Lawsuit against Amazon.com on behalf of self-publishers

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Angela Hoy, editor of Writers’ Weekly and co-owner of Booklocker.com, has filed a class-action lawsuit against the online retailer Amazon.com. For those of you not familiar with the controversy, a few months ago Amazon decided that it was in everyone’s interest if they were to require that all print-on-demand companies who wish to continue selling on the site use their own printing services. In other words, if I were to self-publish my own book and work with the good folks over at Booklocker to print and market it, they would have to actually turn around and pay Amazon to print it and add it to their massive catalog. If they refuse, Amazon will turn off the Buy Now button on the book’s page, which means that buyers on the site who want to purchase the book will have to do so via the company’s 3rd-party sellers (e.g., AbeBooks). That does, of course, disqualify the purchaser from Amazon’s Free Shipping offer.

Ah, Jeff Bezos. We hardly knew ye.

This essentially creates a monopoly scenario in which Amazon — again, the largest retailer of books in cyberspace — will be in control of not just the sale of books on their site (including the price) but also the printing. You can read all about the various ways in which Amazon will be sucking up the profits for itself while leaving publishers scrambling to revamp their entire business structure (and probably going out of business) in order to accommodate this new and very sudden turn of events. There have been a number of complaints about the quality of books under the new program: spines falling apart, pages missing or upside down, covers creased. While the POD publisher has control over who gets his/her printing business and therefore can choose who can best meet their needs, they’ll lose all of that under Amazon’s draconian requirements. POD publishers are now required to use Amazon’s own print-on-demand division, called BookSurge, which reportedly has a miserable reputation for churning out low-quality volumes.

If you’re an author or even would-be author who is remotely interested in POD publishing, you need to be aware of this issue now. One of the main benefits of self-publishing the POD route is that you have a great deal of control over the quality of the finished book as well as the price. Under Amazon’s new program, you’ll not only lose the former, but you’ll also see less of the latter as POD publishers must cover their own expenses in order to accommodate Amazon’s requirements and fees. If you’re not happy with the way the book turns out or with the “royalties” you’ll be getting from your Amazon sales, tough. Your only recourse is to use another POD publisher, but that would mean losing the coveted Buy Now button your book’s page on Amazon, thereby losing out on many potential customers who prefer the convenience of that option, not to mention the Free Shipping that provides.

Even those of you who have no intention whatsoever to self-publish, and would prefer the more traditional route of approaching the big companies, these developments in the world of bookselling should worry you. According to this recent New York Times article, Amazon has become increasingly brazen about its demands for a larger cut of book sales from even venerable publishers such as Hachette and Bloomsbury. Apparently, Amazon negotiates annually with these companies over the cut that it receives for each book sold. Of late, the online retailer has been demanding ever larger percentages and is using their growing clout to get what it wants. Even Stephen King’s been affected — some of his backlist titles are seeing their Buy Now buttons disappear while the publishers wrangle with Amazon.

Angela Hoy has been at the forefront of the controversy since it first exploded last year. Writers and book buyers should definitely keep a close eye on this one, as it could determine who will control the distribution and sale of all books published in the world. With many, many writers depending on Amazon’s global reach for the majority of their sales, and readers in turn making most of their purchases on the site, a legal success by the retailer could theoretically result in their monopoly over publishing and bookselling. As if the fact that we’re now down to a handful of publishing conglomerates isn’t enough to keep us up at night about the ever increasing consolidation of media into the hands of a half-dozen corporations.

Read and learn more about the whole controversy here on Angela’s dedicated site. In the meantime, think about possibly boycotting Amazon and heading instead to some alternative sites, including Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Powell’s, an indie retailer from Portland, OR. (Gosh, remember when B&N and Borders were the bad guys?) Or check out IndieBound.org, formerly BookSense. It’s a community of independent booksellers throughout the country. Enter your zip code, and the site will send you over to the Web site of the nearest indie bookshop to you. Many, if not most indie bookstores have their own online retail business, so you could just pick up a copy of your favorite Somerset Maugham book without ever having to leave your home. (When I put my zip in, the site gave me Arches Book Company in Moab. Awesome bookstore, and they sell online.)

POD publishers have their own sites as well, including Booklocker.com, Publish America, and iUniverse. They have hundreds, if not thousands of titles in their catalogs. Check them out and see if you can discover the next bestselling title.