How Smaller Organisms Adapt to Amazon in the Self-Publishing Ecosystem | Jane Friedman

How Smaller Organisms Adapt to Amazon in the Self-Publishing Ecosystem | Jane Friedman

Today’s post is by writer, podcaster and editor Wayne Jones.

I’ve had a couple of experiences over the past six months or so that have provided some intriguing glimpses at how publishing services are trying to make even just a little more money, while the behemoth Amazon dominates search and sales in self-publishing.

My first discovery involved FriesenPress, located in the province of Manitoba in Canada. I was seriously considering them as the company to publish a book I’ve written—in fact, had chosen them and was beginning to talk details—until I noticed something very odd. The price of any FriesenPress-published book was routinely not only higher on Amazon, but sometimes substantially higher. I am talking in some cases 70 percent higher, but on average around 20 to 40 percent. I checked more books on the FriesenPress website just to confirm that I wasn’t just happening to select anomalies, and it turned out that, no, I wasn’t. Then I talked to some folks who know more about publishing than I do, including the company I ultimately chose to publish my book as well as someone named—just a sec, I’ve got the name here somewhere—yes, a certain “Jane Friedman.” They weren’t involved in any checking or research I did, but they both said that it is virtually unheard of that the Amazon price is higher than the price on the publisher’s site. It may be a bit or a lot lower, but not higher.

Thus began my ultimately fascinating quest to talk to FriesenPress about why this is the case. The answers I got, and especially the ones I didn’t get, were telling. Not telling in the sense that they told me everything I wanted to know, but in the sense that even after I talked (mostly by email) to an increasingly senior parade of employees and executives at FriesenPress, I basically got:

  1. What I would call a non-answer to my questions about why this was the case
  2. What can only be called an incorrect answer to the direct question of whether they informed their author-clients about the fact of this price discrepancy before they signed contracts

Let me give some updated examples of the different pricing. Here are three books published by FriesenPress, in various genres and lengths, some brand new, some published a few years ago, along with the current prices on the FriesenPress and Amazon sites as I write this (August 4). Prices are in Canadian dollars, as they are on the FriesenPress site and on Amazon.ca:

  • When Love Comes Knocking (Power)
    • FriesenPress: paperback $19.99; hardcover $34.49
    • Amazon.ca: paperback $21.09; hardcover $39.70
  • Chosen by the Blade (Sereda)
    • FriesenPress: paperback $21.49; hardcover $32.99
    • Amazon.ca: paperback $31.45; hardcover $47.69
  • The Other Side Of Autumn: Selected Poems, 1969–2022 (Phipps)
    • FriesenPress: paperback $9.49; hardcover $18.49
    • Amazon.ca: paperback n/a; hardcover $31.98

and on it goes like that. To be fair, occasionally the FriesenPress and Amazon prices are more or less the same, but in the random checking I’ve done that is exceptional.

So I contacted various staff at FriesenPress to get an explanation. I started with the Publishing Consultant who had been dutifully contacting me when I had at first expressed enthusiastic interest in having FriesenPress publish my book. She told me there was no one who could give me more information than she already had, but I persisted and eventually talked to the Communications Officer, the Lead of Sales, the President (who threatened to sue me for libel because I had talked about the issue on my podcast), and finally the Director General, who sent me a series of long, detailed emails. He did say, yes, authors were informed of the Amazon pricing issue before they signed with FriesenPress, but I also talked to a few authors, who said they had not been.

Part of the sales strategy for FriesenPress is built on a premise that I consider fundamentally flawed. They advise their authors, when doing publicity or otherwise touting their book, to point potential buyers to the FriesenPress site and not to Amazon. But readers don’t necessarily find out about a book through the limited marketing that any self-publishing author likely has time to do. These same readers also don’t start at the publisher’s site (mostly they couldn’t because they wouldn’t know who the publisher is). and, increasingly, readers don’t even frequent their local bookstores. They start with Amazon. In my opinion, the FriesenPress strategy does a great disservice to their authors: there are doubtless many sales lost when the hopeful buyer comes across the high prices on Amazon. No sale means no royalty.

Another organism I came across in this ecosystem was Pro Audio Voices, an independent producer and seller of audiobooks based in Oregon. I had a lively chat with the CEO on my podcast, which ended even livelier when I asked if Audible is the only game in town. She said no—which is true in that they may be dominant but there are competitors—but then went on to say that people shouldn’t buy audiobooks through Audible/ACX. (ACX is a company whose website brings together authors, narrators, and producers. ACX is owned by Audible.)

