The Other Side of the Story

December 27th, 2006 · 17 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

In response to our recent rant about an author who decided that the best way to help independent bookstores was to pull his book from Amazon, we received several interesting comments — and one fascinating comment (not a bad return on investment). In this case, the author noted that the costs of doing business with Amazon were not necessarily worth the benefits.

Our commenter, Janet Szabo, who writes about knitting (it’s like the gods are telling us to finish the !@#$ project we started last fall), and she did the math, realizing that selling through Amazon resulted in lower profit numbers for her. For a self-published author not moving large numbers of product, it’s a logical assumption. But what caught our beady little eye was something she said:

It’s amusing, though, that people think that if it isn’t available through Amazon, it must not be available at all. I run an e-mail list for knitters interested in the topic I write about. A new member joined last week and posted that she looked for my book on Amazon and they said it wasn’t available, and did anyone know where she could get a copy? I responded that if she just Googled “Janet Szabo,” my website, and the websites of several hundred stores that carry my book, came up.

Szabo has chosen to sell directly through her website instead of Amazon. She reaches readers through a mailing list (because, well, mailing lists are, like, really important) and word-of-mouth. She earns more per book, but as she herself acknowledges, there are readers out there who don’t necessarily do the math the same way she does. While we understand the desire to make lots of money, we also believe one has to face certain facts: consumers do not always behave in logical ways.

The author who sells directly through his or her website or other venues, eschewing Amazon for whatever reason they wish, is necessarily engaged in audience-limiting behavior. Szabo’s comments indicate that her readers, while very much interested in her product, also weighed other options, such as free shipping into their decisions. Do not underestimate the power of free shipping. It drives consumers to do insane things like, oh, purchase extra books to make the dollar threshold for said free shipping (it is one of those life conundrums that people will spend more money in order to get something free). Consumer convenience is another factor — the more places someone has to look for a product, the more likely they are to give up and go home (home, in this case, being a relative concept).

Then there are those who don’t realize that options exist. They believe that whatever retail outlet they choose is the only retail outlet available to them. It’s the creatures of habit thing that plagues our species, you know.

Each author needs to do the math and decide if the cost of doing business with Amazon is worth the risk. But don’t only do the dollars and cents. Factor in the human cost — you, too, are a consumer, dear author. How do you behave when it comes to buying your heart’s desire?

File Under: Back To Basics

17 responses so far ↓

  • SusanGable // Dec 27, 2006 at 11:03 am

    I must confess — I use Amazon. As a book buyer, I like Amazon. A LOT. How fabulous is it — I order the book, it shows up at my door. In two days. I get a lot of my research books that way, and will confess to buying a lot of my novels that way. If it’s something I ‘m pretty sure I want (in other words, if it’s not something I stumble across while browsing at a bookstore- and I do still spend plenty of time browsing at my local bookstores. I’m an addict.) I’ll order from Amazon.

    Do I hate their used book button, right there, diverting new book sales before the book is even on the shelf? Yes, I hate it. (shrug) Do I think it’s hurting authors? Heck, yes.

    But do they have the market cornered on internet book sales? Yes, I think they do. I think they’ve got it wrapped up. Like I said, as a book buyer, I have to confess, I love Amazon. (In the interest of full discolsure, I’ve also bought DVD’s from Amazon. And coloring books. And maybe other stuff, but it’s sort of a blur now. G.)

    If there’s a book I want, and none of my local stores have it, forcing me to order it anyway, why not just order it from Amazon? They’ve generally got it in stock, and it shows up at my house in 2 days, and I don’t even have to leave my computer. (Well, I have to walk down to the front door when the UPS driver delivers it. Still, it’s dang simple. )

    Amazon offers some excellent prices, too. As a buyer, you gotta love that. I do.

    The author who wants to squeeze a few more cents per sale by not selling through Amazon is being penny wise and pound foolish, IMHO, easily illustrated by the fact that several people have tried to find the book at Amazon first, to no avail.

    As an author, I want my books for sale EVERYWHERE I possibly can. I’m sort of commercial that way. Make it as easy as possible for my book to get into the hands of a reader.

  • Jan Whitaker // Dec 27, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    I know I don’t make much off of the Amazon sales of my books but I regard it as essential to have them available there. People will take it as an indicator of how “real” the books are. And they can go directly from a book cover on my website to a retailing situation, which they could not do otherwise. I can’t count on my local bookstore stocking my books, sad to say (and this is in the town where I live — how about the rest of the country?) And then there are all the online retailers which publicize my books online and link to Amazon. I too dislike the used books being so prominent on the Amazon site and worry a bit that the “search inside” function reveals too much (I liked the early version better where only a few pages could be seen). On the other hand, the reader reviews, wish lists, tags, discussions — all these are positive advances which take book retailing a step ahead.

  • Janet Szabo // Dec 28, 2006 at 5:51 am

    Susan, I wish it were a matter of “a few more cents per sale.” It’s more like a “few more dollars.” If I sell a book through my website, I make about $18 gross profit per book. If I sell a book through Amazon, I make–after factoring in the 55% discount off retail plus the cost of shipping the book to them–about $3.00 gross profit per book. I have no problem with people buying from Amazon, except that the free shipping would drive them to Amazon instead of to my website.

