Quarantine all ebooks

Michael Kozlowski had this here reactionary fit:

I think its very important for all major bookstores to have an indie section because small publishers and indie authors are abusing the system.

Others have highlighted the problems with this plan.

The short version of the counter-argument: what’s a self-publisher?

Most of the major ebook retail platforms direct small publishers to use their self-serve platforms not everybody who uses them is a solo author publishing his own work.

But, there’s still an set of obvious problems here that needs to be solved:

  • Most search results in ebook retail are full of crap. You search for an author or a title and get shitloads irrelevant titles. Amazon isn’t as bad as the rest at this but they all suffer from it to some degree.
  • Dishonest publishers lie in their metadata so that they crop up all over the place, often inappropriately. (This is the cause of the recent PR disaster that caused WH Smith to shutter their website temporarily.)
  • Dishonest publishers choose author names and book titles a little bit too close to popular ones.
  • Well, lets’ just say there is a lot of general purpose gaming of the system by dishonest people.

You can try and solve one thing but then the dishonest will just find a new exploit. It’s like the arms race between Google and black hat SEO folks all over again.

Instead I have a simple suggestion:

Quarantine all new ebook titles, even those from big publishers. Only remove the quarantine when either the ebook or its print counterpart has sold more than 100 copies.

Quarantined titles only appear on Author pages and if you follow a direct link to their page. This means that most publisher online sales and marketing campaigns would still work as normal.

Once a title has sold 100 copies it is reviewed by a human to see if it fulfils the ebook retail platform’s quality requirements. If it does, quarantine would be lifted. If it doesn’t, the publisher gets a notice as to what it is that needs to be fixed.

–But this would destroy the sales for most self-publishers.

Not really. It would smash everybody who doesn’t have the platform, PR, or sales mojo to sell more than a 100 copies down to zero. But it would increase search discoverability and the sales of those who do sell more than 100 copies. Consider it a ‘you must be this tall to ride’ kind of thing. The ebook retail platform would probably increase their overall sales with the added bonus of preventing forever PR disaster like the one that took place last weekend.

Would it piss everybody off? Absolutely, and on that basis alone I think it should be implemented on all major platforms.

The self-publisher’s perspective of the ebook market

The writer Rosen Trevithick said this here thing:

For goodness sake Kobo, I took a risk publishing some of my titles with a relatively small eBook vendor. It took days to jump through your formatting hoops and I lost my bonuses for being exclusive to Amazon. I did this because I wanted to support an alternative to the market leader. You reward me by stabbing small publishing companies in the back. I’ll think twice about publishing with you in the future because you clearly aren’t ready to earn a larger share of the market.

Everything she says is true. But… I’d like to use this current crisis and her point about Kobo shafting small publishers as an excuse to look at what the ebook market looks like for a self- or small publisher.

  • Kobo’s search has always sucked (discoverability is non-existent) and they clearly have some sort of infrastructure problem (otherwise they’d have done the ‘purge’ the same way Amazon did, by flipping all suspect titles to Draft and forcing people to submit via a tighter process). They’re also clearly willing to completely shaft everybody using their self-serve publishing platform Writing Life whenever it suits them, PR-wise.
  • WH Smith. Non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love. And now their site is shuttered.
  • Waterstones. Again, non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love.
  • Foyles. Ditto.
  • Insert random bookstore’s Adobe DRM-based ebook platform. Ditto.
  • Feedbooks. Love the people behind Feedbooks but most self-publishers won’t even have heard about them, and you can only offer your stuff for free.
  • B&N Nook. Volatile as hell. Seems to be in terminal decline. Also unavailable to non-US self-publishers.
  • iBooks. A major hassle to use and submit. And, for most people I’ve spoken to, near non-existent sales.
  • Smashwords. Only really useful as a way to get into the above stores. Otherwise, meh.
  • Kindle. Stagnant platform. Almost all of the new features (series, Kindle Shorts, etc.) belong to Amazon Publishing and aren’t self-serve (and after the WH Smith porno brouhaha, two guesses as to why that is). But, it is where all of the sales are. And exclusivity offers several features that are likely to increase reach, visibility, and sales.

For those of us interested in a more open and varied ebook market, there is a singular harsh truth we must accept:

Amazon is playing the game better than the rest. That’s why they have the biggest share of the market.

I’d bet that even if Amazon abandoned discounts across the board, they’d still have their current marketshare simply because they seem to be doing a better job. Even their Kindle for iOS app has improved into borderline tolerability after the latest update.

So, if the EPUB crowd wants to compete, they need to up their game.

But, no. Instead they are either in a tailspin (B&N, WH Smith’s ecommerce side) or seem to be perpetually operating with all weapons set to ‘bland’ (Kobo, iBooks).

And, which is the fun bit, whenever something goes wrong, they don’t seem to hesitate to shaft the self-publisher.

So, I find it hard to blame any self-publisher who decides to go exclusive with Amazon. Nor do I blame any consumer who decides to buy a Kindle device or sticks to Kindle ebooks only. You don’t win customers by appealing to their charity. You have to give suppliers a reason to work with you, and buyers a reason to buy from you.


ETA: At the moment, the most sensible strategy for consumers is to buy from Amazon (and make DeDRMed backups if they are computer literate enough to Google and then use a drag and drop app). KF8 files convert nicely to EPUBs is you plan on moving to an EPUB-based platform in the future. At the same time the most sensible strategy for a small publisher is ‘it depends’.