Here is a re-blog of my interview about Amazon over at theprose.com

In the past few weeks, people have come out from behind their writing desks in veritable droves to share their stories with us. As a result, we are learning more every day about the lack of transparency at Amazon. We briefly touched on the topic in an article called “The Politics of Privacy” which referenced UK author and prolific book reviewer, Christoph Fischer. He agreed to give us an interview, in which he states that his recent experience with Amazon was a sobering one.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR EARLIEST DAYS AS A REVIEWER/AUTHOR ON AMAZON.  TAKE US BACK TO THE TIME WHEN YOU WERE HOPEFUL AND EXCITED ABOUT THE FUTURE. WHEN DID THAT CHANGE?

Almost as soon as I had published my first book and was waiting and hoping for reviews, I understood their importance for indie authors. So I began to review everything that I read (including Stephen King and Armistead Maupin novels). I was a novice to social media and slowly got to know other authors and readers via Goodreads and Facebook author/reader groups. I learned how to use Twitter and my blog to connect with readers.

Armistead Maupin

I was naïve to connect to all of them, accepting all friendship requests and following everyone back on Twitter. On Twitter and FB, I also found many interesting books and invited authors onto my blog. Little did I know that this would come to haunt me and make me a ‘fraud’ in Amazon’s eyes. (Amazon took also my reviews for Maupin’s books down, thinking that I’m friends with him. I wish!) 

I’ve heard of big review purges on Amazon when I first started out reviewing: They were mainly targeted at non-verified purchases and the problem was resolved by adding the phrase “I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a review.” Many authors had, however, irretrievably lost hundreds of legitimate reviews over this. At the time I believed that Amazon had good reasons to do this, even though it felt odd. Amazon had welcomed me as writer with open arms and I didn’t want that romance come to an end over its reviewing policy. I carefully labelled all of my reviews according to that rule from day one.

The other, more legitimate target was people writing multiple reviews. One author was rumoured to have written 600+ reviews for her own books by constantly creating new Amazon accounts and again, I naively stood behind this enforcement. I had met said author and deemed her capable of it. She had to be guilty. Amazon and Goodreads used IP addresses to stop this practise. However, what they also did was deleting reviews by husband and wives who shared a computer and a taste in similar books. The stubbornness and brutality that the victims of those purges reported astonished me.

Since I never lost any reviews I still quietly trusted the system – until it happened to me. I wish I was friends with Armistead Maupin, whose books I reviewed. I wish Armistead Maupin and 1700 author ‘friends’ had paid me to review their books.

All anger aside: I completely understand that Amazon needs to do something about fake reviews and can’t discuss its methods in public. But the cold, impersonal and authoritarian style it goes about it and the lack of common sense shows a bullying side to the company that has sobered me up.

IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ANALOGY BEST DESCRIBES THE CURRENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AMAZON AND INDIE AUTHORS?

“Sink or swim” or “take it or leave it.”

Amazon knows it is the market leader and can enforce its rules because indie authors have no alternative (yet). They are consumer orientated which is not a bad thing per se. In the UK they are however currently subjected to scrutiny for refusing to pay minimum wage and the working conditions for delivery drivers on Amazon Prime. You can see they are only interested in market dominance, not how they get there. I no longer deem them a reputable company, nor do I feel as if I was their partner in my publishing experience.

Do bestselling New York Times authors not constantly receive reviews and promos from other authors?

ARE THERE OTHER EXAMPLES OF RECENT POLICY CHANGES THAT HAVE NEGATIVELY IMPACTED INDIE AUTHORS? (FOR EXAMPLE: KINDLE UNLIMITED ROYALTY PAYMENTS BEING ISSUED BASED ONLY ON THE NUMBER OF PAGES READ. HOW DO THEY KNOW THE PAGES HAVE BEEN READ? )

Not all changes are necessarily bad. I was dead set against KU. I took all of my books out of the programme but Amazon even honours books that were purchased under the KU scheme and are only being read now. I write long books so I earned more from those past sales than I would have had the books sold now. For authors of children’s books, however, who by nature of the genre cannot write 400page books this is hugely unfair. They miss out on promotions that are exclusive to the KU/ KDP Select programme or on proportional royalties.

The system needs refinement. Readers need to be protected from intrusion onto their kindles and given a choice whether they want to volunteer that information to Amazon. This is electronic spying that should be optional and consensual to be legal, not just part of a ‘if you want a kindle you need to accept these condition’ all-or-nothing style.

Kindle Scout is a good programme as far as I can see. A bit extreme to lock you in for five years exclusively but I am sure if Amazon wishes to push a book it will sell it. It has the infrastructure and can exploit it as it wishes.

WHAT MESSAGE DOES THIS SEND TO NEW AUTHORS? HOW DO YOU THINK THE NEXT GENERATION OF UP-AND-COMERS FEELS ABOUT THIS? WHAT SUGGESTIONS WOULD YOU GIVE THEM FOR ESTABLISHING A SECURE FOOTHOLD IN THE LITERARY COMMUNITY? (FOR EXAMPLE: SHOULD THEY BE BLOGGING? INTERACT MORE WITH THEIR PROSPECTIVE AUDIENCE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA ENGAGEMENT?)

You raise a very interesting question. Since Amazon does not reveal the source of its ‘knowledge’ on how people are related, anything could be used and brand you a ‘fraud’: Connections on Facebook, Twitter and blogging.

Unless you can afford to pay someone on a different computer to connect to readers (who might be authors) you are definitely handicapped.

Amazon used to cut out the middle man: the publisher who wouldn’t read your submissions. They promised to help with selling our books. Now they only help you selling them if you put them in Kindle Direct Publishing or Kindle Unlimited. I know that Apple and iBooks are coming after Amazon and I hope they do so fast.

THE LAST TIME WE CHECKED THERE WERE 14,451 SIGNATURES OF THE REQUIRED 15,000 ON THE PETITION. WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP ONCE THE SIGNATURES ARE COLLECTED? WHAT ACTIONS WILL FOLLOW, AND WHO BEARS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF KNOCKING ON AMAZON’S DOOR WITH THE NEWS? WHAT DO YOU PREDICT WILL HAPPEN AFTER THAT?

I have no experience with petitions so I would guess the people who started the petition will knock on Amazon’s door. Amazon has been known to listen when a big enough PR tipping point has reached. I hope that it will re-tune its algorithms. It came up with a solution once before (‘I was given a copy of this book for review’). It can be resourceful and is not a mere evil machine.

With enough publicity, common sense may prevail.

REALISTICALLY, AMAZON WILL ALWAYS BE AT THE TOP OF THE PROVERBIAL FOOD CHAIN. ASIDE FROM ORGANIZING BOYCOTTS AND SIGNING PETITIONS, WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF WAYS THAT INDIES CAN AVOID GOING DOWN THAT ROUTE? ARE THERE OTHER, NOTABLE COMPANIES THAT OFFER SIMILAR SERVICES (PUBLISHING, REVIEWS, E-COMMERCE) TO INDIE AUTHORS? ARE ANY OF THEM OWNED BY AMAZON?

Friends in the business world tell me that Apple and Amazon are big competitors. Apple and Google both have bones to pick with Amazon. iBooks is the most likely to succeed. With a revamped interface and a big enough investment they can do it.

I hope that the trend of cheap and simple will revert when enough small companies have gone out of business. It’s woken me up of what we let Amazon do on a wider scale and I am buying local and at other retailers again where I can.

BrooklynandBo

This is so right on. I feel Christoph’s words since I am going through the same thing and see it as he does. Beautifully expressed. Sobering!
36 minutes ago
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