An abusive relationship with a post-human power…

I am a moderately successful Science Fiction author. People like my stuff. Reviewers tell me the stories are smart SciFi for intelligent people. My readthrough rates are good—or at least they used to be! (hence this essay)

A high readthrough rate means that readers who like the first book will often go on to read the rest. Over the past year, I’ve watched my Amazon read-through rates drop off a cliff. It used to be that about a quarter of the people who read the first book in my series (which they often got for free) continued to read on through the whole series. Now though, readthrough is bouncing along at virtually zero.

I have agonised about why this could be. What changed? Is it me? Is it the zeitgeist? Is it covid19? Political exhaustion? Or perhaps it’s the dark forces of monopoly capitalism… (hint, it’s this one)

Facebook and Reddit are still effective at finding people interested in signing up to my list for a Free book, but ads pointing to my Amazon book pages now verge on the utterly ineffective—

Go on, try it out. I bet you won’t buy a single one of my books! Go on! I dare you!

—The only way I sell books on Amazon now is by using Amazon’s own advertising platform, and spending far more per sale than I will ever make back.

​From the other side of the street, putting on my customer hat, I find it increasingly difficult to find any authors I like on Amazon. This has gotten increasingly difficult over the past few years. The way the site is structured: multiple pop-ups instead of links to product pages; the prominence of paid click possibilities at the expense of organic product listings; all other little tricks, persuasions, and distractions Amazon uses to guide the ‘customer journey’ mean that I am forever being tempted away from whatever it was I came for in the first place… wait! Gravity’s Rainbow! I remember!

It never used to be like this! If you are an author experiencing this same scenario, or a reader wondering why you can’t find good books anymore then read on…

A little math: From my experience, the cost per click for an eBook ad is about 50p. Most books on Amazon seem to sell for 1.99 or 2.99. At 1.99 Amazon keeps 70% of the sale price. Setting the price to 2.99 allows the publisher to keep 70% of the sale price. At both popular price points then, Amazon gets about one dollar/pound/euro per sale.

However, if somebody buys a book through a paid ad, the publisher/author pays for the click on the ad and Amazon gets an additional 50p—resulting in 50% more profit. If the shopper clicks a couple of paid ads before making a purchase, then Amazon will be making MORE from advertising than from the sale of the actual products!

Amazon does not like customers who know what they want. If a customer goes to Amazon to buy a book they like the look of, and then simply buys that book there and then, Amazon only gets a cut of the sale. But, if Amazon can run the shopper around in circles, get them confused, and nudge them to click a few ads first, Amazon can double or triple its revenue!

It’s not in Amazon’s interest to let you buy the book you wanted to buy! Shoppers that buy what they came for are cheating poor Amazon out of its rightful ad revenue!

In their last earnings call, Amazon gleefully in informed investors that the growth of the advertising platform was now 40% year on year. Obviously, all the additional money that Amazon takes in from these ads comes from the pockets of those filthy rich authors and publishers.

Sending customers to Amazon is financial suicide.

From the author’s perspective, this is a disaster. If I send an innocent reader to Amazon, I know they are going to be put through an assault course of attention-grabbing advertising and dark patterns before they are permitted to buy anything. Only a tiny fraction will find their way through this distraction-maze and actually end up buying my book.

To be fair, a reader may—by chance, after that torturous journey—end up with a book they like better than the one they went for; but this is not my experience as a customer and not the feedback I hear from other Science Fiction fans. Most fans bemoan the dearth of quality.

There is no longer any pretence of curation based on quality. Amazon is no longer a neutral shop assistant ready to help you to make a good purchase choice. All recommendations from Amazon these days are based purely on who paid them the most to say nice things about your stuff.

This is clearly a whopping great conflict of interests:

  • The author/publisher wants to sell their book, not just any book.
  • The customer wants something good to read; and additionally, if anybody is asking, for their purchase investment to support the creation of quality new content rather than lining the pockets of another tec monopoly. 
  • Amazon wants to sell ads.

Obviously, there is no point appealing to any ethical arguments here. A company like Amazon has no conception of ethics, to all intents and purposes, Amazon is a rogue, sociopathic, post-human intelligence whose goal is to maximise profit with no constraints on its behaviour. Take a look inside the horror of life as an Amazon employee.

The fact that Amazon owns IMDb, Goodreads,, and probably many other platforms I don’t even know about, means that there is very little chance of selling books anywhere else.

I can’t sell directly either, at least not easily. Most books sold are e-books. Most people have kindles and of course, Amazon makes it virtually impossible for a non-techie user to smuggle content into the precious walled garden that is their kindle ecosystem!

Sadly, I have pretty much given up on selling books for the time being. I now focus on writing and building a core community of fans. I am looking to the day when the current monopolistic nightmare ends. Ideally, by that time I will have a fat back-catalogue of high-quality science fiction which I am ready to sell on whatever open platforms emerge from the rubble of the current tech oligarchy.

Wish me luck! …and feel free to download a free book  😉

…or be brave and buy from my Gumroad store.

4 thoughts on “Amazoff!”

  1. Toby, you make some really great points. I’m actually attending a conference for authors this week and the team from Bookchain was there.
    This isn’t a perfect solution to the problems you mention, by any means. But who knows. Maybe it could grow into something that would give us more options? My understanding at a highlevel is that any author / publisher can put their digital books up for sale via Bookchain, which uses blockchain technology to manage rights, transfers, etc. You the author set the price. In future you can even set the price for resales and get a portion of the resales. A fee goes to the blockchain and I think a fee goes to Stripe for managing the purchase.
    The biggest downsides I see are: no way to upload to Kindle. But, they use the ereader, which lets you read on a lot of surfaces I think. However, right now, no offline reading is supported.
    So…. still lots of drawbacks. But maybe it’s something that could lead in the right direction?
    I have the same problems you mention of not being able to find titles I want to read, having to wade through tons and stuff I don’t want. I hope some more good options will emerge!

    1. Many thanks for the tip!
      I will look into BookChain.
      In my more optimistic moments, I believe something must come along soon.
      Reading text on a screen is such basic text by now that it seems crazy one company can maintain a monopoly!

  2. Toby,

    I really sympathise with your situation. I understand your analysis, and I find it depressing for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, I’m a reader who (as a retired person on a small pension) is reluctant to buy reading material if I can get it free. So that makes me part of your problem. I will accept your offer of a free download. Sorry.

    And I agree that it’s difficult to find authors whose work is worth reading. I’ve recently abandoned a couple of books at about the 80% mark because the writer introduced something out of the blue that was required for the story to work, but didn’t make sense otherwise.

    Secondly, I’m a writer – of sorts. Most of my working life I’ve been a technical writer. So, from one PoV, I know what it takes to write. Not in the sort of creative way that you do, but in another way, writing is writing. I’ve tried writing fiction a couple of times, but I just don’t seem to have the required creative juice, and I admire anyone who can do it successfully.

    Good luck with your plan to decouple your writing from the selling. I hope your wishes and dreams come true.

    1. It is a dilemma. Since writing the post I have put my books on a bunch of other platforms, not a lot of sales, but it felt good! 😉
      Some people do a ‘pay what you want’ offer for people who are on a tight budget. I will think about doing that on Gumroad.
      Essays are a good way of starting writing for yourself, why not open a Medium account and write about something that interests you? Cheers Toby

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