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.


May 13, 2018

Panicked Publishers add Morality Clauses to Book Contracts

After John Ortberg (pictured left) took concerns about sexual impropriety concerning Bill Hybels (pictured right) to the Chicago Tribune, the dominoes started to fall leading to Hybels’ resignation from one of America’s largest churches last month.

From Bill Cosby to Bill Hybels, 2018 has so far been a year that has placed sexual misconduct in the spotlight. Each year, publishers are forced to withdraw product from their catalogues, or cancel pending publication of forthcoming titles. Sometimes, there’s nothing in the book itself that is harmful, but the authors have become tainted and publishers want to avoid the spectre of large numbers of returns if the public gaze intensifies.

Rachel Deahl covered this recently at Publisher’s Weekly. The following is only a small excerpt, so read the piece by clicking the title below:

In the #MeToo Moment, Publishers Turn to Morality Clauses

Until recently, the term “moral turpitude” is not one that crossed the lips of too many people in book publishing…

A legal term that refers to behavior generally considered unacceptable in a given community, moral turpitude is something publishers rarely worried themselves about. No longer.

Major publishers are increasingly inserting language into their contracts—referred to as morality clauses—that allows them to terminate agreements in response to a broad range of behavior by authors. And agents, most of whom spoke with PW on the condition of anonymity, say the change is worrying in an industry built on a commitment to defending free speech…

…Another agent, who admitted to having concerns about some of the morality clauses he’s seen, said he nonetheless understands publishers’ rationale for using them. “There are obviously a lot of very complex things going on here,” he said, speaking to the way publishers are reacting to the shifting social climate. He also noted that most publishers he’s dealt with have been open to changing these clauses. “When you go back to [publishers] and remind them that authors are allowed protected speech, political or otherwise, my experience is that they’ve been very responsive.”…

…Mary Rasenberger, president of the Authors Guild, who has seen some of the morality clauses publishers are using, said she also understands why houses are moving in this direction. “There are instances where it is appropriate to cancel a contract with someone—if, say, they are writing a book on investing and they’re convicted of insider trading.” But Rasenberger has concerns about the new boilerplates she’s been seeing. “These clauses need to be very narrowly drawn. The fear is that clauses like these can quash speech that is unpopular, for whatever reason.”

Another agent admitted to being distressed by the fact that some of the morality clauses she’s seen “are going very far.” She said that though she and many of her colleagues think it’s “not unfair for a publisher to expect an author to be the same person when it publishes the book as when it bought the book,” she’s worried how extreme some of the language in these new clauses is.

“If you’re buying bunny books or Bible books, these clauses make sense,” said Lloyd Jassin, a lawyer who specializes in publishing contracts, referring to deals for children’s books and Christian books. He wondered, though, about a publisher trying to hold authors of any other type of book to a moral standard. Noting that morality clauses are about money, not morality (specifically, they’re about a publisher’s ability to market an author), he posed a hypothetical. “Is the author of The El Salvador Diet, which touts a fish-only regimen, allowed to be photographed eating at Shake Shack? That goes to the heart of the contract.” He paused and added: “This is definitely a free speech issue.” …

again, you’re encouraged to read all this in the context of the full article



July 31, 2013

Wednesday Link List

Bible for Christmas

We scan the internet so you don’t have to!

Got a suggestion for a link here? Contact me through Thinking Out Loud before 6 PM Eastern on Mondays.

July 29, 2013

Where are the Book Reviews? Where are the Books?

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed.

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed

Sunday night, and I’m looking around for a new book to start. Normally there is a stack from publishers and authors. Not so anymore.

I’m also realizing that around this time last year I wrapped up a two-year flirtation with Christian fiction. My reading of doctrinal and Christian living books still had a four-to-one lead, but I got quite taken with the writing of James Rubart, Andy Andrews, David Gregory, Paul Young and one-time authors William Sirls and Michael Neale. My bookshelf actually needed some space devoted to fiction.

But while the second book in the James Rubart series is due out any day now, I haven’t signed up to review it. I think you get on a roll with certain types of books or certain subjects and then when you fall out of where that current had been taking you, it’s hard to jump back into the stream.

However, that doesn’t explain the lack of non-fiction reviews here over the past few weeks. I’ve finally reached the point where the blog has enough clout that I can bypass those blogger sign-up things where they offer you free books simply because you have a blog, even if you only have a handful of readers. Plus I have publishing connections.  “Ask me if there’s anything you want to review;” I was told last week. I said what I really, really wanted was the full text of The Voice Bible. Maybe that wasn’t what they had in mind.

