If Amazon Isn’t A Monster, Then Who Is The Publishing Baddie Under Our Beds?

Just to prove that I am an equal opportunities moaner, I am about to speak out in defence of Amazon.

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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.

If Amazon Isn't A Monster, Then Who Is The Publishing Baddie Under Our Beds?

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.

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More Tenuous Conclusions Alert

Overall what I’m drawing from the report is as follows:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  46 comments for “If Amazon Isn’t A Monster, Then Who Is The Publishing Baddie Under Our Beds?

  1. April 25, 2017 at 7:23 am

    I’ve never been able to understand this hatred people have for Amazon. It’s like the way liberals feel about Tories — if they examined what they’re thinking, they’d see it makes no sense — but they never do. Perhaps this will help.

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 25, 2017 at 9:47 am

      Agreed, John. Also, things change. Last year’s enemy may be next year’s friend. I know nobody wants to flip-flop, but looking about me, it seems it’s all the rage right now.


  2. April 25, 2017 at 9:40 am

    You read the research so I don’t have to 🙂 Did the research say anything about children’s fiction? My sense is that there’s little financial rewards in indie authors writing children’s fiction as it’s primarily bought by parents for children in shops or recommended by librarians or peers. Am I wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 25, 2017 at 9:50 am

      The children’s fiction graphs are there, Oran, you’ll have to hop over and have a look! I think the main issue in children’s fiction is distribution, not recommendation. E-books don’t suit a lot of parents, especially for junior books. They want to have printed copies, and it’s very difficult to get those into the hands of the wider market. Also, many children themselves prefer paper books. Things might change, but for now, the children’s e-book market has a long way to go.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. April 25, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    I will look at those charts. And after I don’t understand them, I will likely come back here and whine to you for insight. But I have one question before I even head over (by clicking once, that’s how impatient I am).

    Isn’t there still the big factor of “it’s right there on the shelf”, the distribution edge that the BIg 5 presumably have over the Zon (and us indies) in the actual-factual bookstore? That supposedly justifies the enormous cut they take, the myopic choices they make and paltry advances they give, and the propped-up e-book pricing they get away with to subsidize the whole mess. Is there still a big advantage in seeing that title on the end cap right as you walk in? Or does it matter that the display case needs to say “Bestsellers” at the top instead of “Our Favorites” or “Hey, How Good are These”? I have no idea what that sign says, honestly, I just start looking at the shiny covers for pictures of dragons, swords, scantily-clad females, you know, the healthy signs of a good book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 25, 2017 at 2:32 pm

      I think so, Will – the distribution power of any traditional publisher is still hugely influential. But when you break down revenues from a traditionally published book on a shelf, it actually makes all players look less nefarious than we would think when we’re coming from a starting point of authors earning less than 5% or 10% of the end retail price of the book THEY bloody wrote.

      Warning: I’m about to get boring here, but I come from a retail background, so it’s the price we pay.

      Bookshop retailers generally take 40% of the RRP or recommended retail price, which is the same sort of mark-up as there is on, for instance, vegetables in a small or mid-size grocery store. They need that 40% because they’re carrying huge amounts of stock which may never sell, and they need 40% of what does sell in order to cover massive overheads such as commercial rents and staff. Then the wholesaler/distributor will get around 15%, which isn’t that much considering they have to warehouse, promote AND transport heavy merchandise. All that’s left therefore, for the publisher-marketer, editor, cover designer and author, is 40-45%. Doesn’t seem like a lot now, right? Especially if you’re talking about a mid-list book which only sells 10,000 copies at, say, $8.99? (This would mean the publisher, editor, designer and author would be sharing around $36,000 between them.)

      Of course, all this still just points to the ridiculous price of traditionally published e-books. Yes, they may have a lot of propping up to do; but that’s another story.

      Liked by 3 people

      • April 25, 2017 at 3:06 pm

        Complete agreement, Ms. Sparling. Except I will aver that you and boring have never once met.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. April 25, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Gahhhh! Thanks for crunching the numbers, Tara! 😀 Off to squander my last 25 Amazon compensation cheques at the sweetie counter… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 25, 2017 at 2:34 pm

      Ooh, I hope there’s enough for a full bag, Jan!


      • April 25, 2017 at 4:37 pm

        So long as I don’t go mad with the truffles… 😦


  5. Elizabeth Drake
    April 25, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Fabulous post. Well-thought out and researched.

    I’ve often wondered the hatred for Amazon. They’e given a lot of authors a chance they might not otherwise have gotten, and they help keep back lists alive. Critical to the success of a mid-level author.

