on books

It is so strange that Amazon would institute a policy that fixes something no one thinks is a problem in order to placate 400 established authors trying to limit the market opportunities of other authors. In this case, Amazon is unilaterally deleting reviews people post regarding books being sold by Amazon.

This makes no sense as Amazon’s reason for being is to sell stuff, in this case books. Apparently, Amazon does not police for revenge reviews that may be made by a person who does not like a given author and pens a poison dart designed to bring down the star rating (face it, no one really reads the reviews, they simply look at the star rating). They have, apparently, begun to remove reviews some algorithm in some automated decision system decides is inappropriately positive. Driving down the star rating will result in less books being sold and read. That doesn’t make sense for Amazon, the authors, the publishers (if any) or society in general.

I believe there has been a major unintended shift in the general book buying public’s purchasing pattern. Books are increasingly an impulse purchase. To a degree, this has always been the case, hence the paperback displays at airport shops and super markets. However, the tendency to impulse buy is increasing dramatically, in large part, thanks to Amazon.

ColbertAmazonStickerAmazon has done two things that powerfully impact the book market. One, they have made self publishing so quick, inexpensive and easy it has become a major inducement to writers to write and publish. Exactly the same effect LikeTheDew.com has on folk like me. Hell, it is fun and, whether or not anyone ever reads my stuff, it is a wonderful platform for my opinion and general take on the world. And, as far as I know, no animals have ever been hurt in the process.

Two, by squeezing both the traditional publishers and the authors, Amazon still has not made itself consistently profitable but has lowered the price of books in the same way Apple lowered the price of music. Both music and books are mere impulse buys now. Probably sixty-five percent of all book/ebook sales are made to less than twenty percent of the reading public. These people buy books in much the same way gamblers gamble, a very small percentage of the total reading or gambling population contribute the vast majority of the money into the system. It is the same for people who drink alcohol, smoke dope, buy guns, you name it, when dealing with addictive and or compulsive behavior a minority contributes the majority of the cash in the system. Don’t kid yourself, book buying has always been driven by compulsive behavior, in some cases, even addictive behavior. It is so now.

Indeed, any system depending upon sales of stuff to a given population always breaks down into a minority spending a majority of the money in that market system. Even in housing or new cars, a minority of the buying public spends a majority of the money in the market. In these last two cases there are fewer addicts but compulsion buying is fairly common. Remember John McCain? He had eight houses when he ran against President Obama. Imagine having eight houses. If he spent an equal amount of time in each he would spend a month and a half in one and then have to move on to the next. People who buy land, Ted Turner, are the same way. They are compulsive about buying it and a minority of all the land buyers in North America buy a majority of the land sold every year.

It doesn’t matter what commodity of gadget you are looking at, a minority of the total buyers always are accountable for a majority of the purchases and a majority of the money in the system.

What Amazon, and their competitors, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Scribd, etc., have done is make book buying ever more subject to compulsive and addictive buying patterns. They have done this by breaking the old agent/publisher gateway system and dramatically expanding the number of available books. They have also driven down the price of books in a dramatic fashion.

Just as Apple has taken money out of the “record” selling business and forced musicians to tour, more of less constantly, in order to make the kind of money they want, Amazon and its ilk are forcing authors, even established A-listers, to find additional sources of money beyond the sale of books. Lectures, standup, teaching, blog sites, You Tube channels, whatever, fewer and fewer authors can make it penning a masterpiece and waiting for the royalties to roll in. The authors who really make it in the new world order will have to be entertainers as well as writers. Just as the Garbo routine isn’t working for actors anymore, the J. D. Salingers of the world will find the new environment difficult to down right hostile.

I don’t think it is coincidence that the primary spokesman in the popular culture taking on Amazon for their punitive attack on Hachette is Stephen Colbert. Colbert is a giant television personality as well as a best selling author. Why not Scott Turow, Robert Galbraith, Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson, best sellers all? Lord knows Hachette has a stable full of best selling, famous authors but only one like Colbert.

Hopefully, future successful book writing will not be limited to unique polymath geniuses like Colbert, but you can be assured there is a new gateway in town. The new gateway is clutter and cacophony in the market. Authors who wish to rise above all that and find their audience and their market (all members of you audience are in your market but not all members of your market are in your audience) will have to have something else to sell and promote. Likewise, agents and publishers who want to survive will have to morph into something other than a gatekeeper, for the gate no longer belongs to them. They will have to find ways to bring emerging talent along by expanding the entertainment competencies of their authors. Playing Don Quixote to Amazon’s windmills isn’t going to get it done for agents and publishers. Though Amazon is plenty big enough, it really isn’t the enemy. The entire market has structurally changed and the pace of that change will increase, not slow down, no matter how brilliant and funny and insightful Stephen Colbert is.

Amazon probably knows all this as well as anyone. I suspect the new review policing is a small, token gesture to some of the 400 authors upset about “friendly” reviews they think may cut into their sales by promoting the unwashed and the unworthy. That is the only reason I can think that would cause Amazon to set up a system that tries to ferret out puff piece reviews but not revenge and poison pen reviews. Remember, the current system only works to lower an author’s star rating. If Amazon set up a policing system that attacked the bottom as well as the top, perhaps they could solve a problem that doesn’t exist without hurting sales. However, I think the whole policing affair is like the Republican attack on non-existent voter fraud. For the time being, it isn’t costing Amazon much and it may placate authors who are a little restive over the Hatchette fiasco.

In the meantime, the market has shifted and will continue to do so. In the brave new world of internet driven markets, if you want to be an author, sharpen those entertainment or political, etc. skills. You’re going to need them.

Mike Copeland

Mike Copeland

I am old enough to know better. I have a B. A. from Birmingham Southern College and a Master's in City Planning from Georgia Tech. I have worked in SC State government for over a decade leaving as the Deputy Executive Director of the State Budget and Control Board, the state's administrative agency. I have owned the Fontaine Company since 1984 and am the managing member of viscerality.com.llc a management, marketing and consulting company.

I am the author of several novels, some of which you may buy and read if you are of a mind to do so.