The World is Changing*

A book revolution started twenty-three years ago today, as this is posted. Yes, I’m talking about the 1994 founding of Amazon. Whether you love Amazon, despise it, or are indifferent to it, it’s hard to deny the profound changes the company made to the world of buying, selling, and reading books.

Like all major changes, the ones brought by Amazon have had both positive and negative consequences. And, of course, whether you consider a consequence to be positive or negative depends partly on your particular situation and opinions. Either way, it’s a whole new publishing world because of Amazon.

For authors, Amazon allows all sorts of options that hadn’t easily been available before. I can only speak for myself, but here are a few examples. I can publish, under my own imprint, whenever I’m ready to do so. And I can reach audiences all over the world, in three different formats (paper, digital and audio). If I notice an error, I can quickly edit anything I’ve published, and the corrected version is available to readers almost right away (especially readers who prefer digital books). Amazon has a host of promotion options, too. I won’t bore you by listing each one; suffice it to say that they’re there.

I can reach readers very easily through Amazon, too, because so many people use that source. One of the questions I get about my writing is ‘are you on Amazon?’ And I’ve made sales because my answer is, ‘I sure am.’ Readers can reach me, too. They can leave reviews, check out my Amazon Author page, follow my blog, find out about the books I’ve written, and so on, all directly through Amazon. And I can keep track of sales and other information, too. Oh, and I don’t have to pay for any of this.

But wait. Before you begin thinking that Amazon is a perfect author platform, it’s not. For one thing, Amazon’s distribution comes with several restrictions. It is, if nothing else, a savvy company that doesn’t want to create or encourage a lot of competition. So, working through Amazon means I don’t get to have my work available on some other sites that might be excellent ways to reach readers. And there are markets that it’s harder for me to reach.

There’s also the matter of author support for things such as editing, translation, and so on. Amazon does provide (for a price) cover design, formatting, and some other services. But they don’t provide all of the support that authors need to ensure their books are as well-written as possible. And authors don’t have a contact person at Amazon, as they do at many publishers. So, it’s much more difficult to get assistance, and that’s especially an issue for authors who are new to the publishing world.  And authors can’t have events at an Amazon store (such as readings and signings) that they can at, say, a bookshop.

Amazon is a very crowded market, too. So, even though just about anyone can publish there, there’s no guarantee that readers will notice a particular author. This means that authors have to do quite a lot of promotion work themselves. It doesn’t all have to cost a lot, but it’s certainly not free.

Of course, Amazon has dramatically changed the reading landscape, too. Before the company came on the scene, people bought books at independent bookshops, or at large chains such as Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, Whitcoulls, Dymocks or Chapters/Indigo. And the paper format was the only option. Now, of course, it’s possible to buy books (and I’ve done it) from virtually all over the world. Amazon allows one to buy a book new or used, in any one of several different formats. The site allows readers to leave reviews, too, and share their experiences with other readers. In other words, Amazon has made the reading experience far more flexible and interactive than it was. And that’s not to mention the myriad authors readers now can ‘meet’ – authors whose work might not be available in a local (or even chain) bookshop.

Because Amazon is an online retailer, readers don’t even have to travel to get the books that they want. It’s sometimes dangerously easy to ‘click here’ and purchase. That means that readers have unparalleled access to books, even from authors who are not exactly household words. And that’s not even to mention how easy it is now to choose and send a book as a gift.

But wait. The Amazon reading experience isn’t by any means perfect. There are many authors, who are signed by small, independent publishers, who are not represented on Amazon. They’re the sort of books you might find at smaller bookshops, but not at Amazon.

And those smaller bookshops are having an increasingly difficult time of it with the advent of Amazon. I’m sure each us could tell stories of bookshops we’ve loved that have had to close. Even some of the very large chains have closed or gone completely online. That means the delightful experience of browsing through a bookshop, reading the work of a new author, and so on, has changed. And there may not be as many opportunities (such as attending a reading or signing) as there were to meet authors.  Some people argue that this means books are less readily available, since there aren’t as many local bookshops to haunt. There are other consequences, too, some of them negative, for book buyers.

As you can see (but you no doubt already knew this), the rise of Amazon has not resulted in a perfect world for authors or for readers. But it’s had a lot of positive outcomes, too. Love it or hate it, though, Amazon has undoubtedly changed the way we think about purchasing, reading, writing, and selling books. What are your thoughts on this book revolution? Where do you think it might go next?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bob Marley.


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30 responses to “The World is Changing*

  1. Thank you for sharing your insider’s perspectives on the good, bad, and ugly of Amazon. If it weren’t for Kindle books, I would have said “Goodbye” to Amazon years ago. I used to be a bookstore junky, but now there are fewer brick and mortar stories to feed to my addiction. Now, back to Amazon, I think the “reviews” for books on Amazon are questionable — more of the good, bad, and ugly problems. Again, thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tim. I’m glad you found the post to be interesting. You’re not alone in your view of Amazon reviews. I’ve found some to be helpful and informative (and I won’t lie; I always appreciate a good review of my own work – what author doesn’t?). At the same time, there are a lot of issues with reviews; you’re right about that. And I love my Kindle, too!

