Why Amazon is a writer’s best frenemy.

Amazon is your frenemy. Image courtesy Finding FUKI.
It’s fashionable in writing circles these days to vilify Amazon as if the company was a science fiction monster stomping a beautiful edifice into dust. Most of these authors and their allies, such as the members of Authors United, owe their fame and livelihoods to legacy publishing, so it’s natural for them to defend the hand that feeds. On the flip side, they weren’t complaining when Amazon took the risk of opening new markets for their books, which presumably meant higher sales and larger royalty checks. Friends with benefits are a good thing, until you realize the “friend’s” real motives. Of course, Amazon was never their friend, and it’s not their enemy.

For the midlist author or the writer rejected by the legacy world, Amazon and its cousins in the self-publishing universe are a godsend. I’m a case in point. Proposals for my first book, a history of an important Seattle-area fishing schooner, were turned down by more than a dozen traditional publishers, including several that specialize in stories from the Pacific Northwest. One editor said too few people would buy the book to justify the risk. That makes perfect sense: Maritime history is a niche market, publishing is a risky business, and a press needs to break even on its investments at least. A generation ago, the project would have ended there. In the 21st century, the self-publishing world made possible my small contribution to local history. The book is now available in Seattle-area public libraries and for purchase online. Since then, I’ve published other books through Amazon or its companies in this way. For me, Amazon is my friend.

Or maybe Amazon’s my enemy. In the course of publishing another book, I ran into the dreaded “review from Hell,” in which a reader–in this case a gift shop retailer that bought then returned the books she purchased for resale–lambasted me in the comments section of my Amazon listing for a factual error. Yep, I goofed in the book, and I nearly panicked, because her review was one of only three at the time, and as every author knows, reviews have a huge effect on sales. Desperate to balance out her biting critique, I asked my pastor to write a review (I didn’t tell him what to say), and he obliged with positive, yet restrained praise. I also asked Amazon to remove the negative review, saying the writer had a financial ax to grind. Amazon said no, because the comments did not violate its guidelines. The review is still there, probably tamping down sales. (I fixed the error in the Kindle version. It was too late to fix the print version.)

Amazon is neither my friend nor my enemy. It’s a business partner, and the senior partner at that. The company needs your product to be, as Brad Stone put it, The Everything Store, and it lets you in the publishing game for a piece of the action. My mother taught me that when you go a friend’s house, you follow the parent’s rules. That’s goes for frenemies, too.

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