Be a Listmaniac

Listmania is the Amazon.com feature that offers lists of reader-recommended books organized around particular subjects. These lists can be an interesting way to explore a topic, and you also have the option to create one yourself. Savvy authors use the tool to tell readers about themselves -- you can even upload a photo -- and often start their lists with their own books. It's another way to increase and share your expertise and become a more integral part of the Amazon book culture.

Visit Amazon and the Books For Publishers/Self-Publishers list by Peter Hupalo.

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An Elephant in a Room Full of Authors

Amazon.com offers benefits to those willing to play along
I could be wrong, but didn't Al Gore invent Amazon.com and the Internet at the same time? Maybe not, but Amazon is one of the biggest success stories in the history of the Internet, and it's hard to imagine living without it. It certainly is one of the Web's biggest commercial successes -- the company reported net sales of $1.13 billion in the third quarter of 2003, and significant profit. Now, if its founder has his way, Amazon may well become the Internet Age's biggest publishing story, as Jeff Bezos and Amazon embark on a controversial project that could radically change the way books are published and sold.

On October 23rd, Amazon released a feature called "Search Inside the Book" that allows users to search within books for words and phrases. At its launch, more than 120,000 book titles from 190 different publishers were included, and when Amazon reported a 9% sales increase for participating titles in the first five days, more publishers were clamoring to get involved.

But not everyone was thrilled with the new cyber-browsing tool. Authors' rights advocate The Authors Guild spoke out against it, fearing that users could and would print out pages of text from books instead of buying them. Some authors contacted Amazon directly to request their titles be removed from the program, and amid the swirl of publicity over the controversy, the accessibility to text was limited and the print function removed. Oddly, the company refused to confirm the changes but urged authors to "sit tight and see what further technical improvements Amazon makes to the program before deciding whether to pull their books from the program." Some may still worry that one-page items such as recipes, poems, and cartoons may still be accessed without purchase.

Regardless of how this technical tug-of-war plays out, Amazon is flexing its muscles and showing signs of becoming what some industry pundits have been expecting for years: that "the world's largest bookstore" could become "the world's only bookstore" by being able to print any book, anytime, anywhere, at a bargain price. With print-on-demand technology (Amazon has a partnership with Lightning Source) and a vast collection of digital files (the Search Inside books were scanned in low-wage countries like India and the Philippines), Amazon is on its way to having access to every book, in every form, that anyone could ever want.

Jeff Bezos is not alone in the crusade to digitize every book on the planet. Project Gutenberg is now at 10,000 titles and going strong; Carnegie Mellon's Million Book Project is nearing 100,000 e-volumes. But these other projects concentrate on public domain books, while Amazon touted 33 million pages from 120,000 newly released and in-print titles -- to start. The program is obviously something Amazon is committed to, and it will be interesting to watch it evolve.

This is certainly not the first divisive issue Amazon has brought to the book business. Over the years, the following charges have been made:

1) Amazon will put independent booksellers out of business by taking customers out of stores and making it too easy to shop online
2) Amazon's low prices are unrealistic and unfair, and they don't have to charge sales taxes like brick & mortar stores
3) Amazon encourages customers to sell used copies of books right alongside new titles, smarting the bottom lines of struggling publishers

Like it or not, Amazon has weathered these storms of criticism and has continued to grow into a more mainstream book purchasing and reference tool. People trust Amazon and Bezos, with his boyish charm, hands-on management style, and Yankee entrepreneurialism. Used by practically everyone involved with books, from librarians and teachers to bookstores of all sizes, Amazon is the "Google" of book searching. Adding this new text search feature will increase its popularity with both casual browsers and serious researchers alike, and concerns about piracy and monopoly will likely fade away quickly.

To think Bezos wants to establish a monopoly on book sales is probably naïve - he wants a monopoly on selling everything! On November 3rd yet another enticing feature was launched to attract customers: a "Holiday A-List" of 60 celebrities has been lined up to offer "a gift of exclusive content such as never-before-released songs and new short stories written exclusively for Amazon.com customers." Bruce Springsteen kicked off the event with concert footage, and Will Ferrell, Dr. Phil and Mary J. Blige are a few of the stars to come. There are even a few literary stars involved, such as DA VINCI CODE author Dan Brown, and Tom Brokaw, who will contribute a new World War II Christmas story.

How can a mom & pop bookstore compete with that? An espresso machine and local folksingers is one thing, but The Boss?

The bottom line for many authors and publishers is that, politics aside, Amazon sells books, lots of books. They do it by making it very easy, very affordable, and by supplying well-organized, easily accessible information about the books and other products they sell. The Amazon "customer" review is one such sources of information, and it has become important to both shoppers and authors -- especially those authors who haven't managed to get notices in major newspapers, magazines, or book review journals. And because Amazon is open to every publisher, regardless of size and stature, access to a sales platform and critical notice is a major boon to the emerging author whose platform a decade ago was the trunk of her car.

A New Kind of Review

Harriet Klausner is the top-ranked and most prolific of Amazon customer reviewers, with more than 5,800 reviews posted on the site. She says she writes about two reviews a day, likes to read various genres, and never deliberately criticizes an author. When I asked her if she had an awareness of the size of a book's publisher, or cares if a book is self-published or written by a first-time author, she said, "No, I prefer it." She said she enjoys discovering new talent and tries to do it as much as she can.

This is very good news for fledgling authors that need any attention they can get from an established source. Another reviewer, Don Mitchell (he's ranked #3, with 2,050 reviews), says he gets about 50 requests a week, mostly from independent authors and publishers, to review their books. As an independently published author himself (The Ultimate Competitive Advantage, Berrett-Koehler Pub), Mitchell says he's not quite so hard on independents.

