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A Truth About Partnering with Amazon …

image taken from Linen Press website

image courtesy of Linen Press website

Continuing where last week’s beat A Harsh Truth About Poetry Publishing… (and the comment discussion) left off, I want to explore some more about independent (usually small) press publishing. Amazon anyone? On Monday of this week Lynn Michell of UK based Linen Press wrote an article in The Guardian titled “Amazon, the greedy giant with small publishers in its grip.” I would recommend that you read the whole thing, but I will attempt to summarize it below.

Michell writes about the 2 options that a publisher has when using Amazon. The first is called Amazon Advantage and the second is Amazon Fulfillment. To set the stage, let’s learn about the press — Linen Press is a small independent publisher:

We read the 20, mostly unsolicited submissions that arrive each week. Having signed up an emergent writer (emergent is a polite way of saying unknown), we usually do a first run of 400 copies, which works out at a basic production price of £3 per copy.

But after costs for the book such as artwork/cover image, typesetting, the creation of digital files, marketing and postage, Amazon Advantage turns out not to be financially viable or responsible for a small press like hers because:

The final cost per copy for us is nearer £4. Amazon Advantage takes 55% of the recommended retail price, so on a £7.99 novel, it takes £4.40 and we get £3.60. We have to post books individually, as they are ordered, at £3 postage plus the cost of an envelope. We’re down to a profit of 60p. Out of that comes the author’s royalty of 80p, so we’re in minus figures.

How about Amazon Fulfillment? Any better?

Yes, this costs less. The fees vary, as do our prices because there’s pressure to discount our books, but Amazon takes 30%-40%, so on a £7.99 book we take home a more reasonable £5, approximately. And we can send boxes of books by courier to Amazon, a more economical way of getting copies out (although this involves hidden costs).

And what about those hidden costs? Well for one, if you use Fulfillment, you are not the top listing (the “main seller” that one gets when clicking on the cover image on Amazon) as you are if you use Advantage.

At the time of writing, I found we were listed beneath a seller offering our book new, and more cheaply: OrendaBooks in Leighton Buzzard, selling the same book for £5.19 plus £2.80 postage. We are hidden in the “new and used” category and don’t get the quick breath of publicity given to publishers who can afford to go down the Advantage route.

The other hidden cost is storage fees. Amazon does not like having lots of inventory on hand and it is not shy about charging you for inventory that has been there for 365 days or more. And if you decide to pull that inventory, guess what? There is a fee for that as well. The article ends with this justification for a small press using Amazon:

The alternative to selling on Amazon is to rely on readers to search for us online and to order a book from our own website, but we don’t have the same kind of visibility. We are David to its Goliath. Amazon may be responsible for closing down independent bookshops across the UK, and may have a shocking record in terms of workers’ wages and conditions, but for a book buyer, it’s cheap, reliable, fast and we all know how to use it. There’s no competing with this bad giant of book buying.

But what if there was? Similar to the discussion around last week’s beat, the issues that Michell writes about with Amazon are not unique to her press. They are issues that all independent small presses have to deal with. I want this beat on Real Pants to actually offer a solution or at least an idea for a solution to these problems that independent small presses face and have with regards to things such as selling books and distribution, etc…

So on next Wednesday, in my next beat I will explore an idea that I have been working on (and talking about with a few other small press publishers). It is an idea that I think can help independent publishers of all sizes. It is not necessarily an original idea but as far as I know has not been tried before in the way we have been discussing it. It is an idea that I hope to have something concrete for by summer.

Jeremy Spencer

Jeremy edits The Scrambler (an e-zine) and Scrambler Books (an independent publisher of books) out of Sacramento, CA.

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Jeremy Spencer

Jeremy edits The Scrambler (an e-zine) and Scrambler Books (an independent publisher of books) out of Sacramento, CA.

  • Wow, I wrote a post very similar to Lynn Michell’s a few years ago for HTMLGiant, in which I concluded that I was spending about $.30 every time I sold a book through the Advantage program. And more than that money loss, there’s the frustration (which they mention) of having to send a book or two at a time. It’s so bad that I haven’t looked at my Advantage account in months.

    Instead what I’m (too slowly) moving to is Createspace. The reason I’m dragging my feet is because it feels kind of icky, you know, partnering EVEN MORE with Amazon (Createspace is owned by Amazon). But CS’s books are looking pretty good these days, and if there’s anything you can rely on Amazon for, it’s customer service.

