This is a long post. I’m going to say what I have to say about the war between Amazon and Hachette, and only say it once, but there is a lot to say that isn’t being said in the mainstream media. So here goes, largely addressed to the buyer of books.
Has someone told you to boycott Amazon recently? Don’t swallow that so easily. Like most stories in the news that are really a PR war, it’s much more complicated than that, more analogous to auto unions walking off the job during negotiations than anything it’s been compared to in the mainstream media (most particularly you should ignore The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and similar New York-publishing friendly operations that aren’t even attempting to report on the story in a balanced way). Eisler is spot on in this Guardian article about what’s not being said in the mainstream media on this fight over control of bookselling and pricing, mainly that this is big publishing’s 1% moment, totally ignoring their own bullying business tactics and disregard for the small presses and independent authors in the industry and insisting that they’re being persecuted, when they operate like a corrupt cartel (no really, they do: the U.S. government slapped them down for colluding to artificially raise e-book prices just last year), forcing out anyone who won’t play the game by their rules, in which they keep most of the profits for very little work these days.
Here are some questions Eisler raises in his article:
- “If it’s evil, malignant and bullying for Amazon not to stock Hachette’s books (assuming this is even what’s happening; common sense suggests the truth is otherwise), why is it OK for Barnes & Noble and various independent booksellers (which are are actually thriving) to refuse to stock Amazon-published and self-published books?
- Why was there so little outcry a little over a year ago regarding a similar dispute between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster?
- No other bookstore on earth offers Amazon’s selection. So isn’t every other bookstore by definition refusing to stock more books than Amazon does? Why is this OK?
- Why was it OK a few years ago when the Big Five all threatened to pull their books from Amazon (collusively, as it turned out) if Amazon didn’t agree to raise its prices? Amazon is evil for refusing to buy some books from publishers, but it’s still OK for publishers to refuse to sell Amazon any books at all?”
I’ve noticed a lot of high-profile established authors acting really crazy lately, flailing around and not making any sense, mostly because they have been ignoring how publishing is changing related to technology and don’t know how to adapt, by their own admission. I agree with everything but the last sentence of Eisler’s article. For once, it’s big publishing’s authors that are being hurt by this, and that’s something they’ve never had to deal with before (hence the despair from the less established ones and the entitled tantrums from the high-profile ones). But is that grossly unfair to them? In some ways yes, and some of my own friends are affected, and I sympathize with them and hope their careers aren’t too heavily dragged down by these wars. The signs of this coming fight have been there to see for years now, so if someone signs a contract with a big publisher knowing they behave like a greedy abusive corporation that is failing to innovate and adapt to technology, there is some responsibility that falls with authors for signing those contracts and ending up caught in this long-brewing war between publishing and Amazon, though most of the responsibility still falls on the publishers for forcing them into a bad choice between going it alone in a hostile environment that threatens to ruin them if they don’t play ball or sign a contract with poor terms that in most cases won’t allow them to make a living from their writing. Nope, basically we’re back to this being the fault of the heads of big publishing houses, who have already been penalized by the U.S. government for conspiring to keep book prices artificially high, and who were recently found out knowingly taking the profits off the thicker margins of e-book sales and not passing along the profits to authors (e-books make more profits even at lower prices because they cost less to produce and distribute, and instead of celebrating this as the new glory days of publishing having some margins again, publishers have hidden their margins and paid even lower royalties relative to profit margins to authors, telling them to be happy that it’s a higher percentage royalty overall). This isn’t a new fight, at all, in fact. It’s just round two of the same war publishers lost last time, not because they’re being persecuted but because they’re finally being called to the mat for illegal practices.
