Amazon – Hero or villain?

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There’s a debate raging right now about Amazon and its impact on the book market. There are some who paint Amazon as an evil force intent on the destruction of bookshops and the traditional publishing industry. Another school of thought is that Amazon is improving consumer choice and giving opportunities to new authors. As is the case with many such debates, your view tends to depend on where you are coming from and what vested interests you have.

The traditional book publishing industry has already seen a huge slice of its market lost to e-books – especially Amazon’s Kindle. Now they see Amazon aggressively discounting printed books forcing competitors to reduce prices and squeezing margins right through the distribution chain. As a result, many independent booksellers have been forced out of business. So it’s hardly surprising that many agents, publishers, distributors, and booksellers see Amazon as a villain in the book industry.

Others take a very different view though. If you are a new writer, struggling to get your name known and your books in the hands of readers, it’s incredibly difficult to do so using the traditional route. First you have to find an agent who’s prepared to take you on, and they will only do so if they are very sure that your books will sell in large numbers, and who can be sure of that when the author is an unknown name? Consequently most agents tend to stick with well-known names, taking on very few new authors. Rejection letters landing on the doormat are a very familiar experience for the budding new author. Next you have to find a publisher, though if you have secured the support of a good agent, this becomes somewhat easier.

Many – if not most – new authors eventually give up on this soul-destroying process and either give up writing altogether or decide to self-publish. This is where Amazon has provided a lifeline. Amazon makes it possible for almost anyone to self-publish and get their work out there in front of a wide consumer audience. There is no guarantee, of course, that any book offered through Amazon will sell well; that will only happen if the quality of the book is good enough to win an audience. In fact, arguably, self-published books have to be better than those published by a traditional publisher in order to succeed, because most independent authors don’t have the resources to market and advertise their books; they rely much more on word-of-mouth recommendation. I have read many self-published books written by relatively unknown authors and have found some of them to be outstanding pieces of work – in many cases far better than best sellers from well-known names.

As a consequence of the picture I describe above, there is a large and growing voice from independent authors supporting Amazon’s drive to shake up the traditional book industry. As I mentioned in my first paragraph, your view tends to be very much influenced by your own vested interests.

Where do I stand? Well, as an indie author you perhaps won’t be surprised that I am an Amazon supporter, but there is a caveat, and it’s a question of quality control. Although many self-published books are – as mentioned earlier – outstanding, there are also many which are marred by poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Books which pass through the traditional agent/publisher route are rigorously edited and copy edited to weed out these problems and the end product is generally largely free of such errors. Of course there is nothing to stop indie authors from having their work edited in this way, but it is very expensive, and for many independent authors, not viable. Personally I do always invest in manuscript assessment and copy editing before I publish. I may never sell enough books to recoup that investment but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that my books are of a certain standard. Not all indie authors can afford to take this approach.

So what’s the answer? Well, I believe that, on balance, Amazon has been a force for good in the book industry, lowering prices and increasing consumer choice, while providing a route for new authors to get their books in front of readers. I don’t have an answer for the quality control issue – perhaps it will sort itself out by natural selection, the cream rising to the top and selling well, while the poorer quality material withers and dies. Time will tell.

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