Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Imagining a Post-Amazon World

A few weeks back I wondered why publishers haven't taken the initiative to begin selling e-books in a more-agressive way, and especially why they don't empower authors to sell their own e-books.

Reader Steve Davidson took that a step further and wonders why an author with a platform needs a publisher or distributor at all:

Very interesting, but I don't think it takes things far enough. 
What I have been wondering of late is - why are established authors with inventory bothering with online distributors at all? Why are they giving away any percentage of a sale? 
There are fairly easy to implement on-line store suites (some even open source) - turnkey operations - that can handle all of the transactional issues (credit cards, downloads, etc) that will also capture purchaser information. 
Amazon/B&N offer an author the "those who read X will enjoy y" sales pitch - but that cuts three or more ways; a competing title might get the dollars instead - an author's website offers no competitive sales option. The author can take the distributor's cut and plow it in to promotion and advertising or pass it along to the purchaser. The author's website can offer far more background and personalized promotional information. The only thing missing is the questionable "additional exposure" or "floor traffic"; that can still be obtained by retaining a single title and a really good author's page on such sites (rather than all of the inventory). Most authors don't see any real promotional effort spent on their books by the publisher (we're being told constantly that a lot of that is being pushed off onto the author already) - so why do that extra work AND pay for the privilege when one could do the extra work and add 10 or 30 or 30 percent to their take? No, the above won't really work for emerging authors initially , but for someone with a track record who can regularly attract some would be another round of cutting out the middleman, but this time the spoils go to the author.

Right now it's hard to imagine anyone but the very biggest authors commanding the ability to sell outside of existing channels. When people want to buy an e-book they go to Amazon or B&N, they don't think to Google an author and see if they are only offering a book for sale

But could this change? Could we see a shift where not only traditional publishers, but also Amazon and B&N aren't necessary for an author?

It seems to me that this is an opportunity for Google especially to undercut Amazon. Google could provide the vending platform, much as they were supposedly going to do with independent bookstores, and they could steer e-book sales directly to authors and their own websites.

These days it's hard to imagine a world without Amazon. But just as malls are giving way to specialty stores and online vending, could individual author sites pave the way for dispersed e-bookselling?

Art: The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope by Henry Rousseau


Matthew MacNish said...

I think the one major roadblock will always be hardware. Yes, you can read on your phone, or on your laptop, but no one does that. I don't even like reading on my iPad.

And that leaves eReaders. Sure, smart people can break DRM, or convert files, but the average consumer still needs a reader that will support the content they want.

Solve that, and I think everything else will follow.

Dianna @ Craft A Spell said...

You bring up a good point. I definitely think it's something established authors can do. I use Amazon/B&N to buy books from authors I already read but would be just fine with purchasing directly from them. But I find new authors by browsing the shelves of my local B&N.

Kristi Lea said...

Thinking about authors who self e-publish, I'm not sure there's a huge difference (to the author) if you are publishing through Kindle Direct and give Amazon 30% or more of each book, or if you are paying Google some amount of money for web hosting, file serving, webstore etc.

Because you know that a service like you were proposing that Google offer would not be free. Or even if it were nominally "free", then many authors (who are not themselves web designers) would have to pay someone to do all the setup, maintenance, pretty graphics, etc. I know plenty of authors who pay for basic Wordpress sites because they lack the time, skills, or courage to do that on their own.

The business model could still work for authors. Assume discoverability via the hypothetical Google e-store model would be equivalent to discoverability via Amazon. If Google didn't charge per-item fees but instead charged fixed start-up or maintenance fees (like paying a web hosting service basically), then the model could be very good to authors who expect to sell enough volume.

Pitch the idea to Google--if they could offer some sort of discovery portal to make it easy for readers to find books, new releases, new authors, etc, then I'd be willing to try my hand at running an e-bookstore :)

Shawn said...


Does sort of make you wonder why King or Koontz or Rowling or Cornwell would bother donating 15% of their bank to a middleman when they could sell entirely through their website.

That day may be neigh.

Jose Cervantes said...

Floor traffic is the key.

RayBear said...

