Since the lockdown started in the UK, there has been a move to help small businesses. When non-essential retailers were permitted to reopen across the UK this week, it began a wave of “Don’t buy from Amazon! support your local indie bookshop instead!” Ultimately well-meaning and driven by a desire to help the smallest businesses who are struggling the most, it’s problematic in many ways. It has to do, in part, with Amazon’s business model, and that of the publishing industry.
Few Platforms Have Done More for Indie Writers Than Amazon
It’s easy to knock the world’s biggest retail business. Certainly some of their business practices need changing. There are multiple reports of tax avoidance, and poor treatment of their employees.
I am not going to defend this.
What I am going to defend is how they have opened up the book market. Through Twitter I have met many wonderful self-published writers who, like me, struggled to get agents to give them the time of day to look at manuscripts. They have used Amazon to build an incredible and loyal audience, get regular sales (though not enough to live on) and build their brands and audience with their own visions of creativity.
Some of these are in what elements of the publishing community might (in some cases insultingly) consider too niche for consideration for a broad audience – LGBT themes, primarily featuring ethnic minority characters, and with positive depictions of disability and mental illness.
Amazon has provided these writers with a platform to affordably upload, sell, and distribute their books. Amazon writers also get a larger cut than traditional publishing permits: 35% or 70%, with some criteria determining which you can choose. We also earn per page read from Prime and Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
Indie Bookshops, Though Vital, Are Part of Another Monolith
Your local indie bookshop might be run by lovely people. They may welcome you with coffee and biscuits. They may be an essential part of your high street dominated by national brands and identikit high streets. I am not going to challenge this.
But there is another side to indie bookshops.
It is not their fault, they can only work with what they have. But what they have is a link to another problematic monolith, one whose problems we’ve heard a lot about in the last few years: the publishing industry.
I know agents through Twitter and I’ve seen how hard they work to get the voices they represent seen and heard. But the publishing industry will only buy what is already proven to sell. They will rarely touch so-called “niche” markets like LGBT romance, fantasy written by black writers (why the hell is that even considered niche?!), and books that have disabled protagonists unless the writer already has a marketable name.
What we have is a publishing industry that is mostly white and middle class. Where minorities and even white working class people are underrepresented, where controversial themes in new submissions are asked to be reviewed or removed altogether to appeal to the mass market.
On top of this is the increasing squeezed margins for writers. The people without whom there wouldn’t be a book industry received smaller and smaller cuts. Those who already make big sales are pushed more and more, while most other writers are left to their own devices to do their own promotions.
The publishing industry is generally rigged against new writers, even if that is by accident rather than design. It’s rigged against minority and alternative voices, and the overwhelming majority of writers make a pittance.
As I said above, this is not the fault of the indie bookshops. To stay in business and increase their profit margin, they will sell what sells and the publishing industry is clearly not taking many chances to branch out and diversify. Even when alternative voices are published, indie bookshops will rarely take the chance on them.
But it is what it is, and this is not a clear or simple issue as some believe it is.