In a Publisher’s Weekly article, Ellora’s Cave admitted to some shocking news:
Ellora’s Cave CEO Patty Marks confirmed the house is downsizing in the wake of what she described as “drastic’ and unexplained declines in its e-book sales via Amazon. Marks confirmed the layoffs of freelance editors, and said the house continues to have discussion with Amazon to find the cause of the sales dropoff.
According to Marks, the issue is likely related to a change in Amazon’s search algorithm. Many of Ellora’s Cave’s bestselling authors and titles simply don’t show up in the Amazon search engine anymore.
Marks said Ellora’s Cave sales via Amazon have dropped by as much as 75%.
E-publishers like Ellora’a cave have a profoundly unique relationship with e-retailers like Amazon. Suckling at the teat of lower production costs and easy distribution, e-publishers have traded one evil for another. They aren’t dealing with the higher costs of print production, but they are at the mercy of the policies of their distributors.
Chuck Wendig makes this point about Amazon:
Amazon has not demonstrated that this control has been universally favorable to authors. The ability to self-publish isn’t enough. Amazon controls an alarming number of access points and algorithms in terms of how they sell your books. Sales rankings, author rankings, also-reads — all these things exist outside not only an author’s control but also outside their understanding. They have put up a rather large curtain in the Emerald City, and we can’t see who or what hides behind it. Author-publishers who have been stung by changing algorithms or changes to their relationship with Amazon (and by proxy, to their readers) know this all too well.
Apparently there are even more devious ways Amazon controls sales:
Amazon does have various schemes in place to maximize their income by showing certain titles and concealing others. I’ve seen books disappear even when searched for by the exact title simply because there were others with that title that cost more and thus gave Amazon more profit. And an Amazon lawyer defended that practice to me.
I also know from Amazon sources that there’s at least one search scheme in place that does the opposite. It hides books deemed too pornographic for the general public.—Mike W. Perry, commenter on Ellora’s Cave article.
Ever since Milton Friedman declared that that the only social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits, corporate types have used this argument to justify all sorts of schemes, most of which works at odds towards individual’s interests. So it is no surprise that Amazon will do whatever is in its power to maximize sales, even if it means hiding authors.
But hiding books based on content is another issue entirely. One can scan the Amazon comment files to find complaints about explicit books being shown in search results with vanilla fiction. Here Amazon is shooting craps, again promoting the more profitable items at the risk of irritating the sensitive hackles of mainstream America. Why Amazon doesn’t construct filters that customers can set themselves is a mystery. But considering that Amazon continues to be hinky on what’s allowed to be shown on erotica covers, they are sensitive to the issues that peddling erotica can create.
It would seem that hiding content, and restricting cover art is censorship, something that violates our First Amendment rights to free speech. This battleground, whether a single entity can control the information flow of a publisher has been fought on other ground. The Supreme Court weighed in on whether a city or town has the right to restrict the location of news racks. Cities argued that they have the right to control “visual clutter” of the streets, while newspapers argued that such restrictions violate their First Amendment rights. The ultimate result gave neither side a clear victory. Cities can adopt a uniform code for newspaper distribution as long as it is applied to all forms of newspapers, paid daily and free shoppers alike. They can even issue permits and impose fees on newspapers for the placement of racks on city land. But they cannot pick and choose what news racks can appear on the streets.
Now this might seem as far away from the topic of Amazon controlling the sales of erotica as one might get. But think about how publicly traded companies like Amazon, on one hand, want the access to and the benefits of a free marketplace, and then assert their right to act as their management sees fit whether or not those goals mesh with public policy. This seems to me a bigger issue than a single publisher putting all their eggs in one basket and losing out to a corporation. And this is one fight that no one seems to want to take on. Ultimately though, someone is going to have to, otherwise, like Ellora’s Cave we will lose our rights to distribute our material to the vagaries of corporate profit strategy.
Image published under a Creative Commons license issued by Flickr user Sheri