Amazon, Formatting manuscripts, self-publishing

Filling the Amazon belly


My daughter used to work for a French stationery company – hardly a flourishing sector when handwritten letters are practically museum items now. One of her tasks was to get their products listed with Amazon, so a meeting was organised in which she expected to negotiate as she did with supermarkets. Not a bit of it. The Amazon people sat down, handed out their document and said, ‘Those are our terms. Take them or leave them.’ Naturally, she took them.

One effect of the current crisis is that Amazon is set to consolidate its already very firm grip (Who needs crisis government when you’ve got Amazon?) on the retail sector as a whole (this brief history of Amazon explains the various tactics used to bring thatabout).

As for books, that grip is now impossible to loosen. It’s easy to forget that the Bezos behemoth only began life 25 years ago, but in that time it’s established itself as by far the world’s largest bookstore, selling 560 million ebooks (89% of the market) and 807 million physical books (42% of the market) in 2018. Furthermore, they know exactly what we’re reading, when, for how long, and any highlighting or searches we undertake (How Amazon tracked my last two years of reading). In short, the Amazon strategy is clever, ruthless and effective (Amazon’s plan to take over world publishing).

The Kindle was launched in 2007, and now has 84% of the e-reader market. I have one myself, though I rarely use it – compared to an iPad, it’s clunky, not very user-friendly and has a low battery life. Ebooks will never replace physical copies – in fact in the past few years physical books have made a comeback (How ebooks lost their shine) – but one thing is sure: as a tool for self-publishers, the Kindle is here to stay. While traditional publishers often set their ebook price dissuasively high (Are ebooks too expensive?), self-publishers make full use of the competitive pricing Amazon encourages.

We’re all targeted as consumers by Amazon, and they’ve set themselves up as champions of consumer rights. But how about as writers? For a self-publisher to ignore Amazon as about as daft as a pole-vaulter disdaining to use a pole. And on the whole, they do a pretty good job of making it as easy as possible. Publishing a book these days is done in a matter of minutes. As we all know, selling any significant number of copies is far harder, but Amazon will help you here too – at a price. I haven’t yet used Amazon ads myself, but I think one day I’ll need to if I want to vault any high (for an overview of how Amazon ads work see here). In the meantime, I try to make sure my Amazon author page is OK, though there’s no doubt more I could do (Optimizing your author pages).

A recent addition to Amazon’s panoply of tools is the free app Kindle Create, which I used to format the ebook of Truffle Trouble. It’s easy to use and the result was fine, but it’s not flexible enough if you want to use different fonts or customise other aspects. And conversion of the file for a print book is still better done using Word, so in the end it didn’t save me any time at all. For an overview of Kindle Create, see here, and a comparison with Vellum (for iMac), see here.

Kindle Create, of course, being a tool that aims to lock authors into Amazon, only converts to mobi, so if you want to go wide, you’re better off converting a Word file with Calibre or Draft2Digital. But do you want to go wide? Again, Amazon entices you not to by offering advantages if you give them exclusivity through Kindle Select (a review of the differences is here). As regards this question, two of self-publishing’s major gurus, Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson, have different approaches: the first is exclusive to Amazon, the second goes wide. So there’s no obvious answer here except to try for yourself and see what you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I’ve only used Kindle Select once, not because it makes better sense commercially to go wide (80% of my sales, such as they are, come from Amazon), but because I can’t quite reconcile myself to letting the beast swallow me whole.




11 thoughts on “Filling the Amazon belly

  1. I wouldn’t venture to dip my pen in the self-publishing ink well without consulting this post and the very helpful links you’ve included. Thank you, Curtis. Your generosity to authors everywhere is a treasure.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. victoracquista says:

    Excellent post and I do so like the image! Amazon is a beast and, like it or not, they have the muscle to call the shots. They take their pound+ of flesh and authors are pretty much at their mercy (they are merciless). Having said that, I think we have to recognize and accept the reality such as it is. Complaining doesn’t change that reality. I’ve had limited success with AMS ads. KDP is easy and the promotions you can run there have some merit. I don’t know much about how other retailers have to deal with the elephant that is Amazon, but as authors and publishers, we must figure out how best to use the marketing platform they provide. C’est La Vie! Oui?

    Liked by 7 people

    • Absolument, Victor! And I think on the whole authors get a pretty good deal with them. Whenever I’ve written to them, the response has always been prompt, and usually helpful. But they call the shots and we fall into line. Reality, as you say.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. Amazon brilliantly exploited the Internet by selling items that they do not produce or warehouse or ship. Or own. used their Associates’ search feature to find 48.5 million books total on Amazon. That has to be everything except “a few ancient papyrus scrolls and stone carved tablets.”

    They don’t even market books. That’s up to the publishers and the authors. Amazon is just an accountant who takes a commission off every sale they account for. And that is truly brilliant.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I have debated Kindle Select, but I struggle with the same concerns. One of the frustrating things about Amazon is that I can search for a title and author’s name and Amazon will pull up other books- in its Select program, I assume- ahead of the exact book I am looking for.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. And Now For Something Completely Different…
    I received this email overnight from the other Amazon, KOBO. Their attitude towards their writers has always been different from the ‘Zon and this letter shows it.

    Dear authors,

    What can we say? March has been surreal. We hope you are all safe, healthy, and taking good care of your physical and mental health at a time when absolutely nothing is normal.

    Here in Toronto, we are on our third week of remote work, and we’re starting to get into the rhythm of meeting over Zoom, checking in on each other throughout the day, and figuring out how to be productive in the presence of children, roommates, and needy (yet adorable!) pets.

    These are frightening times, and we have all had moments of feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Lots of us feel a desire to contribute and to find new ways to connect with others. The silver lining in all of this is that all of you are making a difference. People need books right now, more than ever. People all over the world are turning to stories, to distract them from a worrying reality, and to keep them feeling safe and entertained at home. As writers you are providing a valuable service, and we wanted to thank you for what you do every day.

    So keep on writing, if you are able, and for those who are struggling to focus right now; be kind to yourselves and give yourself the breaks that you need to get through this.

    Yours in writing,

    The Kobo Writing Life Team

    Liked by 3 people

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