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
PARIS — 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 — 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 — 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.
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At Amazon France's first self-publishing award in Paris — 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 — 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.
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?"