Mike Cane wrote a blog post in response to Chuck Wendig’s and mine, saying that he thinks the self-publishing shit volcano will come to an end, because Amazon will end it. I left a comment on Cane’s blog, but it was starting to get longer than his initial blog post and I had more to say, so I’m expanding upon it here.
Cane’s thesis is that Amazon will act to remove bad ebooks that don’t sell because all that crap clogs up their site and is bad for business. He thinks that there will come a time where Amazon feels the pain so removes poor quality books and ban further submissions from terrible authors.
I wish he were right, but I don’t think Amazon will do anything within the foreseeable future. There is one circumstance which might fix this whole problem.
So, first, why won’t Amazon act?
Amazon is not a rational actor
At least, not in any way that you or I might consider rational. It’s pretty much the only company I can think of that can consistently not make a profit and not be punished by Wall Street. In the past, we’ve seen that it only takes action when it is cornered, and then it takes the smallest action it can get away with.
Take the bestiality/rape/incest/pseudoincest furore of last year. Amazon only acted when it felt cornered, and even then it did as little as it could get away with. There’s still plenty of dodgy porn on Amazon and will continue to be, because Amazon has no interest in really properly clearing it up.
Same with the sockpuppet review affair. And when Amazon did take action, it was to put in place stupid and ill-considered rules about whether Kindle authors could review or not. It has done nothing substantial about improving the quality of reviews, even though that would be something that you’d think would affect their bottom line quite significantly. After all, if you can’t trust the reviews on Amazon, how do you know whether to buy or not?
So at the moment, there is no force pushing Amazon to act, nothing making it whip out the banhammer. Yes, the shite clogs up Amazon’s arteries, but they have shown no interest in dealing with shite in other areas of their business, because clearly having heart disease isn’t producing any painful symptoms for them. Yet.
Amazon does make money out of bad books
50 Shades of Grey. Not a masterpiece of literature, but it tapped into a market desperate for soft porn, did well, then broke out of that niche to became a cultural touchstone, bought not because it is good but because everyone wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Other areas of shitty writing, niche erotica in particular, do well again because people want stuff that the traditional publishers won’t touch with a bargepole.
So there is no 1:1 correlation between shitty self-published books and sales. The idea that self-publishing is a meritocracy where the good writing naturally floats to the top is at best a happy fairytale and at worst a delusion. If Amazon can make money out of monster porn without getting slapped about by the law, it will.
Storage is cheap and getting cheaper
Amazon has turned cloud storage into a business, and book files are small, so there’s no real reason for them to worry about how much space the long tale of self-published dross is taking up.
If your average ebook file takes up 500kb, then you can fit 2,147,483 in a single terabyte. Amazon charges $0.010 per gb per month for its “Glacier” storage. So if you’re hiring Amazon’s cloud directly, you can store 2097 averagely-sized files for a month for a cent. You could store 5 million books for just $2384 per month, which is certainly more than it actually costs Amazon, because they obviously mark up their commercial cloud storage offerings.
It is undoubtedly cheaper for Amazon to just store all ebooks uploaded than it is for them to pay someone to figure out how best to get rid of the ones that don’t sell AND are badly written, and then deal with the resultant backlash from offended authors.
That offended backlash
If there’s one thing Amazon isn’t interested in, it’s alienating hundreds of thousands of self-published authors. A few hundred noisy gasbags it can, and does, ignore. (Including the ones in the press.) But if you consider that most books don’t sell, and there is probably more than half a million self-published ebooks getting uploaded each year and growing, that’s a lot of shit and a lot of angry authors they’d have to deal with.
Whether there would be enough angry authors to hurt Amazon’s overall sales in any meaningful manner is something I couldn’t say. But it’s certainly enough to hurt Amazon’s brand (even more than they do themselves – they don’t seem to give a crap about brand), and hurt ebook and possibly paper book sales. Not to mention the deluge of angry email that would cripple their customer support department.
So whilst I would love Amazon to take a long, hard look at their self-publishing platform, I have absolutely no confidence that they will, because I cannot see any motivator big enough to push them to action.
What might change the calculation?
There is one thing that might change all this, and when it comes online it will revolutionise the book industry in ways we cannot even imagine.
When we have meaningful AI, not necessarily all the way to full consciousness, but computers sophisticated enough to be able to learn to read and be programmed to develop a reliable taste, then the whole game changes. Everything. Amazon’s pathetic recommendation engine, which is the most overrated algorithm on the planet, will become utterly irrelevant. So will reader reviews. Because when we have a computer capable of reading a book and accurately scoring it for grammar, punctuation, plot, character development, style and genre, then we have a chance to be able to sift out the good from the bad.
Of course, then the question becomes, what do we mean by ‘accurately’? Or ‘good’? Whose standards will be used to draw the lines?
If past experience with technology is anything to go by, as soon as we have AI capable of doing this, we’ll have multiple interpretations of what ‘good’ is, and suddenly all books will become discoverable. Love monster porn? But really, really love velociraptor porn? AI will be able to scan the whole corpus and give you the very best in small dinosaur erotica. Want to read books that are just like Agatha Christie’s? Easy. Want to set your standards to embrace only the most obscure literary fiction? Piffle. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and you ask me to find you some literary fiction.
When we have AI, Amazon stops being the canonical catalogue of all books on the planet. Reader reviews become irrelevant. Sockpuppetry becomes impossible. Only quality – defined however the reader wants – matters.
Is this what Google is attempting with its mass book digitisation program? In 2005, Google played down that exact rumour. Last month, nearly ten years later, Google acquired Mind Deep, an artificial intelligence company based in London. I think we can all draw our own conclusions from that.