Maybe you should start an online community for authors interested in selling their own books. If the community gains enough notice, then it could be as recognizable as Amazon as a place to go to find a book.

Nancy Kelley said...

Beyond everything else, the hassle of dealing with sales tax is what stops me from selling myself. I'd much rather sell via channels that are set up to deal with taxes than get a tax id from the state. With the federal internet sales tax, that will just become more complex.

Ted Cross said...

I think he underestimates the desire of most of us to have a single store to go to in order to purchase our books. The last thing I would want is to go site to site to buy titles from various authors. I'll take my Amazon overlord anyday.

Ellie said...

Yeah, it's much more convenient to have a one-stop destination for all my book purchases. Amazon offers one-click shopping, so I wouldn't have to input my credit card and shipping information for every author site I visited.

And then there are returns. Amazon makes it really easy to return a book, which mitigates the risk of online shopping. Add in free shipping ($25+) and fast delivery, which individual authors may not be able to offer, and I think most consumers will choose ease of use and convenience over everything else.

mira said...

Interesting idea.

Yes, I think, in the future, writer empires will emerge. And for the biggest empires, cutting out Amazon could work - like with Rowling.

For smaller authors, though, cutting out Amazon would be risky. You would lose their enormous customer base, top of genre lists, browsing and recommendation systems. I don't think Google could copy those.

But as a supplement to Amazon, this is a terrific idea. Authors could set up their sites so readers who visit them could buy the books directly.

So, I think for most authors, they could supplement Amazon, but I'm not sure it's worth it to them to try to compete with Amazon. Amazon is too entrenched in the consumer mind, and too customer friendly and popular to try to compete with. As for replacing Amazon with Google, not sure why, when the current system works very well for authors and readers.

Personally, I love Amazon, and I sort of love Google, so I may be a biased here. :)

Rick Daley said...

The major retailers offer a sense of security. With the rampant identity theft and phishing scams on the web today, I think a majority of consumers would prefer the assumed safety of an Amazon purchase over an author's personal website (even if that safety is just assumed).

Amy Rogers said...

I for one plan to try this at some point. I heard about and may try them. They give you the code to manage sales of digital material through your own website, Facebook page, whatever, for only 5% plus 25 cents. A lot less than 30%.

Has anybody used a service like this to sell digital content?

Karen Fredericks said...

This misses the absolute fact that no shopper will to go to the juice store, then the meat store, then the toiletries store, then the beer store - not to mention the Schlitz store, the Heinekin store, then the Bud store. We go to a supermarket to shop and see it all arrayed together. Imagine if you went to the potato chip store and then had to go to the dip store! Convenience & synergy of products is what we definitely want and demand. Amazon is that supermarket. It would be great to see challengers & competitors to Amazon, like Waldbaums, King Kullen etc. But I think we'll always want to shop in supermarkets.

Anonymous said...

My first thought is the same as Ted Cross's. Think about it from the book buyer's point of view. You're in the mood for a new book. Why would you want to bounce around to hundreds of different author sites?
Suppose you want to buy 5 books. Would you rather fill your shopping cart and pay once, or go to 5 different sites and enter your information 5 times?

Now consider the author's point of view. There's a limit to how many jobs a single person can do and still function. We're already seeing authors doing the writing, editing, formatting and design, publicity and promotion. Add salesperson and shopkeeper to that, and it's a lot to ask of a person. Very few people have all those skill sets. For those who do, and who already can draw traffic to their websites, it's a great idea. But I have a hard time seeing it as widely viable.

Nathan Bransford said...

I think the key would be Google and a slight change in user behavior. Instead of going to Amazon or B&N, you'd just Google for a book title and trust that you'll be led to the place where you can buy it.

From that standpoint, think of Google as the store and the author's website as the bookshelf.

J. Anne Huss said...

Direct sales are the norm for non-fiction. I know this, I make a living doing it. So it's not too hard to imagine fiction following suit. Of course, you'd need to build that platform, but honestly, you will do almost the same legwork initially for either method. I don't sell my fiction directly, but I probably will when I get the time to add a store to the website.

