The War Against Amazon: a Reader’s Perspective

There has been so much in the news lately about several major publishers going to war with Amazon over their contract renewal negotiations. It’s sad because authors – and readers – are getting caught in the middle. Two Hachette authors that I like had the misfortune to have new ebooks come out during the time period when Amazon removed Hachette’s pre-order buttons. Although the details of the new contracts have not been released, it seems like four of the majors have gone back to the Agency Model or something very similar. The infamous “This price was set by the publisher” has reappeared all over Amazon, and there have been huge jumps in the price of ebooks. For instance, I purchased Raintree, an anthology by Beverly Barton, Linda Howard, and Linda Winstead Jones, for $4.75 on April 15th. The next day, it jumped to $10.99. “This price was set by the publisher.”

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Unfortunately, I think these price hikes will really hurt authors. I think a lot of readers are not willing to pay so much for ebooks, especially when publishers save on printing, manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping costs. According to Hachette’s CEO, Michael Pietsch, “We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish—hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and ebook.  While ebooks do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.” As a reader, I don’t think I should pay for shipping on a book that has no shipping costs. I’m quirky that way.

The main reason I side with Amazon in this “war”, though, is because I have no choice. DRM makes it so. I have purchased over 7,000 ebooks in the five years since I bought my first Kindle. Yes, some of those were free. But still, those are my books. I haven’t read the majority of them yet, and they all have DRM (I assume). That means that if I do change ereaders, I lose all these books, which I simply can’t afford to do. Unless I learn how to strip DRM from them, which I know nothing about except what I’ve read in other blogs. I have no desire to learn this or to spend the time stripping DRM from over 7,000 ebooks. And I shouldn’t have to.

DRM is another reason that many readers are not willing to pay as much for an ebook as for a paper book. You cannot lend many of them (and those you can, can only be loaned once). You cannot sell them at a garage sale or donate them to a library when you’re done with them. Plus, DRM creates another PITA for Kindle owners. I have purchased many Kindles, and I’ve had to return a few that were defective, which Amazon replaced. Every single time I get a new Kindle, I have to re-download all my books ONE. BOOK. AT A TIME. Because of DRM. I can’t just drag all my books from my old Kindle into a folder on my computer and then copy them all onto my new Kindle. It doesn’t matter that both are registered to the same Amazon account. It’s not allowed. I’ve come to dread getting new Kindles because of the time involved in this. And in order to share ebooks and apps with my husband, we had to use the same account, so it looked like I owned all the Kindles and Fires. Amazon has finally changed this through their new “family sharing”, but it’s really too late for us. For years, we’ve seen all of each other’s purchases and had to deal with sharing each other’s collections. Of course, I’ve had some fun with this. I’ve sent every single free ebook that might embarrass him to his Kindle Fire’s carousel. Hehehe.

I have to ask the authors out there (since I am not one), how does the Agency Model affect your royalties? I know the first time it kicked in might have been too early in the growth of ebooks to tell, but what about when the lawsuit settlement did away with this model a couple of years ago? Did you see an increase or a decrease in royalties? Or did they stay about the same? It will be interesting to see what happens with your Amazon royalties over the next few months. Please keep me posted. I’m very curious.

When the Agency model first kicked in in 2010, I remember the outrage expressed in some of my Yahoo reading groups. I don’t fully understand the math behind the Agency Model, but here is a link to J.A. Konrath’s blog from 2012, which explains why he thinks the Agency Model hurts authors and publishing companies. Since he’s an author, and I’m not, I’ll defer to him on this.

It’s all about control of ebook pricing. As a reader, it feels like discrimination because it is only targeted at ebooks, not paperbacks or hardcovers. During the first Agency Model go-round, there were actually some ebooks that were priced HIGHER than paperbacks and one or two I wanted that cost MORE than the hardcover version of the same book. This happened because Amazon was allowed to charge whatever they wanted for the paperback and hardcover, but the publishers had control of the ebook prices. A box store near my house gives 25% off all paperbacks, selling them for $5.99. Walmart also heavily discount paperbacks, but ebooks were not allowed to be discounted or put on sale or clearance by the retailers since they had no control over those prices. It made me wonder at the time if the plan was too squelch ebook, and thus ereader, sales. Remember, this started back in the early days of ereaders in 2010. At the time, Kindles cost more than they do now. I think Amazon discounted ebooks as an incentive to buy a Kindle, which is where they probably made their money. After ebook prices shot up, they started dropping the price of their devices.

As far as purchasing ebooks directly from publishers, Amazon has actually made that a little easier because you can now send these ebooks to Amazon to archive in your library as personal documents and to wirelessly download to your Kindles. But wait! That’s only if it’s in the correct format (Mobi is safest right now as PRC no longer works). I was able to do this with an ebook I purchased directly from Carina Press. Because the epub I bought was DRM-free, I was able to use Calibre to convert it to Mobi. However, if the ebook has DRM, you cannot do this. And if the book’s in the wrong format (like epub), you can’t read it on your Kindle at all. I purchased quite a few PRC ebooks directly from publishers back in the days when Kindle used PRC. Changing software and technology can make non-Amazon-purchased ebooks obsolete, and you can lose the ability to open them or read them on your Kindle. Here is a screenshot of the email I just got from Amazon when I tried to convert and archive an old PRC ebook I bought from a publisher years ago. The DRM keeps me from converting it in Calibre. This email shows which formats Amazon will convert for you and provides a link for more information.

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Some publishers are providing apps so you can read their ebooks on your Kindle Fire or use Adobe Editions. That is not the same as reading on a Kindle Paperwhite or Voyager. I bought my first Kindle for the e-ink technology, something the Fire does not have. It was a time when I was reading so much fan fiction online on my computer that my eyes started bothering me and my laptop gave out. So I purchased a Kindle TO SAVE MY EYES, and it got me re-addicted to books. Why would I then choose to purchase ebooks that I can only read on a computer or other LCD screen (like a tablet, Fire, or iPhone)?

And I love so many features on my Kindle that I’ll never go back to paper books again. I LOVE how handy and easy the dictionary is to use. Plus, you have instant access to Wikipedia and language translations. I use the highlighting all the time. I also adjust the font size since my eyes are worse in the mornings. I love being able to simply enlarge the print instead of using reading glasses. Then I can change the font back later in the day. I also love that the new screens have a light you can adjust, so I can read in bed without waking my husband. Finally, who can resist being able to carry hundreds of books in your purse without adding much weight to it? I simply can’t go back to tree books.

It seems like some of the big publishers are more willing this go-round to put some of their ebooks on sale, particularly Simon and Schuster and Macmillan. Not that many ebooks are being discounted so far, though. I was heartbroken to see the huge leaps in some of HarperCollins’ (and thus, Harlequin’s) prices. I’m not sure why, but after the court settlement, Amazon seemed to discount HarperCollins ebooks the most. Because of that, I purchased them heavily during the past two years, and so I am now addicted to many HC authors. I didn’t start reading romance until 2011 when I was already boycotting the major publishers because of the Agency Model. So these authors were all new to me in 2012, and I would never have discovered them if not for the low prices. It’s too early to tell whether HarperCollins will be offering any sales on their ebooks, but I hope they will.

And Penguin Random House is next.