The elephant in the room: Amazon

There was a Twitter thread recently, by Joanne Harris:

Over the time of lock-down, I saw so many Facebook posts or Tweets, demanding that people boycott Amazon and order from their local bookshop. And while I applaud that on many levels, for me personally, that would result in zero sales for me.


Because it is not financially viable for me to sell my books in a bookstore. It is only financially viable to sell via Amazon.

Do I like this? No, of course I don't. And if you think that authors get more money from a sale of a book in a bookstore in comparison with how much they get from a sale on Amazon, you might be in for a surprise. If an author is published by a big publisher, it actually matters very little whether the book is sold via Amazon or any other bookseller. They all ask for approximately the same wholesale discount. Depending on the author's contract, they may get 50p-£1 off the sale of a £10 book. A book it might have taken them a year to write. If they are self-published, they'll probably make nothing and may even have to subsidise that sale with profit made via Amazon.

Does that surprise you? Did you think that authors made a lot of money? Well, of course, some do. But the vast majority don't. The Society of Authors reports that the average earnings of a writer in the UK are well below minimum wage. Read this article by The Guardian, and weep. While authors' earnings are falling, the large publishers (including Amazon) are seeing sales rise. However, the amount of a publisher's turnover that was paid to authors, was estimated to account for a mere 3% in 2016.

"But, I paid £9.99 for a book. Where did all the money go? Is it all going to the publisher?"

Good question. All players in a book's publication-to-sale journey want to make money. In the first instance, the publisher wants to make money, to pay for its staff/overheads etc. And to make a profit. The printer needs to make a profit, so the cost of printing the book has a % added on. The book then needs to get from the printers to the bookstore - a distributor. Again, they don't do this for nothing. Then finally, the retailer needs to make a profit too. For a bricks-and-mortar store, their costs will probably be higher than an online retailer. And each of those stages mean less for the author.

For authors with a big publisher, it may end up financially viable for their books to be in a bricks-and-mortar store, as the publisher will be supplying many titles. But for self-published authors, or those published by a small indie press, these costs can make it financially non-viable. That's if the stores will actually stock the book. There are hundreds of books published each year (600 on one day, recently). The bookstores want to make money so they will focus on the names that sell and the bestseller list. Understandably.

For many self-published authors and those published by small indie publishers, Amazon is both a saviour and a fiend. A saviour, because for each paperback sold via Amazon, I make a little more than I would if I were published by a big publisher. The chain is so much smaller, as Amazon is the printer, distributor and store (though trust me, they still make their profits!). As with any online outlet, there's no physical restriction on shelf-space in Amazon, so all books are 'stocked'. The search facility on Amazon is pretty good, so you can actually see my books when you're searching for your next read.

But it's a fiend because people (understandably) get cross about the amount of tax it pays (or rather doesn't pay). And having 'all your eggs in one basket' is always a risk. If Amazon went under, I would have to spend time, effort and money making my books available via other platforms, and would quite probably not only not make a single penny from them, but make a huge loss.

What's the solution?

I don't know that I have one. Yes, Amazon should pay more tax, but then so should a lot of others. Lots of people (and companies) shift their assets into schemes that mean they pay little or no tax on them. Yes, an 'online sales tax' could be introduced. At least then some money would be going into the common good (one would hope), and the high street might get some protection. But Amazon won't be the one paying that. They'll just add it to the costs for those selling with them. My royalties would drop even further for each sale, and Amazon wouldn't feel a thing.

Tax on turnover rather than profit? That's a rather large sledgehammer to crack a nut and one which would hammer many small businesses who invest in their business and make little profit.

I honestly don't know what the answer is. All I do know is that boycotting Amazon and sticking only to the books you find in your bookstore, would mean that readers were seeing a much narrower range of books than they currently do. There are many reasons why authors self-publish. The fact they do, means that there is a breadth of diversity that is far, far wider than the big publishers cover. Boycotting Amazon only hurts the authors, not Amazon.


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