    As an author, I want to make a living from my work. I’m sort of commercial that way.

  • Janet Szabo // Dec 28, 2006 at 7:40 am

    Ktwice, you asked the question, “Factor in the human cost — you, too, are a consumer, dear author. How do you behave when it comes to buying your heart’s desire?” You are right, I am a consumer and I do buy books at Amazon. But I use Google far more often to search for something I want, which is why I was so surprised at the reader who thought that if the book was not available at Amazon, it wasn’t available at all. I do base my selling strategy on my personal buying habits, and they don’t include the assumption that Amazon has everything I want/need.

    I also base my selling strategy on years of familiarity with the knitting marketplace and the consumers who also subscribe to the quarterly newsletter I publish. There was a time when I did NOT sell my books through my website–generating many e-mails from people who wanted to buy them directly from me instead of through some other outlet. Knitters, on the whole, are a generous lot, and most of the authors of those e-mails said they wanted me to have the profit instead of the middle man. Many of them also pointed out that it was silly not to sell my book through my website, because they wanted one-stop shopping. They came to the website to purchase subscriptions to my newsletter and back issues of the newsletter, so why not also purchase the books while they were there? Indeed, people who come to the website to purchase the Aran book often subscribe to my newsletter and purchase back issues at the same time, things they would not do if they bought the book through Amazon.

    You also said, “The author who sells directly through his or her website or other venues, eschewing Amazon for whatever reason they wish, is necessarily engaged in audience-limiting behavior. ”

    That may indeed be true. However, the book I chose not to sell through Amazon is most definitely a niche product. It’s a book for advanced knitters. I will not sell tens of thousands of copies of that book, because there just aren’t tens of thousands of knitters interested in the topic. It’s a limited audience to begin with, so I don’t think that not selling the book through Amazon is limiting the audience much more than it already is. I might be losing the occasional casual knitting consumer who shops only at Amazon, but I’d much rather lose $3.00 in profit from that person than thousands of dollars in profit because 500 people bought it from Amazon instead of from me.

    And as I pointed out above, rather than LIMITING audience behavior by selling through my website and not Amazon, I am ENCOURAGING audience behavior, because they buy additional products while they are on my website.

    As I said in my intial comment, I simply want to provide another perspective. You and others may not agree with my decision, but I am doing what I feel makes the most sense for my business, and so far it seems to be working well. I have another book scheduled for release in late spring of 2007.

    Thank you very much for the opportunity to have this discussion. Yours is one of the blogs on my morning reading list.

  • SusanGable // Dec 28, 2006 at 7:56 am

    Janet, what about customers who go to Amazon, and search for a book on knitting? Let’s just say that they don’t know about your specific book on knitting, but they want a book on knitting. So, they go to Amazon and do a search. Your book doesn’t show up, so they can’t buy it. They don’t even know it exists, so they can’t even consider Googling you. They buy some other knitting book. You’re out all profits and the name-building opportunity.

    As for people thinking the book isn’t available if they can’t find it Amazon, I can understand that sort of thinking. After all, Amazon lists (so it appears) everything under the sun, everything in print. They list numerous self-published and vanity published books. The idea that if Amazon doesn’t have it, forget it, makes some sense to me.

    You have to do what you think makes sense for your own work. Best of luck with the new book!

  • Janet Szabo // Dec 28, 2006 at 8:22 am

    Susan, when someone searches Amazon for a knitting book, a page DOES come up with a picture of the cover of my book, as well as my name and the publication information and some nice reviews. I did sell my book for about a month through Amazon so that information is available for people to Google my name and find the book.

    Yes, I am also now beginning to understand this “Amazon mentality.” I guess I am just not that concerned about knitters finding me and my work–I am well-known nationally as a knitting instructor, I am enmeshed in the knitting network that exists on the Internet, and I barely have enough time to fill the orders that come in through my website. Were I an unknown quantity or someone trying to build a career, I probably WOULD look at Amazon as a good outlet for getting my name out there. But because I am established, I am more concerned about maximizing my profits so I can afford to produce more books.

    If there is one thing that reading this blog has taught me, it is that the current marketplace is extremely fluid and one has to stay on top of things. I expect the next book to appeal to a much wider audience, so I may rethink my decision not to sell through Amazon.

  • SusanGable // Dec 28, 2006 at 11:19 am

    Oh! Well, hey, that’s cool that it does show up. That helps.

    And yes, having a “platform” from which to sell your books, sure helps a LOT. That’s a strong advantage to have.

    Extremely fluid? Yep. In fact, I think that’s an understatement. Like BookSquare is always asserting, I think the industry is poised on some really big changes. Now if we just knew exactly what those changes would look like… BS, where’s your crystal ball?

  • Janet Szabo // Dec 28, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    Something did occur to me this morning as I was thinking about this discussion, so I went to Amazon’s website and did a little bit of research. Rather than sell through them as a publisher, I am investigating selling through them as a Pro Merchant. It looks as though by doing so, my items are listed in Amazon but customers purchase from my website and I ship out the books. I’m waiting to get more information from them; specifically, what kind of cut they take for allowing me to list my items through them.

