Author Francis Hamit emailed me recently about a major frustration he recently ran into with Amazon. Although Amazon generally offers a terrific customer service experience, Francis' story sheds light on the challenges faced by authors and other content providers. I asked him to write a guest post about his experience and here's what he had to say:
I’ve pulled the Kindle edition of my novel “The Shenandoah Spy”. Although it was priced at six dollars less than the print version, it sold less than one percent as well as that edition. I saw a post from another author who said he was selling thousands of copies of the Kindle editions of his novels, but at a much lower price. I thought that perhaps if I dropped the price, sales would improve.
One of the problems with distributing your work on Kindle is that Amazon.com makes thousands of public domain classics available at 99 cents each. Forget about your contemporaries, you’re competing with Dickens and Trollope and the like, and they have the price advantage. If you have a print edition at $18.95, you don’t want to compete with yourself by going too low on the e-book edition. There is a previous serialized version of this novel, in 14 parts, still available on Amazon Shorts. I decided to lower the price to match at $6.99.
I also noticed that the text-to-speech version had been enabled. This is something that was not part of Kindle when I uploaded the file last year, and something that I have already said I will not permit in a letter to the ‘Los Angeles Times’ earlier this year. But without notice or permission, there it was. My concern again reached back to that “competing with myself” thing. I’m currently negotiating with another publisher for audiobook rights. If there is a text–to-speech feature enabled for the Kindle version, then that will have a negative impact on the sales of an audiobook version that sells between thirty and fifty dollars a copy. And the Kindle sales to date have been, well, pathetic. Less than one copy per month.
But it’s not the reality but the perception that cheapens your brand in the marketplace. Amazon plays power games with vendors like myself. They induced about 400 authors to participate in the Amazon Shorts program and failed to promote the site even within their own pages. (A search for that term will more likely produce links to underwear.) They created quite an uproar over print-on-demand books, threatening to not distribute any that were not bought from their in-house provider. That left me with interesting choices: create separate editions for Ingram and Amazon with different ISBN numbers or lose significant parts of our distribution. Or, as we ultimately did, get a smaller distributor like Pathway Book Service to provide the book to all comers. That meant an offset print run and greater total cost, but more margin per unit.
When I objected to the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle edition I got this in reply:
Hello from Amazon DTP.
I see that you've entered the new price for your book, however, it is not updated on our website, as your book was not re-published after changing the price. Please note that your new changes will not be updated on our website, until it is saved and published again. Also, note that whenever any book is published / re-published with new changes, it has to go through the review process by our kindle operations team, it takes up to 5 business days for the review to be completed.
Please note that at this time we are not supporting the feature to manage Text-to-Speech (TTS) settings through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP), by default all the books are published with TTS enabled, we are unable to turn it off. We will continue to evaluate options for adding this to DTP customers in the future. If you still have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us at email@example.com.
Thanks for using Amazon DTP.
Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.
To contact us about an unrelated issue, please send us a new e-mail.
That they will not even try to write a line of computer code that could disable the text-to-speech function is simply another example of their disregard for authors’ rights. But, when I asked, they did take the file down, which relieves me of the burden of filing a lawsuit. Copyright reserves the right to control distribution to creators. If you are distributing a Kindle edition of your own original work, it’s a good thing to keep in mind. It’s yours, not theirs.
Amazon.com did send offers to do that file conversion for me, for the amazingly low fee of $99.00 marked down from $299.00. I was not persuaded that this would be a good investment. And while Kindle only produced about one percent of our sales to date, Amazon.com is responsible for less than ten percent of our total sales. Surprised? I was.
I can’t fault their advertising either. They do try hard with all of their book titles, create author blogs, and so on, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the book itself since I have more than a dozen favorable reviews including those five star ones on Amazon.com. (Click here to read them.)
The brick and mortar space still generates more book sales than any other channel. We have the good fortune to have done 16 book signings with the Hastings Entertainment chain, which does stock “The Shenandoah Spy” on the shelves of its 152 stores. We’ve been very aggressive about promotion, and we are following a “slow and steady” marketing plan to build word of mouth because it is the first of five books in a planned series.
I’ve been publishing e-books, mostly recycled trade magazine articles, since 2004. I have to say that this is not the financial bonanza that everyone thought it would be. Although available in multiple channels, these titles are very low demand and produce only a trickle of revenues.
We continue to experiment with e-book publishing, but it’s no longer a priority, and any future Kindle offerings will be through Smashwords.com.