Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The only way is ethics - by Nicola Morgan

As authors who publish our own ebooks, how do we deal with the ethical issue of having to direct our readers to Amazon (etc) rather than physical bookshops? Obviously, we don't have a choice with our ebooks if they don't have physical versions, but I still think there's an issue, because if we end up writing more and more of our own ebook-only books and fewer and fewer books for trade publishers, then we are in effect shifting our business model away from supporting the traditional book-selling industry. Now, I sometimes hear indie-only writers sounding rather gleeful or at least careless about that prospect but I hold no truck with that glee or carelessness.

I do know that some independent bookshops feel worried and even a little bit hostile to us when we choose to self-publish in e-format. I would hope that they understand that authors are struggling financially too and that we need to do what we can to earn a living. But doing what we can to earn a living might hurt someone else. Even, ultimately, ourselves.

I wholeheartedly believe that writers - published and self-publishing - need to support physical bookshops. And libraries. We need to do this if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) than that bookshops and libraries feed the reading needs of children and without reading children we will have no reading adults. I call bookshops and libraries the mothership for writers and anyone who loves books cannot possibly celebrate or call for their demise. And I know none of my fellow Electric Authors do.

Yet bookshops, particularly indies, are unable (at the moment - and yes, I know there are plans afoot but the plans may not be enough) to sell our ebooks. So we have to use their big hungry predator rival, Amazon, instead. Or one of the other e-stores, if we're happy to sell fewer books.

Another ethical problem is Amazon Associates. As you know, anyone can become an Amazon Associate. If you do the technical bit properly, any time someone clicks through to Amazon from the special link on your website or blog and buys a book - any book, or indeed any product - you get a little commission.

So I have. In fact, I've set up an A-store. But I feel bad about this. Because I love physical bookshops and I do all my own physical book buying from them. But I need the income, because my income from my physical books is so paltry.

So, I have a little solution to my ethical tangle. On my website and blog I give the following message:
  • I don't mind where you buy my books - I'm just happy when you do.
  • I personally buy from physical bookshops because I believe in their importance and their fabulousness.
  • But if you, for whatever reason, prefer or wish or need or choose to use Amazon, please do so from my own Amazon store (or from the Amazon store of whatever writer you want to support).
  • And if you buy from Amazon through my store, I promise to spend ALL the commission I get in a physical bookshop. My choices in Edinburgh will be the Edinburgh Bookshop, Blackwells and Waterstone's. 
I think that's a good compromise. I'd love to know your thoughts about all this - supporting bookshops, ethical decisions or anything else. You may like to know that I coined the phrase Fair Reading, to describe ethical book-buying choices.

Actually, you know what? I still feel bad. Damn ethics. I am now contemplating removing my Amazon store and losing even that little bit of income... In fact, I'm going to call for a vote. Please everyone leave your honest comment below: should I remove my Associates link or to carry on as above?

PS I apologise enormously for the title of this post. I couldn't resist.

Nicola Morgan is the author of books for teenagers and children, most of which (the books, not the teenagers etc) are available in physical bookshops and on the internet. Her latest books are Write to be Published and Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter, which is only available as an ebook. Her Amazon store is here!


Dan Holloway said...

Thank you, Nicola. My post this month was about my particularly positive experience with bookshops that has resulted from my digital literary life (though I'm very lucky with the stores near me) - I really don't think we need be in conflict - there are so many ways we can work together.

This has been, for a long time, a very important subject to me as a bit of a DIY hippie. When I set up my micro-imprint eight cuts gallery press at the start of last year, with a small number of brilliant and like-minded writers on board, one of the first decisions we made was not to make our paperbacks available through Amazon for ethical reasons. If people wanted to buy online they could buy direct from the printer (giving our authors a bigger cut, making the cover price more sensible) but more than anything we wanted to work with a handful of passionate independent bookshops. At the time pretty much everyone said we were nuts (or worse), but it's a decision I'm very happy with. We're building some wonderful relationships with great shops that's meaningful to both parties - we *do* bring new customers through their doors on a regular basis, and they give us table and front of store display a publisher our size has no right to expect. Of course we sell very few books. But we publish experimental literary fiction (worse still, we have a collection of shorts and poems!). I've followed the rankings of some of the most feted and reviewed similar books on Amazon, and I've got a pretty good idea of how many they sell there, and the idea we've lost our authors a fortune by not being on Amazon is pure Cloudcuckooland. Of course, though, I recognise it's different for people writing in more commercial areas.

