I could fill a blog post a day on how Amazon is changing the face of publishing – the repercussions of its actions are monumental and wide-reaching. Takethe seemingly simple decision by Amazon to supply copies of out-of-print books itself using its print-on-demand service. Then, theoretically, when the publisher’s print run is all sold out, Amazon fills the gap with print-on-demand before the publisher reprints. Or the publisher could just not bother to do a further print run.
At first glance, this may seem pretty sensible. The reader is best served by always being able to buy a title. And the reader purchasing means money for Amazon, money for the publisher and money for the author. But dig a little deeper, and you see that Amazon’s rumoured new term could in fact be highly detrimental to the publisher.
First, consider Amazon’s gain. As pointed out in The Author, the quarterly publication for The Society of Authors in the UK: ‘Amazon can simply sell copies without itself incurring any commercial risk.’ Amazon profits rise.
Then, consider the publisher’s loss. The Author writes, ‘this could be disastrous for publishers’. Clearly, if Amazon is putting an author’s book out as print-on-demand, the publisher has stopped doing a large part of the job that makes its existence worthwhile. More authors may decide to cut out the middleman entirely and self-publish, thereby keeping a bigger cut of the profits.
And Amazon has already driven down publishers’ profit margins. The former chief executive of Atlantic Books told the Sunday Times that Amazon is ‘driving publishers to the wall’. ‘Amazon’s insistence on taking up to half of publishers’ profits [is] changing the industry beyond recognition,’ he said. His verdict: ‘Amazon is actively pursuing the destruction of some of their suppliers.’ The result: publisher profits fall.
And what of the author, at the bottom of the chain? First of all, there is an issue with consent. An author signs a detailed contract with a publisher, giving the publisher the right to print the content. That contract doesn’t extend to Amazon then taking the content and printing it. Then there is the question of rights. With this system in place, a publisher could print a few thousand copies of a book and then just let it run and run as a print-on-demand title. That means the publisher keeps hold of the rights to the book for a long time. Not ideal for the author.
The sword is double-edged – more books available to readers more quickly, but a risk to business models and to bottom lines. And this is just one of many, many issues cropping up over Amazon terms – the ongoing Hachette–Amazon battle is a focal point in all publishing circles. There’s a sense that many old-school authors and publishers would like Amazon to just disappear into the ether. But that would mean disregarding all the good the company does. Perhaps Book Prize winner Ian McEwan has the right approach: he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today show that he had tried to swear off Amazon, but ‘the trouble is it is like some delicious drug – you can’t really resist it’. His suggestion: ‘I would just like there to be three or four Amazons.’ But who will be brave enough to go up against the mighty Amazon? Time will tell.