Indie News Beat: Amazon is Redefining Ownership

With a ubiquitous presence, sky-high brand recognition, and customer-first ethos, it’s been a while since “Amazon” only referred to a geographical feature, and the adjective “Amazonian” used to mean a certain type of woman.

If you’re an Independent Author, you’ve either got your stuff on Amazon or you’ve got it nowhere. So when Amazon changes the way it does business, we all need to sit up and take notice. After the hullabaloo with sock-puppet reviews this summer, over the last few weeks a number of authors suddenly noticed reviews going missing from their book pages on Amazon. This led to emails and calls and questions, but one of the first hard-and-fast pieces of evidence to turn up in the media was here, where Amazon sent an email to an author confirming deletion of his reviews of another author’s book because, in Amazon’s opinion, there is “competition” between the two authors, which thus breaches Amazon’s rules.

This has opened up an entirely new can of worms, but we all need to remember that for Amazon, the customer rules. Amazon’s behaviour to date has shown that it will take into account and respond to its customers’ feelings over what vendors may feel is an unjustified action. For many authors, it may be worth remembering that Amazon is a business, with total control over what it carries on its website. To many an impartial observer, Amazon may well appear to be acting with admirable restraint. However, Amazon not only controls the content on its site, it controls the content on our devices, too.

Although many of us already know this, it’s important that we all know this: when you buy an ebook from Amazon, you don’t really buy it in the commonly-understood meaning of the word. A recent, well-written and well-linked article on gigaOM reported the story that a Norwegian woman discovered suddenly that Amazon had blocked access to all of her books on her Kindle. The issue is a little complicated, but bear with me: the Norwegian woman gave her own Kindle to her mother, then bought a second-hand one locally. The problems began when she started reading her purchased books on the second-hand device, and, as it later turned out, it also had something to do with Amazon not having a presence in Norway, and the woman buying the books from Amazon’s UK site (I said it was complicated).

But all’s well that ends well: she has had her account restored and has access to her books again. Relieved? Don’t be, because the point here is that Amazon can’t/won’t explain what went wrong. The woman received the curtest emails telling her that her account had been closed and it would not be reopened. techdirt takes up the story: when she enquired further, wanting to know what she’d done wrong, Amazon became quite petty, writing “Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters”. Thus, the woman found herself in a situation where she was punished for a crime which her accuser would not reveal to her. Still, this is Amazon we’re dealing with here.

The thing everyone should note is that, when we click and buy a Kindle book with our credit cards, we do not own them – we rent them. Amazon has the ability to deny us access to “our” books at any time of its choosing. The problem is DRM (Digital Rights Management, or, if you’re that way inclined, Digital Restrictions Management). This is software which is supposed to prevent illegal copying of a work, but which, at the same time, can be used to block access to a copy of a work. In summary, the only ebooks you can feel like you really own, are those that are DRM-free (e.g. PDFs) and which you can copy. If you can’t copy it, it’s likely you don’t own it, either.

Elsewhere, a short but concise (and quite frustrating, to be honest) article on IndieReader posed the question: Are self-pubbed authors killing the publishing industry? This mentions a subject close to many an Indie’s heart: pricing strategy. But again, the issue is complicated. If an Indie author wants to give away their books with only the modest objective of being read, and doesn’t care about money, why shouldn’t they? For those hoping to see some kind of return on their creative investment, there are fewer options.

As many Indies try more and more financially generous methods to attract readers, this article claims that the written word is being devalued as a result. The conclusions, however, are too familiar: that Indies must “band together”, and stop looking for “get-sales-quick gimmicks”. The only new observation here, which is also crushingly obvious when you think about it, is that there is nowhere lower to go once you reach free. Clearly, the publishing revolution has some way to run, but in the meantime, Indies still need to try every opportunity to get their work into readers’ hands.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

30 thoughts on “Indie News Beat: Amazon is Redefining Ownership”

  1. It appears they have lost sight of the fact that those who use their platforms to publish are also customers – internal customers. They are ignoring the source of their revenue – not those who buy books, but those who offer books for them to sell.