    And what does this mean? Financially I’m actually MAKING money through Amazon (or Createspace, technically) for a change. That’s totally new and it’s recalibrating my editorial mentality, even. I’m thinking, “Wow, a legitimate payday for publishing?” It’s on the horizon! What else can I publish?

    I’m still printing books through the more traditional ways (though digital printing, which is what I normally do, is hardly traditional in any meaningful sense), which I use for fulfillment through SPD, the PGP website and other direct sales, and this hybrid system works really well. Especially for my peace of mind.

    Furthermore, and it’s still too soon to really say this, but I’ll add that sales through Amazon are more than what I sell directly and through SPD, combined. I will need to analyze this more over a longer period of time, but that’s my rough guess.

    This is the biggest question I’m dealing with currently. Jeremy, I’m hoping your post this week can be the start of a long conversation about Amazon at Real Pants.

    • Just reread my comment and felt that saying “kind of icky,” re working with Amazon, doesn’t approach the real and complex thoughts I have.

      • Jeremy Spencer

        That is very interesting Adam, especially the Createspace discussion. I received an email from them but never responded. I guess my idea and what I want to work, is to be able to do sales/distribution without Amazon or anyone else. I don’t know if it is possible but I am hopeful especially when I read an interview like this one: of course they are not releasing their numbers in that so maybe it is not possible…

        And regards to SPD, we have talked about this privately, but I pretty much am losing money with them as my distributor as well. I think for me I want to try and figure out a way to do this without Amazon especially because of all of the shit around them (thinking of when I read the Melville House blog on a daily basis) and just the way they interact with others even as a “big business”

        • Well, I have a pretty good idea about what you’re talking about, so will look forward to next week’s column to talk more. But regarding SPD, they’re definitely selling books for PGP. It’s just a matter of keeping them stocked in the long time between payments …

          • Jeremy Spencer

            Amazon as printer and distributor. So the prices for Createspace print runs are good? Is it POD?

          • Yeah, it’s POD, priced per book. If you want zero revenue, you can set prices as low as a few bucks, depending on the materials and size of the book. If you want to mask the origin, you can order a bunch yourself, or you can let CreateSpace do the distribution for you, if you’re ok with directing people through their site. I hate to say it, but this seems like the lowest cost, lowest hassle solution out there for the fairly miniscule runs that are expected for the things i like and want to make.

          • Jeremy Spencer

            And I just re-read your HTML Giant post ( and actually the title of the post is a whole different monster. The title “PEOPLE THINK IF A BOOK IS AT AMAZON IT IS SOMEHOW MORE “LEGITIMATE” maybe hits the bigger issue on the head. That Amazon is now and has been the established form of legitimacy, even in our indie small press community.

    • justinsirois

      I used CreateSpace for all 3 books of So Say the Waiters and have been really happy with the quality — matte covers and average # paper stock, easy shipping, and pretty reasonable wholesale rates. Creating covers with correct bleeds is a little bit of a pain, but not too difficult. Overall, I’ve made more money with them than anyone else, and I only paid about $5 per printed proof. I’ve also had them reprint cases of books with no questions asked.

      CreateSpace isn’t for everyone, but if you have limited funds and want a solid book, there’s little reason not to use them.
      Poetry is a little harder to print, though. They require 108 pages (I think) to print on the spine. So yeah, longer books are the way to go with CS. Another great thing is you can print very large books with them, like anthologies and such, for very little upfront cost. Page count tops at 828 pages.

      • Yeah, I think when I saw the quality of So Say the Waiters the first time around, I realized how much POD printing had improved. I’ve had way worse results from traditional (digital) printers. Chris Toll’s book stands out as a painful memory, but that printer came recommended from Mike Young and they did a great job when he used them — point being that at least Createspace’s production is reliable.

  • This convo is awesome. I have so many things to think:

    1- That still seems like an insaneeeeee cost per copy to me. But at this point, I’ll probably just concede that I’m missing something.

    2a- I’m with Adam re: SPD–Wastoid is selling pretty well on SPD, but I’m annoyed that they have a couple hundred dollars that I’m not gonna see until April. Maybe my perception will change when I’ve listed more titles with them, but every time I pack an order up for them, I feel like I’m just shipping them some free money.

