Where Amazon Can Improve for Authors and Readers

Well this post has been a long time in coming.

No, seriously. We’re currently on Topic List IX, right? This post was a considered topic back on topic list VIII. Or maybe it was VII. I only started keeping track of carry-over topics with list number IX.

Point being, this one’s had a while to stew. It wasn’t a proper topic for Being a Better Writer, which meant that it needed to get it’s own posting on a day that wasn’t Monday, and so … well, after a few months of looking for time, here we are.

So, to the task at hand, then: Where Amazon can improve. I’ll warn you now, if you’re one of those readers that bears a solid dislike, or a powerful grudge against Amazon for some reason, this probably isn’t going to be the post for you. Likewise if you’re one of those convinced that the rise of Amazon will be the downfall of all that is holy about books and the publishing industry. See, while no company is perfect, from my perspective Amazon’s entrance into the publishing industry, along with its associated push in favor of ebooks and a more open publishing sphere, is a good one. Not perfect, but good.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, and that’s where today’s post comes in. See, I’ve been published on Amazon for several years now, and while I do like their service … it’s not perfect. No, far from it. There’s actually quite a bit of room for improvement, quite a few flaws that really could be fixed up to make Amazon’s publishing—and specifically, their Kindle service—not only more appealing, but easier and simpler to use. And I worry that since Amazon has entered a position of dominance as far as indie publishing goes, they’re simply going to do what they have been doing—which is rest on their laurels—rather than really looking to improve their service on both ends. Because as a platform that I sell my products on, I want my readers to have the very best experience. And if Amazon doesn’t improve, well, that leaves it open for someone else to sneak in offering services and advantages that, quite honestly, Amazon should have added years ago.

Right, enough beating around the bush. To put it plainly and simply, Amazon has stagnated. The only reason that they’re still on top is that no one else has come along offering anything better in large enough quantities to entice Amazon’s authors and clientele away. But the truth is, it’s only a matter of time until that does happen. Anyone who’s used Amazon’s Kindle service has undoubtedly looked at it and thought “You know, this would be so much better if …” and inevitably, the someone who thinks that is going to be in a position to do something about it and create something better. At which point a lot of authors might jump ship to the newer, better service.

Customers, too, because what you’re about to look at is not just a collection of what improvements Amazon needs to make for authors. No, customers need improvements as well … and Amazon isn’t delivering them. Again, they’re resting on their laurels, content for the time being to simply do little or nothing to improve their service. And that needs to change.

So, let’s talk about customer improvements first to Amazon’s Kindle and Self-Publishing services. What needs to be improved that’s fallen drastically by the wayside?

THE CUSTOMER SIDE

So, when I think of the Kindle Library as a customer, as a user of their service, there’s one thing above all else that comes to mind that needs to be improved: The Reader LibrarySimply put, Amazon’s reader experience is a mess at trying to determine what you do and don’t own.

Let me put this another way. The only way for me to know if I own a book, or even if I’ve downloaded it or not, is to either find that book’s page on Amazon specifically and check to see if the checkout bar says I’ve purchased it, or juggle my way through several text hot-links on my Account page to find myself at a text-only list of all the books I’ve purchased for my Kindle … Arranged by purchase date.

You know what that is? That’s garbage. That’s a terrible system. Worse, I actually sense a pretty poor motive behind it. See, if you read your Kindle books on a Kindle reader, all you have is whatever library of organization you’ve made on your own. Which is, by default, sorted by last read, or folders if you make them.

Meanwhile, there is a library feature on Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet. Unsure on the App for phones and whatnot. But if you buy the Fire tablet, you do get a collection of covers to look at.

So why can’t we look at that on the website? Crud, why is a list of everything I’ve purchased buried under at least two menus? For example, I just opened the aforementioned text list of books I own, and how did I do it? First, I had to go to the page of a book I already owned, so that the bar along the top could inform me that I owned it, and the check with problems at my “Manage my content” page. Then, after clicking that link, I had to sign in again as a precaution. And what do I have from there?