    1. Wouldn’t it be grand to hold a month long ban on indies using Amazon to get their attention. All our books unpublished for one full month, except of course they could be bought everywhere else!!!

      One day, it will happen. Amazon will cross some undefined line that indies will see as going too darned far, and we will band together to hold a strike. When ya’ll are ready, let me know. I can hit the unpublish button as fast as the rest of you!

      1. I cannot envision a “group action” event by Indie authors, launched against Amazon. How I would love that to happen, but everyone simply caves into the monolithic Amamonster. This is fear-based behavior.Where are the revolutionaries of yore? How I miss the counter-culture movements that actually gained enough power to make a difference! It takes guts to face down an Amazon.

    2. I couldn’t agree with you more, Yvonne. Amazon creates the device, then encourages authors who want to be read to fill it up with content for them. Very clever, on some level.

    1. Thank you, Mike. I worry that Amazon’s “brand” among consumers is too strong to be dented by a little bad publicity

  2. Excellent article, Chris; I sort of knew most of what you’re saying but it never really registered how serious it can get if they (Amazon) decide to exercise their prerogative. What options (as author/publishers) do we have? After all, when all is said and done, they (Amazon) are only distributers, aren’t they?

    1. Thank you, TD. I also think it’s important that we should take so much for granted: Amazon can do whatever they want – it’s their website. It’s so easy to lose sight of the enormous power they wield because, for example, they’re really nice to us when we use them as consumers

      1. Yes and no. It’s important to recall that they will only continue to stay on top as long as they provide the best service to customers. They’re well above the competition right now, but that won’t last forever.

        Don’t underestimate the impact writers can have, either. Recall how quickly the whole “can’t sell erotica” thing reversed once several thousand writers took to the Internet and made it the news item de jour,

        If Amazon, say, dropped royalties on KDP books to 35% while Kobo left them at 70%, writers would suddenly shift all those tweets, ads, blog posts, etc, telling readers to “come get my book on Amazon” into “come get my book someplace else”. Would it shut Amazon down? Of course not. But indie ebooks represent about half of Amazon’s ebook sales. It’s significant enough that they cannot afford to push too hard.

        Besides, would YOU want 100,000 angry writers blogging and writing news articles about how awful you are? Writers have enormous ability, collectively speaking, to influence the world around us. Make a few writers mad, and it’s irrelevant. Make ALL writers mad, and the Internet will likely fall on your head.

  3. Great post, Chris! I have always been a bit unnerved by the lack of ownership when purchasing most Kindle titles. Yet, I still buy them, so I guess Amazon’s still has me where they want me.

    1. Thank you, Brian. I think there might be room, instead of “buy” buttons, for having “enter into a long-term lease” buttons on their book pages. Wordier certainly, but it would be a bit nearer the truth 🙂

  4. Two quick thoughts. One is regarding drm. In the USA, it is legal to strip drm from ebooks in most cases (basically, if the drm blocks the read aloud function or prevents interoperability with other software or hardware, you can break the drm for personal use). Given that, I suspect we will see increasing numbers of users backing up their ebooks on hard drive, with drm removed.

    I think the lawsuits slung around about acquiring one’s ebook collection for one’s heirs are going ti be a nightmare. And they’re coming.

    As for the race to the bottom… As some of you know, I track top hundred data in several genres on Amazon. This year has seen a steady upward trend in average indie ebook price among those breaking top hundred best-selling for a major genre. There may be a race to the bottom among some writers, but NOT among those actually selling good numbers of books. There, average price is going up, not down. Food for thought!

    1. I’m actually glad to see that upward trend, in at least some indie books. It’s starting to foster the perception that if you pay a little more you will by buying something of better quality. That may not always be the case, but if we have the guts to try it ourselves then perhaps some readers will notice and give us a try.

