Digital Publishing – a thought experiment

Rewind your imagination less than a decade to late 2007. Amazon are making final preparations to launch the Kindle e-reader and the ebook store that would, in just a few short years, come to dominate digital publishing. Now imagine, in true sci-fi alternate history style, that the major publishers had actually taken up the baton of innovation and pre-empted Amazon with an ebook platform of their own. Over the next few years the publishers, with the massive advantage that they own all the books, push Amazon out of digital publishing and preserve their business for the future.

Hurrah! Right?

Let’s ask a few questions of this scenario. Would the publishers ebook platform provide affordable ebooks to readers all around the world? Would the publishers ebook platform be open, free of charge, for any writer to publish their work? Would the publishers ebook platform pay writers a 70% royalty?

Now tell me again, why is Amazon the bad guy?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

9 thoughts on “Digital Publishing – a thought experiment

  1. An interesting counterfactual there, Damien.

    I think the fear is that under the publishers counterfactual, you still have a bunch of publishers and outlets (if only one platform).

    Amazon’s threat is to the long term longevity of publishers. A world where Amazon is a major publisher (and there are fewer major publishers) feels like a worse outcome, and one we may wind up with.


  2. As someone who was in the market back then, my first digital book was published in 1998 followed by five more before 2007, I can comment on your idea of what was happening back then.

    We had e-readers long before the Kindle including the RocketBook and the Sony Reader, we had ebook distributors including the Rocket Library and Fictionwise, we even had a bunch of major publishers dipping their toes into the market with those of us who published with small independent ebook and paper publishers. A few of these big publishers and well as some very small ones sold from their own websites, as well.

    Heck, we even had Stephen King doing ebook experiments by selling a self-pubbed digital novel, and a multi-million-dollar ebook publisher called Ellora’s Cave which sold only from their website.

    What Amazon did was enter the market others built when some of the early adapters and sellers were struggling with making money on an excruciatingly slow building audience and spend a great deal of money they had and others didn’t to bring that audience and their own buyers into the ebook market. They were able to do this because they were willing to take a massive loss that others couldn’t.

    The irony is that Amazon’s primary source of profit at the time was used big publisher books which earned their authors and publishers nothing.

    So, yes, we would have an ebook market without Amazon, but it wouldn’t have been built as fast as Amazon with their bottomless pockets.


  3. And I should add that Amazon is the major reason that most publishers pay such low ebook royalties. Until the Kindle entered the field, the average royalty was between 50-70%, and the other distributors shared the sales profit either evenly or a bit above with the publisher.

    By the time all the costs Amazon factored in to the publishers’ take as well as the lower percentage of profit distribution, the publishers, even those who weren’t burdened with the costs of the major publishers, were taking a loss with each ebook sale so they had to lower their royalties.

    Amazon also became the first major DRM-exclusive market which foisted that disaster on the reading public.

    So, no, Amazon is not the author’s friend, it never has been, and it will take its pound of flesh from everyone.


    1. Exactly. Amazon invested the money that no one else was willing or able to invest…that makes them productive, not evil. Because of that investment we have an effective ebook market, we might not otherwise even now!


      1. I don’t ascribe the terms good and evil to Amazon or the Big Publishers, but I do think authors who trust either to have their best interests at heart are either naive or don’t know their history.

        Both have proven, again and again, that they don’t care about authors who are sheep to be used then eventually slaughtered when they no longer are profitable.

        Amazon has a history of no longer selling small publishers’ paper books when they don’t prove profitable. During one purge, they managed to put close to a dozen out of business because they couldn’t be bothered with keeping one paper book in stock.

        They put the “used” button on the same page as the new paper book which might be cheaper for the reader and extremely profitable for them since they only take a cut with no work, but it has been hell to pay for the bottom line of authors and publishers.

        My small publishers have been forced to take poorer terms a number of times or get tossed out of their systems.

        Right now, they are playing nice with authors as they suck them into their system, but their history says that that will pass when it is to their best interests. Heaven help authors if Amazon proves to be so successful that they wipe out the competition, including the Big Publishers.


      2. Used bookstores are a minor annoyance because the used books are not that numerous, nor are they easy to find, and these bookstores sure as heck don’t put the used book right beside the new one like Amazon does.

        Used books weren’t a major problem until the Internet allowed dealers and sellers to aggregate at sites like AbeBooks, Alibris, and Amazon so that it is very easy to find any book you want used. That’s why it is such a big financial hit for authors and publishers.

        Amazon’s singular “brilliance” at putting used besides new is yet another big nail in paper publishing’s coffin while they are busy trying to take over the digital market against weakened competitors.


  4. I think that you are right, Marilynn. Bezos is a megamaniacal robber baron. He has no interest in books or their authors other than as a means of making more money. When the smoke has cleared and the publishing houses have all been hanged for sedition, writers will be next on the chopping board.



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