14715488979_7947ae1437_zMany years ago, I was part of a science fiction club cum writing circle. Everyone was young, barely out of adolescence, and with the cockiness typical of the age, we all dreamed of one day being successful writers, despite the fact that none of us had more than a few brief years of practice at the time. Indeed, we were still learning the basics of the craft, with results ranging from the pathetic to the potentially promising… for the distant future. Most interesting was the contrast between the goal of most members, which was to become professional authors one day, and the attitude they had towards any writing that was remotely salable—a dismissive term condescendingly used to mean, “sure, this stuff is actually readable for a change, but it’s not real literature, you know”. But the biggest disagreement I had was with those who thought an author’s most important skill was to get accepted by publishers—in other words, to sell their own work, regardless of quality or content. That baffled me. How does one expect to become a writer and not have a deep love for the art and craft of the written word first?

I still don’t know. It took me another ten years of practice from that point on before I could write well, a process made harder by switching to English halfway through — my third language. Five more years after that, and I still can’t seem to sell more than the occasional copy. And you know what? Living my childhood dream is totally worth it anyway. Most of the former club members I never heard from again. A few found a measure of success as translators or journalists. None ever became known for their fiction, sci-fi or otherwise, outside of a tiny circle. While the readership for some of my stories dwarfs a typical print run in 2016 Romania. So forgive me if I scoff when a white-haired editor tells me I’m not a real writer because I didn’t go through a traditional publisher.

What does all that have to do with Amazon? Well, for all they claim to be strictly a retailer, they act like a publisher in many ways:

  • they demand exclusivity in exchange for a better deal;
  • they tell you for how much to sell your books;
  • they try to control the conversation around your books.

Worse, Amazon is frickin’ huge. And that’s bad for you. Why? Look at it this way: I struggle to get noticed on itch.io, a platform with like 30K titles as of this writing (March 2016). Despite my advertising efforts, I’m completely invisible on Smashwords, a distributor with less than half a million titles. And you think readers will somehow find you on Amazon? Good luck with that! I prefer to retain my independence, market each of my books in multiple venues, and use generous freebies to drum up interest. I never signed an exclusive deal even in my days as an IT columnist (a very short-lived career), choosing to not get paid rather than lose control over my own work. And you know what? I always got paid. You see, smart publishers know that loyalty is stronger than chains…

This is what Cory Doctorow calls “the dandelion strategy”: since it’s so easy to make lots and lots of seeds (read: digital copies), why not let them fly with the wind wherever they may. Some of them are bound to find cracks in the asphalt and grow into a new plant, each thriving on its own little patch of dirt. Not all of them will. So what? You can always make more attempts, at negligible cost. After all, the only way to lose a sale is to not have your product available where the buyers are. And guess what, I don’t have an Amazon account. (Don’t ask why. It doesn’t matter. Personal reasons.) So if you took the bait and went exclusive, I can’t buy your book. You’re gonna say I’m just one buyer. But… What if I’m not the only one? Are you so sure Amazon alone can bring more wallets to your stuff than all the rest of the Internet put together?

Besides, there’s always the satisfaction of making not just my own e-books and covers—17 years of digital art on the side are paying off big time these days—but also stranger things like turning my flash fiction into typographical posters, that canned solutions can’t possibly account for. Who knows what will work. And if I didn’t like to do it myself, why would I, you know, self-publish? This is the punk ethos: do it yourself, pour your soul into it and embrace the little faults because they’re what makes art genuine.

Your own answers are likely to be different. But please, think about it. At least now you have the choice, unlike 15 years ago, and that’s precious.

(Photo credit: mebrett on Flickr)


  1. I’m not sure of the point here. Amazon KDP doesn’t require exclusivity to sell on that platform. It only requires exclusivity for special privileges like making the book free or getting paid when Kindle Unlimited users borrow your book. You can still sell the book yourself. And as for control, unless your work is out and out porn, they’re not going to care what you do. They do structure royalty payment to encourage charging between $2.99 and $9.99, but so what? You can charge more or less, and even if your royalty goes down, it will still be more than you would make without being on Amazon at all.

    • And I said quite clearly, “they demand exclusivity in exchange for a better deal“. That’s the point. They also dictate who can and can’t review your books, at the very least. I don’t care about their stated reasons, that’s control. “Encouraging prices between X and Y” (very strongly, I imagine) counts as telling you how to run your business. Perhaps you have different definitions for all these terms.

      Despite all that, I never said you shouldn’t also be on Amazon if you’re OK with it. I just pointed out why you should never fall into the trap of only being on Amazon, as too many authors seem to be nowadays — authors whose books I want to read and can’t, and who are losing sales because of that. Is it really so outrageous to say, don’t put all your eggs in a single basket? That I have other, personal reasons to not sell on Amazon at all, is another story — the other, bigger point of my article, which you haven’t addressed.

      • I don’t think that comes across at all. It sounds very much like you’re telling people that putting their book on Amazon means they will lose control of their work. Even in your reply, the anti-Amazon sentiment comes across: “I never said you shouldn’t also be on Amazon if you’re OK with it.” The addition of “if you’re OK with it” suggests that there are strong reasons not to be OK with it.

        If your argument is solely not to go exclusive, to be on as many platforms as possible, I would think you would mention that sales on Amazon are, for most US writers, the largest source of income. But you don’t; you don’t say anything positive about Amazon at all.

        You state, correctly, “After all, the only way to lose a sale is to not have your product available where the buyers are.” And then you use that statement to point out that because YOU don’t have an Amazon account, no one with a Kindle exclusive will ever sell you a book. How about the corollary, that you should never ignore such a huge platform? If you want to argue for the punk, DIY ethic, fine, but that ethic means that sales matter less that the experience of doing it. For many of us, that’s just not true.

        By the way, the exclusivity if for 90 day periods. I have used that arrangement when launching books, but I never leave them exclusive forever. I have my books on Kindle, Nook, Google, and everywhere Smashwords can get them, including iBooks. I even found a way (as many writers have) to use Amazon’s rules to my benefit. Because Smashwords lets me make a book free, and Amazon price matches, I have been able to make the first of a 2-book series free for years; this has made book 2 of the series my best seller, on Kindle and all other platforms.

        If you like the way you’re selling, that’s great. It would never work for me. Amazon pretty regularly equals all my other sales combined.

        • “The addition of “if you’re OK with it” suggests that there are strong reasons not to be OK with it.”

          Yes, and I stated several such reasons. I also mentioned having my own, personal reasons I’d rather not disclose or discuss.

          “I would think you would mention that sales on Amazon are, for most US writers, the largest source of income. But you don’t; you don’t say anything positive about Amazon at all.”

          Could you please link to relatively unbiased stats able to support your claim? And you’re right, I don’t say anything positive about Amazon. That’s pretty much the whole damned point. No offense, but I don’t live in the land of, “he said / she said”. I’m taking one side in this matter, not both. Feel free to bring arguments to the contrary if you disagree with me.

          “By the way, the exclusivity if for 90 day periods.”

          I didn’t know that. Several of my friends made their books Amazon-exclusive and left them that way. And I’ve seen other indie authors doing the same. I honestly thought they all had to in order to keep getting a good deal. Couldn’t imagine why else they would give up a large proportion of their sales — fully half, if your experience is typical — for good.

          “If you like the way you’re selling, that’s great. It would never work for me.”

          And that’s accounted for. My article presents a personal perspective and approach. That your own experiences are different is no surprise. I don’t claim nor try to be objective — certainly not in an opinion piece! So, thanks for commenting. Multiple viewpoints are always welcome.

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