Anonymous said...

What about impulse buying? Many genre readers go to Amazon...or other large sites...and buy e-books on impulse from multiple authors. They stock up for a week or two at a time. It's fast and simple...what shoppers love.

If you have to depend on selling your own books you're cutting out the entire impluse market.

I do agree with your google thoughts. I think authors selling their own books in conjuction with other retail sites is a fantastic idea.

Adam Heine said...

Amazon's "floor traffic" is significant, actually, at least for the midlist and lower.

If I were going to self-publish, I would do both: put it up on Amazon(/B&N/Smashword/etc), and in the book's description on each of those sites add something like: "By the way, you can get this book even cheaper on the author's website."

That's speaking as <= midlist, of course. Obviously for the authors with the right clout, selling direct makes the most sense.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Adam's right that floor traffic on Amazon is significant for most authors - even the top of the list. After all, they have the prime placement 24/7, being at the "top of the list".

And Kristi is right too - if Google offered a service that distributes books, they're going to charge for it. My readers can go now and google my title and find a dozen places to buy it, see it reviewed, etc. But if they're googling for a book, they've already decided to buy it. At that point, the sale is already done.

Finally, all of this neglects the most important thing (which is mentioned a couple times above): whatever best serves the reader will win. All these anti-Amazon-memes forget that the reason they are the Giant in the room is because they've mastered serving the customer (and that goes beyond books). Focusing just on books, at any given moment, Amazon's only care is to put the book you are most likely to buy in front of your eyeballs. Even if it's less expensive (i.e. they make less money on it). Even if it's indie published. No other ebook retailer does this, and no other ebook retailer moves as many books.

If some other ebook retailer figured out how to serve the customer better, I would list my books with them in a heartbeat. My own store could never compete with Amazon or any other retailer doing their business right.

If publishers want to change the business of how books are sold, they should study what Amazon does and do them one better.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

p.s. @AdamHeine Listing another retailers website or even an author website (where sales are occurring) is a violation of the TOS of Amazon (and all other retailers, that I'm aware of). Basically, it would be like putting your goods for sale at the B&N bookstore, then hanging a sticker on the front of the shelf that says, "Hey, you can also buy this cheaper at Walmart!" No store is going to want you to use their storefront to drive traffic elsewhere.

Adam Heine said...

Susan wrote: "Listing another retailers website or even an author website (where sales are occurring) is a violation of the TOS of Amazon (and all other retailers, that I'm aware of)."

*sigh* It would be, wouldn't it?

Mira said...

@ Susan and Adam -

Even if you couldn't list your site on Amazon, you could still price your book cheaper on your own site - or host free giveaways at your whim. The key would be developing a reader list or newsletter and announcing sales, new releases, etc.

I still don't think the point here would be to compete with Amazon (I liked what you said about that Susan), but it could supplement the income, capture new readers, etc.

But cutting out Amazon, why would anyone want to do that? I have no idea why Publishers - really - are so threatened. They don't feel threatened by B&N, and other stores that sell their books. They need to relax and enjoy their earnings, which are through the roof. And why are their earnings so high? Because Amazon is so good at what it does.

Make friends with the Behemoth, and it will let you sit on its shoulders while it goes places. It's just a waste of resources to try to build your own Behemoth, when there's a perfectly good one standing in the middle of the room

wendy said...

For years now I've had up an inactive ebook site that has my contact details. But the links to Buy This Book Here have never worked. As the ebooks aren't yet ready to go, I've not publicized their existence. In all the time the site has existed, I've never had a query about the ebooks or the inactive links, although I'm not sure if I can assume that no one has ever visited. What I'm getting at is wouldn't it be near to impossible for an e-author without a following to sell from his/her own site without doing a lot of marketing and publicity? Didn't Amanda Hocking sell from Amazon as well as her own site? I know she did a lot of promotion and marketing as she sometimes complained how much work was involved and how time-consuming it was.

I would love to be able to produce ebooks and successfully sell them from my own site as I have website creation skills, and it'd be much more lucrative to sell this way.

It works for J.K. Rowling, of course. :)

120Pages said...

