Amazon vs. Print-on-Demand

Apparently Amazon is making moves to drop any POD books not printed by their own BookSurge service. I’m not sure how long this was brewing, but stories are popping up all over.

I can see how this makes sense, from a certain point of view. Asking Amazon, who is now in the POD business, to sell POD books from LuLu (for example) could be seen as similar to asking Wendy’s to sell you a Whopper.

Unintended Consequences

To me this sends a message to all other book sellers that it’s ok to not consider POD books as real products, and refuse to carry them. I can envision all the major chains having their own in-house POD setups at some point, and they’ll follow suit by refusing to carry anything “not printed here”. This will include those books printed by Amazon’s BookSurge service.

Maybe I’m missing something more obvious, but it really seems that Amazon has set back the legitimacy of a certain class of books based solely on how they were printed and bound. I’m fully aware that there’s a lot of junk out there, because with POD anyone can “publish” their own book, but at the same time there are some wonderful works that perhaps would not be available in print any other way.

As a consumer, books in this situation might as well be mythical creatures. If I like to shop at a big chain, and they tell me “We don’t have a listing for that. We can’t order it,” then that’s it. Anything more requires jumping through hoops, meanwhile there are thousands of other books I can walk home with right now. Online it’s even worse. If a book isn’t up for order at your preferred online book seller it might as well not exist at all. And to many consumers, it won’t.

A Business Opportunity?

I foresee a lot of gloom and doom while this shakes out. There’s a change it will come to nothing in the end. It’s also possible Amazon is hoping to use this to get more favorable agreements out of POD houses before letting them back in. As such I’m just speculating here.

What if things play out like I suggested earlier, with each book seller having their own POD house, and not taking books from other POD houses. Assuming that the different POD services don’t have exclusivity agreements, the best option would be to offer you book through all of them. It’s obvious. Then wherever folks are they can get your book.

Simple, right?

No, not really. Having put together one book for LuLu I know it can take a great deal of time to prep the book to look good when they print and bind it. I’m sure other services have their own pitfalls. The idea of learning them all fills me with dread. Who has time for that?

But what if a someone started up some sort of aggregated POD service, where you get them your manuscript and they go through the process of getting it up on all the POD services for you? Could such a thing work? If you’re a POD author, would you use such a thing?

I’d be interested to hear other folks thoughts, so please comment.

7 Comments

  1. corwin says:

    To my admittedly cynical thinking, this kind of action frees Amazon’s Booksurge service from having to be better than, or even as good as, other POD services. I don’t know a lot about how POD works, but I’m guessing they figure that as the biggest online retailer in the universe, they can force everyone to use Booksurge if they want to have a presence through their site. Why bother with the smaller ones if you can’t get them sold through Amazon?

  2. nlowell says:

    This is an interesting idea. There’s precedent for it in the search engine world with services that take your URL and spread it to the winds.

    I think it may be more likely that alternate distribution channels may well supercede Amazon’s attempt at throttling the competition. It’s certainly within their right to sell only those books through their venues … and you can still buy those books … just not directly from Amazon.

    As an example look at Mur Lafferty’s “Playing for Keeps” at http://playingforkeepsnovel.com (ding). The podcast drives the traffic. The PDF keeps the interest up by embedding easter egg audio clips in there. There’s a slew of fan generated content — a whole separate feed of it. There’s the video blog. Oh and right there in the corner – a link to Lulu.com to buy the book. Shipping costs notwithstanding, Amazon’s actions won’t effect this book at all. I can see a LOT more people following this model, particularly in the short term.

    Another factor is the changing landscape of publishing. As more and more publishers follow Crown’s lead — and they will — and troll the podosphere for new properties, POD will become one of a group of options — not just the only option. Inherent in that will be choices about distribution and marketing. The more you’re willing to do yourself, the less you’ll be willing to follow an Amazon model.

    JMO. YMMV.

  3. Jay says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    corwin: As to why bother, because what if you can’t get BookSurge books anywhere but? That’s just as bad. Some folks don’t shop online, or don’t shop at Amazon.

    nlowell: I know all about the fan generated content (see: http://www.playingforkeepsnovel.com/2008/01/06/stories-of-the-third-wave-episode-6/) for Playing for Keeps, and I think Mur did an awesome job (I still have to finish it, actually). But folks subscribing to your podcast who want your print book will most likely buy it wherever. Preaching to the choir and all that.

