People think if a book is at Amazon it is somehow more “legitimate”

Posted by @ 1:33 pm on February 18th, 2010

Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about some of the business aspects of publishing. Let me know if you have any questions.

As the buzz on Light Boxes picked up last spring, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with fulfillment. Even Amazon, who had previously been sending Purchase Orders for 2-3 books at a time, started to send orders in the dozens every week, and for shipment to multiple distribution centers. This policy of theirs is extremely frustrating, because for one thing, they don’t pay for shipping even while they demand a 55% discount. For a publisher participating in their “Advantage” program, this structure is backbreaking. Having to mail books to four places, in special packaging (since they’ll destroy any book they deem unsellable), eliminates the already-tiny margin and drives up the cost to the user. For instance, a paperback book like Light Boxes, at 167 pages, stretches product value with a $14.95 price tag. At that amount, though, PG is paid $6.73 per copy. Okay, that isn’t too bad. Subtract from that the cost of production (including printing, design, art rights, cataloging numbers, promotional items and copies and so on), the amount PG earns is closer to $2.25. Now consider Amazon’s tendency to order books to four different locations, which means that shipping has to be paid four times, and the result is that it actually costs about $.30 to sell a book with them. Separately, Amazon charges the customer (or enduser) $3.99 for shipping, which means that the cheapest Light Boxes will sell for through them is $18.94. Having paid this kind of money can cause readers to have certain expectations, and I am always afraid that the shortness of the book will disappoint them.

The fact of the matter is, though, that authors want to see their book listed on Amazon’s site. Even the writers in PG’s catalog, who are generally savvy enough to understand the problems with the system, find it important. I don’t blame them, of course, because it does seem to be legitimating to be cataloged in the world’s biggest store. Also, when your uncle or neighbor asks where they can get your book, it is a great place to name. Similarly, when someone who is not affiliated with the author, press, or independent publishing in general catches wind of a book, it is unlikely that they’ll think to shop at the publisher’s website, or even a retailer with policies that are more fair, like Powell’s or Small Press Distribution (both of whom PG works with). The “average” reader will look for a book at Amazon first, so it has to be there. It is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

What I find most irksome is that people consider a book somehow illegitimate if it isn’t for sale through Amazon. The fact is that there are no requirements; anyone can join their Advantage program and sell books through them. It is actually de-legitimizing to implement a bad business practice, but this is certainly not an argument to put before a prospective readership.

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