Monday, April 07, 2008

What's Up with Amazon?

As a customer of and someone who knows people who are using print-on-demand publishing options instead of going the traditional route, I'm interested but woefully uninformed about Amazon’s recent moves into digital music and other technologies. And now Amazon’s got author advocates all fired up.

If you don’t know what print-on-demand (POD) is, it’s essentially a way for writers to get published in an increasingly difficult market. First writers turned to what’s sometimes called “vanity presses,” which required authors to purchase a certain number of copies and essentially sell them from the trunks of their cars.

Then came POD, which offered writers a chance to get published without a huge outlay of cash or warehousing. As a reader, I could go to an author’s Web site, click through to Amazon (thanks to their affiliate program) and buy a book. The book would be printed upon receipt of the order and shipped from the POD facility in an Amazon box. It offered authors a way to get a bigger percentage of profits and allowed their books to be available in perpetuity (or as long as the POD company stayed in business). I won't go into editorial quality--the point is that the author would get a bigger per-book share and could hope to be permanently backlisted, two things all writers want.

In today’s Publishers Lunch, the headline Time to Sue Amazon? jumped out at me. The brief piece said, “[O]rganizations are lining up to complain about Amazon’s recent move to require POD publishers to use Booksurge if they want their product sold directly by the e-tailer as in-stock merchandise." Reportedly Amazon said it would reduce transportation costs, allow for speedier delivery, and enable the bundling of shipments.

My Amazon orders usually arrive via USPS (thanks to Super Saver shipping). My mail carrier is going to be making his trip six days a week whether or not I order a book, so the transportation issue is probably moot. In addition, POD houses like Ingram’s and Infinity promise a 48-hour turnaround on orders, so speed really isn’t an issue for buyers. Bundled shipments essentially helps only one party—Amazon—by making them more efficient, and more likely to pull a (bigger) profit.

It stands to reason that Amazon, by virtue of owning a bigger piece of the POD pie, will make a lot more money in aggregate sales. It’s causing some industry experts to accuse the company of trying to monopolize the POD supply chain. Author-advocate groups such as Authors Guild and American Society for Journalists and Authors said they're either reviewing the legal implications of this “bold move” or are urging the Washington State (where Amazon is located) attorney general's office to investigate the possibility of anti-trust violations.

Maybe now is a good time to support my local bookstores till this is figured out. At the top of my list is Moravian Bookshop, the oldest indie in the country and, gosh darn it, just a really neat place to shop.

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