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THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Amazon’s Unwarranted Assault Against Self-Published Authors… And What You Can Do to Protect Yourself


By Ned Barnett and Lauren Tallman


It had to happen sooner or later. Like a rabid dog, Amazon finally turned on its initial source of revenue. With around 80 percent of the domestic book-sales market, Amazon has become the world’s largest and arguably most powerful online retailer, with a market cap of $1.71 trillion dollars as of December 2021. They accomplished this rise to beyond-belief power and revenue by generating a huge sustained cash flow, including a phenomenal $110.81 billion dollars of net revenue in the third quarter of 2001. Yet no matter how big and powerful Amazon has become, it has never gotten so big that it couldn’t ignore the opportunity to squash the little guy. Which happened in late March and early April 2022 to at least three Las Vegas writers, including Lauren Tallman.

A dedicated writer with four self-published books and anthologies to her credit, Lauren invested several years in researching, writing, and publishing her novel, Harem of the Dragon. It’s a captivating tale of palace intrigue, focusing on the harem of a fifteenth century Chinese emperor and the young man who taught the women in the emperor’s harem how to love. Her previous work includes the hilarious and insightful How to Have an Affair and Not Get Caught – in which she details all the ways of keeping a secret, and even having a successful affair…with your spouse or significant other.


Lauren has also been published in a series of anthologies published by the Henderson Writers Group, as well as having edited and published her own anthology, Taste the Kiss, Feel the Fire:Erotic Writers of Las Vegas. Her latest book, an anthology of her own works, Come Again?, was released earlier this year. While Lauren writes fiction for adults, her work is neither salacious nor pornographic. This is important, or will be later in this article.

Her books were published on Kindle in eBook format, and by Amazon’s Kindle Direct for print-on-demand. This included those hard copies Lauren bought so she could sign and sell them at bookstores, libraries, and community center events. An aggressive marketer and self-promoter, Lauren returned to doing in-person events as soon as COVID’s restrictions relaxed. Those events, as well as strong word-of-mouth, constituted a significant portion of her sales.


However, like most self-published authors, Amazon was her literary bread-and-butter. She built a strong and profitable writing business for herself – not realizing that by tying those all together via Amazon made her vulnerable to their capricious corporate whims.


Being an open and honest person with a high and unshakable level of personal integrity, it never occurred to Lauren that Amazon – or any large company – would specifically set out to screw with her publishing career … and her writing life. This action also shocked me because a dozen of my 39 published books are available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. I have plans for republishing them (after a thorough editing, a new cover, and POD capability) on Amazon in 2022 and 2023, so this threw me for a loop, too. See below for the alternatives Lauren will follow, as well as the ones I’m going to embrace for myself and for my writing clients.


But this is Lauren’s story.


As noted, in addition to Lauren’s shock at seeing her entire literary empire destroyed in a single moment, other published authors in Las Vegas who got Amazon’s kiss of death include my friend and former client, Valerie J. Runyan. Val is an imaginative poet and author of four self-published books, including a series of mind-bending stories that skirt the boundary between fact and fiction…and fantasy. However, this is still Lauren’s story.


Here are the facts. At the beginning of April, Lauren, a gifted and savvy writer, was advised by Amazon that she had broken one small but never-named rule in Amazon’s extensive list of "terms and conditions." The closest Amazon came to laying it out for her was mentioning their discovery that she had two separate accounts, each listing one book in common.


At first, Lauren didn't know what they were talking about. Then she remembered, in addition to her current account, she had a long-forgotten account she'd set up years ago to promote a single book. Unfortunately, this notice did not advise her that she was being considered for cancellation for the technical, easily-fixed violation of an obscure rule, but – in fact – her cancellation had already happened. Worse, this action was final, without any hope for, or even avenue of appeal. She was invited to write Amazon for details, and she did, repeatedly. However, each time she tried to work this situation out amicably and professionally, Lauren received an increasingly infuriating and almost grotesquely impersonal form email message from Amazon.


Her penalty? All of her books were removed from Amazon, and will never be reinstated. All royalties owed her were now null and void, including royalties earned but not yet paid for sales which have already gone through. Any future attempt to sell through Amazon would be similarly blocked. All records of her KDP information, reports and royalties, were erased, as were all of her eighteen 5-star reviews. There was and is no way to appeal this arbitrary ruling, she was told, in increasingly stringent terms. She couldn't even speak to someone about her specific infraction.


