ALLi is calling out Amazon on their Audible refund policy, which is resulting in unknown numbers of audiobook authors and narrators around the world being deprived of income. Bookshop.org suffers a glitch, confusing some indie authors, and the end of an era with the end of Book Expo America.
These are among the topics discussed on Self-Publishing News with Alli News Editor Dan Holloway and book editor Howard Lovy. Together, they will bring you the latest in indie publishing news, including commentary, a technology update, and highlights from indie author interviews.
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About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts: Audible Refund Policy and More
Howard Lovy: Welcome to Self-Publishing News with ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway.
I’m Howard Lovy and together, we will bring you the latest in indie publishing news and commentary. Self-Publishing News is brought to you by the Alliance of Independent Authors.
Hello, Dan. Good to virtually see you again. I hope you are thriving despite these challenging times.
It’s been a very busy news month, Dan and I know you you’ll devote your monologue later to the big news coming out of Audible that has a direct impact on Indies, but last month we talked about the launch of bookshop.org and its potential to give people an alternative to Amazon, but there’s new news coming out of bookshop, bring us up to date.
Dan Holloway: Yes, it’s been out in America for a while. It came to the UK on the 2nd of November. There was a lot of fanfare. It was at exactly the right time; it was just as lockdown was starting. People were looking to buy physical books online, and for most of the year sales of physical books online have been doing really well, but most of the money has been going through Amazon.
So, bookshop.org is a way to divert some of that money from Amazon to local book shops, and that’s great. It’s obviously really good for indie authors, because you don’t have to have your book stocked by a bookshop. So, it gets round that problem.
The money from your book sale can go to your local indie store without your local indie store having to make a decision on whether or not to stock your book and worry about returns and so on, because everything is handled centrally. So, that’s great.
The problem was that print on demand books started disappearing from their bookshelves about a week and a half, two weeks ago.
So, suddenly everyone woke up, they’d created a storefront on bookshop.org and all of a sudden it was empty, and no one really knew what had happened.
Howard Lovy: A virtual store, empty.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and needless to say, as always happens when people don’t know what’s happened, they made up an answer of their own.
So, all sorts of answers came out about, oh, this is getting at indies all, there were people who clearly didn’t understand how the process worked, who were worried about returns, which obviously, isn’t an issue.
It turned out that, in part, this was actually being driven by the fact that the software that bookshop.org were using was picking up and displaying a lot of out-of-print titles. So, it was nothing to do with print on demand titles, because of the way they were pulling data in, it was looking to customers as though lots of books were in stock that weren’t. So, out of print hardbacks that hadn’t been available since 2010, were showing as in stock, and one of the problems was customers were ordering them, and then they were only finding out later that they weren’t actually available.
And this was causing bad customer experience. It was also causing customers to then get in touch with their local indie bookstore because, again, they didn’t understand quite how it worked. So, there were lots of bookstores getting frustrated calls from people who couldn’t get these out-of-print hardbacks, and this was good for no one.
So, bookshop decided to step in and try and fix this and, unfortunately, the fix they used also got rid of print on demand titles, which weren’t causing the problem. So, they were sort of an innocent bystander. They’ve been very good though. The representative from them spent an hour on the phone to me last week explaining things, and they’re clearly really committed to indie authors, and clearly committed to being able to make print on demand books available. I think within two and a half days of speaking to him, and them issuing a very public and very frank apology, all the books were restored. So, everything now seems to be working again. He did say that the solution they’ve used, the technical solution they’ve used, is what our IT people, here at work would call a patch, it’s a fix rather than a solution.
Howard Lovy: So, this was a software glitch, and not any attempt to-
Dan Holloway: Yeah, there was no attempt to do anything at all. It was a software glitch. The only way of fixing it quickly was to put a patch on it, essentially. So, a different way of coding, I think the way he explained it to me was he was using a second line of book coding, which I guess is the BISC numbers, well, the BISC codes; the way that the books identify themselves in metadata.
Howard Lovy: We’re all discovering that this online world that we have is not quite as ready for prime time as we would’ve hoped.
Dan Holloway: No, quite.
Howard Lovy: Covid forced everything online, but as my kids are discovering, just trying to go to school online, there are so many things that just aren’t quite ready yet. The infrastructure isn’t always there yet.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and you never quite realize it until you try and press the button to make it all work, and then it doesn’t.