    2b. I was even more annoyed to learn that SPD was took an order from a uni, even though they were out of stock. This meant I had to fulfill SPD’s order (which nets me a $0.30 profit per book) instead of fulfilling those orders individually for each student (which would have netted me ~$6.00 per book). And now I’m reconsidering using them at all.

    2c. I ain’t even REALLY all that mad about this, since they’re doing us a huge service by selling to bookstores and unis, and probably (hopefully) fulfilling orders significantly quicker than we can.

    2d. That said, all I wanna do is open up our own mini distributor for like, 20-30 presses that has its own warehouse and is a registered Follett vender and then we can just do this ourselves.

    2e. But wasn’t this was The Lit Pub was supposed to be?

    2f. And probably SPD, too?

    3- I’m still new at this, but I’m less annoyed by Amazon because even if I’m taking a loss on an Amazon PO(which I haven’t done yet), at least they pay me on time//close to on time.

    4- POD orders//fulfillment for second runs are incredibly, incredibly important & interesting to me, too, but like Jeremy said, I’d love to say fuck-alls and to Amazon//CreateSpace and cut them out of the equation entirely. I’m thinking long and hard about trying BLURB: anyone have experience with them?

    5- Can’t wait for the next installment.

    • Jeremy Spencer

      Thanks Mark. All the things you mention are definitely relevant and I want to talk with you more about this. I think my post today will hopefully be something that we can work on in the future.

  • Shanna

    Y’all: Look at Lightning Source? You can set your own discounts and even make the POD titles returnable. Bookstores will not order CreateSpace titles, but Lightning Source is Ingram. Everybody can order from Ingram.

    We do like PGP, a hybrid setup of printing our own non-POD stock (Bookmobile), then enabling LS for distro to places we don’t supply directly. They deposit right into our bank account. It includes distro to Amazon, but we also list our own stock there as a marketplace seller (or whatever they call it now). There’s a setup fee per title, but you can get free setup with a coupon and an order of 50 copies (or something like that). I think once you have 20 titles setup becomes free.

    Still switching over old titles, but the couple we’ve done are working well. Kevin S. recommended it to me.

    I really just can’t get down with recommending Amazon. We’ve never used CreateSpace directly, but any POD titles ordered via Amazon are printed by CreateSpace and they have fucked up our files so many times I stopped counting. (Jeff Hecker got a totally different book stuck inside a Jen Knox title. They randomly remove text from the spine sometimes, and sometimes not. Sometimes they are matte covers and sometimes they aren’t, and they are often crooked. 🙁 )

    • Jeremy Spencer

      I would like to check out Lightning Source Shanna. When you have a chance (no hurry) but can you email me your rep’s info:


  • Shanna

    By the way, Adam: every time I try to comment I get weird buggy jumps-to-top any time I try to edit. (I typo a lot.) Happens both on my phone and my Mac. I tried the comment below 5 times (thrice from phone, twice on Mac) before I succeeded. I’m logged in via Disqus.

    • Hello Shanna, I’m sorta the webmaster around here and I’m looking into this. Do you use Safari or Chrome as your browser(s)?

      • Shanna

        Mostly Safari, sometimes Chrome.

        I should say it works fine for short comments when I’m not trying to edit. It’s when I’m in the box a while writing something longer.

        Working OK right now, for instance.

        I will keep you posted. Thanks, Dylan.

      • Shanna

        Hi Dylan. Having more comment issues. Got several glitches when trying to post a comment on this post:

        None were actually going through, despite being logged into Disqus, and the photo attachment process was hanging up.

        I managed it on the third try. But then all three comments showed up, some linked to my Disqus account, some not.

        Then I deleted the first two from the Real Pants backend, but neither moving them to the trash or “delete permanently” actually gets rid of them.

        Thanks for your help!

  • What about literary journals, zines, magazines or what-have-you? It seems that to reap the benefits of Amazon+POD you have to do an ISBN, but maybe there’s no love for ISSN? Has anybody out there traversed this issue? I’d be interested to compare others’ experiences to those I’ve had with Infinity’s Kitchen.

    • Jeremy Spencer

      I haven’t done a print mag with them so no real feedback on that but would be interested to hear about it.

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