The Myth of Discoverability: Why I Left Amazon

In June 2017 I did something that will shock some of you. I removed my paperbacks and eBooks from Amazon. After nine years of using Amazon to create, publish and distribute my books, I called it quits. Our partnership was no longer serving me.

Amazon has built itself into one of the premiere online retailers, and the place to buy books online. I still order books and other items from them and I don’t plan to stop using my Kindle anytime soon. As a consumer, I’m pretty satisfied with what Amazon has to offer. As an author and supplier, not so much. I stayed with them longer than I probably should have — I should have abandoned ship years ago — but I kept my books on their site and used their publishing platforms (Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing, KDP) because I am an author, and as an author you have to have your books on Amazon, because discoverability.

Discoverability is a tricky game that gets wonkier each time Amazon decides to alter their algorithms. Or allow authors to buy ad space on similar books to promote their titles. Or how the browsing and buying habits of people online differ than when in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Despite tweeking keywords and updating SEO, the vast majority of my sales were generated from getting people to click directly onto my book link and make a purchase–either through messages from me or word-of-mouth marketing or finding a link on a review or blog site. Not much on browsing. It made me think: If I’m doing the leg work to get folks to buy from Amazon, why not send them to my own website? Where I can get paid directly and immediately, without having to wait for Amazon’s “royalty” deposits. I know that if someone really wants to buy a product, they will purchase it wherever its available–within reason.

It made sense to me. Especially after being notified that Amazon was discontinuing their aStore program for Associate sellers. That was the main way I had linked my paperback titles and sold them on my website. It’s their platform; I’m just renting space. They get to make and change the rules as they see fit.

That’s not why I became an author/publisher. I went down this path knowing that it’ll be difficult, but also knowing that I will have more control over my products and how they are distributed. I fell out of love with ISBNs, a monopoly product added onto books for identification purposes and to track sales. Most of my book sales were in person, moving paperbacks at book fairs and other events. Not tracked by BookScan. The benefits of ISBNs were of little use to me, a comparatively low-volume seller, and yet it was necessary that my books carry one when publishing through Createspace.

In the past 3 or 4 years I’ve fallen in love with handmade chapbooks and zines. They’re freeing because I craft them at home, print, fold and staple them myself. They’re low cost to create and fun. And I don’t have to rely on another company who can alter their prices and policies at any given moment, or could botch a shipping order (I’ve had that happened). My chapbooks are my bestsellers at live events; readers appreciate the DIY nature of them.

I’ve moved away from Amazon because I fell out of favor with some of their practices, to become more independent as an author/publisher and because I’ve discovered a unique joy in making zines. For a long time I went about being an author by mimicking traditional publishing models and standards. I was on Amazon because that’s where the big guys were, and that’s where I wanted to be. Not thinking how crowded the space has become, and that seeking discoverability is becoming more like chasing a unicorn if you haven’t made the right connections. Then I remembered that I want to create something different, something new; that’s why I began writing and putting out my work. Not to be like the big players, but to break away from how standardized and stale the industry is. This move to walk away from Amazon is me taking more steps towards my greater purpose.

Update: When this post was originally written (July 3, 2017), I sold my books directly on, what was then, my website. I learned the hard way that I was not prepared for that scale up. I’ve since switched to this WordPress blog and begun selling my handmade zines through Etsy. However, I’m not going back to selling my books on Amazon.


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