Why Does Amazon Hate Humor Writers So Much?
Comedy is always buried by whatever's popular whether it's really comedic or not.
If Amazon is a bull, and book publishing is a china shop, taking them to task for crushing humor writers is yelling at the bull an hour after he’s laid waste to the shop and sauntered away. And I’m betting there are much more deserving concerns also being kicked aside. Even so, it is mind bending the way Amazon treats humor authors.
Join me for yet another journey into late capitalism.
Life as Normal
It’s pretty easy to find popular fantasy books. All you have to do is pop over to Bezos’s spacefaring ego farm and click around for Bestsellers in Science Fiction and Fantasy. As I write this it’s Andy Weir floating above a sea of Harry Potter.
I am an Andy Weir fan. But he will, at some point, doubtless sink beneath the implacable Potter waves. You hate to see it. But the Potter franchise is pretty great, even if Rowling herself has her own weirding ways.
I’m not saying popular is the same as good. I’m focused on popularity because, as a writer, it is synonymous with “a livable wage.”
Where Are the Goofballs?
Above and beyond just having a laugh, as a comedy writer who has written ten or so novels intended to be humorous — whether you agree that I achieved that goal or not — I am interested in reading other writers like me.
I want there to be a heap of fantasy/sci-fi humor writers so I can see who is at the top, maybe learn from them, but certainly read the titles for funsies. I want to see books from people who were, like me, inspired by Pratchett and Adams. Who is looking to take up their immense mantles? Surely, Bezos’s spacefaring ego farm can answer that question.
I’m not seeing a “humor” subcategory to Bestsellers in Fantasy & Science Fiction, so if I want to read more writers like Andy Weir (again, I am a fan but he’s not really a humor guy), or you want to find out about Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, which is to say nothing of Jack Handey’s even more obscure but nevertheless wonderful novel “The Stench of Honolulu,” well, you’re boned.
[Note that none of these are affiliate links. I think that shit’s dumb.]
Here’s the top of the “Humor and Entertainment” category (humor doesn’t even get its own thing).
The closest thing to professional comedy here is unquestionably Will Smith, an amazing dude who has delivered no shortage of comedic lines in his time. But you get the sense that even though this category is “Humor and Entertainment,” well… I do see the entertainment but no humor.
Sure, Grohl too is an amazing dude with a great sense of humor who can definitely do comedy. I submit, as proof of Grohl’s comedy chops, Fresh Pots.
It Was a Bright, Cold Day in April And The Clocks Were Striking WTF
Okay cool so why is 1984 in there? A brilliant novel to be sure and an important story which we are all ignoring as we plod ever closer to an authoritarian America. But humor? Entertainment?
There are also two entries for Colleen Hoover’s novel, “It Ends with Us.” I haven’t read it so I don’t know how funny it is, but if there’s a single word the book’s detail page wants to get across to us it’s “emotional.” Not “humorous.”
Here are the recommended similar keywords for “It Ends with Us:”
Doubtless, the novel contains light moments, but “humor and entertainment” are 13th in the list of its concerns, going by the keywords above.
Rarely do you hear people saying that their favorite thing about humorous stories is they prompt an emotional ugly cry, though, now that I think of it, that might be an unexplored avenue for my work.
But let’s go deeper. There is a “Humor” category within “Humor and Entertainment.” Let’s try that.
Knocking At Your Door (Again)
Again, 1984. What in the blaming-Julia fuck?
In the #2 spot it’s “The Office BFFs” a behind-the-scenes account by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, who, again, are two people with undeniable comedy bona fides. As I mentioned above regarding Will Smith, they’re basically unimpeachable as comedy figures. But they’re not — as far as I’m aware and apologies if I’m missing something — purpose-driven comedy novelists.
Even if they are, there’s still no Adams, Pratchett, et al..
This time we get a Gary Larson calendar, which is the closest thing to honest-to-god a-comedy-person-doing-comedy we’ve seen yet. Four through six are self help, romance, and a list of riddles respectively.
Interestingly, as I write this, “The Pact” by Max Monroe, #5 above, holds the #1 spots in Satire Fiction, and Satire.
Again, not having read the books, I don’t know how hard Max Monroe is going at the satire game, but I do know the writing team’s web site doesn’t mention satire in their blurb:
About five years ago, a dynamic duo of romance authors teamed up under the pseudonym Max Monroe, and, well, the rest is history...
Max Monroe is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of more than thirty contemporary romance titles. Favorite writing partners and long time friends, Max and Monroe strive to live and write all the fun, sexy swoon so often missing from their Facebook newsfeed. Sarcastic by nature, their two writing souls feel like they’ve found their other half. This is their most favorite adventure thus far.