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 25, 2017 at 2:35 pm

      I couldn’t agree more, Elizabeth. They’re far too big to care about being a punching bag, but I suppose that’s what happens sometimes when you’re such a huge target.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. April 25, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this great post from Tara Sparling on the role of Amazon among publishers from her blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. April 25, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    Having done this for a little while and run along both sides of the tracks, none of this is particularly surprising, Tara. Thanks for tenuously confirming my view of the industry. “The indies are squishing the indies” is a clear problem, and you’ve aired the challenges with this before (trying to find book-heroin somewhere in the bottomless well of choices). As a fantasy writer, I’ll also confirm your finding that approaching the trad houses is unnecessary and a waste of profits unless you have an “in” with the big 5. Finally, yes, the key to being noticed as an indie is to write more books (quality books, of course). I heard once that 15 is the magic number. I don’t know if it is, but I do notice that more books offer more ways for readers to find us and more to read if they like what they find. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 25, 2017 at 4:58 pm

      Well, phew. I like to swagger about the place claiming I’m always right, Diana, but in reality, I know that I could be wrong – once or twice only, obviously – so it’s a relief when someone with actual experience such as yourself confirms my rightitude (I just made that up but I quite like it). Thank you also for the other useful insight!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. annerallen
    April 25, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Tara, your quote about Amazon Imprints is spot on. Amazon authors are the best paid in the business.

    The problem with Data Guy and the Author Earnings reports is that they include Amazon Imprints in the “indie” category. But they are a traditional publisher with big advances and big royalties (bigger than the Big 5) They also get the advantage of free Amazon advertising, plus also-boughts and other perks.

    So it isn’t quite Big 5 vs Indies as much as it’s Big 6 (including Amazon) vs. indies. In which case the indies are not doing so well.

    Although your breakdown of genres is spot on. Big 5 only want mysteries (non-cozy) thrillers, and suspense (and literary fiction) Plus bios and nonfic.

    Fantasy, Scifi, Romance and Cozy mysteries do much better as indies. (Mostly because most agents won’t touch them unless they’re YA.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 25, 2017 at 8:21 pm

      I wasn’t aware that Data Guy put Amazon into the indie category, Anne – surely that throws out every single result of their reports and makes all their graphs meaningless?! That’s shocking. Thank goodness ALLi did this study this way. I’ll be reading the Author Earnings reports very differently from now on.

      It’s a murky, cut-throat enough business without pitting the wrong people against each other. If I was a Big 5 publisher I would have a serious problem with Amazon, because their distribution model cuts out half the costs and makes them impossible to compete against. And yet for some reason they seem to blame indie publishing for most woes.

      Liked by 1 person

    • April 26, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      I was under the impression that Author Earnings place Amazon imprints into their own, distinct category. For example, in the February 2017 reports, they break out A-pub titles into green bands separate from Big 5, indie, and multi-author categories.

      It’s only the Amazon-exclusive titles in Kindle Unlimited that get placed in the indie bucket, which makes perfect sense to me.


      Liked by 2 people

  9. April 25, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    It looks like a case of lies, damned lies etc….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ali Isaac
    April 25, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    I think Amazon just go with who can make them the most profit, regardless. I love Amazon for giving me the chance to publish, but they do not treat Indie authors well. ‘Pay per page read’ winds me up… whatever happened to good old common sense buy a whole book and read it or not at your own peril? Or is this something which is going to feed down to the high street book stores too… its downright insulting! Also, its creepily like Big Brother is watching what you read… shudder. Plus I refuse to go exclusive so I miss out on being able to run promo offers etc. But I guess that’s my choice. I want to reach my readers wherever they choose to buy their books., Regarding book stores, dont forget the majority of their stock is bought on sale or return, so they don’t actually take quite so much of a risk as they’d like us to think. Very entertaining and informative post. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 25, 2017 at 10:16 pm

      To be fair, though, Ali, this report is only talking about Amazon as a traditional publisher through their imprints such as Montlake etc, not as the distribution vehicle for indie authors. I know ‘pay per page’ isn’t working out for a lot of indie authors, but it was put in place to respond to people who were gaming the system in the first place (e.g. through 5-page fake books) – and then what happened? The same people put new scams in place to subvert that (by stuffing books with nonsense content and putting links in at the beginning to pull unsuspecting readers to the end without even reading the pages in between). Amazon are far from perfect, but it’s not their fault either that publishing is full of con artists – on both sides of the indie divide, and they do at least try to respond to it.