  2. This is one area where I wish I could see the future, Margot. I love Amazon, and I love physical bookstores too. Hopefully we can continue to have both forever. 😀

  3. Fascinating to read an insiders perspective Margot. And very well balanced too.

  4. An excellent and balanced overview. My feelings are similar to yours. Amazon certainly isn’t perfect, and organisations like the Society of Authors are right to seek to protect the rights of authors dealing with Amazon, but one can’t bury one’s head in the sand. Amazon is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and it brings a wide range of invaluable benefits as well as posing a few challenges.

    • Thanks for your kind words, and your input, Martin. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned the Society of Authors. As you say, it’s important that authors who do business with Amazon have their rights carefully protected. It’s good to know there are groups out there who work for that. Whatever we may like or not like about Amazon, though, it is here. So it’s as well to mine its benefits, and consider carefully its challenges. Ignoring it isn’t going to work.

  5. Margot: I have never bought a book from Amazon and have no plans to ever buy a book there. I am committed to buying paper books from actual bookstores. I have enough hours on screens at work and blogging every day. Being in small business I want to support other small businesses.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Bill. You’re not alone in your feelings about Amazon, and small businesses have definitely felt the impact of these changes.

  6. So, I’d start by saying I don’t like Amazon, to the point that my book is not on that store. And I know that I’m missing on, but I decided about it consciously.

    I agree with you, Margot, Amazon has largely changed the way stories are published and read, though I think even without it the publishing indistry was destined to change. What I mean is that I don’t think amazon produced the change, but they certainly exploited it in the best way… for them.

    What I really don’t like about Amazon is the monopoly power they have gained. Because they are so big and can move so much money, they have come to the point they can do whatever they want (being it fair on people or not) with very few possibilities to counter them. And this is something I really don’t like, becaue in spite of all the opportunities Amazon seems to offer, its monopoly actually means that we are given LESS opportunities.

    And this brings me to what I really loath about Amazon: its monopoly goes as deep as our minds.
    I work in an independet booksbop, so maybe I can see it first-hand more than most people do, but online bookstores (and let’s face it, Amazon is particularly aggressive on this side) are planting needs in the minds of readers we don’t really have.
    I remember having a conversation with a friend who told me: but now I have more freedom. If I finish a book at 2am, I can rush to Amazon and immediately dowload the sequel. To which I counter: do you really ‘need’ it? Really you can’t wait tomorrow, go to a bookshop and order the book, wait the few days it takes to reach you and read it then? What horrible thing is going to happen to you if you go this way?
    And the fact isn’t that you don’t want to wait for the bookshop, but it’s that you ‘think’ you are freer if you can use the online bookstore, when in fact you are manipulated into thinking it.

    I know I’m getting philosophical here, and I’m sorry, but really this bothers me more than I can express.

    • Thank you, Jazzfeathers, for sharing your insights. Working at an independent bookshop means that you certainly have seen the impact of Amazon. The company is aggressive in its tactics; and you’re right that they saw some of what was happening in publishing, and took advantage of it. I think it’s interesting, too, that you mention creating a need. I wonder if that’s part of Amazon’s appeal for people. You can get the book instantly and start reading. After all, we humans do like instant gratification. I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it when I was putting this post together, so thanks.

    • Keishon

      Agree with Margot. Instant gratification – it’s not all that great but our society demands it. People don’t like to wait for much of anything anymore and I work in retail and see this first hand.

  7. Keishon

    This was a very good breakdown and well balanced like everyone else has said. I wish I could see the future too but online giants like Amazon do threaten the retail space (saw this on the news). I feel that Amazon is a monopoly and with their dominant market share on ebooks (think that’s true still), they run away all the competition, raise prices and then start taking away good features (like I just learned that you can’t sort your wishlist by price anymore. I asked about that and surprise, surprise, they didn’t respond at all). I think it’s in all our best interests to shop other places when we can and stop making Amazon the only place we shop at.

    • Competition among retailers is, for the most part, a good thing for consumers, Keishon. So, you make a good point in suggesting that people are better off shopping around and not automatically busying everything from Amazon. They have a very large market share, and not just in books (although that’s their ‘bread and butter’). And when a company has that much of a market share, there really are fewer restrictions to what it can do. That’s good ‘food for thought,’ so thanks. And thanks for the kind words.

      • Keishon

        Was just thinking of Blockbuster where you had to pay late fees and such and then Netflix came along and made them change their business practice(s) and look where they are today? Gone. They couldn’t adapt quickly enough to the changes. A lot of companies feel threatened by Amazon. Either they don’t have the money or are just not willing to beat Amazon in key areas like customer service or accessibility for starters. Sorry, this was just an interesting topic. Thanks for listening Margot.

