Is Amazon Our Friend?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked this question by an author on the KDP community forum.

Many people are quick to criticize Amazon, and there may be some room for improvement, but I wholeheartedly believe that Amazon is highly beneficial to shoppers, writers, and small businesses.

I’ve been a customer at Amazon from the very beginning. I appreciate the convenience, selection, savings, and free shipping on qualified orders. I also have Amazon Prime.

You can even find out what other customers have to say. The customer review system isn’t perfect, but some input beats no input.

I’ve written and published several books. If not for CreateSpace and KDP, writing would just be a hobby for me.

Amazon opened the door for any and all authors to make their writing available for millions of potential customers around the world. Anyone can publish a book and share with others this way. Amazon similarly opened the door for small businesses to sell online at a very popular website.

Amazon represents freedom and opportunity. Amazon gives the small guy a fighting chance. Amazon regularly features success stories on their homepage of indie authors and small business owners. Self-published books and small business products are available beside traditionally published books and bestselling products by big businesses.

Where would we, the small guys, be without Amazon?

Let’s take a look at some of the criticism:

The book is not visible in search results.

  • There are 20 million books on Amazon. They can’t all be first in search results. Does it benefit customers to have new books by new authors show up before books that have established successful sales?
  • Amazon provides the opportunity. Diligent, motivated authors can take advantage of this through effective premarketing and packaging (relevant and attractive cover design, blurb, and Look Inside), and quality books that earn good reviews and word-of-mouth sales.
  • Amazon’s system tends to reward authors who scrupulously help themselves. Authors who work hard to generate sales through marketing can gain exposure through a better sales rank, early reviews, Customers Also Bought lists, and top 100 lists.
  • It’s not easy to produce a great book cover to cover. The books that best attract and fit an established target audience are more likely to be successful. Only the top couple hundred thousand books, out of millions, sell one or more copies per day on average.

Amazon removes 4- and 5-star reviews, but not 1- and 2-star reviews.

  • Unfortunately, a significant number of authors and small publishers had been taking advantage of customer reviews by leaving 4- and 5-star reviews written by the author, publisher, editor, family members, paid reviewers, and other parties who had a financial interest in the book’s success. There were several books with dozens to hundreds of fake reviews, sometimes for lousy books. Customer complaints and high profile articles led Amazon to block and remove 4- and 5-star reviews that they suspect of being fake.
  • There are some 1- and 2-star reviews from competing authors and publishers, people who loathe or are jealous of the author, and people who are otherwise upset. Some of these reviews are very spiteful, some spoil the ending, and some outright lie. But the fact is that most of the 1- and 2-star reviews out there are legitimate reviews from customers who simply didn’t like the book. No book can please everyone. There are many such reviews on bestselling books by popular authors, so it’s unreasonable not to expect this on all books by all authors.
  • Fake 4- and 5-star reviews had been more numerous and posed a much greater problem for Amazon than fake 1- and 2-star reviews. It’s also easier for Amazon to block and remove potential fake 4- and 5-star reviews than it is to catch fake 1- and 2-star reviews. The Amazon bot can cross-reference information in the 4- and 5-star case, but it’s really difficult to distinguish between disgruntled customers and fake 1- and 2-star reviews. As much as authors and product owners don’t like them, the 1- and 2-star reviews do help to provide balance. Customers are often suspicious of books or products that only have good reviews.

Do KDP and CreateSpace cheat authors on their royalties?

  • Amazon is a huge business. Almost everything is automated at Amazon – even grabbing products in the warehouse. It’s only logical for the sales and royalty reports to be automated, too. There is the possibility of an occasional glitch, but it’s highly improbable.
  • There are many authors and publishers who sell thousands (or more) books everyday. They check their sales reports, Nielsen Bookscan data, and royalty reports carefully, closely corroborating the results. Amazon has millions of dollars at stake. They can’t afford to cheat authors, publishers, and businesses. All large businesses, like Amazon, also have audits.
  • The royalty doesn’t show instantly, and this is probably what creates concern among self-published authors who only sell a few books. The royalty often appears within a few days, but sometimes it can be delayed for a couple of months. Paperback returns may be resold, and in this case the royalty doesn’t show at all on the CreateSpace report because it was already paid once before. Amazon may have books preprinted to stock in their warehouse, in which case they pay the royalty in advance, not when the book sells. Occasionally, Amazon sources a sale through a third party seller, and CreateSpace then reports it correctly as a full royalty, but not for a couple of months, when expanded distribution royalties show up. Because of this, an author may be aware of an occasional sale, but not see the royalty show up.
  • CreateSpace customer service is willing to track data regarding royalty questions. Authors can report the sales information to CreateSpace, and they will track the sale to help the author understand why the royalty didn’t show up immediately. It’s obviously in Amazon’s best interest to correctly report sales and royalty information to authors.
  • An occasional complaint about royalty payments shows up on the CreateSpace or KDP community forum. Most authors monitor their sales rank and royalties closely. If there were significant issues with this, complaints would be much louder and more numerous.
  • There are also complaints about royalty payments from traditional publishers. Small publishers are more likely to have manual rather than automated systems, they have less to lose than Amazon by cheating authors, and some of the stories involve much greater discrepancies than any complaints about Amazon’s royalty payments. Unless you own your own publishing company and print your own books, you simply have to trust someone. I haven’t observed any discrepancies in my reports, and over the years I’ve come to trust Amazon both as a customer and as a writer.

It’s easy to demand more and better. Amazon gives us an opportunity, and the opportunity is free. What we get for free is pretty awesome. We can’t expect Amazon to do all of the work for us (with 20 million books to manage, it’s not reasonable to expect Amazon to do much work for free). Preparing an excellent product, packaging it for the right audience, and marketing it are all up to us. The harder we work and the better job we do, the better Amazon helps us.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers