Thinking Out Loud

October 1, 2021

Open Letter to Authors Following the Amazon Collapse

This is one of those “if you’re reading this I must be dead” type of letters. As you can see by the posting date, I wrote this a little bit ahead of the collapse of Amazon, but if a search engine brought you here, then the day of reckoning has come for authors and small publishers.

First, I want you to know you have my sympathy. After years of a predictable revenue stream, be it large, medium or small, you have to start thinking about next month’s rent, and next month’s groceries. I’m sure the survival instinct has already kicked in.

Second, I realize some of you are scrambling at this very moment to recover text files or galley files, along with cover art and a host of other assets related to your books.

Third, I appreciate that in addition to Amazon, you had arrangements with third parties for which Amazon was simply the fulfillment partner, and now you are wondering how to replace the infrastructure that developed.

You’re probably desperate to preserve the status quo, but very few other companies had the ability to handle such a volume of independent sources. That’s why, as you try to find alternatives, their phone lines are constantly busy and your emails are going unanswered.

But you know all this. What I want you do right now is pause, take a deep breath, and be thankful.

Thankful? Yes, thankful. In surfing terms, you got to ride the biggest, longest and best wave that writers have ever known. Not since the invention of the printing press itself had so many others been able to visualize so many great opportunities. It’s just unfortunate that so many of those opportunities were concentrated on a single source.

Technology brought this to you. We were all living in a time of accelerated social change thanks to personal computers and the internet. Twenty years of social change took place in just ten years. Or less. So the world was already moving faster, and the exchange of ideas — or simply words if you prefer — created a ripe market for your ideas and your stories.

Sure, there was a counter-movement. The anti-words platforms like Tumblr and Instagram and TikTok. But people who knew how to write words at a reasonable level of proficiency could amass a healthy group of followers, and even as spell-check and texting-abbreviations threatened the English language, enough people remained committed to writing material that could at least be understood by the majority of readers.

The real blessing the technology brought you was print-on-demand technology. Digital printing devices such as the Espresso Book Machine would print, match the cover stock, bind and trim finished book products at a rate that would have left Gutenberg shaking his head in amazement.

A paradigm developed which allowed you to cut out so much of the in-between process historically necessary to get your words from your home office to finished copies. No more waiting for an acquisitions manager to discover you. No more years and years of trying to build platform. And mostly, no more going back and forth with a team of editors. (You know, the kind of people who frown at the extended use of capital letters, underlining, changing type sizes, and especially at gratuitous use of bold face.)

This allowed you to be current. Something trending on Facebook or Twitter? A recent news event, perhaps? You could have a rush-to-press title on offer in just days. What’s more, if subsequent reporting revealed changes in the narrative as it was originally broadcast, you could, for a small fee, upload corrections to pages 153 to 168 where you had reflected the earlier, out-of-date version of how things had unfolded.

Which brings us Amazon.

Take the books from the supplier, and put them on the shelves, and then from the shelves put them in boxes to ship to consumers. That’s all, right? It isn’t rocket science. It’s a simple business model: Buy low, sell high.

What Amazon brought to the table was a tremendous turnaround on the process. Just-in-time purchasing. Repeated restocking on fast-moving SKUs (stock keeping units) and a ranking system which readily identified which items those were.

But still not rocket science.

They needed an edge and they found it with cutthroat competition. The plan all along was to be a category killer, and the category of books was chosen because, by their admission, it was ripe for picking. It was an easy category to invade and take down all the competition; competition consisting of (mostly) independent bookstores, some of which represented third and fourth generations of family income.

One by one, those small businesses were picked off. No, that’s not right, it was hundred by hundred. All done ruthlessly, even if it meant that temporarily (for individual titles or the business as a whole) the paradigm was: Buy low, sell even lower, catch up later.

But again, this wasn’t rocket science.

The true rocket science was found in one word, algorithm. This was new. Telling the customer that if they liked ‘A,’ they might like ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ as well; and having that marketing backed up by statistical data on the purchasing of books heretofore unimagined, and previously unavailable data on the purchasing habits and online searches of the individual customers themselves.

That only left one piece of the puzzle. How do authors get their books to be the ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ on offer? Again a complex system of presentation optimization which perhaps you shunned, or perhaps you participated in, or perhaps sometimes you just got lucky and your books got to rest in the top ten of their category for a week or two.

In the end, apparently it all wasn’t sustainable; which is what brought you to this blog post. My point here is to say, don’t despair, but rather be grateful that you got to participate in one of the most spectacular moments in the history of publishing.

Writing is a creative gift, and I know that you and the community of authors to which you belong will find ways to disseminate your compositions. Better yet, if you produced good art, your following will find you.


June 13, 2017

Quote Cards Trend: Another Blow to Literacy

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:02 am

I work in and around the publishing business and I’m always looking for ready-made graphics which can be used to show off the latest books. Following publisher Twitter accounts over the past few years has proved to be a never-ending source of professionally produced graphic images that I would never be able to create myself. Until recently.

The latest trend however is that publishers, instead of producing Facebook-ready and Twitter-ready graphics with a cover of the book and a link to the author website have migrated toward quote cards. Haven’t heard of them? They’re basically quotations — a sentence or sentence fragment — set against a photographic or textured image that are totally made with Instagram as the key application. 

Think about that for a moment.

You can add images to Twitter.

You can add images to Facebook.

But Instagram exists solely for pictures.

It’s nice that at least they’re quotations from books — publishing houses are still in the business of reading, last time I checked — but Instagram, like spellcheck, auto-correct, Tumblr, 140-character limits, and the erosion of attention spans known as YouTube is simply another contributor to the whole loss of language we’re experiencing right now.

We’re moving from literacy to orality.

So many bloggers have just given up using their ten fingers on a keyboard and are simply making podcasts. Less work. Less attention to editing. Less quality, if you don’t mind me saying so, except for a few of the best.

We’re also moving from words to pictures.

And the pictures are not worth 1,000 words, either.

Reading separates us from the animals. It’s what makes us distinct. And we’re losing it…

…Back to my original theme. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you also can’t envision it with nothing but a quote card. This is not a good move. You can’t judge a book by a single quotation, either. The social media/IT/communications/publicity people have got Instagram on the brain and they’ve forgotten their true purpose: To show people books coming to market. 

So what about those of you who don’t work doing the type of thing I do? Have you seen this devolution of language in other forms? Is a single quote enough to interest you in an entire book?

After this had been posted for an hour, I thought some of you might wonder how social media content which is promoting publishing products is a step backward for literacy. The problem is that people get inoculated with a shot of the book (the quotation) and are now immune to the book itself.  Of course, you know that I’m a big advocate of chapter excerpts so you could ask how this is different. I think chapter excerpts are a launch into actually reading the book. If the excerpt runs 10-20 pages, you’re already in, you’re already reading the book.  With the quotes, I anticipate more of a been-there-done-that type of response; a simple quote is insufficient to present a precis of the book or introduce the author’s thesis. And people know quotations can be totally out of context.

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