    But what if I’m who someone hears about “Playing for Keeps”, maybe in passing somewhere, and thinks it sounds interesting. In the car, off to Borders, and they don’t have it, and can’t order it. Man, I really wanted it right away, but it’ll be cheaper on Amazon anyhow. Huh, it’s not on Amazon (or it’s on Amazon but has no “Buy it” button). I don’t have time for this. Forget it.

    I know some friends who’d love the book, and that scenario is exactly what would happen if I suggested it to them. So they’ll only get it if I buy it for them as a present, but when they recommend it to their friends the same thing happens.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but if it was my book I’d never want anyone to have to jump through hoops, or shop somewhere they aren’t comfortable with. I’d never want discouraged potential fans/readers/consumers who would associate my name with frustration if they ever heard it again.

  4. nlowell says:

    oh yea .. I agree. For the great majority of people that’s exactly the scenario.

    And as for preaching to the choir on podcast books, yes! Exactly. The market is NOT to sell books to people who never heard of you. It’s converting people to sing in the choir and providing a volume of stuff for them to buy. The people who want to buy Quarter Share in paper right now are NOT people who’ve never heard of Nathan Lowell. They DO look on Amazon for it, but they also look on my website and periodically ask where they can buy it (no place — yet).

    But you’re also talking about NOW. The general penetration of technology skills into the population at the moment is laughable.

    Five years ago “google” wasn’t a verb.

    Five years ago, most people still looked at Amazon as a kind of oddball store.

    Five years ago, eBay was amusingly kitchy.

    Five years ago, Adam Curry and Dave Winer hadn’t invented the podcatcher yet.

    Right now, the majority of people are calling anything you can play on your ipod a podcast, could be persuaded that RSS is the enforcement branch of the Republican Parth, and think wiki is a kind of hawaiian shanty.

    Five years from now?

    Even next year?

    The horizon is a lot closer than I think most people understand it to be. We slip into the world little by little each day. We don’t notice the change, it’s so gradual. With the horizon so close, the window of opportunity of such a service as you describe is pretty narrow.

    Would *I* use it? No. But then I’m unlikely to do POD. My main goal is NOT to get the books in paper. My main goal is to provide audio content for a bazillion hungry ipods. Paper’s nice and I wouldn’t turn down a contract, but it’s not my focus. Some people will not listen to the audio version for one reason or another and that group is going to have to get by without me. If I spend time dealing with POD then that’s time away from creating new content. That’s not something I’m interested in doing, especially since, if I do, then I’ve just sacrificed any FUTURE ability to sell print rights if/when I run out of stories to tell.

  5. Dursin says:

    I liked your Wendy’s/Whopper analogy, but it may be more like going into one of those places and ordering a beer or pizza. Or like NBC showing ads for shows on CBS. Honestly, should we expect Amazon to do any different? Why would they carry books by other people? The goodness of their heart?

    The silver lining is this; as the biggest online retailer (and probably up there in selling anything), Amazon probably sees the POD market as something that they should get involved in because they saw potential. That has to be a good sign. And I tend to think that people who are looking for a relatively- obscure (and we can debate that) POD book or author woudl be the type to jump through the hoops to get what they want. People like my Dad, well, not so much, but he’s probably not your target audience anyway. An author who is known in that world though will probably attract those kinds of folks.

    And as far as your point about anyone being able to “publish” now, leading to huge piles of crap everywhere and a few diamonds in the rough, well, that is the danger in all self-publishing, and it’s certainly a curse to those few diamonds. And you know full well I know what I’m saying.

  6. Boris says:

    The way things are on the internet rules change quickly.We need to stay on top of all information.Thanks

  7. Michael Terry says:

    For your information this news of Amazon/Booksurge abuse of power is illegal as a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Remember how Microsoft got into trouble?, well this is similar and a complaint should be filed with the federal government. Perhaps the Federal Trade Commission or other government bureau such as the Department of Justice could take up the case. Perhaps Amazon will be forced to see its stock in Booksurge.