Garbage. It’s list of plaintext titles. Which can be arranged by either A to Z or by date purchased. Which option comes from a drop down menu that, like the whole page, lags like it was built in early 2000s using flash.

Say I want to select a book? I have to click on it … then select a tiny button to get a drop-down menu to even see what the cover is or what my options are.

This? This is steaming garbage. Worse, since it’s called the “Manage my Content” page, who in their right mind that isn’t tech savvy is even going to think about looking at it? My grandma—crud, my siblings—would be lost trying to navigate this sorry excuse for a library of content. This is a government website out of the 90s, not the library page of one of the world’s largest retailers.

Where’s a modern library? Where’s a nice, tiled selection of covers, with the ability to click once and see what my options are (rather than selecting the title, then finding the little “…” button that opens the drop down menu)? Where’s the ability to sort things by genre or author?

For that matter, why isn’t this an option on the Amazon home page? Why can’t I simply scroll over to the account menu and select “My Kindle Library?” Turns out, there is an option there called “Manage Content” that takes me to this exact poor page … so why isn’t that called “My Kindle Library?” I note that all of Amazon’s other services, such as movies and music, each have that exact feature on the drop menu—my music library, my movie library, etc. And opening one of those? Nice, tiled images, genre and author sorts on the left, etc, etc.

So really, what we’re looking at is a system that almost feels deliberately ignored, possibly to encourage readers to buy a Fire.

It’s pretty inexcusable. Worse, it wouldn’t be that hard to implement. This is quite literally a case of Amazon simply giving up and not trying.

Look, here’s how it should be. Any Amazon customer should be able to click an account link called ‘My Library” that takes them to a nice, tiled arrangement of all their purchases which they can browse through just as easily as they would a music or film library. Or they should be able to access it at any moment with a single-click while browsing the Kindle store. They should be able to download the book file immediately with a single click. It should be a simple and easy process. Not a bunch of hoop-jumping. Any time I have to sit and coach a prospective reader on how to purchase, download, and then read one of my books, not because they don’t want to, but because the system Amazon has put in place for navigating a library is so obtuse, Amazon has failed. And yes, I’ve had to do this on multiple occasions. And every time this happens, the use of an ebook is questioned.

Update the library. Let people access it and use it with ease. Let them download their book file right from it to their device (rather than just “send to kindle” and “Download to USB” like we have now). Crud, while you’re at it, Amazon, realize that this will boost your sales, not detract from them. I’ve seen your other libraries for music and movies. Both have a “suggestion” feature somewhere withing that does the classic “Hey, you liked these, so we’re really sure you’ll like these” thing. Why doesn’t the Kindle library do that? Oh, right, no. Because you don’t really have one! How much are you losing on that?

There are so many things missing here that it boggles the mind. This is a library system that is actively making it harder for would-be readers to access their books. What’s up with that?

 

Now, moving on and away from that issue toward another one that I’ve noticed: Amazon likes to hide its strongest (and most asked-for) features. And no, I don’t for the life of me know why.

Let me elaborate with a personal example from earlier this week. A friend of mine wanted to loan me a book from their kindle library—it had come up in casual conversation, and they’d seen the ads that said they could, so they wanted to do so. So, they pulled up the Kindle app on their phone, went to the book page and …

Nothing. I don’t mean that the book was available for lending. It was, actually. But there wasn’t an option for it in the app.

“That’s okay,” I told them. “Try the book’s page on Amazon.” So they opened the book’s page on Amazon with their phone’s web browser. Which confirmed that yes, it was available for loaning. It just … didn’t give the option actually loan it. That was lacking from the mobile page.

What did this friend end up doing? It turned out you only were given the option to loan a book from a desktop browser. Worse, I had to coach them to help them find it.

Is this really 2017? Because for a feature that Amazon touts constantly—the ability to loan friends kindle books digitally—there sure seems to be a block on actually letting someone do it. And Amazon is very proud of the lending library. It’s actually noted during the book publication process, and authors are encouraged to put their books on the service.

