully I’m rarely taken advantage of. I knew, for instance, that Bill Clinton was a liar and a con man before he’d completed the first sentence I ever heard him say. Why? Because he has that syrupy, “ah feel yore pain” tone that con men adopt. It sounds so caring, the naive fall for it, including most journalists. On the other hand, the shrewder pick up on that ploy early in life and don’t fall for it. That’s why I disagree with many reporters who, when they finally realized they were being taken, claimed Bill Clinton is a “good liar.” No, he’s not. He’s such an incredibly poor one that he can say something as true as “two plus two equals four,” and many of us will immediately think “con man.” He’s an incredibly poor liar. He reveals he’s a liar even when he’s telling the truth.
Corporations don’t have tones of voices, but they do have policies. The other reason I knew not to trust Bill Clinton was the fact that he’d been govenor of Arkansas for ten years and had left the state in the same dismal state he’d begun with. He’d looted it but done it no good. The promises he was making to America on the campaign trail meant nothing.
You can apply that same principle to the companies you do business with. A business you can trust will behave one way. A business you can’t trust with behave another. Read carefully and you can tell.
The FAQ about the Google book settlement was a masterpiece composed by the sorts of lawyers who gloat over the deceptions they create. Virtually every tech pundit on the planet fell for lies so transparent, a clever middle-school student could have seen through them. For instance, when the FAQ referred vaguely to “copyright interests” it actually mean that the original settlement was rendering the copyright of every author on the planet who did not formally opt out null and void. Read Amazon’s descriptions of its royalties and you see similar deceptions.
It’s too complex to go into here, but that’s how you distinguish those you can trust from those you can’t. You look for deceptive ways they use to manipulate situations to their advantage. You look for whether they support a healthy business environment or not. A bad business will try to dominate and destroy competitors.
Amazon clearly fails on every measure. To give an illustration, Apple’s iBookstore has been careful not get into a pay-for-visiblity scheme. If its editors like a book, they will recommend it. There’s not even a way to pay for higher visibility. On the other hand, I’ve been watching Amazon for at least five years try to monatarize book visiblity. Give them exclusive distribution, for instance, and they’ll give your book more visibility. Some authors fall for that. Others recognize that once they enter the Amazon exclusivity trap, they may not be able to easily extract themselves.
Behind this lies a personal factor that the biblical book of Proverbs discusses. Some people learn from experience, and some don’t. I’d taken note of that syrupy voice when I’d worked with someone who’d actually done time in federal prison as a con man. I had learned and applied that to Bill Clinton. Unlike perhaps 98% of our press corp, I wasn’t taken by “the man from hope.”
Others don’t learn from experience. They get conned, get angry, and get conned again. Proverbs contrasts them to a bird. Stretch out a net to catch small birds, and the birds will note what you’ve done and avoid the net. Stretch out a similar net of words, and the fool won’t notice. He’d be caught again and again.
You see that in our press. Despite all the times Bill Clinton has lied and been caught doing so, reporters still treat his remarks seriously and business conferences pay huge sums to have Bill and Hillary speak. “Why,” I ask myself, “should anyone pay hundreds of dollars to attend a conference and hear a liar speak? Do they really believe that, this time among all others, he is going to be honest?” Apprently so.
The same is true of some corporations. When Amazon promotes an idea like Rapids to authors (‘please write for it’) and parents (‘your kids will love it’), I pay it no mind. Nor do I take seriously many pundits who gush over such ideas. I noticed long ago that there was little relationship between what they liked and what ended up a success. I don’t write children’s stories, but if I did, I’d avoid Rapids like a plague. Writing for it is likely to be like doing romance books for ARe. You’ll end up in trouble and hurting.
One final note. Distrusting some person or corporation doesn’t mean not doing business with them. It simply means taking special care when doing so. Watch them carefully and in certain situations be prepared to bail out. This Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler” describes what that means:
“Reading people’s faces… know when to hold them, know when to fold them” is good advice for authors. Those caught up in ARe’s collapse made a mistake. Many didn’t “know when to run.”
And no, there’s no safety in depending on “the biggest players.” Amazon has a long history of dumping its publishing schemes when it suits its purposes and leaving authors in a lurch that comes as suddenly as All Romance ebook’s sudden collapse. It’s integrity and decency that you want to look for not size.
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@Michael What a fantastic comment. I am a software developer, not an author, but we have learned to be wary of Google indeed. You can’t not use it but you have to be careful what you step into.