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.