So if Amazon is so gung-ho about this, why on EARTH is it so impossibly tough to actually do? Why do I have to literally coach would-be loaners through the process? Why is this so difficult?

Look, this should be simple. Regardless of the platform I’m on, there should be a big, shiny button that says “lend” on it. All I should need to do is click the button, regardless of platform, enter in an e-mail or a phone number, and go about my business. This should not be a complicated process.

But for some reason lending is a complicated, mostly hidden process, and for reasons I can’t fathom. I want people to be able to loan out my books. It fights piracy and builds my image. Loans are fine. But I can’t see that working if Amazon continues to make obtuse the very feature they tout. This should be simple. Not something that requires coaching.

 

While we’re at it, there’s another thing that bugs me about Amazon’s service, and that’s how they handle giving readers access to the Kindle Unlimited Library.

So, the KU-Library, if you’re not familiar with it, is sort of like Netflix for books. Sort of. How it works is authors can put their book up on the unlimited library, and then anyone who’s paying for KU can read as many of them as they want per month, with the author getting a cut per page read.

The problem is, Amazon’s borked this one too. For starters, KU is a subscription based service you buy … that isn’t tied into Amazon’s other subscription services. Yes, that’s right. It stands alone. So if you pick up Amazon Prime, you don’t get KU. Not so bad, right?

Wait a second, it gets worse. See, Prime also comes with a book subscription, but this one to “Prime books” or something equally obtuse (and I have no idea how one gets on this particular list). “Prime Books” allows unlimited browsing of select books each month … as well as a limited number of reads for books on the KU library.

Confused yet? Yeah, me too. Not only is KU not included under the umbrella of Amazon’s other subscription programs (like music and movies are, cough-cough), but Prime itself actually offers a competing subscription model … so why on Earth would you ever want to get both?

It makes no sense. Pick one and stick with it Amazon. Don’t try to gouge your customer base by double-dipping. Or better yet, just include KU in with Amazon Prime, like you do everything else. Why should books have a separate service?

And while you’re at it, advertise this! I’ve talked to a lot of people that have no idea they can read stuff with their Amazon Prime account. I know books take a backseat to movies and music as far as entertainment goes, but come on, guys! Are you even trying?

While we’re at it, let’s talk about advertising for a moment. Two of the biggest complaints I hear from readers who do try to make use of the KU library is that A) It was full of crap, and B) they couldn’t find the good stuff.

This is a problem. Because there is a lot of good stuff to be found on the KU library (after all, my books are on there, and that’s just a start). But yeah, there is also lot of poorly-written material. And if people who try out KU are feeling overwhelmed and unable to find the good … well, that’s something that can be fixed.

Look, I’ll be blunt. Amazon owns Goodreads. Amazon collects tons of data on its customers. So does Goodreads. How is it that with all this data in place, there isn’t some sort of advice system on KU that says “Hey, try this, it seems well-written and is a genre you’d like?”

For that matter, a lot of people complain about immediately “drowning” once they try KU and are overwhelmed by all the choices—again coming to a head with finding tons of junk and not being able to find the good. Why not give them a “sampler” when they sign up for the service? Send an e-mail, or just launch a browser page that, based on books they’ve left ratings for or purchased before, gives advice for well-like KU reads that a newcomer would enjoy? Crud, this could be used as encouragement for readers to leave reviews or even ratings on books—we’ve all seen how Netflix, Pandora, and other services use ratings to curate content based on individual preference. Most services even let users know up front that this why they should rate things. Why not build a service like that for KU books? It wouldn’t even have to be a star-system, just a “thumbs up-thumbs down” system that could say to other prospective readers ‘We think you would give this a thumbs up.”

Amazon collects all this data. So why aren’t they using it effectively, or better yet, encouraging readers to build on it? We see traces of this in the advertising e-mails they send out, but even those display a level of “Here’s what’s tossing advertising dollars at us at the moment, so please read them.”

