the fallout of Amazon vs. Macmillan

John Scalzi is valuable once again. This time he’s discussing what you can do to help the real victims of this publishing slapfight — “real” in the sense of “people who are losing something, right now, that they can’t afford and aren’t going to get back.” Amazon — which still hasn’t put back the buy links, last I heard — is losing sales, sure, but they can survive it. Ditto Macmillan, though their survival is less easily assured. And readers can buy the books elsewhere, or pick them up from Amazon once this mess is resolved.

For authors, though, every reader that doesn’t buy their book represents not just lost income, but the possibility that whichever subsidary of Macmillan publishes them won’t offer another contract in the future. Because when contract time rolls around, the bean-counters are going to look at how their previous books have sold. And for some, the losses they’ve been incurring since Friday — much less any of the ill-conceived boycotts flying around — may break them.

I bring this up because of a post by Jay Lake, where he describes the attitudes and assumptions he’s seen on the Kindle message boards. The list is really disturbing to anyone working as a writer — well, see for yourself:

1. Authors are greedy
2. Authors are rich
3. Authors hate ebook readers
4. Authors control pricing
5. Authors control what their publishers do
6. Authors should be punished for what their publisher does
7. Authors are taking orders from their publishers’ PR departments
8. Authors should self-publish, because they’ll make lots more money that way
9. Authors don’t know what they’re talking about
10. Authors aren’t necessary
11. Authors are bullying Amazon

My thoughts on this are, once again, rather long, so they’re going behind a cut.

Let’s pair the first two, because that’s the only way they make sense. Greediness is, one presumes, a matter of wanting more money than you need, and since authors are rich, any move to protect their profits is greedy. I can only presume that “author,” in the minds of these people, translates to “J.K. Rowling” or “Stephenie Meyer.” Who, yes, are rolling in cash. But the reality is that the vast majority of writers are dependent upon day jobs or spouses with same to pay the rent, buy groceries, and so on. Unmarried full-time writers? Are generally writers without health insurance, because they can’t afford it. So calling us greedy is more than a little off-base (to put it politely).

Onward to #3. Why would we hate ebook readers? THEY’RE READERS. It is entirely possible that there is nothing in the world authors love more than our readers — yes, more than our publishers (who only work with us because we have or could have readers), and probably more than our books (since we have a neurotic tendency to see their flaws too clearly). Unless in this case “readers” refers to the devices rather than the people, in which case I ask, why would we hate something that is another way for people-readers to experience our books? We might be worried about its potential to change the world of publishing such that we can no longer afford to do the thing we love, but that’s a separate matter. I don’t know a single author whose answer to that problem is, “get rid of the technology.”

4-7 should again be grouped, since otherwise I’ll go on about them ad nauseam. Authors control jack, y’all. I sadly have not saved the links for the multiple good posts I’ve seen on this topic, but the short form is that we mostly control the words inside the book (barring the influence of the editor and copy-editor), and we usually control the title (unless we’re told we have to alter it — which has, for the record, happened to me on every book so far published except for Midnight Never Come). Nothing about the physical appearance: the cover, the typesetting, the trim size, the ads or lack thereof, etc. Nothing about when it comes out, and where, in what format or language, and for how much. We sometimes have the right to express our preferences about such things, and then to be ignored. Certainly we have no say about what the publisher does with any books other than our own. So punishing us for what our publishers do . . . Jay has pointed out elsewhere that contrary to popular opinion, we can’t just pack up and switch companies. It doesn’t work that way. We’re legally bound into contracts, which often hold good for years at a time (if we’re lucky), and then once those are up it’s a hairy move indeed, looking for a new home. You might very well be asking your friendly neighborhood author to flush their career down the drain, because of something their parent company did that you, the reader, don’t agree with.

As for the PR departments — we should be so lucky as to get marching orders from them. That pretty much only happens when sales & marketing decides to do real promo work for a book, and asks the author to participate. (Out of her own pocket, more often than not; it’s a rare occasion indeed when the company pays for a book tour or whatever.) The corporate-level PR, the office that handles this kind of incident, has nothing whatsoever to do with authors. We are not soldiers in an army, mobilized to deal with problems; from their perspective, we are machines in a factory.

#8: AHAHAHAno. See elsewhere for patient explanations of why self-publishing is not the solution to our woes. jimhines is a good one to start with.

