Amazon Adds Samhain to Its List of Victims

The digital-first, romance publisher Samhain has announced it is closing. Despite never having been published by Samhain, this news makes me very sad. Samhain was my target publisher, the one I aspired to be published by. The publisher from whom I got the absolute best rejection letter ever.

It was for Dr. Christopher’s Device, since published as The Pleasure Device. I won’t say who the editor was who wrote the rejection. Just knowing someone read my book for fun rather than work made my day!

“I found your writing and this story very engaging. I read every word of it and was very drawn in, even as I knew that it wasn’t a good fit for Samhain. … This one is a bittersweet rejection, but I’m hopeful that you’ll find the right home for this story and this premise. It’s a really good one.”

The manuscript found a home at Ellora’s Cave in 2013. Then Ellora’s Cave started having problems. Rights for The Pleasure Device were returned to me this month and I immediately self-published it.

Why is the world of romance publishing so volatile? One word answers most of that question: Amazon.

Why Did Samhain Close?

Christina Brashear, President and Publisher of Samhain Publishing wrote a letter to her authors which has been posted online.

In this letter she said the publisher is closing “due to our market share’s continuing decline” but then added specifics:

“We’ve tried to renegotiate terms with Amazon in order to buy better placement within their site and perhaps regain some of the lost traction from the early days but have been met with silence. Other retail sites are trying, but the sales have never risen to the level of Amazon and are declining as well.”

Let’s parse that out. “Better placement within their site” simply means visibility at Amazon. A book might appear on a sales page under “Recommended for you” or “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” or “What Other Items Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?” or “Your Recently Viewed Items and Featured Recommendations”. A book might be included in book recommendation emails from Amazon. In a private message from an affected author at Samhain, I learned that this suppressed visibility only happened at Amazon and not at any other retailer site.

A book might come up in a search on Amazon. In that private email message I learned that Samhain books are buried deep in search results. Like on the last page of search results.

Unethical Business Practices?

Why would Amazon suppress the visibility of books, thereby reducing a consumer’s choices? One would think the opposite to be true: giving the consumer lots of choices will increase the chance she will purchase a book, right?

Because Amazon is in the business of profits not book sales. There’s a difference.

One aspect of Amazon that many do not know is their arrangements with publishers. These arrangements, alluded to in the above quote from Brashear’s letter, mean a publisher has to pay Amazon for the right to be listed and in turn gets certain benefits, like placement on the site. That seems like a totally legitimate relationship, until one discovers the heavy-handed bullying tactics undertaken by Amazon to squeeze small publishers.

These tactics are known as the Small Publisher Negotiation Program, previously known as “the Gazelle Project, after Bezos suggested ‘that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle’.”

If a small publisher doesn’t “get with the program” and pay the high fees set by Amazon, then all sorts of things start happening. Like lack of visibility. Or even lack of a “Buy” button.

Of course many would say Amazon is a business and they have a right to run their business as they see fit. Amazon is, however, becoming more and more of a monopoly, and, as a result, crushing the world of small publishing.

Is Samhain the Only Small Publisher Affected?

If you read my blog, you know I’ve mentioned how Amazon suppresses books with their Adult Filter. In that blog post I mentioned Ellora’s Cave. I am still an EC author, so am not really supposed to relay information from business communiques. However, EC authors have been aware that Ellora’s Cave was subjected to Amazon’s very same strong-arm tactics. Perhaps you noticed all of the prices for EC products dropped roughly $1.50 about a year and a half ago. That was something EC was required to do to stay on good terms with Amazon.

But that’s good for the consumer, right? Yes, lower prices in general are good for consumers. But bigger publishing houses – such as Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin – can and do charge high prices for their Kindle editions. These publishers have deep pockets and can afford to pay Amazon’s fees without shutting down.

What About Indie-Publishing?

In private conversations, some have brought up the fact that indie-published/self-published authors can greatly undercut the prices small publishers charge for their books.

Yes, we can and we do. We get 70% royalties for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, which is a far better royalty payout than what any small publisher can offer.

But I wonder how long that situation will last? Will Amazon start strong-arming indie authors soon? Amazon has already changed the way they pay out for books in their Kindle Unlimited program, from percentage read to pages read. And then has changed the way “pages read” is calculated, claiming the average Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC) change would be less than 5%. The change to my Hadrian and Sabina: A Love Story was a reduction of 11%, from 797 pages to 713 pages. (And, yes, I do have plans to eventually distribute Hadrian and Sabina to other vendors.)

What does this all mean?

The landscape of publishing is rapidly changing. If you are an author, you have to do extra due diligence in researching the economic health of a publisher before you submit. If you are a reader, you have to do extra due diligence in making sure you are “discovering” all possible books you might like. If you like an author, don’t just rely on search results on a retailer site. Go to the author’s Amazon Author Page (which authors still have control over), or their website, or their Goodreads Page to see all their available works.

And in this crazy world, sometimes all one wants to do is read a bunch of stories with happily-ever-afters.