the end

The End is Nigh!

During the summer there was a welcome bout of optimism in indie circles. John Locke entered the Kindle Million club, JK Rowling announced Pottermore, and more and more midlist writers struck out on their own.

In addition, while the news wasn’t welcome by any means, continuing bookstore closures and the final, tragic collapse of Borders indicated that self-publishers were backing the right horse. Indeed, some were referring to a Golden Age for indie authors.

I don’t know if it’s the change in seasons, but the mood now is decidedly different. Since Amazon rolled out a major redesign of the site, allied to a widely touted shake up of the crucial algorithms which drive sales through recommendations in the “Also Boughts” and the like, many indies are altogether more pessimistic about the future.

On self-publisher forums such as Kindle Boards, a lot of the talk is of increased competition and Amazon no longer favoring indie books as they once did, instead tilting things back towards the bestsellers (which predominantly come from the larger publishers).

There are also some murmurings of discontent surrounding Amazon’s forays into publishing. Their new mystery and thriller imprint – Thomas & Mercer – now has a very impressive roster: JA Konrath, Blake Crouch, Barry Eisler, Vincent Zhandri, J Carson Black, Scott Nicholson, Michael Wallace, and Ed McBain.

In fact, the astounding success of Barry Eisler’s The Detachment (which cracked the Top 10 just after release and is still in the Top 50) showed the power of an Amazon push, but this has led to some speculating that Amazon will “game” the algorithm to favor their authors.

This worry, at least, can be discounted straight away.

Amazon’s sophisticated algorithm displays books to customers based on – amongst other things – their personal browsing and purchasing history. If you want to see the difference your history makes, log out of your account, delete all your cookies, then browse the site; it’s very different.

The whole point of the algorithm is to display the books that you are most likely to purchase. This is something there are continually perfecting (as you may have noticed in the last few weeks with experiments such as “Also Boughts” being replaced with “Bestsellers In This Genre”).

If Amazon starts keeping these spots for their own books, or offering them up for sale to the highest bidder, then they will be – by definition – no longer displaying the book that you are most likely to purchase. And they will lose money in the long run, as there is no point showing you books you don’t want to buy.

Amazon is a tech company at heart, and they know their history. Yahoo lost the search advertising war (from a dominant position) because they offered up the top spots to the highest bidder. Google won because they made relevance more important. Amazon knows this, which is why they aren’t going down the same road as their competitors.

Barnes & Noble (and Apple) are making tentative moves to sell online co-op – and we already know they juice their algorithms and bestseller charts in other ways which reduce the visibility of indie books.

It’s a clash of philosophies, but essential Amazon are taking the long view and trusting that by always showing the customer the book they are most likely to buy (whoever it is published by), they will rack up more sales over time. Their competitors are taking the quick and dirty cash.

They are Yahoo in this war. Amazon is Google. That’s why I think Amazon will win.

This might be cold comfort to indies who have seen their sales drop as a result of Amazon’s recent tinkering with the algorithms. I understand – I really do – my sales collapsed this month.

But if we can look at the bigger picture, we will realize that Amazon is attempting to build a better website, one that truly serves the needs of their customers: the readers.

Some of those who are reluctant to switch to e-books feel that online retailers fail to capture the browsing experience of a bricks-and-mortar operation. A slicker Amazon, with more useful, targeted recommendations can go some way to assuaging their concerns. And the more people that make the switch to digital, the more readers we all have to fight for.

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David Gaughran is the author of If You Go Into The Woods, Transfection, and Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. You can catch him at http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com

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