Howard Lovy: But the important thing is bookshop.org recognized the problem and worked to fix it-
Dan Holloway: -and have fixed it really quickly. And as I say, they were very receptive. They clearly enjoyed or look forward to working with ALLi in the future, and have nothing against indie authors at all, and that’s good because, one of the stories we’ve been covering all year is how much paper-based sales are still doing well, and this is a way to get paper-based sales without the traditional problems that we have as indies, which revolve around returns and so on. And also, discounts, because bookshops get 10% of sales, they get a 10% royalty on the sale. So, it’s not like we’re having to offer massive discounts that we can’t afford because of how much it costs.
Howard Lovy: Right, that’s a good deal for indie authors and indie bookstores.
Yeah. Okay, wonderful. I mean, sorry to hear about the glitch, but I think the important thing is that they recognize the problem they’re working with indie authors to fix it.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and that’s notably in contrast to the story I’ll be looking at later on Audible, who are very much not working with authors of any kind.
Howard Lovy: You’ll devote your monologue to that a little later in the show.
For now, we’ll talk about something that’s not necessarily a good thing for indie authors, or any author in general, I’m not sure.
Big changes are happening in publishing. Penguin Random House, itself a conglomeration of two previously separate companies, has taken over Simon and Schuster and, I don’t know, pretty soon there’s just going to be one big publisher. I can’t imagine this development is good for authors but tell us what you think it means.
Dan Holloway: There’s been some interesting speculation online because, again, people like to speculate, and love to. I guess, if there’s a 2020 theme, or a theme over the last few years, it’s that, whenever there’s a story, people like to see a hidden story behind it. So, the conspiracy or hidden story behind this, that people are seeing, is that this is a move to take on Amazon. Publishers are too small to take on Amazon without conglomerating, seems to be a line that some people are taking. So, this is necessary, given the context of, I think the article I read, it’s in the Atlantic, and I linked to it in this week’s news column, it points out that this merger will mean that 33% of books are published by this one company in America, but 49% of all book sales go through Amazon. So, the idea is that is that Amazon is still the big player, and we need not take our eye off that and we need to, I guess, be supportive of publishers trying to do their best to take on the mighty Amazon.
Howard Lovy: Oh, I see. That’s not really a conspiracy theory, I mean, that kind of makes sense, you know, it’s hard to really tell who the good guys and bad guys are, because it’s a little more complicated than that.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, there are a lot of big companies floating around. One of the things I talked about, again in the column this week is, it’s always interesting just how, how to say this without sounding rude, is how small the numbers are when we talk about publishing. And when we talk about the big five, how small these companies actually are in terms of the companies that they’re kicking around with, like Amazon, like Apple, like Google, and even in publishing, the takeover was $2.2 billion. So, I was doing a little search, and the leading academic publisher is worth 20 times that. So, we talk about the big five publishing companies, but academic publishing in general would, sort of, swallow it whole and not even notice that that’s where all the money is.
Even OUP, which is a tiny, sort of, company, which is the University Press associated with Oxford, where I work, it makes companies like Penguin Random House look tiny.
Howard Lovy: Really? I didn’t realize that academic publishers are so much bigger.
Dan Holloway: They are huge, and they are the most profitable companies in the world, which is something we’re not used to thinking about with publishing.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, and then everything pales in comparison with Amazon.
Dan Holloway: And then everything pales in comparison with Amazon, where you’ve got another order of magnitude or two, and you’re talking about getting on for a trillion as the value. So, yes, scale is a really important thing to see. We think of the publishers as big guys, but they’re also little guys.
Howard Lovy: Right, right. I remember way back when stores like Barnes and Noble were considered the big guys, and now they’re the scrappy little guys compared to Amazon.
Dan Holloway: Yes, and a Nook is like a small, sort of, niche indie e-reader.
Howard Lovy: Right. So, meanwhile, you know, in this alternate universe of indie publishing, I think we’re still continuing to grow. We’re watching a lot of this on the sidelines, but it doesn’t really have a great deal of impact on us yet.