      On the book shop stock issue, I know books are bought on sale or return, but I was thinking of the so-called ‘carry cost’ of unsold stock. The risk in the business model is that expensive shelf space is taken up by books which don’t sell, in a market where book sales are falling in any case, which in turn of course means lower revenues overall.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. April 25, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Name any successful company and there will be people lining up to say how disgraceful/manipulative/over-powerful etc they are. They are probably the same people who will deny the research you’ve highlighted because it doesnt accord with their views.

    And with that I shall step down from my soap box

    Liked by 3 people

    • April 25, 2017 at 10:19 pm

      I do think that’s true. Nice soap box, by the way. Very fetching 😉


  12. April 26, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Great post, Tara. Thanks for the number-crunching. Don’t be surprised if I refer to it on my own blog in a few days 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 26, 2017 at 11:53 am

      It’s great data, Nick, and I didn’t do anything – all credit and reference to John Doppler and ALLi.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. April 26, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    I had a lovely browse of the graphs, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. April 26, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    I love Amazon because doesn’t give a damn who you know, where you went to college and with which group of friends/hacks, and whether or not you inadvertently strayed on to one of those people’s intended literary turf and got frozen out as a result. All Amazon cares about is $$$. God bless it. They did a week long Mother’s Day promotion of my book last year and the sales went way up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 26, 2017 at 6:56 pm

      There’s a lot to be said for the honesty of a corporation who quite clearly just want profit, Susan. False ethics exhaust me. I’m glad you got a promotion – that’s a real godsend.


  15. April 26, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks for your insights on this, Tara!

    For the record, I’m not prepared to say conclusively that Amazon isn’t pulling strings somewhere in order to favor their authors. The explosive growth of A-pub titles is suspicious, and Amazon certainly has the means, motive, and opportunity to accelerate that at the expense of indies.

    Ultimately, though, I think we’re looking at Amazon’s home court advantage at work. Amazon excels at putting the right products in front of the right consumers. They understand their own system better than anyone else. They know precisely what keywords customers are searching for, and how to leverage their A9 algortihm to maximum effect.

    That gives them an immense advantage without any manipulation or trickery.

    I’ll be repeating and expanding this experiment in the coming months to identify trends and patterns. I’m also looking forward to Author Earnings’ more comprehensive analyses, which hopefully will shed some light on Amazon’s success (and whose lunch they’re eating).

    Also, Jane Steen has a great follow-up to my post on ALLi in which she examines her own books through the lens of Amazon’s best sellers. It’s a fantastic way to learn more about the waters we swim in, and every indie author should be doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 26, 2017 at 6:43 pm

      John, thanks so much for the visit – I loved your report and although I’m similarly hesitant to make pronouncements, and label even the cheeky conclusions here as tenuous, my gut was reading quite a lot more from your report. My same gut also tells me that Amazon aren’t being naughty, because they just don’t need to. They’re too big, too well-informed, and too smart. I imagine their browsing data make the other Biggies cry. What especially struck me from your data, however, was how badly the big traditional presses are doing in terms of picking bestsellers. From what I see from all the marketing noise, they seem to have bet the lot on Mystery, Thriller and Suspense, and thrown in the towel on other genres, which still sell by the bucketload. It makes no sense to me and indeed forms the basis for over 57.6% of the moaning I do on this blog.

      Thanks again for such a fantastic post and evocative ideas. I’m looking forward to anything you have in the future.


  16. April 27, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts. I still have the one, main problem with Amazon: as they slowly achieve a monopoly position in publishing AND distribution, who is going to see your book? There are no E-bookstores to showcase your book among zillions of published ones that sell 100 copies (family and friends).
    That is the problem I have found no solution to.
    Any thoughts?
    Take care

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 28, 2017 at 12:03 am

      I suppose it’s a both a new and an old problem, when you think about it, Brian, and one which both savvy and fraudulent book marketing services are making a killing from.

      Before e-books, an author had to either get a traditional publishing deal, or go around selling them from their car like John Grisham. Now it’s easier to get your book out there, but it takes skill, luck, tricks and wiles to get it into the hands of readers. There is more market noise, yes, but also more opportunity than ever before. I suppose I’d rather the opportunity than a ton of rejection letters, and a book in a drawer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 28, 2017 at 11:38 pm

        You make a very good point, Tara. (I have a drawer full of rejection letters). That might just make me take the jump. And then figure out how to distribute the book(s) Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. May 5, 2017 at 12:02 am

    Hi Tara, your post reminds me to be proud of being an Indie and that we actually are doing quite well when we stop comparing our books to the those releases from the Top 5. Apples and oranges..

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 5, 2017 at 9:09 am

      Exactly Christy… I was surprised by how many indies were in the top 100s. The prevailing commentary would appear to be groundlessly negative.


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