Amazon Publishing Goes ‘American Idol’ After Terrible Week

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Amazon. Now imagine that, in the last seven days, several esteemed authors have accused you of out-and-out censorship, the Authors Guild has met with the DOJ about your alleged antitrust violations, and, yes, you may have been responsible for sabotaging a beloved publisher of erotica. It’s been a rough week. But, being Amazon, you have $75 billion of revenue in your pocket, so how do you regain the trust of the reading public? You bring the power to the people. American Idol style.

Last week, Amazon quietly announced a new crowdsourcing initiative in an email to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) authors. The program, which still does not have a name, URL, or much of anything else, allows genre authors — science fiction, mystery, thriller, romance — to submit works that may, possibly, be up-voted by readers into publication. If chosen, authors will receive a guaranteed $1,500 advance, marketing from Amazon, and a 50% e-book royalty rate. In return, Amazon gets worldwide publication rights for e-book and audio versions of the book. And, if after five years your book returns less than $5,000 in royalties, you’re free to walk.

Of course, what we see here is not the big payout, record deal, instant celebrity of the TV equivalent, but instead the meager advance — that’s, what, three or four weeks of minimum wage work? — supposedly offset by a generous royalty rate. This is, of course, vintage Amazon.

But that’s not the only thing that irks me about this project. Although general details are in short supply — it’s still unclear whether this will be a contest or a full-on venture — Amazon has provided a list of wildly superficial entry requirements, that, upon further inspection, betray the cold indifference of its recent publishing exploits. To enter, the author must submit

– An entire manuscript (50,000 word minimum) with cover image.

– A “one-liner” pitch that must be shorter than a tweet. Example provided: “Space opera meets the Middle Ages.”

– A book description that must be shorter than four tweets.

– A bio and, of course, a photo.

After the book is entered, readers will cast their votes on the basis of a tiny, 3,000-word sample. But who are the readers? It’s so far unclear whether they will be Amazon employees or some general audience. Nor has Amazon provided any information about the editorial process once the book has been accepted for publication.

What is certain is that authors will be held to a 45-day exclusivity agreement upon submission. And, again, after the book is accepted, they’ll be locked in for five years (if they get anything at all).

So, it’s sort of like The Voice for genre authors, except that you have no coach, you only get to sing ten seconds of your song for a shadow audience of probably jealous peers, and, once you enter, you aren’t allowed to sing the song again for over a month. And, if you win, you have to sing the same song for the same overlords for five years.

I would argue that Amazon’s new scheme, with its cursory process, one that calls on the author to submit a glamour shot along with an entire manuscript — only to be judged on a sample — is emblematic of its recent approach to publishing in general. This is calculating, technology-driven corporatism that should, honestly, surprise no one. On this note, too, maybe it’s time for literary publishing to ask itself whether Amazon is actually evil or just indifferent to authors, editors, agents, and readers. (It’s customers, silly.) And if Big Publishing wants to compete with Amazon — although it really can’t, considering that Amazon dwarfs them all — maybe it should do so by finding new, pro-editorial platforms that humanize the publishing process.

To be fair, Amazon’s technocratic approach has won fans in other media — they’ve certainly taken it to network television and Hollywood — but it remains to be seen whether the same methods will produce lasting, quality, or even reader-supported work in other media. Of course, we’ve had the stray success story. But we’ve also had many, many winners of American Idol. Where are they now?