"To Amazon," she told me, "I was already dead."


After three weeks of increasing frustration and sense of loss, her precious and well-selling books were no longer available to readers, because Amazon no longer carried them. Only her stories in the anthologies that she’d contributed to but didn’t edit or publish were still available from Amazon. Published by the non-profit Henderson Writers Group, these stories earn no royalties.


So she was effectively out of business.


She and I discussed this, with an eye to rebuilding and recovering her writing career. First, we looked at – and ultimately rejected – a number of ways to (theoretically) work around this arbitrary Amazon ban. The only prospect that held out any hope involved Lauren having them republished by a recognized traditional – i.e., royalty – publisher. In such a case, the publisher – not Lauren – would be the contracted party with Amazon. Royalties would be paid by Amazon to the publisher, and the publisher would then pay Lauren her share of royalties.


Queue up the song "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits, because that's what the publisher would get. Money for nothing.


The only real option open to Lauren involved re-self-publishing them. She'd need a new platform, and a new strategy. After receiving a number of recommendations as to the ideal vendor – in her case, Draft2Digital (D2D) seems like a good bet. They produce and distribute both eBooks and POD books for self-published authors. D2D has a strong platform online, as well as an excellent reputation among authors and readers. In effect, they would do what Amazon had done for her in the past, at least in part – by producing the digital and POD books. To date, we have not heard of any issues with D2D, let alone something as arbitrary and high-handed as Amazon chose to be.

Draft2Digital doesn’t sell directly to readers, but they do distribute books to online book-sales sites large and small – including, ironically, to Amazon. Their distribution network can become Lauren’s avenue to other sites that sell eBooks and POD books. This provides her, and the D2D-published authors, a wide range of useful options.


However, I counseled Lauren – as a friend (she's not a client, but a colleague and friend of long standing) – that she'd want to go beyond that. Specifically, she could do that by marketing her titles to bookstore and public library buyers. This would include college libraries – as well as to bricks-and-mortar bookstores, both mega-chains like Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores. Two secrets to selling to bookstores is that most of them:


a. Only want to buy from distributors – they find buying directly from self-published authors is usually more trouble than it's worth; and,


b. Only want the right to return books that don't sell – and to do that, the author needs a book distributor.


Presently, the largest printed book distributor (a kind of wholesaler) in the US – and perhaps in the world – is Ingram. Virtually all professional book-buyers work with Ingram, though many work with several other distributors as well. However, this is a supply chain issue and really doesn't impact authors. It's enough to know that Ingram is the 800-pound gorilla in the book wholesaling market.


However, while Ingram will list in their catalog books published by D2D, they will not allow "returns." The right to return books is something that bookstores reasonably demand, in order to keep from being stuck with unsalable inventory. For a self-published author to break into bookstores, they need to offer a return policy. Otherwise, there are few bookstores which will take the risk.


However, there is a way that self-publishers can get their books into Ingram with a return policy for bookstores. That is to have POD books manufactured by IngramSpark (a separate platform from Lightning Source), a POD book manufacturer in Smyrna, Tennessee, not far from Nashville. All books produced by IngramSpark can be found in the Ingram digital catalog, and all of them are able – at the author's request – to offer to bookstores an industry-standard book return policy.

IngramSpark is valuable to a self-published author, but only if she intends to actively market her books to bookstores and libraries. If not, D2D can effectively replace (functionally, at least) Amazon as a sole-source bookseller.


Note: There are other reputable, well-regarded companies out there that publish eBooks and POD books for self-published authors. D2D is not the only one, but it is the one Lauren and I have been discussing.


In this two-tiered approach, D2D will act as a pseudo-Amazon, offering eBooks and POD printed books to online booksellers. Once she’s decided which distribution hubs she'll embrace, one of those is where Lauren will refer prospective clients to make purchases online. Plus, she'll have IngramSpark create POD copies for sales to library book-buyers and to bookstore buyers as well. There is no barrier to having more than one POD firm publish a book – though I strongly suggest authors get separate ISBNs for the D2D-produced books and the IngramSpark-produced books. That just helps with the author's bookkeeping.