As I said in my post, I think every author should be at the heart of their literary community - not necessarily in geolocationary terms but in terms of the life of the world in which they write.

The other thing we can do, of course, is use our e-books to send people shop-ward - we control the content, we can make our introuction say anything we want. How about using it to recommend 5 or 10 of the very best bookshops where our paper books are to be found, and pointing people to the Guardian's bookstore map (a must, btw - everyone should make sure their local gem is listed, and add a review for it), and highlighting For Books' Sake's Battle of the Bookshops (, again an indispensible bible of all that is literarily good.

Dan Holloway said...

Um, and may I let my fellow electrics know I am very proud to have a new book as of this morning ( Ode to Jouissance is everything you'd expect from a book that has such a bad pun for a title - it's both about desire and delight (jouissance) and the complex tapestry of modern Europe, with its anthem of Ode to Joy. Basically three full shorts (5000 words) that move from youth to old age in their exploration of longing, hope, and identity. After the fashion of Kundera, Darrieussecq, Jelinek, Murakami

JO said...

I think you are absolutely justified in adding a link to Amazon, if it helps with the finances - we all have to do what we can to get by.

And yes, of course we need to support local bookshops and libraries. So your spending your meagre profit locally seems like a great compromise.

But, underneath all that, there remains the ethical quagmire that is book-buying and selling. What seems so sad is that, buried among all the e-book/paper book and traditional/self-publishing and indie shops/Amazon debates we seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are all trying to create and sell and enjoy the same thing - and with that comes the real risk that libraries (which I think are fundamental as they are an institutional recognition that reading and learning and finding out is important) are drowned.

We all do what we can to get by - but then we need, also to support each other and the industry we love.

Susan Price said...

Very interesting points, Nicola. Where I live, near Birmingham, there are, amazingly, NO independent bookshops, so I can't support them.
I have to make a living. Publishers were cold-shouldering me - Amazon, predatory as it may be, is actually beginning to pay me a small but steady sum per month.
Libraries started off as money-making enterprises before they were made free. Many charge you to borrow cds and dvds - I wouldn't be against paying a small sum to borrow an e-book for a fortnight (as is possible with Amazon). Independent bookshops could do this - going back to a very similar practice of 200 years ago (but without the electronics.) Both writers and bookshops would benefit

Nicola Morgan said...

Susan - I agree with all those points. There are things that shops and libraries need to do so that we can all work together. But independent shops and individual libraries have very little power in all this. We, for once, have more power - which is what we're exercising here. But I'm still unresolved!

Thanks, Jo. I agree that some have lost sight of what's important. I can't stand the glee and vitriol that sometimes erupts in conversations about publishers and self-publishers.

Dan - congratulations on your new publication!

Stroppy Author said...

'we are in effect shifting our business model away from supporting the traditional book-selling industry'
- yes, but the (or, rather, the traditional publishing industry) shifted their business model away from supporting writers first!

I agree we need to support bookshops and libraries, but it is very difficult to do that in the position we have been forced into by traditional publishing. We and the bookshops are both victims. If the only way we can make a living is hard on the booksellers, it's at least not AS hard on them as if we were driven out of business and didn't write any more books in either format.

I am not about to start producing my books in e-book format instead of publishing through traditional publishers, but I can understand those who are. And, as they are books that have generally been refused by publishers, or gone out of print and not been reprinted, those particular books would never have been in the bookshops anyway. So do it with awareness, but not too much guilt. And spending all the income in real bookshops is a brilliant, inspired idea!

Kath said...

I can't see how anyone could begrudge you the income from the Amazon shop on your site. I certainly don't and it's not as if you're not doing everything you can to support independent shops and libraries. I mean, you're even pledging to spend the income you get through the site shop in independent bookstores!

I have to confess to using amazon but when you live on the side of a Welsh mountain and your nearest independent bookstore is a bus fare (equalling the price of a book) away, sometimes using the evil empire means the difference between being able to get a book and not.

