Why Amazon is a writer’s best frenemy.


Amazon is your frenemy. Image courtesy Finding FUKI.

It’s fashionable in writing circles these days to vilify Amazon as if the company was a science fiction monster stomping a beautiful edifice into dust. Most of these authors and their allies, such as the members of Authors United, owe their fame and livelihoods to legacy publishing, so it’s natural for them to defend the hand that feeds. On the flip side, they weren’t complaining when Amazon took the risk of opening new markets for their books, which presumably meant higher sales and larger royalty checks. Friends with benefits are a good thing, until you realize the “friend’s” real motives. Of course, Amazon was never their friend, and it’s not their enemy.

For the midlist author or the writer rejected by the legacy world, Amazon and its cousins in the self-publishing universe are a godsend. I’m a case in point. Proposals for my first book, a history of an important Seattle-area fishing schooner, were turned down by more than a dozen traditional publishers, including several that specialize in stories from the Pacific Northwest. One editor said too few people would buy the book to justify the risk. That makes perfect sense: Maritime history is a niche market, publishing is a risky business, and a press needs to break even on its investments at least. A generation ago, the project would have ended there. In the 21st century, the self-publishing world made possible my small contribution to local history. The book is now available in Seattle-area public libraries and for purchase online. Since then, I’ve published other books through Amazon or its companies in this way. For me, Amazon is my friend. Continue reading

Utopia vs dystopia smackdown: Guess who wins.

Utopia, Texas, sign

Utopia, Texas. Image courtesy University of Houston, Clear Lake.

Too dark. Too depressing. Too frightening. These are the comments some critics and authors apply to the crop of movies and novels drawing viewers and readers to the multiplexes and bookstores these days. From the Maze Runner to Divergent, dystopias dominate the best-seller and blockbuster categories, and culture watchers wonder if the public has lost hope in the future.

Could it be that dystopia’s opposite–utopia–is simply boring?

Today’s complaints about dystopian stories originate with the movie made from the novel the Hunger Games, about a young woman who challenges an autocratic society that oppresses weaker communities with a blood sport. It’s really a classic “us-against-the-world” teen rebellion story, but the environment is dystopian, so it gets mentioned in the same breath as 1984, a gross injustice to George Orwell. Continue reading

Review: Peak oil fuels this dystopian survivalist novel

Cover image for In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis

Scientists, pundits, and self-appointed prophets paint the impact of climate change with brushstrokes of extreme weather, upended economies, and pandemic disease. It’s up to writers and artists to imagine the effects of these changes on human relationships. More and more writers are examining the possibilities and dangers of life in a warming world, including Jennifer Ellis, author of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, a dystopian survivalist novel that explores how people who grow up in a world of abundance cope with instantaneous privation.

Ellis’ imagined future may be happening right now. Economists say that we may have found all the oil that’s economically feasible to extract. From this moment of “peak oil” forward, further extraction costs more and more money. Production falls sharply, disrupting advanced economies. Natalie and Richard, a Vancouver, BC power couple before the peak, move with a select group of friends to a isolated farm in the British Columbia interior. Over the next few years, society collapses around them, and when we meet the couple and their tiny, self-sufficient community, slaving gangs roam the empty roads and overgrown countryside attacking isolated homes and towns. The farm’s inmates greet each stranger with suspicion, and guns settle arguments as often as words. Continue reading

New heritage area is like Cool Whip: A tasty froth

Fireworks over Lake Union

Fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union, which is part of a new King County maritime heritage area. Image courtesy Northwest Seaport.

Politicians love symbolic actions, especially when they’re sending a message to Congress without any cost at home. That’s the most realistic way to interpret a move by the King County Council (which governs Seattle’s home county) this week to create a county maritime heritage area. The action covers all of the county’s saltwater shore on Puget Sound and the freshwater shoreline on Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. All the freshwater shore is within Seattle’s city limits. The county action a good thing, but only as far as it goes.

The new ordinance takes particular pains to head off any cries of “takings” or other property-rights nonsense by Tea Party fanatics or otherwise ignorant property owners. An email by King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, whose entire district is inside liberal Seattle’s city limits, says the ordinance “carries no regulatory, procedural, or property management constraints. It is intended solely to support heritage and tourism potential.” In other words, it does nothing concrete; it’s symbolic only, and even then, it only touches “potential,” a philosophical construct for something that doesn’t exist, but might. Wrap your head around that logic. Continue reading

I am an author, and Authors United does not speak for me.

Godzilla Mothra art

Amazon vs Hachette = Godzilla vs Mothra. Image courtesy MonsterMovieMusic.

Authors United has pulled a boner. The group of writers who’ve published through Hachette, which is in an ongoing contract dispute with Amazon, sent a letter this week to Amazon’s board of directors demanding it “put an end to the sanctioning of books.” In this case, “sanction” is meant as “discipline” in the way an overlord disciplines a minion. The writers are angry at Amazon’s tactic of slowing sales and delivery of Hachette books as a means to pressure Hachette on the core issue, the price of ebooks. Amazon wants to price ‘em low. Hachette wants to price ‘em high. Authors United says the tactic has driven down sales “by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent.” A drop in sales means a drop in income for Hachette authors, the group says.

My instinct is to support authors. In the book world, writers are the makers. Publishing could not exist without them. A whole ecosystem of editors, graphic artists, sales and marketing experts, and the bookstore itself (including Amazon), depends on authors sharing their dreams and nightmares. But Authors United has twisted this world into a fantasy. In its letter to Amazon’s board, it casts books as “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual” and publishers as providers of “venture capital for ideas.” Authors United romanticizes an industry that has ignored orders of magnitude more writers than it will ever publish. The industry has inflicted far more financial and emotional pain on writers in the past 200 years than Amazon will in the next 200 years. One has only to compare legacy publishers’ pitiful royalty rates to Amazon’s generous rates to see how authors figure in each camp’s mind. Continue reading

The Windup Girl read as eco-fiction

Cover for The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s too bad more science fiction writers don’t address changes to Earth’s environment. Most are interested in the environment of other planets, while our home world’s atmosphere and biosphere grow more alien every day. Thank God for writers such as Margaret Atwood, with her Maddaddam Trilogy, Emmi Itäranta, author of The Memory of Water, and the late George Turner, whose The Sea and Summer anticipated the emerging eco-fiction genre by a generation.

Add to these Paolo Bacigalupi and The Windup Girl, which won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Critics and marketers who insist on genre-izing everything have labeled it “biopunk,” a story taking humanity’s ten-thousand-year-old penchant for tinkering with biology to logical, if not absurd, commercial and scientific extremes. Writers fiddling with stories about climate change or GMO foods ought to look to The Windup Girl for lessons in how to approach these issues. Continue reading

Review: To get at The Truth, dig deeper

Cover image for The Truth

The Truth, by Michael Palin

You can read a book through different lenses. Most reviewers of The Truth, the second novel by ex-Monty Python comic Michael Palin, read it as mainstream literature. I read it through a narrower lens, as a writer interested in how fiction makers work with environmental themes. Seen in this way, Palin’s book is about hero-worship, and how emotional closeness to a subject can obscure the truth.

Protagonist Keith Mabbut is a divorced, middle-aged writer personally and professionally adrift. In his youth, he won an award for an investigative piece exposing an industrial polluter, but his career stalled out, and now he’s writing histories of oil companies to make ends meet. Mabbut is an intelligent, if easily manipulated man naive despite his years, and when he’s offered a chance to revive his journalism career, he falls into the trap of believing he’s found the truth when, in fact, he asked the wrong questions. Continue reading