Reversing the Flow of (the) Amazon

Chris Jones
May 14 · 6 min read

Before we go any farther with this post, a short survey:

  1. Do you self-publish books?
  2. Do you spend time and treasure building a client list?
  3. Do you depend on that client list to get people to buy your books?
  4. Do you know which of the people on your client list actually made a purchase?

Told you it was short. Let me venture a guess as to your answers.

Number one, my guess is, your answer is either yes or you want it to be yes. This column is probably boring you to tears if it isn’t.

Number two, if the answer to number one is yes, will also be yes.

Number three, if the answer to number two is yes, will also be yes.

And number four, no matter what the answers to the first three are, will be no.

Let me see if I can outline what this means, in essence, with a little analogy. Let us suppose you are bowling. You like it, and you want to become good at it. You spend a good deal of time choosing a ball, getting coaching, picking a good place to practice, etc. Then, when it comes time to actually roll the ball down the lane toward the pins, someone draws a curtain over the end of the lane, so that you cannot see the pins fall.

But it’s okay, because after every roll, a very kind attendant comes out and announces to you how many pins you hit, more or less. He admits he’s not entirely sure, and the data aren’t always perfectly accurate, but for the most part, you can rely on the numbers.

How fast will you improve at bowling in this scenario?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is publishing — even indie publishing — in the 21st century.

[NOTE: traditional publishing is kind of like the above scenario, except that with trad publishing, most bowlers are not allowed to compete. The bowler who is one of the Anointed gets a few bucks for showing up, then bowls in the total dark, and three months to a year later the lane manager tells the bowler how they did, but only with their second throws per frame. Then the manager deducts from the few bucks, according to some opaque formula, some money. If by a miracle the money earned is more than the up-front bucks, they after some indeterminate period the lane manager sends some of it to another person, who forwards the remainder to the bowler. In exchange for this, the lane manager promises to get lots of people to show up to watch. But only if you’re one of his favorites.]

[The above is not only not an exaggeration, it is probably an understatement. Oh, and they keep your ball. If you want to bowl some more, buy another one.]

Now, my indie-published friends were ruefully shaking their heads when I proposed the above scenario (and laughing their heads off at the one in brackets), but also thinking “too bad that’s how it works.” Everyone knows that you have to put your book on Amazon, where people can find it, because if you don’t put it there, no one will be able to buy it.

Yeah. Well.

Time for another short quiz:

  1. How many people bought your book on Amazon?
  2. How many of those people found your book because of Amazon?

Again, guessing the answers: one — almost all of them; two — almost none of them. I’d actually be willing to say NONE of them, but some people who are very good at this Amazon thing might have wandered into this column by mistake.

Follow the logic here: indie writers dumped trad publishing because, in their opinion, trad publishers were not going to be able to pay them any more money than they could get on their own, because trad publishers, without the big marketing apparatus (which they will not employ on your behalf) and without the big chain bookstores (which don’t exist any more, in any quantity that matters) could not deliver any better chance of actual readership than we could get on our own. Plus they’d keep most of the money. And our bowling ball.

This is sound logic.

And then indie writers wrote books and put them up on Amazon. By the millions.

Follow the logic here: we dumped trad publishing (partly) because they couldn’t deliver readership. Then we adopted a delivery mechanism that refuses to tell us, when we delivered our own readership, how the bleep we did it. And then they kept a lot of the money anyway. But here’s your ball. Come again.

This is unsound logic.

But, but, Mr. C! Mr. C!* You have to put your books on Amazon! Everyone knows that!

Never, my friend, never underestimate the idiocy of people in large groups.

Amazon isn’t offering us discoverability. But that’s what they sell.

How about we refuse to buy it? What then?

I believe that Amazon’s pitch to indie authors is better than Simon Schuster House of Little Brown Penguins is to trad authors. But I believe it’s not better enough, and it’s getting worse all the time. So it’s time for something else. I believe in the core of my soul that it is everlastingly time for something else, something that allows authors to control not only their marketing list, but the results of their marketing.

Amazon will never give up that control. Amazon does not sell books. Amazon knows, and has known since it started, that its true product is data. Jeff Bezos lives on an island made of gold because he understood this before most other people. For the ease of taking people’s money (and this, they’re pretty good at), they got to control the data. I admit, I am very slow. But I can be taught.

I want my data. I want to see the pins, all of them, and how the ball strikes them, and what poundage gets best pin action, and which type of spin I need to hit that one hiding in the corner. I don’t want just the bowling ball, any more. Nor is owning a lane going to cut it.

I want the whole. damn. alley.

I want to give bowlers free tix to play laser tag. If I want to do laser-light bowling, complete with karaoke and dancing doo-wap dudes, then I should jolly well be able to do that, and I should know precisely who will show up to the party. Name. Address. Favorite Beatles song.

I’m the bowler. I’m the guy they’re paying to see. Not you, Jeff. And since you didn’t do anything whatever to get them to the alley, you don’t get to control admission. I do.

This is part one of several. If you’d like to check back and see this grenade go off, following would be a good idea. If not, see you out there, and best of luck with that 7–10 split.


*Mr. C is my superhero name. I only use it when I teach (and I get a lot of “Mr. C! when I do it).

Christopher Jones (Cj) after decades without success, quit writing in 2013, and proceeded to have a year listed in Guinness as “The Worst Ever Experienced by Man”. He repented, and has since published several books in multiple genres. He is known mainly for his business book, From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers, and other nonfiction titles, including Even Your Mother Won’t Call You Back and Talking So People Can Hear. A prolific writer of fiction as well, Cj has published two short-story collections (And the Kitchen Sink, Twelve Upon a Time), and been featured in six anthologies. His historical thriller Trinity Flynn and the Five Points Gang will debut in May 2019.

Chris Jones

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Working writer, junior high teacher. I defuse bombs to relax.