Interesting as always, Nathan!

I agree that this would probably be more applicable to established authors, and I can see a lot of readers wanting to purchase a book directly from an author if they knew the author was getting more in return.

I can see an online site (like Goodreads) becoming a helpful tool for readers/consumers (and ultimately authors). If you searched for a book on Goodreads, it would list the various places you could purchase that book. It'd be a cool feature if at the top of that list was the author's website. Plus, Goodreads already had a feature to alert readers to new titles by their favorite author. With these two tools combined, it would make it very easy for readers to be alerted to new books by the favorite authors, and to go purchase that book directly from the author.
(Of course, I know things might change now that GR has been acquired by Amazon, but I could see another site catering to these two tools specifically).

I like the idea of authors getting an extra cut if they promote and sell their own titles. In a way, they've become a reseller.

Ultimately, I'm looking forward to the day when authors and small publishers can sell ebooks directly to the consumer, without having to go through Amazon, etc. Nothing against Amazon and the like, I definitely think they have their place! But I think it will be better for the reader (and the author) to have more options available.

Mirka Breen said...

I love that you're *always thinking*, Nathan. That's why you are not only an articulate person, but an uber-MARKETER. There's the rub: most writers are not marketers, and (gulp) we don't want to be.
That why agents-publishers-bookstores-
and (oy)- Amazon. 'Cause most of us are not marketing machines.

wordwan said...

I haven't been involved with the ebook industry long but I'm sure wondering why I seem to have SUCH a different view of what's going on from a lot of the commenters here.

Maybe I've just been looking at different things.

Maybe I'm in no hurry to get rich and famous. I'm more interested in finding out what's working--I dunno.

Maybe I've been listening to the people who have had problems with places like Amazon. Maybe I can see the obvious because I'm trying to figure out the real culture and processes of companies like Amazon.

But I sense most of you are simply reinforcing what you've been given--or told to believe.

If a person spends time and money promoting their first book, for example, why would they go to Amazon, do a freebie day, and Amazon gets all the contact information?

That was one of the first people I encountered: a writer, ready to quit because they felt like they'd wasted a great deal of time promoting their book, only to do a freebie day on Amazon and Amazon got 10K worth of book contacts and they got nothing. Hm....

Which _I_ don't think they make enough use of. We're just a bottle of soap to Amazon. A loss-leader to top up the minimal 25 dollar total now required for shopping at Amazon. You can get deals on all that stuff you buy but you HAVE to spend 25 dollars minimum.

That's a discount store? Imagine Walmart telling you to do that in a bricks and mortar store.

It also seems like a lot of authors are convinced of the idea that someone needs to 'handle' the selling part of their business. Just like the big publishers used to do. We continue with this idea that only ONE boy in the class is the artist and the rest of us are supposed to be in 'awe' of his talent; despite the fact that ebooks allow anyone who wants to, to publish a book.

Odd, when you consider no one but YOU created the product.

I keep hearing about Amazon's 'traffic'. Yeah, well, the minute you hit the door you have to be SEEN in the midst of that traffic. And if the first ten or twenty minutes of 'browsing' consists of Amazon tossing the algorithms at you that they want you to buy, wouldn't you just end up buying the top selling books, just like any place? Cos that's where Amazon makes their money.

And that's an old business concept: promote what sells.

Are you a top selling book? Then the odds just increased of you not been 'shown to' at Amazon. Yet you're gonna end up as an 'exclusive' object that no one -- save for Amazon Prime customers -- can access, in their lending library.

Exclusivity. Hm..Seems like a dumb thing to have on the internet.

I'm confused by all this. I've yet to figure out what Amazon is offering me as an author.

And the idea of having one big store? Well, I suppose what we should gravitate to, is only ONE person writes books, and we all become consumers. Does that remind me of an earlier century, or what?



Anonymous said...

I find this post amusing now, in light of Amazon's recent Kindle Worlds announcement, since fan fictin writers have been bypassing amazon and everyone else for direct distribution with readers since the dawn of time.

Anonymous said...