    If nothing else, this discussion stimulated some “thinking outside the box” and I certainly appreciate that!

  • Janet Szabo // Dec 28, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    Update: I am now selling my books (both of them) through Amazon, but as a supplier rather than a publisher. Selling in their Marketplace allows me to list the book, receive orders, and fill them. Amazon takes a reasonable but not exhorbitant cut of the profit. I make less money selling this way than directly from my website, but more money that I do selling as a publisher and allowing Amazon to handle all the fulfillment. So it looks like a win-win for everybody–those “Amazon-only” buyers can find and order my books and I make a decent profit. Hooray.

    I’ll stop commenting now. :-)

  • ktwice // Dec 28, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    The comments have been great — it’s like you all are doing my work for me. Hmm, I like that.

    I’m glad to see that you found a solution that works, Janet. One thing I was going to mention about seven comments back is that the husband, who bought me the greatest knitting bag ever (apparently, my former solution…aka sheer disaster…was driving him crazy) and a cool book of patterns for Christmas, wouldn’t have the savvy to look anywhere but Amazon. He tried hanging out at a few knitting blogs, but, you know, they’re not geared toward the person who is just looking for something cool and fun as a gift.

    SG, crystal ball is in the shop — it needs serious polishing. In the meantime, I’m going to focus all my love and attention on the Top Secret Project. Part one is done, now for the wrapping!

  • SusanGable // Dec 29, 2006 at 7:31 am

    Top Secret Project! Wooohooo! LOL. Sounds exciting — never mind the wrapping, get the UNwrapping!

    Janet, way cool that you found a way to harness Amazon’s power to work in a better way for you. That’s the way to do it!

  • Rosina Lippi // Dec 30, 2006 at 11:03 am

    I have to jump in here with an observation.

    This is certainly an interesting discussion, but it’s moot for most authors. My publisher makes decisions about how to get the books out there, and their attitude seems to be, the more coverage, the better. Which makes sense to me. Amazon, B&N, front table displays, anything that puts the book in the public eye.

    My contract (and it’s not unusual) also makes it clear that I earn the same amount on every sale, a percentage of the suggested retail, no matter who sells it and at what discount. Further: I am not allowed to resell books myself. I do know of one author who buys tons of his/her books at the author discount and then sells them to the public at full retail through the web, but I’m pretty sure that his/her publisher would be very, very unhappy if they knew about that.

    I am in a position where I don’t have to worry about the details of publishing, marketing or sales — but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry. It’s just the nature of the beast.

  • Janet Szabo // Dec 30, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    I don’t know about other areas, but knitting seems to be one where self-publishing is actually quite common. Most of us started out publishing our own individual knitting pattern lines, and a few of us went on to self-publish newsletters, small magazines, and books. Most of us sell from our own websites.

    Even though–as you point out, Rosina–it means worrying about details that authors who sign with publishing houses don’t have to worry about, I like the control I have over my work. And I’ve found that I really enjoy book layout and design.

    I belong to an e-mail group of self-publishing knitting designers and I shared this discussion with them. It has set off some brainstorming about how we can get our products into the marketplace through Amazon in addition to the usual distribution channels we’re already using.

  • Lisa Logan // Dec 31, 2006 at 1:58 am

    Rosina,

    You raise an interesting point that I wanted to comment on. My understanding of author discounts is quite different than the way you’ve posed it here. I’m wondering about my logic.

    My understanding is that authors are welcome to sell books purchased with an author discount. For one thing, booksellers get a discount, too–possibly more than the author (depending on the contract). For another, author-purchased books aren’t eligible for royalty payments, so either way the publisher isn’t losing out. They are still gaining a sale, perhaps even at a higher profit. Plus, this motives the author to help push sales, increasing profits for everyone. Finally, it boosts overall sales numbers. Why would any of that upset the publisher?

    If I’m way off base here, someone feel free to correct me.

  • Joe Reasbeck // May 23, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    I’m a new author. I do have a small publisher and he’s telling me that the discount off the retail cover price required by Amazon is 40%, but as I read your discussion, I thought someone said that Amazon require 55% off the cover price. So which is right? or are they both right? I’m trying to figure this out because I have other bricks and motar type stores that want the book but I’m trying to determine what the typical discount is to a retailer. Any help?

  • Joey // Jul 16, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    “In response to our recent rant about an author who decided that the best way to help independent bookstores was to pull his book from Amazon,”

    Woah. Now isn’t that a tad extreme?

    It’s like saying I won’t get my food at the local grocers because a lot of people overate his delicious food and died from heart attack!

    Amazon has no fault in this; progress hasn’t been bad- nor will ever be!

    Another analogy: shall be ban IT automation because sweatshop workers lose their jobs?

    Let them find better jobs elsewhere!

  • KE // Oct 27, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Gee, I own 608 craft books, mostly on quilting, and that doesn’t include my other books, and NOT one is from Amazon. In fact I have never purchased anything from them, and I haven’t missed a thing. Nor a good book.