There is a shortage of books.

On June 19th, Evan Hughes wrote an article for Salon titled Here’s How Amazon Self Destructs.  Yeah, they had me with that headline. You can read the whole article here.

Basically, Hughes is noting that while Amazon is category killing its way to a 60% market share of books sold, it only accounts for 6% of the “discovery process;” the way we find out about books and choose to want to acquire them. In fact, online “discovery” generally is only 17%. Hughes writes:

…The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like…

The occasion of his article is growing concern about the long-term stability of Barnes and Noble. Yes, you read that right. First Borders, now Barnes and Noble? There have been layoffs, and store closings. Hughes notes:

By defeating its competitors, Amazon is choking off some of its own air supply. Barnes & Noble and independents are in one sense competitors for Amazon, but in another sense they are functioning as unwilling showrooms and sales agents for the online giant. As David Carr has suggested, Amazon should want them to survive, if only out of self-interest.

Amazon has made attempts in recent years to get better at “discoverability” — with  the “Look Inside” virtual browsing feature and with recommendation algorithms (“New for You”), and through highlighting bestseller lists and editors’ picks. In a bold step in March, Amazon acquired Goodreads, the leading “social reading” website, where readers recommend and review books for one another. Many observers saw this move as a grab for more customer data. The stronger motivation may have been the desire to secure a discovery engine that would funnel customers to, thus protecting against the loss of stores. But so far Amazon has not cracked the discovery problem. Sometimes the site makes a recommendation that no sentient human being would make, which is telling. Even if Amazon gets better at this, it may run up against a wall: Some people want to literally get a feel for the book before they buy.

Barnes and Noble dates back to 1886. Their retail stores are visible, but they operate almost as many textbook stores on college and university campuses. [see Wikipedia article for a complete history]  Hughes writes:

Already in a distant second place [to Amazon], Barnes & Noble has recently seen its woes deepen significantly. The company has been closing stores and announced in June that it would close still more and stop making Nook color tablets. It reported net losses of more than $1 million per day.

But is Hughes being sensationalistic?  In the current issue of New Yorker magazine, James Surowiecki writes:

But the hastily written obituaries left out some important facts. To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. Its operations, thanks to better inventory management, are more efficient: it can make more money while selling fewer books. The Nook is the only part of the business that’s losing money. Being a book retailer isn’t easy—thanks, above all, to Amazon—but Borders’ bankruptcy, in 2011, left B. & N. without a major national competitor. “In this market, you could actually pick up market share simply because you’re the only major bookseller left,” John Tinker, a media analyst at the Maxim Group, told me. And B. & N. has generally avoided the expensive, long leases that can drain a retailer’s cash flow; many of its leases are short—which gives it flexibility in terms of moving or downsizing—and, since its stores generate foot traffic (which is good for surrounding stores), it has considerable leverage with landlords…

So maybe the sky isn’t falling. Not yet. Surowiecki continues:

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either.

So we see that while some people have speculated how the Amazon empire could possibly implode, others are dismissive of the idea. A few months ago I wrote here about how the values of Amazon’s founder might be quite opposite those of many people who read blogs like this one, and yet despite this, many conservative Evangelical churches are happy to cede all their book purchasing to Amazon because of better pricing. In the average church office, when values are in collision, stewardship trumps principles.

The publishing industry has been hit hard by various factors, and while the long-term good might be better served if everyone didn’t have all their eggs in one basket, a collapse of Amazon isn’t necessarily good news. If the company did go down, some publishers’ entire fortunes are hitched to the Amazon star, and there would no doubt be ripple bankruptcies across the publishing spectrum.

But if Amazon is choking off its air supply, it explains partly why it seems to me there are so few books to review right now. Maybe I need to be more aggressive about asking music companies to service social media with review copies to fill the gap.

June 2, 2010

Wednesday Link List

Our link list artist this week is David Hayward, better known as Naked Pastor.   He actually gave away the original water color of this  last week, so with blog giveaways like that, you might just want to become a regular reader.

