An American Editor

July 27, 2010

Editors and the Amazon Paradox

In a recent tête-à-tête with a couple of publishing colleagues, the discussion turned (unsurprisingly) toward the business of editing and whether good-paying editing jobs are harder to come by in the Internet age. I asked a question that sort of chilled the conversation: “Don’t you think that by buying books from Amazon you are depressing your editing market?” This is the paradox of Amazon for editors.

As a consumer, Amazon has one great virtue: low(est) pricing on books (actually, it has a second great virtue — unsurpassed customer service — but this virtue isn’t germane to the discussion). But as good as that virtue is from the buying side, it has many negative ramifications. And before you tear into me about how there are no collateral negatives, think Wal-Mart, because that is what Amazon is — the Wal-Mart of books. And unlike Wal-Mart, which doesn’t do its own manufacturing, Amazon is crossing the line and adding publishing (i.e., manufacturing) to its stable of businesses.

Wal-Mart raises hackles because its low pricing pushes local businesses out of business and because suppliers, in an effort to meet Wal-Mart’s pricing and quality requirements, put downward pressure on pay and work conditions. And so we Americans get on our high horse and try to keep Wal-Mart out of our backyard and picket Wal-Mart to improve supplier conditions. We also complain about other high-profile companies who use low-pay, poor-factory-work- conditions suppliers in developing and third world countries. But we don’t complain about Amazon and its wal-martian attempts to influence the supply chain.

Yet for editors and others in publishing, this push by Amazon is leading us to our own Donnybrook. As I have noted in other articles (see, e.g., Viewing the Future of Publishing, eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors, and Editors in the Offshore World), the pressure on publishers has ripple effects and has been a significant force in depressing the wages of editors (and other publishing professionals). When I first entered publishing 26 years ago, I never thought the day would come when I would be offered editing work at an hourly rate of 50% of the minimum wage, yet that was an offer made to highly skilled, experienced, specialist editors just a few months ago.

So isn’t it paradoxical that the people whose livelihood is based on earnings made in publishing buy their books from the company that is leading the charge to depress pricing? I think so. Reminds me of the autoworker who picketed carrying a sign “Buy American” but then got into his foreign-made car.

The one truism about us Americans is that we are equal opportunity suiciders. We want someone else to make the sacrifice as we turn a blind eye to our own acts that lead to our own economic hara-kiri. I realize that boycotting Amazon/Wal-Mart and shopping at Barnes & Noble/Target doesn’t address the problem. This is really, fundamentally, a philosophical/ethical conundrum. I also realize that there is no truly satisfactory resolution available. So I focus what little boycott energy I have on those who are most visible and leaders in their retail sectors and simply choose not to buy from them.

I grant that my single voice is not worth much in this fight, but it is a matter of principle. I don’t buy from Amazon because I see Amazon as the behemoth who will ultimately, if successful, destroy my livelihood. I think there needs to be a balance, a fair price that is midway between low pricing and pricing sufficient to enable producers to earn a fair wage.

Interestingly, Amazon’s pressures aren’t good for authors either. As the book market’s tipping point pricewise continues downward (Does anyone really think that $9.99 for a New York Times bestseller is as low as it will go?), so does the pressure on authors to lower their prices to be competitive. Look at how many authors are pricing their books between free and $2.99 today. At a 70-30 split, $2.99 seems to be a great price point for an author, but is it really? The net proceeds the authors receive may be better than what they have been receiving from traditional publishers, but that doesn’t equate to a fair return for their labors. A fair return is an animal of a different stripe.

To break free from the competition requires a lot of work on an author’s part. To make a book that gets rave reviews from up and down the reading spectrum takes a significant investment. The work needed to publicize and distribute the book takes a lot of time and effort. The lower the price, the lower the return and the harder it is to devote the time, energy, and money necessary to turn a labor of love into the next Harry Potter.

And we’ve had these discussions before about the editorial quality of many self-published ebooks. No matter how the chase is cut, it always boils down to the author being unable or unwilling to spend several thousand dollars on professional help because the author really can’t see that he/she will sell enough copies to earn back the investment plus a decent profit. Isn’t that what underlies the problem discussed in I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors?

So, I ask again, albeit a bit differently: Although Amazon’s pressure to move pricing downward is great for consumers who love a bargain, isn’t it a mistake for those of us who work in publishing to support Amazon by buying our books from it? I expect most of you will say “no” and tell me how wrong I am, but as an editor whose livelihood depends on publishers and authors continuing to need my services, I see Amazon as wanting to be the Wal-Mart of the publishing world.

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