Friday, January 14, 2011

Guest Post by Selena Kitt Part 2

As promised, I'm going to continue hosting guest bloggers who have done exceptionally well self-pubbing. In the upcoming weeks I'll have posts by Terri Reid, Aaron Patterson, and Stephen Leather.

It's 11am on the 14th of January, and so far this month I've sold 9319 ebooks and 392 self-pubbed print books.

This is the California Gold Rush of 1849. Will everyone get rich? No. But damn near everyone who tries will make more money than they would if they try the traditional publishing route.

Selena Kitt has posted here once before, about Amazon's removal of her erotic incest fiction from their website. A month has now passed. This is her follow-up:

Banned by Amazon
by Selena Kitt

They say the only bad publicity is no publicity. Perhaps they’re right.

In mid-December, Amazon decided to ban three of my books (Back to the Garden, Under Mr. Nolan’s Bed and Naughty Bits) because they were in “violation of their content guidelines.” I could deduce (Sherlock that I am) that the common theme in all three was erotic (consensual and adult, I might add) incest. Then I discovered that several more authors had received the same notice from Amazon, and their books, too, dealt with taboo topics.

Now, I’m a big supporter of free speech and intellectual freedom and my hackles get raised when we start walking down slippery slopes like these. Censorship in general, whether it comes from a government or a corporation, is abhorrent to me.

Principles aside, though—those three books earned me roughly $3000 a month on Amazon Kindle. That was nothing to sneeze at and I was understandably angry. Why had they removed these books and yet left books like Daddy Helps Out, which, if reviews are to be believed, involves incestuous sex with an eight-year-old? (That book is still on Amazon’s shelves a month later, by the way). I wanted and demanded an explanation.

What I received from Amazon was silence. For a week, no one would talk to me or return my calls. I talked to other authors whose taboo books had been removed and they, too, were getting the silent treatment. To me, this spoke to Amazon’s poor business ethics. If they were making a new policy, why wouldn’t they contact publishers and tell them about their new guidelines, give them time to prepare their authors and make other arrangements? Anthologies that contained offending material, for example, could have been reworked and re-uploaded instead of being removed, without any penalty in loss of ranking. Amazon didn’t give anyone that opportunity. Instead, they clandestinely removed titles, informed authors and publishers days or weeks later, and most importantly, refused to tell anyone what they were doing or why.

I finally talked to an “executive customer service representative,” who gave me the runaround (we literally talked in circles for half an hour) about Amazon’s content guidelines. She told me that Amazon was refusing to tell anyone, now or in the future, how or why any book violated their content guidelines. But while she wouldn’t give me the reason that my titles had been removed, when I asked if "all titles that violated the content guidelines in a similar way" were going to be removed, she confirmed that yes, that was their intention.

Then when I asked if Amazon had any intention of removing books that violated their content guidelines in other ways, she said that while they would exercise their right to revisit their policy, she thought it was now pretty well set. Of course, that was before two gay male books with “rape” in the titles were removed. And then, just a few weeks later, Amazon told the author they would be restored to the site.

Just what in the world is going on over at Amazon?

No one knows. And their backhanded removal of books and stonewalling practices aren’t helping. Look, I shop at Amazon. I enjoy the variety and convenience as much as anyone else. I also love my Kindle. But my estimation of them has gone down considerably. I don’t like the way they have handled this situation, but it isn’t the first time they’d done something like this. Look at what they did with the ped0phile book. And Wikileaks. And then there was that “technical glitch” that stripped gay and lesbian titles of their rankings last year. Oops.

Honestly, I have no objection to retailers deciding what they will or will not sell in their stores or on their sites. Wal-Mart does this. And I choose not to shop at Wal-Mart. Their choice, my choice, free country. However, a distributor like Amazon has an obligation not only to their customers, but to their vendors as well.

If you’re a business, and you’re going to make a policy, then your vendors and customers have a right to know where you stand. Wal-Mart makes it public knowledge to vendors and customers that they don’t accept music with explicit lyrics, for example. But Amazon hasn’t made any such statement about books. And Amazon’s arbitrary removal of books, lack of transparency and waffling on their decisions doesn’t inspire much confidence in their business practices.

And I’m in business with Amazon.

Before this incident, I would say I was 80% happy with that relationship. There were a few issues I wasn’t thrilled about, the same ones other authors complained of—things like not allowing authors to offer books for free, for example. But Amazon was the heavy hitter, the only game in town when it came to big numbers. I was earning a majority of my income with them, and while I had my complaints, there wasn’t much I could do about them.

For example, when Amazon switched my books from their Mobipocket feed over to Amazon DTP, they took six months to do it. They hadn’t anticipated that someone with excellent rankings would lose those in making the transfer to DTP and might be a little upset about that fact. (Doh!) But they were determined to switch all Mobipocket books over, so they had their tech people develop a program that would transfer the rankings. That took them six months. And when they did transfer my titles, it didn’t work. I lost a considerable amount of rankings due to their technical glitch, and my books dropped from being in the top ten in erotica to the top twenty-five or fifty, and they still haven’t recovered. Ouch.

