Society

How Amazon Seduces France’s Self-Published Authors

Aspiring writers who don't have an inside track welcome the online publisher's latest advances, such as awarding independent authors, but defenders of traditional publishing say it's all a scam to destroy the publishing system and

The temptation (and sometimes, illusion) of self-publishing
The temptation (and sometimes, illusion) of self-publishing
Florence Aubenas

PARIS â€" It's that time of year again. After the much hyped rentrée littéraire, or the start of the new literary season, now come the literary awards. But in this beautiful Parisian café, the champagne and prizes are being distributed by the Devil himself. For the very first time, Amazon France is awarding self-published authors.

The very mention of the American behemoth is generally enough to make any conversation about books go sour. Amid the smell of salmon canapés, 35-year-old Eric Bergaglia deploys himself near the bar. Bergaglia is directing Amazon's award operation. The idea, he says, is to "make self-publishing known."

The principle, as he explains it, is a calculation that's as simple as a slogan: Amazon offers the chance to anybody who wants it to sell their manuscripts on its online platform, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), without having to pay a cent. No publisher and no bookstore. A few clicks are all that's necessary to connect thousands of authors/vendors with millions of readers/buyers. This system is a practical application of the "new economy" championed by the likes of Uber and Airbnb.

Ten books have been pre-selected by "four or five people from the company and based on comments posted by readers on the site," Bergaglia explains. "With us, it's the readers who get to choose first." But he also took his own criteria into account: "I wanted classy books," he says. The candidates all have more or less the same profile â€" unknown beginners, representatives of the "two-thirds of French who dream of writing."

Out of the shadows

The authors here are shy, sometimes emotional, not to mention disarming when they explain that their "childhood dream" or "fairy tale" is coming true. Their stories are all similar. They begin with a manuscript written with passion after work, after getting the children to bed â€" a manuscript that is then refused by traditional publishing houses, generally rather abruptly. Just as disillusionment sets in, suddenly the possibility of self-publishing emerges.

"I stumbled upon a TV program that was actually very critical of Amazon," says Karen Merran, a 32-year-old cosmetics product manager. "What have you got to lose anyway?" her husband asked her by way of encouragement. In just a few weeks, Merran's novel Il était une fois dans le métro ("Once Upon a Time in the Metro") sold 7,000 Kindle copies. She earned 10,000 euros ($11,000). "At the time, I almost could have needed psychological support, like a lottery winner."

Amid the hubbub at the café, Alice Quinn says that the prizes will be announced soon. She worked with traditional publishing houses for a long time, until her last contract fell through. "When you're not an insider, they leave you out begging for crumbs," she says. Around her, the self-published authors agree and express their anger towards "the publishers' diktat," the "connections system" and the "reading committee tyranny." In January 2013 and "amid gibes, because self-publishing is seen a something for losers," Quinn decided to publish her book Palace en enfer ("Palace in Hell") online for 2.99 euros.

At Amazon France's first self-publishing award in Paris â€" Photo: ActuaLitté

Without publishers, the authors decide for themselves the price of their books, guided by the Amazon promise that they can keep 70% of the gains if they sell for below 9.99 euros, or 35% otherwise. "Do you realize what it means? We get 70% when publishers only give you 8 to 14%," Quinn says. "It's a gold mine." Quinn is the platform’s record holder: With 25,000 copies of her ebook sold, she has earned 30,000 euros ($34,000). She plans to release a second one soon and believes she may be able to make a bona fide living doing it.

A trick in disguise

"I try to explain to authors that If Amazon wins, we'll be alone against them," says Vincent Monadé, director of the National Book Center. "Do you think you'll still get 70% then? Amazon could poach the best teams and become the biggest editor. But they don't, because they want to destroy the system and create a different one."

Among those present in this café, there isn't a single representative of the traditional literary world. Instead, everybody here seems to belong in a world of their own, hidden but formidably lively, in which everybody helps each other on the fringes of traditional structures. Those more experienced help the newcomers through Facebook and specialized pages and forums. They feel they're living an adventure, a life-sized video game against the rest of the world, enthusiastic about finally being given a chance. They keep their eyes fixed on the algorithm of their sales, accessible in real time.

When Kindle first launched self-publishing in France in 2011, "a bestseller would be 4,000 sales â€" five a day being enough to be in the Top 100. Nowadays, you need more than 100," says Charlie Bregman, who sent a very detailed questionnaire about the matter to 150 people. He also observed a growing rush towards self-publishing, with already 10,000 authors in France and twice as many in Britain.

That's where Amazon's endorsement comes in. A system of "flash offers" promoting selected titles can increase sales tenfold. Half of those authors who have reached the Top 10 have benefited from it. "It's a huge opportunity," says blogger Alan Spade. But only a certain category of authors can take advantage of it, "those who subscribe to an exclusivity program called KDP Select for at least three months. It means that Amazon chooses those it promotes," Spade explains. "Emotions play a part, and that's what Amazon is betting on to push more and more people towards KDP Select, even though 80% of them will never be picked."

Thibault Delavaud sees himself in the larger group of authors who fall through the cracks. "We're not naive, we know that Amazon is playing with our dreams," he says. "I put up my book for sale and nothing happened, nothing except a few euros and comments. Books come and go in and out of the Top 100 maelstrom, where the supply is plentiful but the demand is actually weak. The fight became too violent for me. I wanted to believe, but I'm torn between moments of euphoria and others of lassitude," the 29-year-old says.

The winner

At the Parisian ceremony, a young woman in sneakers walks across the room. She's the winner, 32-year-old Amélie Antoine. For three months, all she did was promote her book, Fidèle au poste ("Always There When You Need"), on social networks. She got the "flash offers," and reached the top spot in the 2015 Top 100. After she'd stayed there a few weeks, Eric Bergaglia called her. "Amazon for me was something abstract," she says. "But there, a human being was actually talking to me on the phone."

She's already earned close to 25,000 euros ($28,000) and has sold more than 20,000 copies of her book. "I owe Amazon everything," she tells the audience. "I'm not ashamed of saying so." Like half of the other nominees, Antoine has already secured a deal with a traditional publisher. Many of them now turn to the Top 100 in the hopes of finding their future bestseller. But you don't win every time. In four attempts so far, Florian Lafani from publishing house Lafon had one huge success (120,000 paperback sales) and one failure (5,000 copies).

For Antoine, to get her book printed and published represents real recognition. The next day, at 9 a.m., she'll go back to her administrative job. And her office neighbor will look at her strangely, as always, as if to ask, "But, if you're so successful, how come we never hear about you?"

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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