Which leads me, nicely enough, into the author side of things.

 

THE AUTHOR SIDE

Okay, a moment ago I was talking about advertising of books on Amazon and how they really should be using their advertising powers to focus products at people who want them, right? Well, from the author perspective on things, I almost suspect that there’s a reason they aren’t.

Recall that last line about advertising dollars, and let’s take a quick look at what I, as an author of books Amazon is trying to sell, see on my end for advertising. And the answer is: Almost nothing.

Oh, there’s advertising all right. Of which Amazon does almost none of. And that’s part of the problem. See, Amazon’s basically passed the buck here. You can publish through them, tie yourselves to their service … but they sure as anything aren’t going to advertise for you. Not even on their own store. The closest they’ll come is the “People who purchased this book may have purchased” section below a book.

At least, not without a price …

Now, obviously this is expected with indie publishing. I don’t expect Amazon to go out and purchase an ad for me on someone else’s website. That’s not how this works. However, I do find it a little odd, and even questionable, that Amazon wants me to pay them for the sole goal of being advertised on their website.

Yes, you read that correctly. As an author, if you want to be advertised on the Amazon website for a product you’re selling through them, you need to pay them money. Money that has been calculated at a very specific rate.

See, Amazon has done the math. And so advertising the books you’re selling on their site will cost you. How much? Just enough that the increased sales you find through the advertising are basically negated by the cost of the advertising. One report I read on the experience found that they had to spend about $100 of advertising money to make $101 in sales. Which made a total profit of … $1. Worth the time and effort? Each report I’ve read says “No, not really.”

Personally, this sort of feels like double-dipping to me. Amazon’s already the sole seller of many of these books; they should already have a vested interest in selling them to people who want to pay for them. But by making the authors pay for the use of that vested interests, they get to win twice: they make money off of the book sale and they make money off of the author who’s product they wanted to sell in the first place.

Now look, I know that there are a lot of arguments for and against this. Clearly Amazon isn’t responsible for just freely advertising the books of anyone who jumps on their service. But at the moment, it almost feels like they’ve worked out the exact formula where most authors will want to advertise to get more sales … but Amazon ends up collecting almost all the profits from those sales, making it barely a net gain for the author. Which almost feels like … I can’t say extortion, since that’s clearly not the case, but it does feel like a situation where Amazon ends up winning while the author just gets a little exposure. Taking advantage, maybe?

Amazon needs to do more, I feel, to ensure that advertising on their service is a net gain for an author with good products. Right now much of their advertising I see almost feels like a bidding war—and a war of dollars, not of attention, and one that falls into the trap I mentioned above of not being tailored by interests at all. At the end of the day, Amazon makes money if I sell a book, and selling books is what they do—crud, it’s how they started. They should have an interest in telling readers “Hey, you might like this” whether or not I’m giving them money so that they make the sale.

And therein lies the crux of the issue: I could be giving them more money, and I’m not. So even thought they would make more money if they promoted the book, they’d rather hold out to make more money by baiting me to give it to them.

Again, not exactly wrong … but not exactly a winning proposition from my perspective, and quite frankly it seems a little greedy on Amazon’s part.

 

Tied to this is what appears to be special treatment for those who clear some sort of invisible tier for sales, who get all kinds of promotional access and capacity other authors can’t. Actually, really anything to do with the promotional side of writing on Amazon is … strange.

For starters, let’s get back to the first statement about the possible invisible tiers. I would love to be able to place my books on a sale that last longer than five days. But for some unknown, unexplained reason, I can’t. Other indies, however, ones with a larger install base, can. They can put their books on sale for a whole month if they feel like it.

Why can’t I? What sort of threshold do I have to pass in order to be able to do a longer sale? Or put my books up in a combo discount? I see these from time to time as well, a “buy all of these now and get $X off,” but why isn’t there an option for that on my KDP page?

