Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Wait, What Monopoly Are We Talking About?

If you haven’t already tapped into the current internet publishing world brouhaha that began when Barry Eisler (in response, I think, to a Twitter conversation he had with me and Isobel Carr and a couple of other authors a few days earlier) used an incendiary term in a post on J.A. Konrath’s blog, you’ve got some catching up to do.  There has since been a further discussion on Courtney Milan’s blog that I’m referencing here simply so I don’t have to repeat it.

Eisler has been complaining (not entirely incorrectly) that people have become so fixated on the incendiary terminology, they’re not addressing the substance of his post, in a nutshell, is this:

“Why are so many authors afraid of a possible monopoly while sanguine about a real one?”

The “real monopoly” Eisler is talking about here is the Big 6 publishing houses, and the “possible one” is Amazon. Well, I’m willing to take that on.

Eisler contends that since all so-called “legacy publishers” offer the same royalty percentages to all authors, they are effectively a monopoly because authors can’t get another deal. But authors can get another deal and have been able to for a long time.

First of all, an author who gets offers from multiple legacy publishers can choose the deal that pays the biggest advance. That’s an absolute guaranteed minimum the author can expect to earn from the book, and frankly, it’s one of main reasons why I might choose to accept a lower royalty percentage.

But if an author doesn’t like any of the deals offered by the larger publishing houses, she can also choose to publish with a small press, whether print+digital or digital only. These presses may not offer advances, but they typically offer considerably higher digital royalties than the major print publishers do (30% to as much as 50% in some cases). Going this route provides wider distribution, plus the author doesn’t have to out-of-pocket for cover art, editorial, and any other costs associated with bringing the book to market.

Finally, for the time being, an author can also choose to self-publish at reasonably low cost with relatively high rates of return. But this is also clearly the riskiest option, because it isn’t free. There’s obviously a sliding scale of cost associated with publishing a book yourself, but I won’t do it without paying for professional-looking cover art and ensuring the work is thoroughly and professionally edited. Of course, there are authors who do have the skills to create their own covers and who are confident enough in their own editing skills to put out a book without paying for an editor, but I think it’s a very small subset of writers that can do both well enough to produce a truly quality product. But even for those who can, there’s a time cost involved. The time you spend as an author on making your cover, editing your book, formatting it, and uploading it to various retailer sites is time you’re not spending writing your next book.

So, the reason I’m not worried about a real monopoly that exists now is that I simply don’t agree that there is one. I don’t agree that the Big 6 publishing houses are an evil monolith that consign authors who sign with them to indentured servitude. This is not to say that I am not realistic (some might even say cynical) about traditional publishing. It’s not a perfect system, it doesn’t offer any guarantees of a successful career, and plenty of authors get the shaft from their publishers.

But self-publishing is not a panacea. It’s also not a perfect system, it also doesn’t offer any guarantees, and it’s a safe bet that plenty of authors will wind up not only not making money at it, but actually losing money.

When authors like Eisler and Konrath, both of whom started their writing careers with those supposedly evil legacy publishers, tout self-publishing as not only an option, but as the first, best option for making money as a writer–well, I kind of have to wonder what they’ve been smoking. Yes, there’s Amanda Hocking. And John Locke and HP Mallory and probably a few dozen others who started out in self-publishing and have done very well for themselves. But there are far, far more authors who have made a healthy living by selling their books to traditional publishers and a sizable percentage of the authors who are doing very well in self-publishing right now didn’t begin in self-publishing. Moreover, before digital self-publishing became cheap and vogue, there was The Shack. There have always been the occasional phenoms who manage to make a career out of self-publishing; that doesn’t make it a sure-fire “get rich quick” scheme, or even a sure-fire “make a little pocket money” one.

And that’s even before we take a realistic look at the biggest player in the self-publishing game, Amazon, and the fact that it’s not any more a charitable enterprise out to make authors rich at its own expense than the Big 6 publishers are. Amazon is in business to make money for itself and its shareholders, not to ride in on a white horse and save poor, benighted authors from the big, bad publishers who take advantage of them.

Add to that Amazon’s very real dominance in digital book sales and its current forays into becoming a publisher (with its own books being available in digital format only through its site), and you have what I see as a potentially dangerous situation for publishers (both publishing houses and authors who are their own publishers). In short, the danger is no one can afford to run afoul of Amazon. If you can’t get your digital books on Amazon, you are invisible to at least half of the digital book-buying public.1

This doesn’t make Amazon a monopoly, by any means. Not yet. And maybe not ever. But I don’t think it’s as simple as “Amazon will never do anything ‘bad’ to self-publishing authors because it has no incentive to do so.” That simply isn’t true. Amazon’s primary incentive and motivation is to make money, and listing/storing hundreds of thousands of digital books isn’t free. Disk space may be relatively cheap, but the cost of supporting servers isn’t negligible (climate control for a huge bank of computers is pricey, people!), and Amazon also “vets”–at least to some degree–every book that is published through its Kindle Direct Publishing service. It has to have actual humans on hand to field questions/service issues related to Kindle Direct Publishing.

All of that put together means it’s not unrealistic to imagine that Amazon may decide it can’t afford to continue being so generous to those who publish through that service. And as an author who is primarily self-publishing right now, yes, I worry about that because, although I’m selling more books now than ever before, I’m also very far from making a living at it.

And I guess that’s really what it boils down to. To ME, the supposedly monopolistic practices of Big 6 publishing houses don’t represent much of a threat. They aren’t publishing my books right now, and I don’t have any particular expectation that they’ll be publishing them in the near future, although I’d be more than happy to sell a book to a major publishing house under the right circumstances. But the elephant in MY room is Amazon, which has the power to cut my sales in half if it chooses. Will it choose to? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean I’m nuts to be concerned about the possibility, especially if Amazon continues to be or becomes an even bigger force in the digital market.

The irony, really, is that some people seem to assume that because Amazon is doing X today, it will continue to do X indefinitely, but given the rapid pace of change we’ve seen in publishing over the past few years, it seems to me the only thing that it’s safe to assume is that it’s going to change more. A lot. It’s not unreasonable to wonder what those changes will be or to be concerned that they may not be to the advantage of anyone other than corporations and their shareholders. Because frankly, that’s what corporations do.

1I know there are people who think this isn’t true and that there are plenty of sales to be had elsewhere. All I can tell you is that, in my self-published catalog, my sales are currently about 80% attributable to Amazon and 20% to B&N, All Romance eBooks, and the retailers that get my books through distribution from Smashwords. Moreover, when my small epublisher converted their books from Mobipocket to Amazon, my sales of my backlist more than doubled. In other words, what I’ve seen supports the contention that Amazon, while not a monopoly, is such a strong driver of digital sales that anyone who wants to sell digital books cannot afford to ignore them.


  • Jody W. October 31, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Yes — at any moment, Amazon could cease to do X and move on to Y. F-Y in particular, if you know what I mean and if they think it would bring in more money.

  • Gwen Hayes October 31, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Very good information here. And without the incendiary rhetoric.


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