In mitigation, I do shop at independent bookstores in Hay-on-Wye, Cardiff and further afield (whenever I get out to civilisation!) and frequently use my excellent local library.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Interesting points, Nicola. I've written about this for the Scottish Review. I got thoroughly sick of having to apologise for buying off Amazon. It's one thing if you live in a city, but if you live in deepest rural Ayrshire, where the big boys saw off our lovely local independent book shops years ago (and I love paper books, would still buy from those indies as well if they were around) Amazon came as a godsend. In fact I buy almost everything online, these days, not just books - and make most of my income online, as well - from selling antique textiles. If I were to set up a real shop selling antique textiles in this neck of the woods, from some desire to support my local town centre, I would have gone bankrupt years ago. In the past, I was prepared to wait while the indies ordered books for me. I've much less patience when I go into one of the big chains, asking for a book that has been well and widely reviewed in the Sundays, only to find that they have never heard of it! I buy ethical bananas but don't want to have to stop and think about whether or not I'm buying ethical books. (Except that I DO think about it, whenever I buy from Oxfam, and refuse to buy anything too new from them!) The fact that I buy new books at all - and in quantity- puts me in a minority of people who are prepared to support other authors! Amazon has given me the wherewithall, as a despised mid list writer, to actually get work out there that has been rejected, not on grounds of quality, but because it doesn't slot neatly into some narrow marketing framework. From this perspective the devil is looking like quite a fine upstanding chap, and I can bring myself to ignore the horns and hooves and tail as long as I have a fairly long spoon to hand! Conventional publishers have, over the years, done me no favours whatsoever (other than the sainted Nick Hern, God bless him!) Perhaps I've been unfortunate, but I don't think I'm alone. Writers have to become more businesslike, or die. And while I support libraries, and indie bookshops - right now, with a disabled husband, a very old house to heat - and a rather large quantity of widely praised but unpublished work, I support ME even more.

Andrew Crofts said...

Let's not forget that all these people are running businesses and to be successful they all have to try to grow. Of course there is always a danger that the very successful grow very large indeed. First we were told to hate the chain bookshops, then we were told to hate the big six publishing groups and then the supermarkets. Down with everyone who has a good business idea which pulls them ahead of the crowd. Amazon are taking over the world because they are obeying all the laws of good business; they are coming up with innovative ideas, taking risks and giving the customers what they want, (which includes writers who can't get traditional publishers to even return their calls, let alone publish their books). People who choose to keep their businesses small and pleasant places may well be a lot nicer, but that doesn't mean that companies which do well should be penalised for their success or that you, Nicola, should feel guilty for accepting the help, support and income which they are offering.

Linda Gillard said...

I'm with stroppyauthor and Catherine C. I'm not losing sleep over the fate of booksellers who took £4 from the price of a £7.99 pb when I got only 50p.

My novels have been rejected and allowed to go out of print because they don't conform to a marketing model that suited retailers. (That my books suit readers is not in any doubt as my e-books are selling well and 2 of them have become bestsellers.)

I love bookshops of all kinds but I don't write books to keep retailers comfortably in business and I never did. Retailers were just the means of getting at my readers. Except that they weren'. They (and publishers' editors) were what stood between me and my readers.

Children's reading is not at risk as far as I can see. Primary children have been asked if they would prefer to read a tree book or a Kindle and they are saying Kindle. Boys are now more likely to read because it can be done on a gadget. Schools will use Kindles because the books are cheaper in the long run because they never need to be replaced and take up less room.

Apart from high-end specialist and collectors' books, the future is surely e-books and libraries. I sincerely hope bookshops do survive in the long run, but I don't actually think they will.

Nicola Morgan said...

Well, that's decided, then! Anne, Andrew and Catherine - I agree. My problem is I'm too prone to see both sides and therefore always feel guilty even when I've worked out what's the only/best/preferred route. Many of us have been treated very badly in many ways, especially recently, and we should feel proud that we are taking the initiative and doing what we can to support ourselves while also writing the best books we can and refusing to do anything else than write the best books we can.

Very few people see the knocks we take and how we bruise. And I'm not talking about reviews - bad reviews are as nothing compared to an author being dropped by a publisher in a grotesque betrayal of trust and lack of respect for the heart and soul and damned hard work she or he has put in. I've seen it happen too often.

Anyway, that wasn't what I came here to say! I guess I'm just saying that yes, we have to do what we can for ourselves, but I still like to keep it as ethical as possible. Normally I'm a Benthamite but on this I have to put No 1 first.

Nicola Morgan said...

Linda - your comment came while I was posting mine. Thanks for your support.

On the other hand, children's reading is at risk anyway - it's at risk from the short-sighted decisions of publishers to publish too much froth and too little depth and variety. And, for the reasons you give, we can't remedy that by producing our deep books for Kindle.

Linda Gillard said...