"If it's an independent I will be more careful," says Mitchell. "I compare them to each other. Frequently these authors already have an axe to grind, and I don't want to write a scathing review and slam someone that's already in a fragile situation." Sometimes he even adds a paragraph in his review directed at the author, recommending changes. "Often they appreciate it, and make the changes," he says.

Mitchell tries to include these elements in reviews:

  • Who would like this book?
  • Who would hate this book?
  • What are the strongest and weakest aspects of the book?
  • Description of the writing style.
  • Personal experience with the book's subject (if nonfiction).
  • How the book compares to other books in the field.
What will help authors get a review from Mitchell? "With me, they need to tell me how their book will help the reader more than existing books, and why they think I would like the book," he says. "It also helps to include other reviews, content-oriented material (table of contents, index and brief excerpts) and author background. And, of course, they are much more likely to get a review if they offer a review copy." When I asked for a couple of things that would guarantee NOT to get a review he replied, "Sound arrogant, be unintelligible, and make typos." Amen.

Why do thousands of reviewers contribute their work, for free, to Amazon? Because it's where online book buyers - and book people in general -- hang out. This may well be part of the strategy behind "Search Inside," as it helps keep people within the site, getting more content, more suggestions, and more opportunities to buy books and other goods. It's becoming more and more a book-lovers' community, and a very democratic one. Anyone can strive to be a ranked reviewer, and Amazon's voting system keeps them honest. Hence, the quality of reviews is quite good. A number of major publication reviewers admit to visiting the site before releasing their own reviews.

I asked reviewer Barry Laycock (ranked #7, with 959 reviews) what kind of interaction he experiences with authors and whether flattery or bribery is involved. "I am not high enough in the food chain for bribery to be involved," he laughed. "I usually get a request and some accompanying flattering words offering desk copy if I will review the book. Now, based on available time and number of requests, I may offer a reviewing service for a fee but insist on maintaining creative control over the review."

"It is a slippery slope to accept money for reviews, but one that can be hazarded if one takes care to not confuse the fact of payment with a need to be pleasing. The net result is that if they are displeased with the resulting review, I agree not to publish it but still retain the fee for time expended."

"Based on what I have personally observed, if one cares to avail oneself of a so-called vanity press, and one has the funds to do so, one can become an 'instant author' regardless of the quality of the work," says Laycock. "On the other hand, it is apparent that many commercial publishers try to publish only works that have great commercial appeal, rather than providing much opportunity for new unknown authors. I think the quality (of publishing) is sadly declining, with some obvious exceptions."

These are changing times, and publishing is one of the barometers we judge our culture by. Authors can pay to get published, and even pay for a review. Can you play the "Amazon game" and still maintain your scruples?

Putting Amazon to Work

Shel Horowitz, a New England self-published author whose new book Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First is listed for sale on Amazon at 30% off and carries a sales ranking of 366,428 (at the time of this writing). His book's Amazon page includes nine customer reviews, all of which rate it “five stars” (one review is a whopping 800 words long).

On September 15, 2003, Horowitz ran a sales promotion to entice customers to buy his book on that day, in order to spike his sales ranking into the top 100 and give it "bestseller" status. He created a buzz about his book before the event –- reaching over 200,000 people with the announcement -– and achieved his top 100 goal. He kept that buzz going with a follow-up “success story” press release, and his sales ranking remained in the four figure range for an entire month.

"I chose Amazon for my bestseller campaign because, quite frankly, it was the easiest way I saw to get the results I wanted (a temporary spot in the top 100)," says Horowitz. "It's only necessary to influence buying at one outlet, as opposed to dozens. It's easy to provide one-click convenience for customers, and therefore increases the odds that they'll purchase. And, people can see quite a bit of information about the book."

Horowitz, a copywriter and marketing consultant who lives and works in a historic farmhouse in Massachusetts, takes a balanced view of the Amazon situation.

"Outside of this campaign, I tend to buy from my local independent bookstores -- sometimes paying a premium to do so -- because I believe very much in a strong local economy supporting locally owned and operated independent businesses. Amazon is a wonderful research tool, and I appreciate the way it takes small press titles seriously. I also believe it serves important functions in those communities that no longer have -- or never had -- a good independent bookseller."

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Whether you view Amazon as ominous or desirable, wearing the face of Darth Vader or a friendly librarian, it appears the "river of books" will keep on rising and flowing deeper into our literary lives. Authors and publishers -- especially those in need of accessible tools and a source of recognition -- should pull up their boots and wade on in.

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The basics on Amazon.com:

  • Founded in 1994 and launched in July of 1995 with the motto, "If it's in print, it's in stock," and this description: "Earth's biggest river surges with 10 times the volume of the next mightiest river. And in keeping with its namesake, Amazon.com Books offers over one million titles, more than five times as many titles as you find at even the largest Barnes and Noble."
  • 1998: Launched CD and video stores; began selling toys and electronics; expanded to UK and Germany
  • 1999: Raised $1.25 billion in a bond offering; purchased several dot-coms; added distribution facilities
  • 2000: Placed a link to drugstore.com on its homepage (drugstore.com paid more than $100 million); expanded to France and Japan.
  • 2001: Announced restructure and layoff of 15% of its workforce; took $150 million charge; announced deal with Borders to provide inventory, fulfillment, content, and customer service for borders.com.
  • 2002: Added apparel & accessories; new partnerships (e.g., Target); new services (e.g., wedding registry); became profitable for consecutive quarters for first time; 2002 revenues: $3.93 B (26% annual growth)

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