Again, although I was angry and disappointed, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Amazon was still the biggest online book retailer around, and if I wanted to sell my books in large quantities, theirs was the only place that offered that kind of opportunity.

But maybe that won’t be the case for too much longer.

I did a survey with Amazon about six months ago. They were calling high-earning self published authors for feedback about their experience with Kindle DTP. I was asked, at the time, to keep the conversation confidential, but since Amazon currently refuses to offer me an explanation about my books and I didn’t sign anything legally binding about nondisclosure, I really don’t feel obligated to keep quiet about it anymore.

During that survey, the Kindle DTP representative I talked to was thrilled with and actually pretty smug about the market share that Amazon Kindle had cornered. I confirmed, with my personal numbers, that they earned me about 80% of my sales. That was true at the time.

Last month, all that changed.

I sold 18,000 books on Barnes and Noble after Amazon “banned” my books (from December 15th or so until the end of the month). And 4000 of those were copies of banned titles. Erik Sherman over at CBS was interested in this information (he’s diligently been covering this issue since it started while the rest of the press seems to just ignore it) and did a blog post about the power of “banning” a book.

So I earned double from Barnes and Noble what I made from Amazon in December. And I’m sure I can (oh so ironically) thank Amazon in part for this shift. Banning books always makes people interested—"What could be so bad that it had to be banned? Maybe I’ll have to check that out…" So I’m sure there were people who heard my book had been removed and went over to Barnes and Noble (the biggest online retailer next to Amazon) to buy it.

But I also think it may indicate a real shift in the market. I think it also had something to do with the holiday season and the new color Nook and people getting ereaders for Christmas. I think ebooks are just starting to get going, and perhaps this upswing in Barnes and Noble sales (and the news seems to support this idea as well) is an indication that Amazon won’t always be the big dog (i.e. bully) on the block anymore.

And frankly, I’m actually a little relieved. Amazon might not have had a monopoly on ebooks, but a “majopoly” is still a bad thing for the free market. I’ve always said (in my Chicken Little way) that it’s dangerous to keep all your eggs in one basket. Someone once remarked on this blog that Joe Konrath was “working for Amazon now.” Up until last month, that’s been primarily true for me as well, and it made me a little nervous. Of course, right now I’m working for Barnes and Noble. My hope, though, is that in the future, things even out a little more in the market so that Google Editions and Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and Borders, if they survive) and whoever else is going to come onto the scene as an ebook player, are on more equal footing.

I know that all of them are going to have their problems and issues. Amazon totally messed up my rankings, but Barnes and Noble was much more prepared, it seems, in that department. The books that came over to Barnes and Noble from my Fictionwise feed did so seamlessly, with no loss in rankings at all. Why couldn’t Amazon have done that? Of course, Amazon’s accounting is up to date, real-time sales, to the hour, but Barnes and Noble has been hit and miss, to say the least. I have no idea how much I’ve sold with them in January so far, because their reports don’t say – although they assure me that “all sales are being recorded correctly.” Let’s hope so.

I think it’s hard to have confidence in any big company, and small and indie publishers and authors need to stick together to keep calling the big boys on their incongruent business practices. Yes, a business has a right to make a policy—but do they have a right not to tell you what that policy is and how they’re going to enforce it? I’m sorry, but I just have to call Amazon out on that one.

For example, most publishers (and Amazon is a publisher now, whether they like it or not) are clear about what they do and don’t accept. This is even more true for erotic publishers in the ebook world.

At Excessica, we’re very clear:

No sexual situations featuring characters under the age of eighteen

No bestiality (fantastical creatures exempt)

No necrophilia (fantastical creatures exempt)

No incest

Yes, we added that last guideline recently, thanks to Amazon’s ham-handed censorship tactics. We have caved and self-censored in anticipation of Amazon’s rejection of future work. It’s unfortunate—and I’m sure it’s exactly what they intended.

I’ve also personally self-censored my books, releasing a new version of Under Mr. Nolan’s Bed without the father/daughter incest titled, “Plaid Skirt Confessions,” and a different version of Naughty Bits without the sibling incest titled, “Foreign Exchange.” I’ve clearly stated in the descriptions that they are reworked versions of the originals, so readers will know.

And now we’re in the business of censoring ourselves. Big Brother has won that round, I’m afraid.

But at least when it comes to business practices, we are still being clear about our policies. I don’t think it’s all that hard to do and it’s certainly not too much to ask. If we can do it, so can Amazon. I hope that, at some point, they do. Or if they continue to refuse and act without transparency, I hope the free market will work and they get knocked off their high horse so they’re not the only viable ebook game in town anymore.

My sales at Barnes and Noble last month has given me a glimmer of hope in that regard.

In the meantime, I’m going to cash my December royalty check and hope that B&N doesn’t decide to follow Amazon down their slippery slope and start banning books from their virtual shelves as well.