As noted, IngramSpark only comes into play if the author is prepared to market her book to library book-buyers, along with bookstore buyers. This can be done easily, and at reasonable cost, by working with the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA.org), which has programs to market books to specialty bookstores and to public libraries. Membership for self-published authors is around $128 a year. Obligatory note – Path To Publishing is an active member and strong supporter of IBPA. I have personally worked with them since the mid-1990s, and have never been disappointed. So, if you think bookstores and libraries might want to carry your books, check out IBPA and see what they can offer you.


There are a few other obvious things that need to be done, not in any particular order.


First, mention your online sales affiliation – one set up by D2D – in all of your marketing and promotion efforts, and especially on podcasts and radio/media interviews. This is important, as you can then take links to those interviews and post them widely on social media, giving you an excellent way of promoting your books for immediate sale. Also put a mention of the D2D-established sales channel in all of your collaterals, including business cards, bookmarks, and other printed or digital marketing tools. You don't have to say why you're not using Amazon – that's your call – but listing your actual online sales channel will help to reinforce your sales.


Before you're removed from Amazon, do the following. First, recreate all of the positive (four- and five-star) reviews that you have on Amazon, republishing them on your website, as well as on your online sales platform. Do this also for GoodReads, an excellent sales support network. Next, use your GoodReads link in your sales promotion materials, so people will check this site out first, before they decide to buy.

However, be aware of this. When Lauren was arbitrarily removed (without recourse) from Amazon, her membership in GoodReads was also cancelled, as Amazon owns GoodReads. But here's an odd kicker. Her books are still listed there, and I recently posted reviews of two of those books, and GoodReads accepted them. So, as insurance in case you ever get booted from Amazon, get your books listed on GoodReads now, and encourage those who reviewed you on Amazon to do the same for you on GoodReads. In that way, if you ever are de-platformed from Amazon, you'll still have credible reviews on GoodReads.


Finally, always copy-and-paste any positive review and save them to your website, and encourage those who posted them to re-post them to other review platforms. Good reviews are golden - too good and too valuable to allow the slings and arrows of an outraged Amazon to have them disappear from view.


Related to this, I suggest you obtain a low-cost laptop - or access a computer owned by your significant other, family member or close friend, and create a new and different account with Amazon (and GoodReads). Do this now, so in the event that Amazon de-platforms you from Amazon and GoodReads, you'll still have access to those platforms. This is what I did years ago when my then-wife got on Amazon's wrong side, and it's worked very well ever since.


Finally, find and enter appropriate literary contests. I had one remarkable client who – when we'd finished her promotion project – had won twenty national, regional and genre-specific awards and recognitions. You don't need twenty – but even a few will give credence to your book.


Now, for you reading this who have not yet been run over by the unstoppable Amazon Express, here's what I suggest. First, continue to sell on Amazon for as long as they will let you – which may be forever, or it may be until next week. Just because you realize you can’t trust them to sell your books without interruption (indefinitely) is no reason to shut down your access – through Amazon – to a huge segment of the book-buying market. But in addition to Amazon, start today to build a parallel system based on online sales sites where D2D can set you up.


With that, a discontinue notice from Amazon won't shut down all of your sales. Even better, you won't have to scramble to reconnect with book buyers. Either way, though, if you want to sell to bookstores, understand that most of them will not buy from Amazon. They rightly see Amazon as their biggest competitor by far. However, they will buy from IngramSpark, and so will libraries.


Give this some thought, then get busy securing your business empire by making sure that you have other viable channels available to market your books to the reading public.


In a writing and promotion career spanning more than four decades, Ned Barnett has been an award-winning marketing and promotion expert who has also written and published 38 books, as well as several screenplays that were profitably optioned. In 1994, his earnings ranked him among the top 97 percent of working screenwriters. Among his three dozen published books are 15 ghost-written books (with one more—a business history of Las Vegas—under contract). He has also written three traditionally-published science fiction novels and ten military history novels. You can visit Ned at http://www.barnettmarcom.com.


Lauren Tallman lived in six cities, in four countries. She rode camels in the desert. She speaks three languages fluently and knows enough of a fourth to get her in trouble. Lauren Tallman is an author and wouldn't change a single thing that happened in her life.






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