Just to prove that I am an equal opportunities moaner, I am about to speak out in defence of Amazon.
NOOOO! COME BACK! I’ll try to make it entertaining, I swear!
I know that I had a right dig at them last week, for the ridiculous genre pigeon-holing and shoe-horning which appears to be having a very detrimental effect on the entire book market right now, but a most interesting report emerged this month on the site for ALLi, the Alliance Of Independent Authors in the UK & Ireland.
You know I love graphs and visualisations. But it’s rare that a report will come out which is so beautifully informative*, that it causes my pupils to dilate and I start panting. Any further physical symptoms I will leave to your imagination before this post gets X-rated, but my Blog, what a gorgeous array of data. And what brain-bending conclusions can be drawn from it.
Broadly, the author of the report, John Doppler, set out to investigate claims that Amazon was gaming the system in order to give titles published by their own in-house imprints a leg-up in the bestseller lists, stemming from the fact that in the latter half of 2016, indie authors were reporting sharp falls in their Amazon sales.
John examined Amazon’s top 100 Paid sellers in all the major categories – such as Literature/General(ish) Fiction, Non-Fiction and Children’s Fiction, along with various popular sub-genres such as Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, Mystery, Thriller & Suspense. He then grouped publishers accordingly, ranging from single-author indie publishers, right up to Amazon and the Big 5, to see what proportion of the Top 100 spots each held.
And with the aid of some goose-pimplingly beautiful and deceptively simple visualisations, he concluded that the claims have little basis. Go and have a look for yourself: the report is brief, clear, well presented, and well worth it (as opposed to the Author Earnings reports which, although certainly useful and full of pretty data, can even make ME tired – it’s like someone yelling numbers at you and forcing you at gunpoint to come up with only 1 conclusion). I haven’t included his graphs here because it wouldn’t be fair to: they’re not mine, a lot of work went into them, and their official home is only a click away.
Although he is at pains to point out that this is only a snapshot of data at one point in time, and Amazon’s bestseller lists are notoriously volatile, there is no indication in any of the Top 100 lists that Amazon has any real advantage over anyone. If they were applying pressure or swaying the lists in their favour in some way, you would think that this would be evident in at least some of these lists. That is the major takeaway from his report, but some of the other data was also very useful to anyone trying to sell a book either independently, or to a traditional publisher right now.
You Want A Tenuous Conclusion? I’m Your Woman
First of all, indies are extremely well-represented in most categories aside from Non-Fiction, Biography, and Literary Fiction. This is lovely, but goes against the grain, which is the prevailing feeling that indie authors are squished by giants, when in actual fact, they are more likely to be getting squished by each other.
This is especially true of indie authors far, far away from the Top 100 lists. Can a single author-publisher with fewer than, say, 3 titles, compete against the algorithm-tastic Amazon? Of course they can’t. But they can’t compete with a Big 5 Publisher or specialist presses either. It’s not about competing, in those instances. It’s about finding your market, making small inroads and growing over time. Not going up against behemoths and trying to knock them over.
More Tenuous Conclusions Alert
Overall what I’m drawing from the report is as follows:
- If you’re writing Fantasy or Romance, submitting to traditional publishers would appear to be an uphill struggle, and possibly pointless right now. Among other things, you have the best chance in these genres of making it on your own, and the competition appears to be turning Big 5 publishers away from anyone not already famous.
- Indies are not making any significant headway in Non-Fiction, Literary Fiction, and Biography. They’re the only categories where indies are generally doing worse than everyone else.
- Unless Amazon are skewing the numbers directly against Big 5 Publishers, it looks from the graphs that the Big 5 may actually be kind of crap at picking bestsellers.
- Mystery, Thriller and Suspense is the only category where traditional publishers are truly dominant. I wonder what this could possibly have to do – if anything – with the fact that they only appear to be looking for novels in that genre right now?
I’ll leave you with a piece of advice I heard recently from a hybrid mid-list author who, having been traditionally published for years, has since moved into publishing both new and old titles independently:
“Get an agent, and get them to get you a deal with one of the Amazon imprints. It’s the only deal these days which is actually making any financial sense for authors. Say what you like about Amazon, but they pay their authors more than anyone else.”
This makes sense to me. Because Amazon is both publisher and distributor, instead of giving away 55-60% of a final book price to wholesalers and retailers, they can afford to give a bigger chunk to their authors, and indeed, appear to be doing so. Yes, they are big. Yes, they are powerful. But if you can’t beat ’em, eh?
* NECESSARILY TEDIOUS DISCLAIMER: Some have pointed out that when the number of books which Amazon publishes is taken as a proportion of the total e-book universe, Amazon have a far greater representation in the Top 100 than would be expected for the number of books they actually have out there. But my problem with that argument is that Amazon’s imprints are a relatively new enterprise, and we have no idea how many of the (apparently) 5.1 million e-books were published 3 years ago, or 5, or 7, or are new digital editions of very old or stale titles. There is also the enormous problem of equating traditional output with the growing number of indie titles every year from single-title or inexperienced or even unedited author-publishers who also have no idea how to market a book. So I’ll just leave that there.