PROCEED WITH CAUTION: OPINIONS AHEAD. If you don’t agree, by all means speak up. As Terry Pratchett wrote in DIGGERS, “The trouble with having an open mind … is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”

Consider this a personal invitation.

In case you missed the subject line, I am NOT an Amazon hater. I lived in Seattle when Amazon ascended. I shopped Amazon during its early years. I shop Amazon now. The company has always provided exemplary service, and I’ve no complaints.

"Camilla & the Amazon Box" by Reb (Flickr)

“Camilla & the Amazon Box” by Reb (Flickr)

The first book I ever purchased via Amazon.com was On a Voiceless Shore: Byron in Greece by Stephen Minta. It was unavailable at my local Borders (a moment of silence for Borders, please). I am able to provide you with this bit of trivia because Amazon allows me to peruse all sixteen years of my online orders with the click of a mouse.

Pretty cool but not the reason for this post.

The bottom line here is exactly that—the bottom line. Amazon.com is where it is today because the company filled a niche and provided a valuable service to its customers. I won’t hazard a guess as to how the company will wield its considerable power and influence in the future, but I refuse to blame Amazon for the downfall of traditional publishing or brick and mortar book stores.

Simple truth: Amazon built a better mousetrap, and the world beat a path.

As Joe Konrath has pointed out—and Joe is not alone here—the mess in which traditional publishers currently find themselves is of their own making. No one likes a sore loser. If traditional publishers want to survive, they need to suck it up, stop blaming Amazon and assume some responsibility not so much for their actions as for their inaction.

In the words of the great Vince Lombardi, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

I would love to see traditional publishing survive. The thought of a world where Amazon is the be all and end all when it comes to the written word makes me squirm. This despite the fact that Amazon is about the only publisher left willing to take a risk and to (forgive me, oh great cliché gods) think outside the box.

None of this has stopped me from shopping Amazon. My 2013 orders include a Zojirushi rice cooker, two ThermoWorks thermometers, a box of Jimnie gel stick roller ball pens, two Lodge hot-handle holders, an Archipelago candle, and a Post-it Flags value pack.

Other than pre-orders and books unavailable elsewhere, I stopped buying books from Amazon years ago—unless you count the more than five hundred FREE e-books that have found their way onto my two Kindles over the past couple years.

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“Amazon Package” by Neff Conner (flickr)

I’m not ashamed to admit it: to help fellow-writers with their Amazon rankings, at one time I downloaded every free book that was blogged, tweeted, or facebooked.

That was then. These days when I see the word “free,” I turn tail and run. My Kindles are full to bursting with books I’ll never get to, and I doubt I’m alone in this.

It has become excruciating to watch writer after writer devalue their painstaking and heartfelt work in exchange for—I’m sorry—a ranking that captures how many times a free book has been downloaded.

Not read. Downloaded.

And as someone with 500+ freebies on her kindle, I find it harder and harder to pretend the freebie ranking means anything beyond the artificial environment Amazon has so artfully created.

When I say devalue, I am speaking metaphorically. I realize free book promotions often generate future sales and better visibility on Amazon. While I understand writer motivation, this practice reaches beyond cash register receipts. As freebies become increasingly common and less “special,” readers in turn will become inured to the glut.

And yes, writers creating a market for free books concerns the hell out of me.

Maybe if Amazon would deign to release numbers, I would change my mind, but at present, necessity dictates a dependence on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard a reader say he or she discovered a fabulous new author via a FREE download or from tapping Amazon’s Top 100 FREE ranking. Okay, so I’ve never heard this from a reader, but I’ve heard it from several writers. Did I mention anecdotal evidence?

The rise of indie-publishing—writers taking control of their work and getting it into the hands of readers—is an amazing thing. We’ve come so far, so fast, maybe it’s time to take a moment and reflect. Mayn’t there be a more substantive, long-range, less risky, and direct means to achieve publishing triumph than giving our work away and expecting our audience find us?

NEXT UP—Part II: Amazon Reviews, an Epic Fail

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