Monday 15 July 2013

But I Digress | Guilt by Amazon Association

I dare say everyone will be talking about the J. K. Rowling reveal today—I certainly will in Wednesday's edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus—but I wanted to take this time to talk about a topic that didn't quite make it into the column.

In a recent blog post for The Bookseller, you see, Keith Smith had a bit of a righteous rant about how certain authors—including Joanne Harris, Julia Donaldson, Alison Weir, Ian Rankin, Kate Morton and Patrick Ness—seemed to back Amazon and various other chain retailers despite having vouchsafed their support for smaller stores. For instance his:
“As someone who owns two independent bookshops I feel angry that these authors, unthinkingly or by design, have chosen to support Amazon, W H Smith or Waterstones without giving a fig for independent bookshops. Many of these are authors who, when asked, will say they couldn’t imagine life without their local bookshop. But words need to be matched by deeds if they are to make a difference.”
In principle, I agree with this part of Smith’s argument entirely—and so, it seems, do many of the authors he specifically took to task.

But Smith draws a hard line later in the originating article that I can’t quite get behind, by insisting that “the Booksellers Association should contact all authors immediately and ask them to stop supporting Amazon directly.”

Which strikes me, at least, as rather tyrannical. And a number of authors responded to Smith’s comments in kind. Alison Weir, for one:
“Linking to Amazon does not mean that I do not support independents. [...] The fact remains that publishers can shift large quantities of books through Amazon, W H Smith, Waterstones and the supermarkets, which are their main clients. Amazon also pays authors on their associates programme fees based on the number of books sold. Authors do have a living to make and Amazon can provide a great source of income which, sadly, independent book shops could not possibly meet. I understand the concerns of independent booksellers, and I think that there is a case to be made for Amazon to pay corporation tax, so that there would be fairer parity between its prices and those which independents with overheads have to charge. But accusing authors like me [...] of not 'giving a fig' for independents is not only ignorant but untrue; I think my deeds over the years give substance to my words."
Here’s Diana Kimpton, co-creator of the Pony-mad Princess picture books, speaking by way of The Bookseller again:
“I sympathise with small independent bookshops struggling through a recession, but authors are struggling too. Only a few get the high advances mentioned in the press. The rest earn much less, and many don't even get the equivalent of the minimum wage. As a result, the fact that the Amazon Associate scheme pays commission on sales resulting from links is very important. Because I have to split the royalty on my picture books with the illustrator, I actually earn more from the Amazon commission on a sale than I do from the publisher.”
Ultimately, I think Smith’s anger is a mite misplaced. Though it’s certainly the case that authors should be squarely behind independent booksellers, let’s face it: these days, most books are bought from the bigger names in the business, and to simply sever a supplementary source of income because Amazon and its ilk are, you know, completely evil, seems... well, selfish.

Let me be clear here. I sympathise with the plight of independent booksellers, but to ask for authors to support said stores solely goes against the real issue here: our right to choose where and from whom we buy our books. Why deny readers that? That they’re buying literature to begin with is, I think, the most important thing.

In one respect, then, Keith Smith is spot-on: authors should be seen to support choice.

But so should he, surely.


  1. This just seems ridiculous to me. In an era of digital publishing (and digital piracy) that has seen the closure of many traditional bookstores (big and small), why would we want to further restrict the ability of authors to generate revenue and help promote sales?

    I love the small, independent bookstores. There's one in Toronto that exclusively sells sci-fi/fantasy/horror, and they're fantastic for arranging author appearances. Even if I can't always make it in, I'll gladly pay for the privilege of having them ship me a signed copy after the fact.

    That, for me, is the best example of how small bookstores and authors can help support one another - with quality relationships that offer something extra.

  2. Asking authors to no longer give any support whatsoever to Amazon is like asking them to voluntarily reduce their paycheques by 75%. Not gonna happen. Even if they support independent booksellers.

    I love independent bookstores. I love the atmosphere, I love the near-guarantee that the people working there are going to like books about as much as I do, and I love that they're still around (about 90% of indie bookstores and second-hand bookstores have closed in my city in the past 10 years, and there used to be quite a few). But being an author isn't the same as being the reason that indie bookstores exist. It's not their responsibility to keep the little guy in business. And it's their right to do what they can to increase sales, because that's what allows them to keep themselves fed and in a home and all that stuff that keeps people relatively healthy and alive. It's pretty selfish to ask a person to give up a large chunk of their livelihood so that you can keep yours.

    Also, indie stores are limited in what they can provide. Are they also telling people not to buy e-books because the store can't provide them? What about an online presence and long-distance orders; some indie stores do that, but a good deal more are pretty much local. Perhaps some of those stores might to better to adapt themselves rather than telling others to adapt to their needs.

  3. I don't have a local independent bookstore I can support. There is however a branch of Waterstones that was really supportive of me as a local author. They frequently hold signings and events to promote local authors.

    Because of this, if I want to buy a new book, I go into that shop and buy it there. I want to repay them for their kindness and do my part to keep them in business.

    That said, I'm still going to link to Amazon from my blog because when someone decides they want to buy a book while they're online, the odds are that they'll go and buy it online. Plus, as noted in your post, the affiliate fee is not insignificant.