Boycott! Amazon insurgency spreads to UK

Self publishers of England unite! That appears to be the rallying cry at YouWriteOn.com. The "UK's Leading Writers Website," sponsored by Arts Council England, is the latest to take up the cudgel against the Amazon's new print on demand (POD) policy. Amazon recently changed its policy, requiring publishers who want Amazon to sell their titles directly to use the company's BookSurge POD book printing services.

But unlike others, who have registered public complaints, YouWriteOn.com is initiating a boycott.

It used to be that authors who self-publish and small publishers could use print-on-demand services and have their books sold through Amazon. Customers would click on the "Buy" button and Amazon would get the book from the source and ship it to the customer. That process was great for the self publisher, but inefficient for Amazon, which couldn't just pull the book from stock, and required the customer to wait longer to receive it. On April 1, Amazon began requiring that all print on demand books be printed by its in-house BookSurge business unit if they are to be sold directly by Amazon with its "Buy" button.

Alternately, publishers can sign up for an Amazon Advantage account and Amazon will sell those books, but it keeps 55 per cent of the price - nearly double what some small publishers say they were paying before. That has many small publishers and authors crying foul. Although larger players have been mostly silent on the matter, opposition has been growing steadily.

YouWriteOn.com joins the PMA The Independent Book Publishers Association, The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN) in filing complaints with Amazon.com. Some complaints have also been filed with the US attorney general of Washington State, where Amazon is headquartered.

I asked Edward Smith, manager for YouWriteOn.com, why the group is getting involved in the spat. Here's what he had to say.

What is YouWriteOn.com?

YouWriteOn.com is the UK's most popular free site for budding writers. Members review and rate each others opening chapters in a chart system devised by professional authors and each month the five highest rated writers receive free critiques from editors for leading literary agents and publishers. The aim is to help all writers develop and to help talented writers come to the attention of our leading affiliated literary agents and publishers.

What is POD publishing, what types of books are published in that way?

Print-On-Demand is a printing process in which a book is stored electronically and a copy of a book is only printed when a customer orders a copy through an online retailer such as Amazon. Anyone can publish their book via POD. The aims of a POD author may range from sharing a book with family and friends or to try to market and sell their book and achieve much wider publishing success.

Why are you opposed to Amazon's new print on demand policy for publishers?

We agree with the US Authors Guild which has hit out at Amazon.com's decision to push print on demand publishers to uses its POD printer BookSurge and is looking at the move for "antitrust and other legal implications". They point out that, "The potential big losers if Amazon does impose greater bookseller discounts on the industry, are authors -- since many are paid for on-demand sales based on the publisher's gross revenues -- and publishers."

A bookseller discount is the amount of the list price that a retailer like Amazon gets as their share for each copy sold for listing a book for sale. Amazon's decision means that all POD writers who want their books to appear on Amazon US will have to pay 55 per cent of the book's list price for each copy sold to Amazon for the privilege, which comes out of their author royalties. Prior to this change, POD publishers and authors could pay a low percentage like 25 per cent to list their book on Amazon. Also, POD publishers in the US will now have to pay Amazon a yearly fee, and the insistence that they use Amazon's printing presses instead of other printing presses means that Amazon are effectively attempting to monopolise the POD industry, and monopolies are never to the benefit of individuals. This will inevitably lead to less choice, less opportunities, and less royalties for POD writers. It is also a red-flag to the publishing industry in terms of how Amazon may use their influence on books from mainstream commercial publishing houses and authors in the future.

You have called for a boycott of Amazon.com. Do you think that will work?

We hope it will make a difference otherwise these changes will go ahead to the detriment of writers and literature fans alike. Many organisations like The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN) are protesting these changes [Editor Note: See ASJA position and SPAN statement]. The POD industry is driven by writers from all walks of life and our call to boycott Amazon is another voice added to this large body of dissent against Amazon's decision.

Amazon says that by keeping POD publishing in house it is creating efficiencies and cost savings that can be passed on to the consumer. Would you agree?

No. For example, a higher book discount demanded by Amazon means less royalties for authors, this will discourage many talented writers from printing via POD, which means less consumer choice for book readers. POD book prices for readers will also likely rise to compensate for Amazon's increased charges to POD companies and their authors.

You say that Amazon is attempting to "monopolise" the market for print on demand. Amazon's total market share is by some sources only about 15 per cent.

By insisting that all POD publishers print their books through BookSurge, Amazon's printing company, and on a higher bookseller discount, Amazon is using their influence to dictate terms to the POD industry and to authors. If one company attempts to 'control' the printing presses then this inevitably stifles competition, choice and innovation and leads to rising prices for both POD publishers, authors and book readers. It's the bookworld equivalent of Bill Gates and Microsoft.

Who stands to lose the most from the new Amazon policy?

Writers and readers alike stand to lose out from the decision. Writers will have less royalties, and readers will find that increased charges by Amazon are reflected in increased book prices. It is also a red-flag to the publishing industry in terms of how Amazon may use their influence on books from mainstream commercial publishing houses in the future.

Can you give me an example of how this policy would negatively affect one of your consituents?

YouWriteOn.com has helped writers achieve success with mainstream commercial publishers like Random House, but we have also assisted writers who were not able to find agents or publishers by publishing them through POD. One of our inaugural 2007 Book of the Year writers, Patricia J. DeLois, was not able to find an agent or publisher for her novel Bufflehead Sisters, so we published her through POD. She sold over 1,200 copies of her book during Christmas 2007 and was named the best book of the year in her home state of Maine in a newspaper poll of librarians and readers ahead of a former Pulitizer Prize winning writer. As a result of that, Patricia was then successful in getting an agent and now is under consideration for a two book deal by a major publishing house. Amazon's decision on bookseller discounts means that new writers like Patricia will get considerably less royalties through POD. It also means that many readers will pay more for new books which will stifle the opportunity of new writers like Patricia to be enjoyed and read. We ask Amazon to take a step back to their roots and work with writers and not against them and the interests of readers.

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