Then we get to the really depressing ones, near the end of the list. Authors don’t know what they’re talking about. Much like, I imagine, police don’t know anything about crime or the legal system, and doctors don’t know anything about disease and medicine. I mean, what? This is my job you’re talking about. My professional survival depends, in part, on me knowing how the sausage is made, so I don’t get caught in the grinder by accident. There are people who know more about the industry than I do; I will freely concede that point, because I’m still relatively new to this field, and haven’t worked it from multiple angles the way some people have. There may even be readers, people who have never been writers or editors or agents or any other publishing-related job, who know more about it than I do. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know my own business, much less any of the other thoughtful, well-informed people who have been opining on this issue. Saying otherwise is really damned insulting.

But maybe it’s okay to insult us, because after all: 10. Authors aren’t necessary.

. . . I don’t even know what to say.

These are readers. People who consume our words. They’re the ones saying that authors aren’t necessary. There are people on the Kindle forums, who regularly shell out money for novels or magazines or some other form of electronic text, who don’t see any value in the people producing that text.

I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Maybe it’s just the last, malignant growth stage of the notion that the idea is the important part: anybody who can come up with a neat idea for a story can be a writer, and in fact has done the hard bit already. There’s no craft involved. And writing isn’t real work. So somehow, in this twisted chain of logic, it becomes possible to get rid of the author entirely: hand your idea off to a typist or maybe a computer program and poof, it turns into a novel. Or a short story, or poetry, or a screenplay. Heck, you don’t even really need the screenplay, since the actors can just make up their own dialogue.

(Yes, they can. Sometimes they do. But it’s pretty rare for Iron Man to be the result; more often you’re looking at Donald Sutherland’s character in the original Buffy movie.)

But that’s just an attempt on my part to explain the sentiment, and I fear that I have failed. Because you can’t explain something you don’t understand, and I just don’t. understand.

Somehow, to these people, we are an obstacle, rather than the source of their enjoyment. We have vast amounts of power, and we want to use it for our own unnecessary aggrandizement; and in the pursuit of this goal, we are using that power to beat up on poor, defenseless Amazon, which wants nothing for itself but the good of its Kindle customers.

You know what? I kind of want to live in that world. Ship me off to the universe where I’m rolling in money and telling my publisher what to do, where I can bully an enormous corporation and then walk off whistling to do some more not-work. It beats the reality.

0 Responses to “the fallout of Amazon vs. Macmillan”

  1. chrisondra

    Sherman Alexie would actually rather Kindles not be around, so there are some authors out there who don’t like the technology. He’s worried that books will quickly become pirated as music was, and it’s much easier to pirate something digital than something that’s not. It’s a valid worry, and I hope it doesn’t play out that way.

    That said… to #10, I can’t understand either. You are the ones who put the words on the paper, who pour your heart and soul into ink… that they then get to read…

    It’s flabbergasting is what it is. Frankly, I’m all for more author rights. A painter would be furious if a committee ran in and told him what color she should use in her painting… what to title his painting… Same with composers and music… It might not be true, but those who subscribe to the creative art of literature seem to be hit hardest. Even Rowling wasn’t impressed with the illustrator of the Harry Potter series, and I’m sure she has more influence over her novels than most authors.

    Well, in the end, when these people lose access to their authors, let them blame the authors, I suppose. It’s sad, but in the end, they get to live that life devoid of those they see at fault. May they enjoy their authorless misery.

    But, personally, I’ll keep reading and thanking authors thankyouverymuch!

  2. la_marquise_de_

    It baffles me: it seems to be another version of the old chestnut that anyone can sit down and write a book, that it’s easy and takes no effort, research etc etc (I get that one with my non-fiction, too).
    Now, part of me likes to be invisible, but the consequences are scary. I accept that once a book is out there, it’s no longer solely mine, that others will have different ideas and interpretations to me, that others will feel a sense of ownership in my writing.
    But that the writer can vanish…? non sequitur, unless we are to live in a world of unformed daydreams. What this subset seem to want is a kind of auto-author, who produces precisely what they want to order and never slows, tires or contradicts — a bit like the Will Speak machines in Jasper fforde’s novels. Or else a teflon author, who does not react or feel — the equivalent of the way some people act about teachers, say, or shop workers — servants who have no feelings or needs of their own.
    It reeks to me of entitlement. That is what is the most worrying aspect, because it is predicated on a deliberate removal of individuality from one set of people for the benefit of another. I doubt that anyone of those who have come close to this position really think that — they are reacting with their gut, not their head and I hope they’d be horrified if they realised the implications.

  3. pentane

    Speaking as someone working for a health insurer, I both feel your pain and am amused by all of what’s going on as well.

  4. gothicsparrow

    It seems so bizarre to me that people could think those things when so many authors are blogging about the process of getting published. Which I guess shows that most people assume all authors must be like the ones shown on TV, which are usually rich and famous, or slightly-smaller scale versions of JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown, which is insanely inaccurate.

Comments are closed.