I used to have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I considered them a necessary evil. Sure, they have monopolized both the music and the literary industry, making it almost impossible for local music and book stores to survive, but on the other hand, they provides an outlet for independent creators who otherwise would not have a platform to share their content. But lately, I have found the cons of Amazon greatly outweighing the pros, and here’s why:
1. Amazon KDP buys up and guts its competition, offering indie writers few options.
When I first published Ages of Aenya in 2018, I went through a company called CreateSpace. After much research, I found CreateSpace to be the #1 option for independent writers, and my experience with them was better than I could have hoped. For a minimal fee, the good people at CreateSpace took my MS Word file and turned it into a professional looking book, formatting the pages, chapter headings, numbering, etc. They also turned my artwork, that I commissioned separately, into a beautiful cover. What’s more, they designed the back flap with a custom background and ISBN code. The following year, Amazon, seeing that someone else was making a few pennies that they weren’t (CreateSpace has never been a very profitable company) bought CreateSpace and all of their client’s titles, including mine. But here’s the rub: they didn’t retain any of their staff or services. They gutted the company, essentially purchasing the business only to destroy it. Gone was the editorial staff, the layout designers, or any human being who could actually help you. Amazon did what they do best, eliminating jobs while automating EVERYTHING, so that for my next book, The Princess of Aenya, I would have to struggle, figuring out how to fix the interior layout and cover myself. I spent a month learning a new trade, dealing with the complexities of the printing business, and still had to hire a graphic designer for the finished product, and I still don’t think it looks as good as what CreateSpace did with my original book.
2. Amazon adversely influences traditional publishing markets.
We often forget that Amazon is a store. They are NOT a publisher, nor an agency, nor even a professional critic. They’re really no different than your local bookshop across the street. Unfortunately, Amazon has monopolized the industry, and writers have started to feel the pressure to kowtow to their business model. Call me old fashioned, but I believe fiction is about story, character development, and quality writing. I’ve spent the past three decades honing my craft, only to discover that, in this age of the “algorithm,” all that really matters is the “attention economy.” This is why trash novels about girls having sex with dinosaurs garner a lot more reviews, and a higher sales rank, than my books do. The classics of the past, I am certain, could never get published today. Who is going to pick up Watership Down, an epic tale about rabbits, when you’ve got Taken by the T-Rex? Amazon will publish your laundry list if you wanted them to. This glut of content saturating the market goes beyond pulp fiction; it’s clickbait fiction. I imagine journalists must feel the same frustration when people pass up The New York Times for Info Wars. What’s even more egregious, publishers and agents are starting to pay attention to these trends, often judging struggling authors, like myself, not by the quality of their work, but by the popularity contest that Amazon has turned the literary world into.
3. Amazon’s review policy is broken, punishing honest creators while rewarding bad actors.
Amazon’s algorithm, designed around preventing fraud, HIGHLIGHTS bad reviews while BLOCKING and REMOVING good ones. The day my first title, Ages of Aenya, was made public, I received a one-star review. The same, exact, day. The book was not yet available for download, and even with Prime delivery, it would have been impossible for someone to get it in the mail in time to read through its 600 pages. Clearly, the review was written by a troll, a person who has been harassing me for years. I reported the guy to Amazon, insisting the review was fraudulent, a thing they could easily prove if only they bothered to investigate the timing, but after numerous emails, phone calls, and complaints from fans, Amazon let it stay, an ugly and dishonest stain on my reputation. Fine, I thought—I have readers who will drown the troll out, and this started to happen, at first, UNTIL AMAZON STARTED REMOVING my good reviews!
I have spent years on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, designing ads, videos, and other marketing materials, all in the hopes of raising my review count. Now, Amazon’s guidelines forbids my friends or family from leaving reviews, which is fine, though I have to wonder, if I can’t give my book to the people I know, where am I supposed to start? As an indie author, I literally have no other options. But for the sake of reviewer integrity, I understand Amazon’s policy. Only here’s the problem: what happens when a fan becomes a friend?