        • No need for apologies, Keishon. I’m glad you think that the topic is interesting. Funny, too, that you’d mention Blockbuster. To me, it’s a case of not really thinking about what one’s business really is. Netflix saw that people wanted to watch films and TV on demand. Blockbuster knew that, but saw its business as ‘providing VHS and DVD recordings,’ rather than, ‘providing viewing to customers.’ They are two different businesses, and Netflix saw that.

  8. I have very mixed feelings about Amazon, so it’s nice to hear you lay out all the pros and cons. I was more dependent on Amazon when I was living in France and it was very difficult to access English books at decent prices. I now use it very seldom, and try to use other online booksellers for those out of print or hard to find books – often using publishers’ sites directly to order books. It’s more expensive, but at least the money is going to the people who made the effort to bring out the book: the writer and publisher. I do wish writers had higher share of the royalties though…

    • I wish that, too, Marina Sofia. And you’ve highlighted one of the issues that often impacts people’s decisions about Amazon: geography. When people live where it’s easy to get books in local shops or other (not Amazon) online sources, they depend on Amazon a lot less because they can. It’s harder when one’s living in a place where there are far fewer options. Your point about paying publishers and writers directly is also a well-taken one. It’s another of those thorny issues with Amazon…

  9. I am an Amazon fan for precisely the reasons you point out. The ease and independence of usage,even as far as setting the price, to a certain degree. The option of other sites still stand provided you don’t commit to Kindle Unlimited (I believe that’s the program), so I have also recently uploaded to Draft2digital who have a much wider distribution network than solely Amazon. Honestly easier than a click of a button and that’s the society we have come to love and hate, isn’t it?

    This is a perfect post to help the general public figure it out further.

    • Thanks, Lesley. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for mentioning Draft2digital. That’s a site I’m less familiar with, so I ought to explore it… And you’re right; today’s society allows for so many things, just at the click of a button. It’s both exhilarating and scary at the same time, I think…

  10. That’s a very fair and balanced piece Margot, and I was interested to hear the details from an author’s point of view. I know amazon has problems and issues, but it also has done wonders for readers, and I shall continue to use it – while also giving my custom to indie bookstores and chains.
    I was living in Seattle in the late 90s, and amazon really was a little local startup – I was an early customer, and I still have some Christmas presents they sent me as a good customer – they wouldn’t be doing that now!
    Many independent bookdealers use amazon to sell their books, and the service they offer to match up reader and seller is terrific. I spent the first half of my life walking around at all times with a list of out of print books that I was looking for. Now amazon has fulfilled every one of them.

    And I know I risk the wrath of the indies, but THEY are not perfect either. This is not the place to make detailed complaints, but I found dealing with amazon a JOY after years of going to bookshops where amateurism and shambolic customer service was seen as ‘charming’ and the buyer was expected to put up with it.

    • Thanks, Moira, both for the kind words, and for sharing your own experiences. I’m especially intrigued that you were there when Amazon started up. I’d guess you wouldn’t get a ‘thank you’ gift now…

      You map out a very smart approach to book-buying, too. There are some things that Amazon does better than others. And, there are very good reasons to also give your custom to indie shops and sites. There’s no reason one can’t do both, in my opinion. I know what you mean, too, about getting your hands on rare and hard-to-find books. I’ve done that myself.

      It’s interesting, too, that you’d mention the customer service angle. That’s one thing that I find important, too. I do like to support small businesses (including small bookshops). So, as the saying goes, I try to put my money where my mouth is. But if a small business isn’t going to provide good customer service and a quality product, I won’t go there again. As you say, shoddy service and amateurism are not ‘charming.’

  11. An excellent post, Margot, and very topical too. For all its positives, Amazon is first and foremost a business model and I can’t think of it as anything else. I don’t read a lot of books on my Kindle, but what Amazon has done is introduce me to hundreds of authors, old and new, I’d never heard of. Personally, if I read, it’d have to be a paper book. And if I write one, I’d want to see it published and sold in a bookstore. Fortunately, the paper book hasn’t gone out of fashion in my neck of the woods.

    • Thank you, Prashant, for the kind words. And I love the feel of a paper book, too, so I understand what you mean about its appeal. As you say, more than anything else, Amazon is a business. That means that its goal is profit. Along with that come bonuses for customers, such as access to a wide variety of books, and the convenience of ebooks. But that doesn’t mean the model is perfect, by any means.

  12. It is credence that books should still remain in their archaic form- paper, this is my perspective, personally, I do not like to read long writings online, it tires my eyes for some reasons, I just like the way all writings are penned out in papers instead of pixels. Hope to see more from you. Have hope, write on!

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