Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Amazon Slushpile?

Some quite interesting news this week, as first-time indie author Traci Hohenstein has signed a four-book deal with the Amazon mystery/thriller imprint Thomas & Mercer. David Gaughran has more info on his always-interesting blog.

As I said, this is an interesting development. Unlike the majority of authors Amazon has approached and signed deals with, Traci Hohenstein is truly a newbie fiction author. Burn Out is her first novel, only published to Amazon in April, and she has no backlist and no traditional publishing background. In addition, the novel is short (clocking in at 170 pages), and has some mixed reviews, the bad reviews mainly a retread of what you often see with new authors: poor editing, typos and grammatical mistakes, lack of development.

First of all, let me make myself crystal clear: this is not a discussion of the merits of Ms. Hohenstein's book or her writing ability. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet and will not comment on it until I have. (And as far as the discussion of reviews, we all know to take reviews, either good or bad, with a grain of salt.) In fact, I wish her a hearty congratulations and great success in her career. (Really, Congrats!) This post is strictly using the basic known facts of her deal as a jumping off point for discussing what we can possibly extrapolate about the coming future of self-publishing, specifically as regards Amazon.

If you've read David Gaughran's piece, he lays out a lot of the specifics as to who's being "published" by Amazon. Mostly somewhat well-known writers with a strong following, a history in traditional publishing, and a backlist of books. Ms. Hohenstein doesn't have any of these indicators. What she does have is sales. She has been kind enough to share her numbers on David Gaughran's blog, and they're quite impressive for a new self-published author (selling 10,000 books in August).Kudos!

After reading David's blog and checking out Ms. Hohenstein's Amazon listing and her blog, a thought popped into my head. Since Amazon announced its new imprints and began approaching authors to sign with them, a lot of people have wondered about what Amazon's designs are in grabbing a bigger piece of the publishing industry. As with any news about Amazon, a lot of the details are shrouded in mystery. Smart authors know that it's great to come to Amazon's attention; it can do great things for an indie author's career. But you can't query Amazon for a book deal. As an indie author, you also can't take advantage of a lot of the marketing possibilities available to big publishers: you can't set up a pre-release sales page, you can't offer a short story or book for free. (Amazon does list books for free, but no one really knows how or why they make those decisions. First, you have to have a book listed for free on another site, but beyond that it's all a black box.)

So how do you get Amazon in your corner? Previous to Ms. Hohenstein's success, it was a general consensus that you had to have an established name and a history to build on, and a stable of books to go with it. In other words, no first-time authors need apply. But that applecart has been, if not overturned, pulled around a corner really fast so that some of the produce has spilled onto the thoroughfare.

So this is my theory. If Amazon does want a bigger piece of the traditional publisher pie and wants to establish a cadre of authors to promote, but doesn't want all the dreary work of the query-go-round and the slushpile, what better way than to have their self-publishing service work AS the slushpile, and let buyers work for free as readers? In a mercenary world where a publisher wants at least a semi-sure product, this is a brilliant strategy. You buy a property that's already selling. You don't need to agonize over whether a brilliant author is marketable or rely on the whims of an editor. You already know that the property will sell and all you have to do is HELP IT SELL MORE.  Amazon can wait until any author hits some internal limit in sales, and then offer them a deal. I have no idea if Amazon offers any kind of advance. I've only heard that they offer very a very favorable split, help with mechanics (such as editing, formatting, covers), and great publicity. So they really have very little to lose if an author tanks, unless they are eventually known for publishing bad books.

Should that be true, it's both horribly depressing and wildly exhilarating. Horribly depressing in the sense that you may be a great writer and a terrible salesman, and Amazon will keep their thumb on the scale to help great salesmen while great writers languish and are further shunted aside and kept in the basement. In other words, nobody at Amazon is going to say, "I read this wonderful book absolutely nobody knows about, let's make it a bestseller!" Instead they'll say, "This may be a mediocre book, but look at those sales! Let's make sure people see it!" (And you find that grumbling already -- just read the Kindle boards and any number of indie blogs).

But conversely it means that Amazon may be more willing to help first-time authors who can do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. If you believe in yourself, get out there and find readers (as Ms. Hohenstein has apparently done quite successfully) get your sales, and you too can get the key to the executive washroom. At least now instead of a few mercenary editors being the gatekeepers, readers will be the thing that pushes you up the ladder to success, which, after all, is what indie writers have been arguing should be the paradigm all along.


  1. What a great discussion! I haven't read the linked article as I'm far more interested in your discussion that in Hohenstein's details but thanks for linking it ;)

    I know of a very newbie scifi writer who was self-publishing and thinks he's hit the jackpot getting signed onto Amazon's scifi imprint. He's in Canada so it's a little harder for him to reach the US market but since he's in Canada, his target really is here on the No. American continent. For him, Amazon was definitely the answer. Got him the reach he needed--and you're right, he wasn't selling tens of thousands of copies, but after 3-6 mos had already established an upturn in his sales and was not showing signs of slowing when they snatched him up.

    I think Amazon's internal analysis might have less to do with absolute numbers than it does with relative trends. That is it's not some specific, magic number but rather how your numbers plot against time and history. If your numbers show a sharp turn or steady climb, that probably indicates salability whereas a spike that falls off and never climbs up again indicates some event got you sales and you were unable to maintain them.

    I could be totally wrong. I have ZERO data :) I'm just speculating based on what I've seen from the outside, looking in. And now my breath is steaming the glass so I'll move along on my cold, windy sidewalk :-) wait, did I mention it's snowing and uphill--both ways? haha

    aka Sarah, The Webbiegrrl Writer
    @webbiegrrl on Twitter

    1. Hey, Sarah --

      Yeah, I find this fascinating. It really is all new territory and we don't have many data points (and even the ones we do are kind of fuzzy). Add to that the landscape is in constant upheaval (KDP select, anyone?) and it's going to be quite an interesting ride for authors who take the route of self-publishing.

      I think you're right about Amazon's internal process -- it won't be about absolute sales, but some kind of cocktail of numbers and trends that they try out to predict what to promote. Smart writers need to pay attention to the news and just keep trying to put out the best books they can, and hopefully as the picture comes into focus as time goes by, it will become easier to find out how a marketing/publishing plan fits into the new paradigm.