It’d be one thing if this simply wasn’t available at all, but when I see other indies doing something like a week long sale (rather than 5 days), I really want to know when I’m going to be allowed the same tools. But I have no idea how to access these “exclusive” abilities. Is there a sales number I have to reach? A dollar amount I have to pay? Is it like a secret society that I have to be invited to?

I don’t know, and that’s a problem. I can understand wanting to limit the tools available to newcomers to prevent abuse, sure. But I’ve been selling books through Amazon for years now and have seen thousands of copies go out. I would like to be able to do week-long sales, or offer combo bundles. But I don’t see those tools anywhere, and I have no idea how I can get access to them. As of right now, all I can assume is that at some point the secret society will contact me with an invitation. Maybe delivered via drone.

 

There are other puzzling elements of this as well. For example, promotional copies.

They aren’t a thing. Which is odd. Other digital services love giving creators the ability to send out promotional copies. Amazon Kindle services … does not. Want to give a reviewer a copy of your book? Well, you can tell them to buy it. Or you can, as Kindle Support will tell you (I kid you not), make the book free for 24 hours and encourage the reviewer to grab a copy in that time. Or you can just buy them a gift copy … which gets shuffled out as a gift e-mail that may get caught as spam and never redeemed.

This is not the best system. I often catch myself looking at how other digital distribution systems handle things and wondering why Kindle is so different. Why can’t I purchase promotional codes that entitle the bearer to a free download? Amazon already does gift cards for other services. Why not books? Or discount codes? It’d be great if I could print off 100 promotional cards for one my books, each with a code on it that gave the buyer a 25% discount. Or crud, just for free, with me paying Amazon’s 30% cut in exchange for the promotion. Or at least give authors a limited number of review codes to send out at launch like other services do. Not only would it be more personable and professional (because nothing says “I’m a real author” like getting a gift message from Amazon), it wouldn’t get lost in spam.

For that matter, where on Earth are advance copies? Or for that matter, for those who’ve done physical print runs, freaking proofs? I’ve resigned myself to simply creating review copies and advance copies myself using Calibre and passing them out because Amazon doesn’t do either, but the sad part there is then those reviews are flagged as “unverified” and kept from the average buyer unless specifically asked for. If my finished book is uploaded a month in advance, ready to launch, and up for pre-order … why can’t I send out advance copies to reviewers so that they can have reviews up for the book before or at launch? Anyone who’s taken a marketing or advertising course knows how important launch reviews can be … so why is Amazon so adamant that indie books on their service not have these basic features? Again, these are features that would lead to more sales, which means Amazon would make more money … so why aren’t they letting their authors have them?

 

I have no answers to these questions. What I do have is a dedicated desire to see these needs met—and quickly. Quickly enough that if someone came along and started offering said services elsewhere with a large enough market and a comparable royalty … well, I’d be gone, Amazon. Sorry.

Amazon needs to up its game. On the consumer side of things, Kindle readers need a lot more than what they’re getting now. Stop burying features so that they’re only available on certain desktop pages. Improve your library. Get rid of the unnecessary, multiple subscriptions for similar services and bundle that stuff. And for crying out loud, clean up your suggestions and advertising. I literally just opened an Amazon page in another tab to check on a new story collection in the Predator franchise—you know, the one about the alien hunters that consider people prey? The indie advertisement on the side bar was a feel-good story for animal-lovers about a dog.

I feel like that ad doesn’t match the interest at all. Everyone is losing in this situation.

Likewise, on the author side Amazon needs to fix things as well. What are the requirements for being able to make a sale last longer than five days? What sort of point does one need to pass to be able to do a bundle? Or are those options just buried so deep in menus one needs a Google-guide to find them?

And give us some promotional power. Review copies, advance copies, the works. Catch up with the rest of the world here, Amazon! Otherwise, someone else will, and you’ll find your current hold on the market slipping rapidly as indie authors jump ship.

You can’t rest easy on your throne. That’s how kingdoms stagnate.

Improve, Amazon. Please. I’d like the reading experience through indies to be better all around.

 

Anyone else? What are some changes from Amazon you’d like to see?

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