Getting back to Eisler’s final statement, I’m not sure indie authors are being harmed by this. It’s everything up to this point, led by traditional publishing conspiring to keep indies out of the marketplace to stifle the competition and keep contract terms exploitative so authors have to put up with poor terms, that has been abusive and damaging to all authors, indies in particular. (Everything from booksellers refusing to stock indie titles to review institutions refusing to review indie books or charging exorbitantly for something that is supposed to be a free or near-free service, to Bowker charging indie authors something like 100 times more for ISBNs in the U.S. when publishers can buy them on the cheap and authors in other countries pay nothing at all, to awards refusing to allow indie authors to compete and book bloggers largely ignoring indie titles–all under the guise of protecting quality, even while traditional publishers have started publishing mostly books that make money, regardless of quality [Snookie’s memoirs, anyone?], and don’t even offer most of their authors any marketing support like they used to.) Publishing considers itself the gatekeepers of quality, when they actually function more like a dam, pulling all the energy out of the industry and keeping it for themselves while only letting a few authors through to viable careers. This is in some ways how they have functioned all along (I just read last week about how Agatha Christie got taken for a ride on her first publishing contract nearly a century ago, and thereafter was very shrewd in dealing with publishers), but it has become much much worse in the last decade, as the changes in technology prompted publishers to condense into mega corporations to compete against the new opportunities of technological innovation rather than flowing with them. Think it’s just competition in a tough business? Then why are big publishers pulling in something like $10bn a year, while only a very tiny percent of authors can making a living from their writing? That’s exploitative.
If publishers take their marbles and go home, possibly propping up Barnes & Noble from bankruptcy or trying again to build their own online bookselling portal or turning this into an indie bookseller vs. indie author PR war, we might be facing either fewer buyers finding us authors on Amazon (or more, if there’s less competition where people already like to shop?) or a more diverse bookselling market, but I’m pretty sure indie authors for once aren’t the losers in this war. Not yet anyway. And if they are squeezed out or taken advantage of in some way, Amazon knows they will jump ship at a moment’s notice. There will be no years of suing their way out of contracts. Indie authors are the gypsies of the publishing world. You give them a bait and switch, they pull up stakes and move on, and if it was your circus they were working in, your circus is looking a little empty now. They’re running their own circus now, and it’s a doozie, because they’re free to run things as creatively as they like. Have we forgotten that it’s authors who create the content that drives this industry? Why is it acceptable to treat them like dirt? (Don’t believe the industry looks down on authors? Hang out around the industry water cooler of #queryfail on Twitter for a while and tell me what you think of literary agents’ attitudes toward the clients they serve. Or check out the lists online of offensive rejection letters to famous authors by dismissive publishing houses. The arrogance is stifling.) They don’t have the uniform clout of big publishing, yet–author collectives are forming and growing–but they do have collective clout, and it’s growing. More than half of genre fiction published this year was indie published. These are not the old vanity-published authors of yore with terrible covers and bad writing. Well, some of it will still be bad in an open marketplace with no barrier to entry, but increasingly indie authors are hiring their own editors and cover designers so they can keep 5 times the royalties publishers will pay them and act as their own publishers. And traditional authors are jumping ship to become “hybrid” authors that are somewhere in the middle, half traditionally published and half indie. Many of the major breakout hits driven by popular demand in recent years (Bella Andre’s romance, Hugh Howey’s sci-fi hit series WOOL, E.L. James 50 Shades of Grey [forget what I said about quality on that last one for a second]) were indie published titles. You can’t close Pandora’s box. What’s happening here is a fracturing of the control big publishing held over this industry, driven by technology, and it can’t be stopped because it’s the natural flow of things. Indie authors aren’t just authors: they are functioning as their own publishers, offering up new and disturbing competition to the Big 5. Because technology levels the playing field, and that is the war publishers are really fighting. Against technology that’s been around for a couple decades already.
So in this scenario, is Amazon acting like Walmart to drive down prices, or is the Big 5 acting like a cartel-run corrupt industry where it’s pay to play? Amazon can be seen as a Walmart-like figure in reference to driving indie booksellers out of business if you like, but it’s these indie booksellers that literally laugh in the face of indie authors wanting their books stocked or signed in their stores (happened to me, twice) and refuse to carry better stock even on their scalable websites. So… that’s kind of like your grocer laughing in your face for asking if he might consider carrying a bigger selection of food, which drives you down the road to a bigger store. Except grocers don’t laugh at customers, or suppliers, pretty much ever, right? And if Amazon is supposed to be driving publishers out of business so then who is going to create quality books boohoo, then how is it that they give authors their best opportunity to make a living at writing? Indie authors are quitting their day jobs as we speak, profits are up even as prices are down. This is not Amazon vs. publishing. It’s technology vs. a bloated industry that has already hit its natural peak and is now in contraction, and isn’t taking it particularly well. And if Amazon does use its new-found clout to abuse authors and exploit them like traditional publishing already does? Well, then they’ll be the next business in contraction. Because for the first time in publishing’s several-century history, power is shifting in favor of the authors, the creators of content. Even though it’s still really fecking hard to be seen in this industry, because it does not have a functional marketing and distribution system. Except for Amazon, that has been working hard with the flow of technological innovation for nearly 2 decades now to bring you books in a better way.
