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Books Businesses The Almighty Buck

Author Charles Stross: Is Amazon a Malignant Monopoly, Or Just Plain Evil? 405

An anonymous reader writes "Sci-fi author Charles Stross has a post providing insight into Amazon's recent bullying tactics against a major book publishing group. He puts the fight into perspective for the two most important parts of the book market: author and reader. He says: 'Amazon's strategy (as I noted in 2012) is to squat on the distribution channel, artificially subsidize the price of ebooks ("dumping" or predatory pricing) to get consumers hooked, rely on DRM on the walled garden of the Kindle store to lock consumers onto their platform, and then to use their monopsony buying power to grab the publishers' share of the profits. If you're a consumer, in the short term this is good news: it means you get cheap books. But if you're a reader, you probably like to read new books. By driving down the unit revenue, Amazon makes it really hard for publishers—who are a proxy for authors—to turn a profit. Eventually they go out of business, leaving just Amazon as a monopoly distribution channel retailing the output of an atomized cloud of highly vulnerable self-employed piece-workers like myself. At which point the screws can be tightened indefinitely. And after a while, there will be no more Charlie Stross novels because I will be unable to earn a living and will have to go find a paying job. TL:DR; Amazon's strategy against Hachette is that of a bullying combine the size of WalMart leaning on a much smaller supplier. And the smaller supplier in turn relies on really small suppliers like me. It's anti-author, and in the long term it will deprive you of the books you want to read.'"
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Author Charles Stross: Is Amazon a Malignant Monopoly, Or Just Plain Evil?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:45PM (#47093401)

    Hachette has been around for quite some time. Their entry to the US market was by way of buying Time Warner books. They've bought Hyperion books too.

    So it's probably not a struggle between the big mean web store and the innocent niche publisher. I don't think either of them are even slightly concerned with your interests.

  • by Jeremy Erwin ( 2054 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:59PM (#47093517) Journal

    Stross's novels are an extrapolation of contemporary science and culture into various futures. As a geek, you should be able to recognize the beginnings of Stross's fantasies--crypto currencies, IT culture, malware, MMORPGs, maker culture, -- and laugh as these trends are taken to their logical conclusion in the various universes he has devised.

    Now, I seek out and read hard SF. The trouble with classic works of this subgenre, (the vast bulk of which is still under copyright protection) is that it becomes obsolete. For instance, take the Bussard Ramjet-- a relativistic spaceship that was (at least for the time)theoretically possible without breaking physical laws. The Bussard Ramjet enabled a host of authors, most notably Poul Anderson, to write stories about Relativistic Time (twin paradoxes, and the like) But IIRC, the fuel density in the interstellar medium is insufficient for the Bussard scheme to work. So all those stories suffer from a patina of obsolescence.

    To avoid this, it's necessary to acquaint yourself with the writers of the here and now. Stross is one such writer.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:05PM (#47093573)

    So you're essentially saying that anyone interested in publishing shouldn't, because there's "enough books already"? Does someone SERIOUSLY have to point out what's wrong with this line of thinking?

  • by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <> on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:19PM (#47093653) Homepage

    The problem is that -- as I already pointed out in another comment here -- most self-published authors are not prepared to spend their scanty resources on editing services. The sort of self-published books I often get asked to review are written by working-class dreamers who think they can make it big, and the tiny amount of money they have to invest upfront goes straight to marketing.

    You also think proofreading is cheap. While I mainly work as a translator, I occasionally accept proofreading work, and I know that in my market (Finland) I could easily charge 8–10&euro per standard page, so a 200-page novel could easily reach 2000€. And that's just proofreading! Editing would cost much more. There's enough opportunities out there that I don't feel any pressure to lower the price, so a self-published author asking me to translate his book for $250 would just get laughed at.

  • Refuse DRM (Score:5, Informative)

    by kasper_souren ( 1577647 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @03:12PM (#47094069) Homepage
    Cory Doctorow is quite successful and he's thus far refused to jump on the DRM band wagon. On the contrary, all his books are available under a Creative Commons license, and I think part of his success is due to this. Personally I'm much more likely to support an author who believes in freedom of information and I have happily bought some of his books to give away to friends, a while after I had read freely available versions on some electronic device.
  • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot&worf,net> on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:04PM (#47094471)

    While publishers are middlemen, at least they are at least some level of quality control. As an Amazon top reviewer, I get several times a week solicitations to review a book self-published through Amazon, and the vast majority of these are appallingly bad -- mispellings and grammatical errors abound, the typesetting is goofy, and in terms of style these authors could not write themselves out of a paper bag. An established publisher would reject the majority of these, saving consumers the time spent finding out that they are dreck, and for the small minority of authors with fledgling talent, there would be an editor who could propose changes for the better.

    Publishers do a lot, actually. All the author has to do is dump the publisher a block of text. That's it.

    The publisher's job is to wrangle up an editor to punch that text into something readable (while trying to maintain the author's vision), then wrangle a typesetter to put that text into blocks - properly formatted chapters, section headings, images with captions (and the odd forgotten image that needs to be retrieved).

    Then there are the extra matter - table of contents, indices, "about the author" bios and other matter that gets added (copyrights, ISBNs, etc). And then cover art needs to be produced by an artist. And try to catch things like low-resolution images that haven't been replaced which come out as pixelated crap in the final output.

    All that is then taken and the book is typeset - laying the tables and text in the proper styles and everything. Even ebooks are typeset to ensure that the text generally flows correctly, images line up, etc.

    Publishers do a lot. Self-publishers have to do the rest, but in general, an author is responsible for just producing the text, the publisher does everything to beat that text into something readable and wrapping it up as necessary.

    And authors can produce some strange text - some use plain old ASCII and do oddball markups, Others just bold/italic/change font sizes (it's the editor's job to figure out if that's a chapter break for the typesetter to properly format), etc.

    Printing is such a small part of books that most of the cost is everything else, hence why most ebooks actually aren't that much cheaper in the end - all that work still exists on the ebook as well - you just save on the printing/warehousing/shipping which at most is 10%.

  • by mrmeval ( 662166 ) <<mrmeval> <at> <>> on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:07PM (#47094497) Journal

    A friend of mine self publishes on Amazon. He managed to bootstrap himself to be his own publisher by doing the best he could on his first two books. He's now to the point he pays the people needed to review and clean up his books as a publisher would do. He self promotes and is doing well enough he's happy. If he had the time he'd be able to do writing full time but sadly he started writing science fiction in his 60s. The one thing he cannot do and probably will not is to provide intriquing cover art.

    Stross and other authors dependant on an outdated business model and unable to change will continue to go on ranting screeds against change.

A committee takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom. -- Parkinson