I once had an interview at Microsoft for a temp job. One of the interviewers gave me a pencil, a legal pad, and he put this question to me: “Using these tools, how would you build a 747 jetliner?” This was one of those interview questions that’s supposed to gauge how you think. “Well, sir,” I thought to myself, “because I’d be writing blurbs on your website, and not building airplanes, I think that’s a stupid question.” Scratch MS. Continue reading
Le Guin spoke many truths, but her speech left me cold. Was it envy? I wondered how one as intelligent and honest could so easily scold an industry which has brought her fame and riches. I find it hard to accept that a publisher took risks on her early work purely because it wanted to support art and not as an interesting, if head-scratching addition to its catalog that might earn a few dollars over the long term. It is genre fiction, after all.
Perhaps I was skeptical of her rant because it resembles so many other laments for a tight-knit, rapidly disappearing world, that of a select group of “serious” publishers and “serious” editors who work with “serious” writers. These tastemakers have had a stranglehold on literature for three hundred years. Having seen first-hand the disruptive power of digital technology while I was at RealNetworks in the 1990s, I understand how frightening and painful transformation can be. I wonder if the ancient Greek poets of the oral tradition castigated merchants in the agora for selling those awful printed versions of epic poems. People just aren’t hiring singers of oral art anymore! It’s those damned scribblers disrupting the market!
Below Le Guin’s analysis lies a hidden assumption: If a book is published by a major house, it must be good. A cursory examination of recent bestsellers shows this to be false. Critics and discerning readers found Fifty Shades of Grey to be laughably bad. My daughters warned me that the sequels to Twilight and Hunger Games were sub-par. The fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, A Dance With Dragons, was a sorry mess. The tastemakers aren’t always on target. In fact, they publish crap when they know it’s crap. Why? Pandering earns revenue that subsidizes the few brilliant writers, including Le Guin. Gotta love capitalism.
Le Guin calls herself a friend to self-published authors, even as she decries Amazon. This is naive at least, because if it weren’t for Amazon’s scale, which reduces the cost of production and provides access to a large market, self-publishing would’ve remained the realm of rich dilettantes. Let’s be honest: Amazon behaved like a bully in its recent dealings with Hachette. Despite its business practices (or because of them), the company, along with competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, is enabling a renaissance of written expression. It’s most recent project, Kindle Scout, is pushing aside the tastemakers by crowdsourcing publishing decisions, democratizing the filter process by offering readers a chance to weigh in on what is worthy of publication. Devolving decision-making to the masses always frightens the entrenched powers.
Amazon is in business to make a profit. Who knew? That’s been the case among booksellers since Gutenberg. If the German printer hadn’t made a profit with his bibles, he would’ve tossed his press onto the dung heap. Singling out Amazon (though I always agree that the powerful be held to account), strikes me as paranoiac. Amazon isn’t a demon; it’s showing signs of creaking under its own weight. In reality, the book universe is moving toward a new mix of traditionally published and independently published content distributed on a variety of platforms. The resurgence of the independent bookstore, once thought dead, is the best proof of this trend.
The printed book still sells strong as a teaching tool, keepsake, gift, or status symbol. The ebook is valued for its convenience and low price. Smart indie writers employ free-lance editors and cover designers. Readers ask for a voice in the publishing process, while trusting that some tastemakers have it right. Le Guin ought to revel in this emerging creative anarchy, instead of wishing all the people who don’t fit her worldview would go away.
Disclosure: My books have been published traditionally, on Amazon KDP, on Smashwords, and by CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary.
Here’s the issue: Amazon wanted to set ebook prices on its website; Hachette wanted to set them itself. In a version of single combat worthy of Game of Thrones, Amazon landed the first blows when it pulled features such as overnight delivery of Hachette books. Not for the first time, Amazon used its market power to pressure a supplier to sell on best terms. Hachette took the rare step of publicly crying foul, and pursued a boxing-like jab-jab-jab strategy to wear down its opponent. Meanwhile, it egged on a loud chorus of ringside authors in an attempt to shame the champion into lowering its guard, leaving it open to a knock-him-on-his-arse blow. Continue reading
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
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