Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hachette, Amazon, and the art of the reframe

Fiction writing is of primary importance to me, of course.

Nevertheless, the diversity of topics here (everything from foreign languages to politics) means that many readers of this blog are not particularly interested in the worlds of fiction writing and publishing. I recognize that.

Likewise, you may or may not be interested in the ongoing contract disputes between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group. Honestly speaking, unless you're a writer or a (very) avid reader, this probably doesn't have a major impact on your life.

You should, however, be interested in the way in which language is often used to control a debate by reframing the basic premises of an argument. (Hint: This is how wasteful government boondoggles, funded by your tax dollars, become "investments in our future".)

Publishers and their cronies have come up with a strategy that relies on reframing what is essentially a mundane, garden-variety contractual dispute between a supplier (Hachette Book Group) and a distributor ( to Hachette's advantage.

The reframe involves the depiction of Amazon as a corporate philistine (as if publishers aren't corporations) while depicting publishers themselves as altruistic, sophisticated guardians of "literary culture". (Never mind that since 1995 has made books far more widely and cheaply available to the masses.)

JA Konrath does an excellent job of breaking all this down. After sampling the quoted portion below, I recommend that you read the entire piece over at Konrath's blog:

I'm going to put the buzz words that are being repeated in italics, and explain why they're fallacious.  
Amazon is not a monopoly. But people know monopolies are bad and illegal, so the term keeps getting used.  
Publishers don't create culture. They don't create anything; authors do. But Authors United wants you to believe publishers are indispensable. And they aren't.  
Books aren’t commodities. Well, yes, they are. They’re bought and sold, after all. AU wants to say they aren't, that people recognize the importance of literature and are above crass, plebian capitalism. But publishers print prices directly on book covers -- if that’s not a product, what is?    
Writing is a job. It isn't some special calling for the elite. It isn't some form of magic where the shaman practitioners must be deified. I'm a writer, and damn lucky to be one, but I'm no better than someone who makes toasters on an assembly line.  
Authors aren't being targeted. Amazon's goal isn't to put books in their crosshairs for systematic termination. In fact, Amazon has tried, three times, to compensate authors for the duration of the negotiations. Hachette no longer has a contract with Amazon, but Amazon is still graciously selling Hachette’s titles. If Amazon truly wanted to leverage Hachette into signing a new contract, it could stop selling all Hachette titles. But it hasn't done that.  
Amazon isn't delaying Hachette titles. It simply isn't stocking Hachette books, and why should it when there is no contract in place?  
There isn't any boycott or sanction. Hachette books are available elsewhere. Amazon isn't blocking any sales.  
Amazon isn't reducing book discounts. They're pricing books according to the prices Hachette itself stamps on books. They aren't refusing preorders, either. Is it a smart practice to sell titles that haven't been released yet when there is no surety that they'll ever be able to fulfill those orders if they can't come to terms with Hachette?
Amazon isn’t punishing writers who are helpless. Writers are only helpless in that they signed a contract with a publisher who refuses to negotiate with Amazon because the publisher wants to protect its paper oligopoly by keeping ebook prices high. Amazon isn't negotiating with writers, it is negotiating with Hachette. Writers are collateral damage--and writers put themselves in harm’s way by signing with a member of a cartel with a specific agenda.
Look at these words again: reducing, refusing, boycott, sanction, blocking, delaying, targeted, commodities, culture, democracy, monopoly, punishing, helpless. They’re all being used to deliberately mislead.