David vs. Goliath

Writer Jeannette Vaughan ran an interesting blog post recently, entitled “The Amazon Ripoff,” in which she argues that Amazon And CreateSpace underreported sales of her book, released by indie publisher Age View Press. If she’s right, this is bad news indeed for self-published writers and indie publishers, for whom Amazon is the essential outlet. Even if it’s not true, the allegation itself highlights the fact that in the relationship between a self-published writer and Amazon, the balance of power is so heavily weighted to Amazon’s side that it can hardly be called a balance at all.

If Random House or Simon and Schuster are unhappy, Amazon may not concede the issue but has to take it seriously. But a complaint from John Doe, self-published author of Buy My Book Please, worries the behemoth as much as a gnat worries a grizzly.

I don’t know if Jeannette Vaughan’s accusations are correct or not. As far as I can tell, neither CreateSpace nor Amazon has answered them publicly. It’s not uncommon for writers to overestimate their sales, nor for readers to claim that they bought a book they actually didn’t. Still, any business relationship as lopsided and free from oversight as this one is potentially ripe for exploitation.

“Trust but verify,” Reagan used to say, and literary agents adopted that policy long ago. Their contracts always include a clause that allows writers to audit the publisher’s accounts as they pertain to the author’s work, at the author’s expense if the books balance, the publisher’s if they don’t. That clause isn’t often implemented, but often enough to keep publishers honest. Self-published writers have no such recourse with distributors like Amazon, nor do they, as individuals, have the power to demand the right to audit.

So what’s a self-published writer to do? Not a whole lot at the present, as far as I can see. In the future, though, there is power in numbers when individuals unite. The Writers Guild recently opened their doors to self-published writers who’ve sold a certain number of books in the past year. If such writers join in large numbers, the Guild might advocate on their behalf for an audit clause or some other neutral-party means of conflict resolution. Self-published writers could also form their own trade group, which could gain enough heft to negotiate on behalf of its members.

What do you think? Is there really a problem, and if so, how can it be resolved?


A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available for pre-order,  and most vendors are offering early buyers  a 35% discount on the hardcover edition. Viking/Penguin has also released a wonderful Readers’  Guide to the book–do check it out!  Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster has reissued my last three novels as ebooks. If you like mysteries and ghost stories, try  SUSPICION:  it’s both.

Your thoughts?