Dan Holloway: It means, I guess, and this is something I think we were talking about before we started recording is, the more mergers there are, the fewer options people have as writers. You’re not going to get imprints multiplying as a result of mergers, you’re only ever going to get them shut down. So, even if the in-house ethos doesn’t change, even if people don’t do what you would think they’d naturally do and get more conservative, and less eager to take chances, there are just fewer imprints to take what you might call riskier or more niche books, and that’s going to mean that there are more people who are looking for other ways to publish.
Howard Lovy: Right, right. Well, they can always check out ALLi and indie publishing.
Dan Holloway: Yes, exactly.
Howard Lovy: But it seems like every month here we’re covering one sort of transition or another. And another, sort of, end of an era is the end of BookExpo America, they’re closing up. And I know they were in decline for a few years, but COVID kind of put the nail in the coffin.
I remember, a few years ago I was editor for a book review magazine, and I used to go to BookExpo, but I was never a good schmoozer anyway, and book world is online and, you know, was BookExpo kind of an anachronism, anyway?
Dan Holloway: It’s hard to tell whether it’s an anachronism in the context of book fairs in general, because so many book fairs feel like anachronisms. It was the one that was in trouble, of the big ones. And ALLi, as you know, we have our Self-Publishing Conference two times a year, and we always tie it to a big book fair, and for several years, BookExpo was one of the ones we tied it to, but then they really did, sort of, lose their way. There’s one particularly unfortunate year when they basically booted the indie authors out the back, and made London Book Fair look like a really, really progressive organization. That was, I think, the final nail in the coffin for our dealings with them, and then just at the same time, Digital Book World was coming back, under new and revitalized ownership, and put together a really good package so we started working with them again.
Well, it’s good to get ourselves seen when people are looking at the book world, I think. So, everyone is in fair mode in March with London, for example, and so it’s really good that we get seen there, if we’ve got our conference at the end of it, and again with Frankfurt. But yes, BookExpo did a bad job with COVID of their announcements, I don’t know that any of the others did much better. They’re run by the same people who run London Book Fair, Reed Exhibitions, London Book fair was just as COVID was breaking and they delayed and delayed and delayed, and a lot of publishers lost a lot of money because they wouldn’t cancel until the last minute. It was literally three or four days before the conference that they canceled it. So, publishers had spent a lot of last-minute money printing leaflets and so on, and there was quite a lot of bad will. But London seems to have come out of it okay, whereas BookExpo, because it’s later in the year, they insisted they could hold it live and they were holding on, and holding on, and holding on, and they really made a bit of a mess of it.
Howard Lovy: Is London Book Fair going to come back for sure?
Dan Holloway: It is coming back. It’s coming back in June next year as a one off, before coming back to its usual March date from 2022.
Howard Lovy: The one book event that I always looked forward to going to was the American Library Association’s annual conference, because librarians are always interesting.
Dan Holloway: It’s one of the events I like reporting on most, because they actually talk about really interesting things. Most of the book fairs talk about the same thing that all the other book fairs talk about. So, for the last umpteen years, everyone’s just been talking about audiobooks, and that’s all you talk about is audiobooks and yes, audio books are really important, but there’s only so much you can say about the future of audiobooks.
Whereas the American Librarians Association really, they’re quite feisty as well. I mean, it’s only a year ago that that was the big story, that they were taking publishers or battling them in the courts over their metered usage. So yeah, they’re always interesting to report on.
Howard Lovy: Yeah, and we should always support our local libraries and local librarians, especially these days.
Dan Holloway: Yep, that’s something we’ve been saying a lot.
Howard Lovy: Well, thank you for the news update, Dan. That’s all we have time for, for now, but stay healthy and have a happy new year. I’ll see you in 2021.
Dan Holloway: See you in 2021.
Audible Refund Policy Under Fire
Dan Holloway: One story has dominated the news this month, and that’s the outcry over ACX Audible’s returns policy. This is a story that first came to light thanks to an incredibly detailed blog at the start of November, from indie author Susan May.
Sales, it seems, have been disappearing from dashboards of people whose books have been made available on Audible through ACX, the platform that lets writers and narrators meet up and agree a royalty split for their respective contributions to the production of an audiobook. Royalties were disappearing as well. Be it seemingly being taken away after they had been paid out to an account.
