Why I Would Fail As An Amazonian, And Other Predictable Misfortunes

Father and child

Why I would fail as an Amazonian, and other predictable misfortunes.

I recently tolerated, er, celebrated my 56th birthday. Going by the usual retirement schedule, I have about ten years left in the workforce, give or take a year. I feel ready to take one last shot at a career change, or at least modification. Here in Seattle, it’s inevitable to think of Microsoft, Starbucks, or Amazon as the main choices. They are the top employment “brands,” if you will. Let’s think this through.

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

Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech was misguided and wrong.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin was given a lifetime achievement award, and she said some naive things.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s November 19 speech at the National Book Awards in New York struck a nerve. My nerve. In six minutes, after accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the grande dame of American science fiction and fantasy lambasted her own publishers who charge libraries “six or seven times the price for books they charge their customers,” “profiteers” (read: Amazon) who tried to punish a publisher (read: Hachette) for “disobedience,” and fellow writers whom she says have buckled under the imperative for profit. “We need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of an art,” she said.

Bravo.

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.

Hachette may have won the battle, but Amazon will win the war

Medieval joust

Hachette may have unhorsed Amazon, but the game is far from done.

Amazon and Hachette kissed, made up, and walked into the sunset hand-in-hand after their ten-month dispute over ebook pricing. That’s what the spin doctors want you to think when you read the statements issued by each company yesterday and the followup press reports, but it’s impossible to believe that the fires of resentment and future conflict aren’t seething in the c-suites of both companies. Hachette may have won the engagement, but the war is far from over.

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

Why Amazon is a writer’s best frenemy.

Frenemies

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

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