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Dave-Brendon de Burgh

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Amazon and South African Authors

First published on The Writer’s Life.

Let me start off by stating that I’m not an expert, or a high-up manager; I’m a bookseller and a writer, and this post is my own opinion and how I see things from my position.

Great, now that’s out of the way – how about Amazon’s new terms, eh? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Here’s the link to the article over at The Guardian.

First of all, Amazon’s new terms probably won’t affect me and sales of “Betrayal’s Shadow” or “A Song of Sacrifice” at all. I’m really not worried about Amazon’s terms affecting me because I’m not published by or distributed by one of the ‘big guns’ in the trade. That puts me, and my fellow South African authors, in a very interesting situation.

The thing is, most of the writers I know write Speculative Fiction, and SpecFic isn’t something that SA publishers directly look at, or even notice. Consequently, we’ve have to look elsewhere to submit out work for publication. This means that you probably haven’t seen or heard of many South African SpecFic writers because we just don’t get the deals or exposure that authors with the ‘big guns’ get. It doesn’t mean we don’t exist – it just means that you probably won’t find out work on the shelves in SA bookstores.

But our work is available on Amazon.

See the weird situation we’re in?

Here it is: what we write doesn’t reach as many readers as we’d like and hope because we aren’t with the ‘big guns’, but if we were with the ‘big guns’…? Well, look at how the Amazon-Hachette argument affected authors published and / or distributed through Hachette; buy-buttons that were removed, upcoming titles that could not be pre-ordered. Which, of course, affected sales.

Our sales weren’t affected.

If you check out this page, you’ll be able to order awesome tales without having to worry whether there’ll be a buy-button for you to click. We aren’t beholden to the choices of any of the massive corporations.

So, you understand how the situation is weird for us?

But the actual problem comes in when you put Amazon’s new terms up against the South African book trade as a whole.

Our trade is already suffering immense pressure because of the prices we have to charge – ordering a book from Amazon and paying for shipping will get the book for much cheaper than our stores can supply it. Regional pricing could conceivably make books more affordable for consumers, but our trade doesn’t have that luxury. Not only do we have to purchase rights to get books in SA, but we also have to purchase the books at the pound or dollar price – South Africa’s economy being what it is doesn’t help, either, since the exchange rates push the prices up even more.

And because books are rapidly approaching the I-just-cannot-afford-to-buy-from-a-bookstore-anymore price levels, people are buying online and overseas. Makes complete sense, right?

The problem just gets worse – buying online isn’t the problem, though. For example, you can purchase my book from Exclusive Books’ website for cheaper than what you’ll pay in a bricks-and-mortar store, and yes, I might get royalties, and yes, my publisher and distributor will make money, too. The same, in fact, applies if you purchase my book on Amazon.

But if you purchase, lets say, Patricia Cornwell’s Dust from Amazon, your money is doing nothing to support SA’s book trade. A book is a book is a book, you might think, but it just isn’t the case.

Where you, as a South African reader, purchase the book, is what matters.

A couple of years ago the Kindle really took off here – and we in the book trade were really apprehensive of the effects it would have on the trade. Because we’re insiders, we knew that every book purchased on or for the Kindle meant a loss of revenue for our trade. But customers were happy, because they could afford to read. It didn’t -and doesn’t- matter to a customer where they purchase a book from.

Of course, these customers, like most readers, love browsing in book stores. That has never changed. They’re just not buying books in book stores because they can’t afford it anymore.

Let me show it to you in this way:

Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell will be released in November, which means that South African stores will probably only stock it from early or mid-December – that’s if we don’t get a same-day release deal.

So, Cornwell fans here in SA decide that they’ll pre-order the book from Amazon because they don’t want to have to wait; as soon as the book is released and payment goes through, the book ships to them and they begin reading the book before stock has arrived in South Africa.

(I’m not even going into rights-issues here because customers don’t care about rights-issues)

Yes, this is an example of something that our publishers could try and work on, because fans are fans, but the point is every single cent of the money that Flesh and Blood will make before it reaches South Africa is a loss for our trade. We cannot force our customers to wait for books simply because we can’t get the books on the official publishing date – so we give them a choice.

We will get the stock and display it and posters will be hung up and promotions will be run – but the price of the book in-store, versus the online price, will still be a problem.

So, fast-forward to Amazon’s new terms (which may or may not actually be implemented): if Amazon is able to dictate that “books cannot be sold for a lower price than Amazon’s anywhere, including on a publisher’s own website”, imagine what happens when Amazon offers a promotion on a big-name title that even US and UK retailers cannot compete with:

Customers will buy online – they’re saving money and getting what they want. In fact, it’s already happening. The knock-on effect, though, is what we should be worried about.

Increasing prices means less sales – Amazon sells cheaper so they sell more.

So, South African SpecFic writers who aren’t published or distributed by any of the ‘big-guns’ will very probably enjoy on-going sales in spite of or even despite what Amazon does – BUT – Amazon’s new terms could affect South Africa’s book trade even more negatively.

Catch-22 – we have millions of readers in South Africa who want to buy books on a regular basis but can’t because it’s too expensive, so they purchase what they want online – putting our trade under even more pressure.

Mother of all Catch-22′s, eh?

How do we go about trying to turn this situation around? I have no idea, honestly.

The average South African book-buyer cannot afford to purchase books in-store, so trying to drive people toward stores just won’t work.

Added to that, the South African SpecFic’s writer’s books probably aren’t available in book stores, which means the books are purchased online.

So, the weird situation for South African SpecFic writers in a nutshell:

Our book trade is under immense pressure, but our books are still selling, and are more affordable online than if they had to be purchased in-store.

One thing is for sure – reading is reading, folks. Customers will read where they can and as they can afford to.

How we, as writers, distributors and publishers, continue to give customers what they want needs to be either changed or radically revised, because, after all, publishers weren’t strong-armed into selling their product on Amazon: publishers chose to sell their product on Amazon.

So perhaps, just perhaps, the ‘big guns’ need to be BOLD and REMOVE their products from Amazon. ;-)

Something to think about, however this all pans out.

 

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