Good for you, Nicola, and just to be clear, did you mean "we CAN remedy that by producing deep books for Kindle"? Your comment says "can't". But I'm wondering if this is a surplus T that should have appeared in my post where I wrote "weren' ". ;-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Linda - no, I meant "can't" because younger kids don't generally have kindles/ebook-readers. So what I was saying is that whereas for older readers we can write and sell what we believe in, for younger children we can't, or not so easily. Does that make sense?

Karen said...

I'm coming into this a bit late but Nicola I don't see why you should feel guilty about buying from Amazon. We're consumers as well as authors, and obviously need to watch our pennies as much as anyone else. Also, some books are only available on Amazon as the booksellers tend to only stock the 'bestsellers' and 'classics'.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks for provoking debate - it's something we all need to think and talk about.

K Colvin said...

Well I bought your ebook Tweet Right through that link. If I'd had to search around for a copy, I might not have got around to it and you would have missed a sale. I think you can sell an ebook like that guilt-free (and I can buy it without feeling guilty) as most printed books on technology are out-of-date by the time they are printed. Twitter is changing all the time, so I imagine you can update your book with minimal time and expense and keep providing an up-to-date product for your future readers. I have to admit as a reader I'm not totally happy about reading on a screen, but for some books like Tweet Right I just want the information not the whole browsing in a bookshop experience (which I also like when I have time). Keep up the good work!

Linda Gillard said...

Thanks for the clarification, Nicola. The irony is that young children would actually find it easier to turn the pages of a Kindle than a large picture book or a pb. (I find it easier to read a Kindle than to hold & turn the pages of a book!)

I taught in a very socially deprived middle school in Norfolk and some kids arrived in Reception never having held a book. One of the first things their teachers had to do was teach them how to handle one.

Kids with motor control issues might also find a Kindle easier. A friend's husband suffering from MS has found his Kindle a godsend. He's got to the stage where holding a book & page-turning is beyond him.

madwippitt said...

Love the pun! No need to apologise for it!

Katherine Roberts said...

Nicola, this is very much on my mind as well at the moment, since I now have e-books (backlist titles out of print at their original publishers) for sale direct with Amazon, and also a new series coming out from a traditional publisher next year that (I hope!) will be stocked in physical bookshops as well as being available from Amazon etc.

What's most important to me as an author (and presumably also important to my publishers) is that people can easily find and buy my books when they want to buy them. At the moment this means going to Amazon for the e-books, but for my physical books they have a choice, and where they buy will depend entirely on how easy the bookstores make it for them to buy.

As an author I have no control over where my physcial books are sold, or how many copies are on the shelves of which stores. So I refuse to feel guilty if they are not in the shops and Amazon end up making most of my sales. An author's business model is quite different from a bookseller's or publisher's (or even an agent's) business model, and the Associates store you mention would seem to fit with that. So absolutely keep the store, if it enables you to continue your writing business.

Pauline Fisk said...

I like the phrase 'Fair Reading', not least because there's more to it than first meets the eye. I also like writing books, and will attempt whatever it takes to carry on doing so. For me, earning some sort of living is a requirement, not a side-effect of my writing life. In order to fund the next book, I have to sell the last. In the current climate it would take a magician to earn a living out of what - for their various reasons - the publishers and booksellers are prepared to promote/pay/sell. But it doesn't take a magician to try a new tack - and that's what I'm doing. I'm giving Amazon and the internet a go and if you want votes, Nicola, mine's for Amazon Associates. Who knows what the outcome will be, but if you believe in books you want yours out there too. And, like they say in the adverts, EVERY LITTLE HELPS.

James A. Keith said...

Sorry about coming to the table on this one late.

This resonates for me as well, but with so many children not reading any more than they have to anyway, why not have a format that they could read, on a phone, a Kindle, a computer?

For me though I have another reason for responding. I have been an Amazon Affiliate for better than five years. they recently dropped me because I live in Arkansas. Arkansas has passed a law this past year which allows them to collect taxes on good sold from Arkansas residency online. This is regardless of whether the transaction even has any contact with the state other than coming from a link I posted.

I am almost to the point of boycotting Amazon for it, but it isn't their fault that the Arkansas legislature passed the law under the table along with some other reforms that people wanted.

I understand that my state isn't the only state doing this, and as a member of Commission Junction and Pepperjam, I have lost many advertisers there too.

Anyway, thanks for letting me air my rant. And I hope none of the rest of you have to deal with losing your revenue streams like this.