"I find this post amusing now, in light of Amazon's recent Kindle Worlds announcement, since fan fictin writers have been bypassing amazon and everyone else for direct distribution with readers since the dawn of time."

Very interesting! I wonder about legal issues now that they want to sell it for profit. I always thought fanfic was something that was shared, but never sold.

Cathy said...

I find a lot of books through Goodreads now. It seems like it would be really easy for GR to add a "Buy directly from author" option to their "Online Stores" menu.

Anonymous said...

"I find a lot of books through Goodreads now. It seems like it would be really easy for GR to add a "Buy directly from author" option to their "Online Stores" menu."

Amazon owns GR. I doubt Amazon would steer people away from their own site to help authors.

Unfortunately, most people out there don't know all this information.

Michael W. Perry said...

Time, labor and skills are all reasons why many authors don't find self-distributing ebooks appealing. Managing a site takes time away from writing (and life). It's yet more work, often with a poor rate of return, especially if you don't already have an established blogging platform. And no turn-key solution is easy. It still requires learning certain skills.

That's why, as messy as it is, it's easier to upload files to Amazon, Apple, and others (including Smashwords), let them deal with the distribution hassles, and spend the time saved writing or giving your books publicity.

Giving distributors 30% of retail may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that it's far better than the old model where publishers, distributors, warehousing, and retailers took perhaps 70% of retail. said...

What may being overlooked here is the convenience of Amazon. Honestly, I ALWAYS go there first, and I would more likely pay for convenience of getting my books, vitamins, house hold supplies and other miscellaneous odds and ends all at once than using a separate site just for a book. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wordwan said...

A bit of time and reading on my part has passed. I came back to re-read some of the responses here and it set me to thinking a few new things.

Writers, in the main, are busy writing. That's what they prefer--and I can appreciate that.

I can also appreciate the concept of a supermarket. And Amazon has become the latest version of that.

I've looked at some writers, Nathan is one, James is another and I notice they write 'how-to' books to (basically, to me) attract a marketshare. It's like they're building their brand before they write a book.

But the thing is, not every writer wants (or needs) to do that. But it's an important aspect to comment on. A lot of the successful writers, right now, START by blogging a 'how-to" book on some topic that 'relates' to this industry.

And I still feel the same way about Amazon. A new writer is glad for any kind of money or kudos he gets when he sends a book to Amazon.

But there's a lot of problem areas not being addressed. I've seen and heard about them. And the trap is set for the NEXT new writer. This bothers me.

And the fact that, I just arrived as Amazon buys Goodreads, that worries me too. There has to be a less biased way to offer new titles to readers who are browsing. And it can't all be profit-motivated as we end up back at the narrow range and style of books that, I feel, traditional publishing offers us. They sell and promote what SOLD before.

And it would be sad to think we just got started having a wider range OF books to have an Amazon--who is apparently forcing you into exclusivity, at times--shutting you out or down (which they may ALREADY be doing in subtle ways we don't know they're doing) due to our letting them monopolize the game.

I even find it interesting to watch the anti-trust court issue against Apple and such and how, to me, this is DIVERTING the fact that Amazon is controlling the market. By the time that case ends, everyone's gonna hate Apple, see them as the bad guy somehow and forget what Amazon is DOING!

They sell book product and are successful because they have OTHER products to offset the losses incurred by selling books cheaply.

And they can sell ebooks for free, because, to them, there's no physical cost involved. Never mind that the writer should be paid, the way the cover designer was paid, for the work they do--before the ebook hits the market! I read about artists who suddenly realized they weren't 'budgeting' the work they did as something they should be getting money for. How weird is that?

Like writers, who write ebooks, are supposed to work for free. Hm.

A real business couldn't do this. And, as you may guess, a real business CAN'T compete with that. And yet the anti-trust law states that so long as you aren't 'affecting' the customer, it's okay to operate like this: Running a business at a loss to keep other businesses from competing with you. Hm.

More thoughts as I have them. It makes me realize I am approaching this a lot differently than a lot of people here. There's a problem that needs to be looked at more carefully, and it's not being done in everyone's rush to build a bestselling book.



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