At the root of the problem was Audible’s return policy. In particular, their Audible Plus program, which would cost subscribers an additional $7 a month on top of the regular $7.99, was marketing itself by offering any time no strings returns. That is, subscribers could use a credit to access an audiobook, read it over the course of several weeks, and then having finished it, return it and get their credit back. And the royalty generated by the original download will be taken back from authors and narrators whenever that happened.
To make things worse, none of this was showing up on dashboards in any detail. There is no, these are your sales, and these are how many we’ve taken back from returns, there was just a bottom line that shifted like quicksand.
May started a Facebook group for everyone affected, Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators, and I’d highly recommend that if this affects you, you join.
Writers organizations came together as one to condemn it. Eventually Audible and ACX, whose communication has veered from bad to dreadful to even worse than that throughout, responded announcing a change to their terms and conditions. They would now only allow returns within seven days, but there would still be no limit on how much of the book people could listen to in that time, and any returns would still be clawed back out of writers and narrators royalties.
Writers groups weren’t happy at all. Our own Orna Ross put the key issues very succinctly. First cease the practice of clawing back payments from authors accounts when a return is received, this should never come from the authors already very low percentage, and second make transparent the total number of purchases and returns on author payment dashboards, not net sales silently adjusted for returns.
While the former is a vital principle, it’s the latter that I find really worrying, and it’s what Susan May doubles down on in a new blog post on the unfolding situation.
Also, dashboards don’t give sufficient granularity for us to make a judgment on the extent of the problem we face, and transparency and control of data is one of the main reasons many of us chose the indie route. It’s key to many of the decisions we make. Without it, not only can we not assess how much these actions might be costing us, we can’t make any informed decisions about which platforms to use, for this, or indeed subsequent books, or which books most deserve any promotional money we might spend, and so on and so on.
Further worrying issue has then emerged, many authors have reported receiving emails from Audible and ACX, claiming that there is suspicious activity on their accounts. These authors have had their accounts frozen as a result. There is no proof, obviously, that these, as far as anyone can tell, entirely unjustified emails are related to complaints that authors have been making about returns policy, but it’s something that I think we would all really like to hear about from Audible.
If I had to analyze the situation with a reporters and a historian of the industry’s hat on, I’d say this feels like a strategic toe in the water from Amazon, at a time when the audiobook industry is at a crossroads. It’s reached a point where, although still a small part of the industry, it’s growing consistently quickly enough that it will not remain small for long.
And while Amazon is obviously the big player, there are others. We talk a lot about Storytel for example, and ACX is not the only platform for making and distributing audiobooks. Findaway Voices has been building a steady following and can plug authors into the potentially lucrative OverDrive catalog.
This is a time when Amazon were not yet in a monopoly position. It’s very like the early days of Kindle, when Nook and Kobo weren’t orders of magnitude smaller than their rival. In other words, it’s a time when Amazon will be wanting to drive rapid growth in subscribers. We’ve already seen the trial of all you can eat subscription in Spain. This feels like another similar move. These kinds of moves worked with Kindle, when they used free promotions to gain readers to their proprietary format. The difference was that in the early days back then, if Amazon promoted your work for free, they still paid you a royalty. That, of course, soon stopped once they’d put sufficient distance between themselves and competitors.
Now, with a decade of water under the bridge, they aren’t even starting out by trying to bring us on board. Just imagine where that means we could end up.
Amazon’s big advantage this time round is they believe we truly need them. What will be decisive is discovering whether that’s right or simply something that everyone believes.
What Does ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Mean?
Howard Lovy: When I’m not producing podcasts for ALLi, I’m a book editor who specializes in memoir.
Today, I want to give a quick tip on how to turn your life story into a story people want to read. “Show don’t tell.” You’ve probably heard or read this before, and it’s a bit of a cliche, but I’m a big believer in writing that makes readers discover the narrative based on the way you paint a scene.
So, rather than cruise along at 40,000 feet over the past, there are places where you need to dive in even closer and bring readers with you.
Are there snippets of dialogue you can recall or recreate? What did you see, smell, taste, say?
Don’t make readers think of a writer sitting down after the fact and writing her story. Bring readers there in the moment with you.
Think of your manuscript as Google Earth. There are times when you show the entire landscape and cover vast distances and periods of time, but there are times when you dive into the street level and bring readers with you.
Some people in the publishing industry say that not everybody should write a memoir. I disagree. Everybody has a valuable, unique story to tell.