Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Anti-Amazon, pro-Amazon forces lock horns

The Amazon vs. Hachette wars continue, with authors predictably choosing sides:

"Stephen King, Nora Roberts and Donna Tartt are among the hundreds of authors who have added their names to an online letter criticizing Amazon.com...Other authors endorsing the letter include James Patterson, Andrew Solomon and Scott Turow. Some on the list are Hachette writers, but many are published by rival companies. The authors include best-selling novelists such as King and Roberts, prize-winning historians such as Robert Caro and Taylor Branch, children’s authors Laurie Halse Anderson and Mary Pope Osborne, Pulitzer Prize winner Tartt and memoir writers Elizabeth Gilbert and Mary Karr."

“…best-selling science fiction author Hugh Howey has written a petition addressed to readers that praises Amazon for offering low prices and for paying generous e-book royalties — as high as 70 percent, compared to the standard 25 percent from traditional publishers — to authors published by Amazon. Howey, who has had great success selling e-books through Amazon, has been a leading defender of the Seattle-based company and an advocate for self-publishing.  
“You probably aren’t aware of this, but the majority of your favorite authors can’t make a living off their book sales alone,” reads the petition, which is supported by J.A. Konrath and other popular Amazon writers. 
 “Very few authors could when New York Publishing was in charge. That is changing now that Amazon and other online retailers are paying authors a fair wage.”
This is, from one perspective, simply a garden-variety conflict between a large company (Amazon) and one of its suppliers (Hachette). These happen all the time in all industries. 

Both entities have strong economic incentives to resolve the conflict. So I'm not sure that this calls for "activism" from any quarter. 

But on another level, this has become yet another front of the independent publishing vs. corporate publishing debate, which ignites a practically religious degree of partisanship among some writers. (Readers mostly don't care.)

At the extremes, the two opposing viewpoints can be broken down as follows:

- Big Corporate Publishers are evil, greedy gatekeepers who want to restrict whose work can be read and whose can't. They consistently rip off and exploit the few writers whom they "vet" with publication. 

- Independent publishing via Amazon is leading to THE DESTRUCTION OF AMERICAN LETTERS AS WE USED TO KNOW IT! And what about all those cozy independent bookshops that Amazon is putting out of business? 

Writers are human, too; and writers tend to be more human than most people--usually in ways which are not necessarily good. Most writers (of fiction, anyway) tend to be ignorant or dismissive of economics. They tend to over-personalize matters that they should view with the cold, dispassionate eye of a businessperson. 

Let's be blunt about corporate-published writers: Writers who are already part of the corporate publishing system have no desire to see independently published books enter the marketplace. Many of these writers do in fact have elitist tendencies. Many of them spent years trying to make it past the "gatekeepers", and they view independently published writers as cheaters. And why would any businessperson go out of his way to welcome competition? (Note: Every writer who cares about eating is a businessperson as well as an artist--regardless of who publishes her work.)

Some of these writers would be glad to see Amazon--and independent publishing--disappear. They would like to go back to 1995--when Amazon was barely a ripple in the marketplace, and they were selling most of their books through the effectively closed distribution systems of Borders, B&N, and other brick-and-mortar retailers. 

If you're Stephen King or James Patterson, the advent of Amazon.com and the digital age has made your business model more uncertain and more competitive. These writers see no real upside in the currently evolving model. 

Let's also be blunt about independently published writers: Many of them view corporate publishers as "the enemy". This might be because a corporate publisher previously rejected their manuscript submission or book proposal; or it might be because corporate publishers run lukewarm to hostile toward electronic publishing and Amazon.com--both of which have made (profitable) independent publishing possible. 

Some of these indie writers go so far as to openly wish for the demise of corporate publishers. "They're greedy! They're dinosaurs! They deserve to diiiieeeeeee!"

Now let's look at this situation a bit more dispassionately--not as touchy artist types--but as businesspeople. Consider the following:

Monopolies are bad at any level:

In the pre-Amazon days, when profitable, cost-effective independent publishing was well nigh impossible, the corporate publishers did exercise monopoly (or, more accurately, oligopoly) power. 

They knew that many writers would accept their contracts at almost any terms--because most writers were primarily focused on the emotional validation of "being published". Making money was a secondary priority--if it was a priority at all.

The superior percentages offered by self-publishing arrangements will exert market forces on publishers: They will eventually have to offer better contracts in order to keep established authors who already have an established readership. These authors could easily switch to self-publishing and greatly increase their income. (This roughly describes the situation of JA Konrath, an independently published refugee from corporate publishing.)

On the other hand...If Amazon becomes the only game in town for publishing and bookselling (Amazon is effectively a publisher as well as a retailer now), Amazon could eventually adopt many of the habits of corporate publishers. Amazon offers writers favorable terms because it wants to compete with corporate publishers--not because Amazon is some sort of a charity for writers. 

In this regard, corporate publishers continue to exert competitive pressure on Amazon's publishing divisions, just as Amazon exerts competition on the corporate publishers. 

(Corporate publishers, by the way, are not necessarily "greedy". But they have become inefficient, with bloated cost structures. For example: There is no reason for this industry to continue to be based in high-cost New York City. New York City should be for investment banks--not publishers.)

Corporate publishers stand up for copyright law:

Yes, I know it's horribly retrograde to talk about copyright. But I'm going to do so anyway.

I give books away all the time (practically every writer does), and I'm always delighted to see that one of my books is in a library. (Almost all of my nonfiction titles are now available in libraries.) I don't put DRM protections on my Kindle books (that only harms honest users) and I allow lending of all my Kindle titles. So by no means am I out to squeeze every last penny from every last reader. 

That having been said, I object to the notion that anyone's work (be it music, film, or writing) should be made freely available in bit torrent databases without their permission.

Forget that claptrap about "information wants to be free". What piracy amounts to is an income transfer from creators (most of whom are independent one-man, one-woman operations) to Internet companies. 

Most bit torrent sites are supported by ad revenue (or the distribution of malware). So when creative work is freely distributed, someone is making money--but it's an Internet company making money rather than the creator. That strikes me as unfair--and very dishonest.

Corporate publishers have been at the forefront of mounting legal opposition to pirate database sites. Almost no individual author has the time, resources, or legal/technical savvy to do this. 

This isn't necessarily either-or:

Choosing between corporate publishing and independent publishing isn't like choosing to be Christian or Muslim--or even Democrat or Republican. Many authors secure a corporate publisher for certain projects, while independently publishing other works. 

The ideal solution is a hybrid market:

I wouldn't want to see a marketplace in which a small, clubby New York-based coterie has exclusive power to decide what will be published--and then proceeds to charge readers $24.99 for a trade paperback novel. (Books have become far too expensive--which is mostly the fault of corporate publishers' economic inefficiencies. But that's another discussion.) 

Nor would I want to see a marketplace in which Amazon becomes a true monopoly for both writers and readers. Economics 101 tells us that a monopoly always leads to higher prices, lower quality, and fewer choices. 

The more competition the better. Competition is better for writers as well as readers.