Is that a bad thing to you that authors are on the rise and that publishing, the middle men, are on the decline? I didn’t think so. You can expect more creativity from this, which is at times messy and hard to sort through, yes, but more art, more books, more diversity without artists forced into pre-existing bestselling super-genres. You can expect to pay less for books and have more direct contact with your favorite artists who now operate largely online through social media. You can expect authors to write more books for you more quickly because they don’t all need day jobs anymore. You can expect more bookselling portals and cross-media formats for storytelling to pop up, and they already are. In short, this is a creativity explosion, because the dam is breaking. My condolences to all the good and hard-working people who work within the publishing machine. In fact I was one of those people early in my career, but couldn’t find much work as an editor because already the layers of editors were being pushed out of the publishing houses to save costs. There are many ways to look at this, all of them incomplete because the situation is so messy, but don’t just boycott Amazon and cut off your own favorite channel for bookselling because someone tells you they’re the bad guy. They’re just a guy. There will be other guys. But this guy is bringing you cheap, plentiful, oftentimes even more high-quality books than you have been getting up till now, and they’re not exploiting authors. Go buy an e-book and hug an author, indie or traditional. We’re all just trying to create art here. This is war, but it’s not your fight, unless you want to get involved and support authors on either and every side of the issue. Because you’re a reader, right? And readers love good books. And good books come from authors, not warring CEOs with an agenda. Just go buy a book, all right? Wherever it makes sense to you to buy it. Because you’re not an idiot who needs to be told how to purchase goods. Because the sweatshops are not at Amazon.com, they’re behind the scenes of publishers taking 90% or more of the sale of each book and leaving the scraps for their beloved authors. And it isn’t natural, and it doesn’t have to be that way, which is why it is changing. But those authors deserve your support, too. So just go buy a book you like! :)
I can see Amazon becoming a portal for indie and genre books and the major seller of e-books, which everybody has now stopped laughing about now that they prop up everyone’s bottom line, big publishers included. This could easily turn into a paperback vs. e-book war instead of just trad pub vs. Amazon, but… young people are the next generation of book buyers, and they don’t care to purchase overpriced hard copies of books. And they don’t have any long-standing associations with traditional publishing and quality, because that quality has been on the decline in their lifetime: they vote for the content they like wherever it comes from. So, basically, you can’t fight technological evolution, and you can’t trick people forever into being loyal to a corporate machine that has turned into an empty profit machine. You’d be much better off learning how to make a better automobile (or e-book, or quality title) than throwing your life’s energy into propping up coach makers. Coach makers whose union behaves like a cartel. So, my condolences again to the good hard-working editors, agents, authors, and other pieces of the publishing machine that are collateral in this war. They are the real victims of contraction and technological change, just as the skilled craftspeople of the coach-building era were out of work when the assembly line and the automobile came along. Maybe hug them too.
That is all. :)
P.S. This kind of post could actually keep me from getting a traditional publishing contract, because that’s how this industry works, based on loyalty instead of level-headed business decisions. And do you see how I’m not caring? That’s not because I want anyone to fail or because I’m happy things are in upheaval. This is a big messy challenge for all authors to navigate. It’s simply because 1) I was raised by and worked for people in the past who bullied me and wouldn’t let me flinch, and I won’t have any more of it in my life for any cost, 2) any publisher I work with in the future will not be a bully, and will bring something to the table other than bully clout to help me get great books out into the world. I believe that could happen, once this contraction of the industry is complete. I’m looking forward to it. It will be a breath of fresh air to be able to focus on great books instead of defending against abuse. And 3) there is already a publisher/platform offering me unprecedented opportunity and great distribution options and fair royalties. I have a way around abusive contracts and being someone’s collateral damage now. It’s called Amazon.