June 27, 2013

There are exactly zero defensible reasons for authors to link to Amazon


This guy has never heard of you.

A heated discussion about the lowly book link has burned its way out of The Bookseller this week. Keith Smith, owner of Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books, wrote a post for that site calling out a handful of authors by name for linking to Amazon or to Waterstones from their sites rather than to indie bookstores. He writes:

Many of these are authors who, when asked, will say they like nothing better than to support the independent sector, they couldn’t imagine life without their local bookshop … We put a lot of effort into supporting authors, promoting their work, diligently hand-selling, inviting them to our festivals and “meet the author events”. … It’s about time they supported us.

The piece got a bit of attention and authors began to respond. Answers like that from Joanne Harris—”I am more than happy to include links to independent bookshops. I know how much I owe them and I support them fully”—were typical, though one author, Alison Weir, chose to answer at misguided length. (Oh and booksellers, don’t read the comments on that one unless you were already planning on giving yourself a haircut one fistful at a time.)

For any of us who’ve been in the dusty literary trenches as booksellers, this may feel like a perennial argument, one that seems to crop up every year. And each time authors—nearly all of them well-intentioned and supportive of indie bookstores— express surprise that the debate even exists. And each time, what is in fact a very practical recommendation that serves to benefit everyone—and I mean everyone, quite literally—is bogged down by voices seeking to reframe the discussion. I’m going to try to be brief and blunt here, so that in a year’s time when the debate predictably crops up again, I might simply point back at this post.

Two caveats: first, if you are an author self-publishing your own work exclusively on Amazon, none of the below applies to you. Thank you, goodnight.

Second, in the UK, the problem is a bit knottier than in the states. The American Booksellers Association provides its members with a basic ecommerce template to use on their sites. It is not the most graceful platform in the world (cue the laughter of 30,000 American booksellers), but it generally works. This is precisely what Smith is asking the UK’s Bookseller’s Association to do. To simplify things, let’s talk about the U.S., where most indies do sell books online.

For authors, the choice about where to link really is quite easy. There are incredible altruistic reasons that you might want to support an independent bookseller—the American Booksellers Association has a good list of independent studies laying that out but, that taco joint you love up the street? yeah, your booksellers buy lunch there; your kid’s school? bookseller taxes probably help fund it—but this is the internet and we don’t care about things like community or cute bookstore cats, right? Let’s talk in simple, hugely selfish terms.

Scenario A: You pick one store. Make it an indie. Maybe the one closest to your house. Make sure they have a website. Make sure your book is available on their website. Make sure the store is willing to ship books to customers. Link to your book through the store’s page. Tell the store you are doing this. If you have a big enough following and sales result, they will surely notice in a hurry anyhow. Even if not a single customer finds them through you, they will be happy. They will be happy with you.

Now you have new friends. (The obvious sub-rule here: try not to be an asshole to these people.) Your new friends will, in turn, work to sell your book. Maybe they will throw you a party. If you are a bestseller—and they will work hard to make that happen—you will help feed their kids. Wait, sorry, we’re meant to be selfish here. Ignore the hungry booknerd kids. Your publisher, I promise you, will be very happy to learn about your new friends.

And remember you, as an author, make the same amount from your books themselves whether they are purchased through Amazon or through an indie bookseller.

Scenario B: You choose to link to Amazon. If you are not a bestselling author and someone, driven by your site, buys your book on Amazon, your ranking may go up from #1,456,289 to #463,323. Congratulations. If you are a bestselling author, traffic from your site to Amazon will not do much. Well, that’s not strictly true. It will help, even ever so slightly, a company that breaks down humans, infrastructure, and literacy as we know it. But again, we are being selfish here so let’s ignore that.

Amazon will not give a shit whether you link to them or not. They won’t. Amazon is so dominant that in most cases people looking to buy your book will navigate there first, not your site. Linking to it from your site does not effectively benefit you whatsoever, and barely benefits them. Linking to Amazon does not somehow put you on their good side. Bezos doesn’t even have a good side—that terrifying crazed laugh face wraps around the entirety of his fleshy cylindrical head. Maybe Amazon is a good friend to have—but unless you happen to be some kind of Attorney General with a dashing little mustache, you’ll never find out. They don’t care about you. Oh, and the affiliate program? You are hoping to get a kickback if people buy things after getting to Amazon from your site? Yeah, indie booksellers have those, too.

It bears repeating: all of the discussion of the ills of Amazon aside (and if you don’t agree that Amazon is a force for ill in the world you really should spend some more time on our site) authors have nothing appreciable to gain by linking to Amazon. Linking to an indie can have real, pecuniary benefits. If linking to the former alienates the latter—and it damned well should—then an already obvious choice becomes something closer to an imperative. Link to your local bookstore.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.