Off to the links we go…

  • Rick Apperson reviews basketball fundraiser Austin Gutwein’s Take Your Best Shot, at the blog Just a Thought, while the whole genre — including some video clips of Austin — is examined at Christian Book Shop Talk.   Like Zach Hunter, Austin, pictured at right, got into the whole international relief thing at a very, very young age.  If I were still in youth ministry, I think I would build a whole evening around the videos describing what Zach and Austin are doing.
  • The whole Charismatic thing got started in the 1970s, right?   Not exactly.   If you’ve got some time to invest, Brazillian-born Leo Di Siqueira links to a lengthy article that blows apart the “cessationist” view that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit died off with the first apostles.  Writer Nigel Scotland documents examples of the “miracle” gifts occurring in the first five centures of the church.   The link is approximately a 15-page .pdf file.
  • Garrison Keillor explains the book publishing industry for all the children in the audience who are too young to remember what a book is on the pages of The New York Times.    (Here’s a related piece I wrote at my book industry blog.)
  • John Freeman at Ligoner Ministries suggests a balanced approach to dealing with the issue of homosexuality specifically and sexual sins in general; meanwhile…
  • …”When Ray Boltz and Azariah Southworth perform in concert at Covenant of the Cross in Nashville on June 17, 2010, they will kick off a national tour as well as an affirmation of their status as openly gay Christian music artists.”   Continue reading that story in Out and About a gay community blog.    But wait, there’s more…
  • …At the blog Monday Morning Insight, Todd Rhoades posts a piece about Boltz’ new album and some sample song lyrics which invite the broader Christian community to embrace greater tolerance.
  • For the time being, Raymond Hosier can wear his rosary beads to school, as reports the Washington Post.  Now the school in question faces a lawsuit.
  • Once-disgraced Colorado Pastor Ted Haggard announced today he is starting a new church and “will be happy if only a few people join.”  Read about St. James Church at NBC’s Denver affiliate.
  • They sold their house and named their RV after the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan.  This is actually an October, 2009 YouTube clip from Good Morning America, but someone sent it to me, and it is inspiring.
  • By their CD collection you shall know them:  Brett McCracken thinks true “hipsters” would be nostalgic for these contemporary Christian music classics.
  • Many a college or university began life with solid Christian roots which they would sooner forget in the secularized 21st Century; but sometimes, as Mark Roberts points out, the architecture of their older buildings betrays this history.  (My own alma matter, once proudly part of the now liberal United Church of Canada, is emblazoned with, “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”)
  • Trevin Wax had two great links last week:  First, when the Westboro gang decide to picket your church, if you’re in the deep south you serve them food!  Second, a link to Head Heart Hand, which suggests that bloggers are usually either Creators or Curators.
  • Relatively new blog:  Faith and the Law chronicles those times where Christians run afoul of the law in both the U.S. and around the world.
  • Our cartoon this week are from Doug Michael (upper) and Dennis Daniel (lower) at Baptist Press (we’re going to have to put these guys on the payroll…)  What’s with all the first-name last-names at BP?

September 16, 2008

Economic Meltdown Hits Christian Bookstore Industry

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:39 pm

While the economic fundamentals remain stronger for Canada than is the case in the U.S., today many of us here are reeling from the news that the largest Christian book distributor in the country, R. G. Mitchell Family Books, is in receivership.   Staff at the Toronto-based company were given the news at around 4:30 PM yesterday, according to one report.   Mitchell holds distribution rights to many of the major U.S. Christian book lines including Tyndale, Broadman & Holman, Gospel Light and Harvest House; and also operated several retail stores in Ontario.

This comes just three weeks after it was announced that the largest Christian music distributor in Canada, CMC Distribution of Niagara On The Lake, Ontario, sold its assets and distribution agreements to David C. Cook of Paris, Ontario, effective September 1st.

Both of these events follow the bankruptcy of the largest Christian book chain in Canadian history, Blessings Christian Marketplace, which occurred about a year ago, and a more recent decision by the largest Christian bookstore in the country, Christian Publications of Calgary, Alberta, to close its flagship store and two others in that province.

Additionally, Christian books are priced based on the U.S. dollar; and during the last year that the Canadian dollar has been strong against the U.S. greenback, prices have fallen; leaving the industry in a situation called ‘deflation,’ where constantly falling prices can’t produce enough real income to pay overhead and wages, which are constantly rising.

In the short-term, many stores in Canada can rush product in from Ingram, the largest U.S. book distributor (in fact the largest in the world), but the economic situation there seems to be striking at major players, meaning that it’s anyone’s guess what sources of supply will exist in the next few months.

All this filters back to the publishers themselves, who could be looking at cutting back the number of titles, the size of the print runs, or both.   Some currently slated new releases could find themselves on the chopping block as well.

For my local readers, it’s business as usual at Searchlight Books.   We are already accustomed to operating on a shoestring, we are in an excellent inventory position, a strong financial position, and will continue to do whatever it takes to serve our customers.   As one person told me, “Smaller market Christian stores tend to be so missions-focused that it takes more than economic hard times to shut them down.”

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