So why are they filed in Satire? I reached out to the publication team to ask that very question and they’ve not replied. Allow me to speculate instead.
Amazon lets authors pick the category they want their book to go for. There are some caveats and, like all dealings with Amazon, the important behind-scenes algorithms are critical to your career and totally opaque. The cost of putting a foot wrong is not clear, but most likely a career-ending removal of all your work from Amazon. So, whatever the rules are, don’t break them.
Presumably, the writing team thinks it’s better to be #1 in some satire genres — even if the book isn’t first and foremost a satirical effort — than it would be to be lower down in straight-ahead Romance category.
So, if you know you can count on a certain number of sales just from your mailing list and web site, and you know that number of sales is higher than whomever is at the top of “Satire,” if you pick “Satire” as your category you will go to #1 even though your book is romance.
If this works for you, you can now say you’re a bestselling author. You can leave out the part about your “bestselling” work being there result of a weird Amazon niche, not a New York Times or even USA Today bestseller.
My books have been bestsellers in a few categories. Here’s the Kilimanjaro one at the top of East Africa Travel shortly after it was released (Note, non-fiction so apples and oranges but still):
I’ll thank you to address me as Bestselling Author Jim Hodgson and I’ll take a cappuccino, please.
There are 3rd party author tools designed to help you make the above calculations, but again, whether they give correct information or not is anyone’s guess.
I can also tell you that writing a comedy romance novel intended to be satirical is no ticket to riches. If you do read my novel Heart’s Racing and parts of it catch your eye as satirical references to 1984, well, yeah. They’re in there. But let’s back up.
Maybe I’ve taken a wrong turn.
Let’s go back to Fantasy and Science Fiction. That’s what I wanted to write my novels about. That’s what I did write my novels about. Maybe there’s a “humor” category buried in “Fantasy” the way “Humor” above is buried in “Humor and Entertainment.”
Hey! Here we go. There’s a “Humorous Fantasy” buried under Books > Science Fiction and Fantasy > Fantasy. Now we’re getting down to it. Now we’ll see Pratchett for sure (Adams was Sci-Fi).
Potter, Potter, Potter, Potter, and two Klunes.
I took a look at Klune’s top book on the list, “The House on the Cerulean Sea” and found this review from The New York Times reviewer:
“1984 meets The Umbrella Academy with a pinch of Douglas Adams thrown in. Touching, tender, and truly delightful, The House in the Cerulean Sea is an utterly absorbing story of tolerance, found family, and defeating bureaucracy.”―Gail Carriger, New York Times bestselling author of Soulless
Again with the 1984. At least this time we get a mention of Adams, even if he wasn’t Fantasy. My man Sir Terry still snubbed even though he was the GOAT.
Kinda helps you understand why said GOAT wore this tee shirt:
As I’ve said, there are certainly lighthearted moments in the Potter franchise but if I had to describe the book’s main value to Amazon I would say it’s money, money, and a fornication-load of money.
The Upshot: The System is Boring… But Also Rigged
It’s nobody in the world’s problem that I am a comedy writer. Nobody owes me a leg up. In fact, as a straight white American male I wear privilege like a cape. Even if I’m uncomfortable with it, it’s still there and I still benefit from it. And it is true we, humanity, have bigger fish to fry at the moment. Shout out to all the fish who are literally frying.
It is still pretty annoying that the top Amazon categories for humor writing are just the top sellers in other categories kicking humor writers and readers aside for financial gain.
Granted, some of that frustration is built into books. They are a profitable sideline for people who are famous for other things. Ghost writing is a common day job for some of us. So it goes. And yet…
Imagine being a sewist but the only top clothes you ever see is just the latest Ralph Lauren collection. Oh RL’s got new cargo shorts? Daaamn.
Imagine being into polka music but the top polka charts is just The Weeknd over and over. Do we love The Weeknd? Hell yes. But my guy ain’t polka.
Imagine being a pole vaulter but the top athletes in your sport are just the top American football quarterbacks. All due respect, but them boys don’t even work the pole.
Honestly, all of this madness is why I stopped writing novels and started focusing on plays and other live shows. It’s a massive uphill slog to get people to buy a novel for $3, or even $.99. But they’ll come see a comedy show for $10 or $15 no problem. I felt amazing when I had that realization. I thought nothing could stop me, except the remote possibility of a global pandemic, of course. But there’s no way that could ever- HURP. Sorry, I barfed.
Amazon could get this right. They won’t ever, ever, try. But they could do it right.
The message is clear. If you want to read, or hope to make a living writing actual humorous fiction novels, as far as Amazon’s concerned, you face a choice: become either Rowling or Orwell.