      1. We can hope, acflory, but I’m convinced that for every reader that gets burned by a poor quality Indie book, that’s one less reader who’ll give the others a try (I hope I’m wrong about that, however).

    2. Hey Kevin, thanks for commenting. That’s a very interesting observation and I very happy to hear that someone is tracking these things 🙂

  5. A strtike?
    Do you realize that amazon is actually LOSING money on indie authors’ work?
    Indies author’s striking would merely throw things right back to dominance by the big presses.

    Amazon’s monopoly has worried me for a long time (and their intransigence upset me way back when I was a customer) and my saying so has often been pooh-poohed. But it’s a real danger. Of them being the only player, and a really nasty one.
    But I don’t have any idea what to do about it. That;s another feature of monopolies.

    1. Hi Lin – I agree with your conclusion, although I’m not sure that Amazon loses money on anything it carries on its site (unless it’s a deliberate loss-leader such as supermarkets use). In any case, in my opinion the time for Indie Authors striking was a year ago when they introduced KDP Select. Too late now.

      1. I say again, colluding to strike or boycott by groups or individuals not organized with the right to do so can result in conspiracy (or other) charges, if I recall correctly what happened in the medical industry 20 years ago during the HMO wars when doctors talked about boycotting HMOs and were threatened with legal action for it. The power lies with the corporations not individuals.

      1. Hey Lynne – me too. We’re not in control so have to react, rather than act. You’ll have to ask the EM about the graphic 😉

  6. The “dystopian” writers (Huxley, Orwell) were only wrong in writing that the government was the bad guy. The corporatocracy is the new “Big Brother.” Power&Money.
    Talk/discuss any action you like, but be cautious about actually appearing to advocate a group action like boycotts. That may be illegal if you are not in a union or other group allowed to take group action. Many complex laws about this and the corporations have many weapons to shut down such group action, including making an example of the ringleaders. Boycotts are complex things fraught with danger.

    1. Hi Timothy, thanks for commenting. I agree with you – I often recall the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four where they are removing words from the dictionary to limit the very thoughts people can express. Terrifying, but in the 21st century we call it “dumbing down”. The result is exactly as Orwell predicted, only by a different route, and dressed up in a truly vast lie of being “free to choose”

  7. Authors who review are also Amazon readers and purchasers. When did Amazon establish this rule, and was it as result of one (1) author who went around knocking other authors with negative reviews under a pseudonym?

    1. Hi Lillian. I’m not sure about the “when” of all this, but the sock-puppet scandal in the summer blew the whole issue of reviews wide open, and these stories I’m reporting on are showing what’s happening elsewhere. Amazon can change the rules anytime it likes. And it probably will. Watch this space 🙂

  8. A technical question, Chris. Are you saying that downloading a book from the Archived cloud to a device (Kindle, iPhone, computer) does not mean you have a saved copy on the device, that Amazon can still access it and remove it from your Kindle, iPhone or computer harddrive? For any reason they deem appropriate? If so we have reached the ability to have virtual book burnings.

    1. I’m not absolutely sure about that, Timothy, but if the book on your device is DRM protected, then, as far as I understand (which isn’t that far, to be honest), Amazon can deny you access (delete it) anytime they want.

  9. Blimey, Chris, a truly eye-opening piece! Very well written.
    You’ve raised and exposed many things I was unaware off with Amazon, the Kindle and their decision making processes and reasoning.

    One thing I have noted with Amazon and self-publishing is that it is morphing and evolving all the time and we, as indie writers are all caught up in the maelstrom of publishing in a true state of flux. It will take a while for the dust to settle I think and for publishing to find its feet.

    We might all have to bear witness to some mistakes, flawed actions and bad behaviour on both sides of the fence before that happens I think. There’s a learning curve involved for both vendor and supplier methinks.

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