I wrapped up the interview there, but as I was editing and piecing together the episode I visited the Pro Audio Voices website again and noticed something odd. Again it was about pricing and again it seemed to be related somehow to Amazon’s pricing. (Amazon markets and sells audiobooks via Audible.) The situation was reversed this time: nearly every audiobook on the Pro Audio Voices site is priced two or three dollars more than it is on Amazon. I emailed the CEO through her agent at Farrow Communications, but two weeks went by and I heard nothing. My questions were simple. Is there a reason for the markup on the Pro Audio Voices price? and does the author get a bigger royalty from that sale than from an Audible one?

The other broader issue I was interested in, analogously to the situation with FriesenPress, was the likelihood that anyone looking to buy an audiobook would even discover the version for sale on the Pro Audio Voices site in the first place, since most buyers start their search on Amazon. I suggested to him that encouraging an author to ask their friends or followers to buy on Pro Audio Voices might put only a very small dent in the sales that Audible will get.

So as I wait to hear back from the Farrow agent after prodding him (August 3) about never having received a reply, I draw two inferences from these incidents with FriesenPress and Pro Audio Voices, but am left with a mystery as well. The first inference is an obvious one. Neither of these players in the self-publishing space are truly serving their clients by simply encouraging them to entice prospective buyers away from Amazon. You might be convinced that faxing messages to your friends is a better way to communicate with them than using that newfangled email and texting, but if you persist, in the end you’ll have fewer friends or won’t know what they’re up to or one particularly concerned one may stage an intervention of some kind. Someone who wants to buy a book goes to Amazon, and so a publisher’s efforts at showing their clients’ work to best advantage (and price) should hinge on that fact.

The second inference is that the two different pricing adjustments that FriesenPress and Pro Audio Voices (or Amazon) have made are so pervasive that the examples I’ve found can’t be characterized as mere exceptions. What these two have in common is trying to find some way to work around or account for the dominance of Amazon.

and that’s still the mystery for me. Is there something in the business practices of either of them that compels them to do something out of the ordinary? In the case of FriesenPress, for example, does the fact that they use Ingram’s Lightning Source for their print-on-demand, and not Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, have anything to do with it? As for Pro Audio Voices, does that price markup of a few dollars make enough of a difference in royalties and income that it’s an essential adjustment for them? This may be proprietary operational information that neither is willing to acknowledge or share with a curious podcaster, and so I’m just left wondering.

Note from Jane: I asked FriesenPress if they would like to respond to Mr. Jones’s comments, and here’s what they sent.

We would like to thank Jane for reaching out to us for comment on this guest post.

As an employee-owned publishing services provider, we are proud to offer our authors a wide variety of printing and distribution options so they can self-publish and promote their books in a manner that best aligns with their goals. This includes the ability for authors to set distinct list prices on our proprietary bookstore and through our wholesale distribution partner, Ingram, should they so choose—a standard practice within the assisted-publishing landscape.

Many of our authors choose to markdown their FriesenPress Bookstore price, taking advantage of lower costs when selling directly to readers. As there are no distributors or retailers adding gross markup (which commonly accounts for 55% of the list price of a book), our authors receive a much higher royalty for the sale of their book while offering a competitive discount, when compared with other retailers.

We inform authors of our professional recommendations, but pricing—as well as editorial and aesthetic—decisions are ultimately theirs to make. We do not force our authors to conform to our will on any of these matters and have attempted to convey this to Mr. Jones on numerous occasions.

Each of our authors is unique, and so too are their strategies to reach readers. Though Amazon has a massive impact on book-buying behaviour, we believe that not all readers want (or choose) to purchase their books solely on Amazon. When we advise our authors on their promotional strategies, we in no way minimize the importance of leveraging Amazon, nor do we set the expectation that the majority of readers will organically discover their book in our bookstore. Our coaching philosophy focuses on generating awareness and eliciting action from their readers; retail channels are just one piece of the multifaceted puzzle.

Our role is to help our authors publish their best book possible, and we offer as much support and respect as we can in service of this endeavour. Though our model and publishing philosophies were not a fit for Mr. Jones’s book project, we wish him all the best on his path to publication.

Thank you, once again, to Jane for the opportunity and space to share. and thank you, for reading all the way to the end.

– The FriesenPress Publishing Team

Wayne Jones

Wayne Jones is a writer, podcaster, and editor in Ottawa, Canada. He has published a book about personal minimalism called Less and Less, as well as the novel The Killing Type. He’s also the co-author of a biography of the standup comedian, Greg Giraldo: A Comedian’s Story. His book My Sam Johnson: A Biography for General Readers will be published in September 2023. Wayne also hosts the podcast Writing & Editing. For more detail about these and other activities, see WayneJones.ca.

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