Update: A few hours after I posted this, Sharon Lee posted an update stating that someone from Amazon customer service got the whole thing straightened out for them. Glad that they were able to see reason after all!

Authors Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are running into a little static when trying to publish some of their short stories via Amazon—thanks at least in part to the automation by which Amazon has to run its self-publishing operation.

Lee and Miller have been self-publishing some of their short stories in chapbook form since long before self-publishing became the monster that it is today. They started back in the 1990s, publishing actual paper chapbooks, but in recent years closed down the paper operation and switched to electronic versions. This sort of chapbook self-publishing might not be something most authors would consider, but Lee and Miller have built up the kind of devoted audience over the years (and I count myself among that audience) that makes it worthwhile to continue.

Lately, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have republished four of their previously-published short stories in e-chapbook form. The stories were and remain available as part of a larger Liaden short story collection from Baen, A Liaden Universe® Constellation, Volume 3, but some readers prefer to keep their stories organized by chapbook instead. Since it costs so little to e-publish, and they retained the rights to do so by their contract, Lee and Miller figured that they might as well. They published these stories as a pair of e-chapbooks to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Baen without any problem—but the trouble came in when it came time to place them on Amazon.

Huge company that it is, Amazon has to use impersonal automation to deal with many of the issues related to self-publishing content. When it comes to ensuring that someone isn’t trying to pull a fast one by republishing someone else’s content, this automation effectively takes a similar form to plagiarism-checker Turn It In: if previously-published content appears in a new form, this calls for some special attention.

In some ways, it’s easy to see why Amazon makes a big deal out of this. A failure to catch duplicate content that shouldn’t have been republished is what led to one of Amazon’s most famous gaffes, the removal of illicit copies of Orwell novels from people’s Kindles. The problem is, content duplication isn’t a problem with a one-size-fits-all solution.

As Sharon Lee recounts it on her blog, Amazon wanted to see reversion letters to the stories, signifying that Baen returned their publication rights to Lee and Miller after their contract expired. However, those stories were never fully sold to Baen to begin with. They sold Baen anthology rights, for the purpose of that anthology, while keeping for themselves the rights to place the stories again elsewhere or self-publish them.

Subsequently, Lee and Miller interpreted Amazon’s latest response as a request that they forward to Amazon a copy of their contract with Baen before Amazon would permit self-publication of those stories. Sharon Lee explains that, “in the Normal World of Publishing” this sort of thing simply isn’t done. When an author places a work with a new publisher, they sign a contract in which they agree they have the rights to do so. If it later turns out they don’t have those rights, the lawyers come out to play. But never does any publisher require or expect authors to provide a copy of their previous contract with another publisher. Lee writes:

Now, Amazon is in a strange situation; it cannot itself decide if it’s a publisher or a distributor, but in either case the demand for a copy of our contract with our publisher is out of line, and Steve and I will not comply.

Hence, she explains, these works probably just won’t be available through Amazon, and chapbook completists will just have to buy them from another store—such as Baen, whose DRM-free multi-format books can readily be added to any e-reader, including Kindles.

Unfortunately, this also means they won’t be able to use Amazon’s self-publish-to-paperback program, so these two chapbooks won’t be available in print until and unless they can find an alternate solution.

With as much automation as Amazon has to use, and given that automation tends to have trouble with unusual situations it wasn’t designed to deal with, perhaps the most surprising thing is that we haven’t heard about something like this happening before. But then, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are in something of an unusual situation. As a general rule, most authors either publish traditionally, with just a few toes dipped into releasing rights-reverted titles, or else are completely self-publishing. Relatively few authors straddle both sides as fully as Lee and Miller do. (The way their previous traditional publishers kept dropping them or going out of business might have had something to do with that.)

It’s certainly understandable that they would decide not to proceed any further in this dispute with Amazon. It’s not worth the time or aggravation when they’re just talking about two chapbooks with four short stories, and enough of their audience follows them in social media that they probably won’t miss out on too many sales. Nor would it be a huge financial loss even if they did.

But if the publishing landscape changes, and more writers decide to diversify their publishing placement, it’s always possible this issue might crop up again. Hopefully Amazon will eventually find some better way of dealing with it.