This has happened to me many times, people I never knew before read my work, enjoy it immensely, and start talking to me. Readers eventually become friends and suddenly, their reviews no longer count. How does this make any sense? Am I not supposed to associate with fans? Should I tell people, “Sorry, I can’t be talking to you because of Amazon’s algorithm?” What’s even more upsetting, Amazon removes reviews if my readers SHARE my book with the people they know. Again, it is only natural that human beings share what they like with their relations. Recently, one of my readers gave my book to her mom. The mom loved it and tried leaving me some stars. Amazon not only blocked her review, but went so far as to delete her daughter’s also. WHY!?! I could understand it if the algorithm suspected foul play, two reviews coming from the same family at around the same time, but taking them both down? Isn’t it far more likely that this person, who lives across the country from me and who I have never met, is a genuine reader, and that instead of suddenly trying to cheat the system after more than a year, that she genuinely GAVE the book to somebody else who liked it?
Amazon’s algorithm not only forbids me from befriending readers, but implies that my readers can’t be friends with each other. And this doesn’t even delve into the disturbing question of how they even knows who is related to whom. Jeff Bezos’ company has become Big Brother, violating the privacy of family, friends, and fans, so that a struggling author like myself doesn’t get more than ten reviews. Meanwhile, obscure products earn thousands of reviews (5000+ for spoons, really???) with the help of Chinese hacking farms.
I have tried, repeatedly, to get Amazon to reverse these inane decisions, but again—there is no actual human being to talk to, because the company is essentially a machine, a soulless money-making machine, and all I get from them is form letter responses.
4. The Profit Motive Creates a Conflict of Interest
It’s bad enough Amazon violates the privacy of indie creators and their fans, but what a lot of readers do not realize is this: you can’t leave a review without maintaining an Amazon account and spending $50 a year. I’ve had readers tell me they’d love to give me five-stars, only they don’t use Amazon. Kara, a YouTube critic who greatly enjoyed The Princess of Aenya, told me she can’t afford it. Amazon treats its authors like any other vendor, but selling a book you’ve spent a lifetime working on and selling spoons isn’t quite the same thing, and what the company may not realize is that by monopolizing the book market and requiring people to use their service, they are creating a conflict of interest, making it so that only their customers have a say in what becomes popular and what doesn’t.
Now, you might be thinking, Nick, why not use Goodreads? That’s popular and free! But here’s a dirty little secret: Amazon owns Goodreads too, essentially monopolizing all online book reviews. Years ago, it was possible to simply ask Goodreads users to consider your book. Not anymore. Sending unsolicited queries will get you banned. But there is another solution, and of course it involves milking authors’ wallets, so for hundred+ dollars, you can let people know you would like your story looked at, and of course Amazon is the only party that profits from this.
5. Amazon’s Reviews are Fake
Twenty-thousand 5-star reviews for a book I’ve never heard of? While the latest New York Times bestseller gets only a few hundred? This doesn’t make sense. Even the recent Harry Potter pop up book sits at around 5k, far fewer than some of these virtually unknown titles. Clearly, something fishy is going on here. According to CNN:
the December 2018 findings, the supplements category had the highest share of fake product reviews on Amazon, with a reported 64 percent of reviews being considered fake. Coming in second was electronics, which had a reported 61 percent of its reviews being fake as well.
Fake reviews hurts honest authors who work really hard to earn genuine fans. I rely on my readers to get the word out about Aenya. No matter how masterfully I hone my craft, no matter how good the story, how engaging the characters, how beautiful the writing, it simply does not matter, if nobody gives the books a chance, and to do that, I need reviews. But when you see The Princess of Aenya sitting with a 4-star average and a similar fantasy title with 5-stars and over 40,000 fake reviews, which one is your average buyer going to pick?
What *You* Can Do
Amazon, as I see it, is a danger to literature. But there are steps we can take to guard our independence, our privacy, and the sanctity of the written word. First and foremost, we can START patronizing other booksellers! I am not saying to cut out Amazon completely. They have their uses, particularly when it comes to e-books and that hard to find product. But I have done immensely well at a local shop in my area, where my books have sold out twice, and The Princess of Aenya is currently available at Barnes & Noble as well. While Barnes & Noble holds a monopoly of its own, they still take a vested interest in literary merit. At any rate, you won’t see Taken by the T-Rex on any of their shelves.
So, if you want to purchase Ages of Aenya, The Princess of Aenya, or the upcoming The Feral Girl, I recommend getting them direct from me at: www.nickalimonos.com. I’ll send an autographed copy, two free bookmarks, and will be offering a steep discount competitive with Amazon, even if it means I lose money. Barring that, you can pick up The Princess of Aenya from here. You might pay a little more, but it’ll be worth it in the end.