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Amazon.com is standing up for indie authors

Soon, Stephen Colbert will be sitting at David Letterman’s desk at CBS, earning millions of dollars a year to host the Late Show. Until then, however, he’s fighting for his rights as an author, urging his fans to boycott that mean, nasty retail behemoth known as Amazon.com. He wants you to buy his book at Powell’s Books instead.

Stephen Colbert is a millionaire celebrity who as a sidelight writes books for Hatchette, a billion-dollar New York publisher that finds itself in a battle with Amazon.com over pricing.

I’m an author myself, although in my case it’s not a sidelight. It’s how I put food on my table. But Stephen Colbert wants me to starve. He is standing firmly alongside his new employer, CBS, and a man he purports to despise — Rupert Murdoch of Fox. CBS and Fox both are multinational corporations that together control much of the country’s book publishing, using stores such as Powell’s as their willing pawns in the game. Amazon has disrupted that lucrative gravy train.

Both Amazon and Powell’s have sold my books, so I shouldn’t take sides, except for one little detail: Amazon sells my books new and pays me top royalty rates. Amazon also sells my books used, but, fortunately, most people prefer new. Powell’s doesn’t give people that choice. It sells only used copies of my books, so I never see a dime.

To add to the irony, most of the used copies that Powell’s sells were bought new from Amazon, because virtually every independent bookstore in the Northwest — the few exceptions include Jacobsen’s Books in Hillsboro — has declined to sell my books new, opting to sell only used copies. Colbert thinks that makes independent bookstores paragons of virtue, although I would argue that “parasites” might be a more apt description.

I’m hardly alone in this. Most new authors today are self-published, sometimes by choice, sometimes because they can’t get a major publishing house’s attention. Of the few independent bookstores that carry our books, most will buy them only through one of the handful of giant book distribution companies.

I went that route with my first book, and sold quite a few through independent bookstores, but that was without any help from the distributors. Distributors have deals with the major publishers and ignore independent authors. The books I sold were either to people who special-ordered my book from a bookstore or bought it online through, you guessed it, Amazon, where many small stores maintain storefronts. Either way, the distributor pocketed most of my royalty without adding any value. I get top royalties when one of my books is sold directly through Amazon. When a retailer lists it for sale on Amazon (they don’t actually stock it), I get the “expanded distribution” royalty, which is a fraction.

I love small bookstores and appreciate the toll the Internet has taken on their sales. I’m no stranger to having my career disrupted by technology, having made my living for 30 years in the newspaper business.

Until the virtual cartel of multinational corporations relaxes its stranglehold on publishing and distribution, however, Amazon.com is a lonely voice standing up for independent authors who lack the power of Fox or CBS to stand up for us.

On this issue, Stephen Colbert, and my beloved Powell’s, are squarely on the wrong side.

Ken Bilderback is the author of four books, including his most recent, “Walking to Forest Grove.” Two truly independent bookstores, Jacobsen’s Books in Hillsboro and Periscope Books in Forest Grove, sell all four of his books.



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