First, some context for those unaware of this particular issue – Amazon and Hatchette Book Group are having themselves a bit of a spat over ebook pricing, and Amazon is retaliating against Hatchette’s failure to agree to their terms by refusing to take pre-orders on Hatchette books, raising prices on them, and lowering their on-hand stock of physical books so that they take 2-3 weeks to ship. This has been widely criticized as being a massively dick move. Which isn’t inaccurate. But…
Thus far in my career I have not done a lot of work with traditional publishers. This is not because of any principled opposition to them, but mostly because thus far in my career I’ve consistently looked at manuscripts I’ve had and thought “I can make a couple grand off this right now or I can spend months or years trying to find a publisher with whom I may or may not make much of anything.” That may well change in the future, particularly as I slowly maneuver towards trying fiction, where self-publishing is much trickier.
For writers who have thrown their lot in with traditional publishers, this is a very scary time for understandable reasons. Greg Rucka – a writer I absolutely love – has a book out in July. Second part of a series, first one was a very fun little thing, very exciting, and you can’t pre-order it on Amazon right now because they’re fighting with his publisher. This is going to gut his first week sales, which will have knock-on effects for the entire book’s sales, and I can’t imagine he’s not terrified about the implications of that, because lord knows I would be. J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym’s second book is caught up in it too, which must make that the book with the most mangled promotional campaign ever. These are real and horrifying prospects.
It’s also the consequence of the entire system under creative labor takes place in 2014, and complaining about it as an isolated case is absolutely ridiculous.
Why is Amazon in the position they’re in? The answer is simple: because twenty years ago they risked a lot of money on a bet about what bookselling would look like in 2014, and they were right. Then they made another in 2007, and they were right again. That’s literally it. They guessed that people would buy books online, and they guessed that they’d be happy to read them on digital readers instead of buying dead trees that they’d have to store somewhere.
And I honestly don’t want to diminish Amazon’s contributions here. They got online retail right where a lot of companies didn’t. As for ebooks, who remembers the Rocket eBook, which, for several hundred dollars, could hold ten books on a machine the size of a hardcover, which was actually find, because I don’t think there were actually ten books available for it? Amazon got the ebook to be a usable format, in no small part by actually getting skittish publishers who were nervous about piracy onboard selling the damn things, but also by actually making a good reader in the first place.
But this is how the world works. Capitalism rewards making lucrative bets about the way things will go. You might just as well ask why Hatchette is in the position they’re in, and the answer would be a series of good bets dating back to 1837. Both companies are, like any large company, the product of savvy investments.
It appears to be the case that over the last twenty years or so, however, Amazon has made better bets. Hatchette assumed a longstanding business model in which publishers curated potential manuscripts to find the best books and then offered high quality editorial services to hone said manuscripts and effective marketing to maximize sales would continue holding. Amazon bet that fundamental shifts in distribution would upend that. Amazon looks to have been right, broadly speaking.
Certainly that comports with my experience. I have one traditionally published book, and… OK, let’s be clear that this is not sour grapes. I knew what I was getting into, and published that book because I thought it would be a fun project to do with a very good friend, and because I recognize that having some traditionally published work is a good calling card.
But all of these merits that traditional publishing offers? My editor made six suggestions, all of them trivial. The book is adequately copyedited, but no better than what the generous freelancers who work for way less than they should on my self-published work provide. We had to do a huge amount of marketing ourselves, including coming up with a list of dozens of people who we thought should get review copies and tracking down contact information for all of them. And my per-book royalty is 15% of what it would be if I self-published.
Now, admittedly, yes, sales are better than if I self-published because the book is part of a venerable and respected series that sells copies, and because the sheer size of the publisher means that they can generate pretty good publicity without a lot of effort just by listing a book prominently in their catalog. And I’m sure that Rucka and Rowling have fabulous editors who really did improve their manuscripts, and that my hands-off editor was… well, you know, “not all editors.” Equally, there’s hardly a writer working who hasn’t had a huge amount of the job of promotion shifted to them, and let me tell you, that’s a long fucking slog of work.
So, you know. I’m not going to suggest that one of traditional publishing or the wild and wooly world that Amazon has created is better than the other. What I am going to suggest, though, is there is no good reason why authors should have to think about this shit.
But no, we’ve created a system where the people who make art have to participate in the same bet-making system that led Hatchette and Amazon to be giants in their respective fields. I’m as successful as I am because I happened to make good bets both on blogging about Doctor Who and then about selling that content. My continued success will be based on my ability to continue making good bets about the market, both in terms of what I write and how I opt to sell it. Hopefully I’ll stay lucky.
But I don’t pretend for a moment that any skill or luck I’ve had in my bets is related to skill I have as a writer. I mean, I am a decent writer. I’m confident in my abilities. But the reason I’m a reasonably big and successful author isn’t because I’m good at it, it’s because I made good bets on the market.
Because that’s what authors are. We create assets (intellectual property) and then seek to capitalize on those assets. We make bets based on what we think will be best for our assets. We don’t get to just be artists, we have to be self-employed businesspeople to boot.
This is not, to be clear, necessary. At various other points in history artists have been employed through other means. These systems were exploitative, arbitrary, and/or cruel in their own ways. I’m not being nostalgic for patronage or utopian about crowdsourcing. I’m also not being dystopian about the current system and suggesting that it’s going to spell the end for writers. I don’t think we’ll ever reach a point where writers stop making money, because there’s several thousand years of human history that suggest that writers, like prostitutes and farmers, are things we just sort of always want to keep around. But how that works will change and has changed. And right now, to be a writer is to be an entrepreneur, a system that has its own unique flaws and horrors, such as getting writers caught in the crossfire of things like the Amazon/Hatchette dispute.
Hatchette and Amazon are both huge corporations interested in protecting their investments. Hatchette still makes scads of money because it happened to publish Bartlett’s Famous Quotations in the 19th century and thus still owns a venerable reference work that sells perennially. And because they published thousands of other huge books over the years that they still make money off of. They’re rent-seeking off the creative labor of the long dead, and using that profit to make new bets, most of which aren’t doing quite so well, giving them a weakened negotiating position. Amazon is predatory, ruthless, and obsessed with low operating costs to the point where its warehouses offer some of the most abusive labor conditions in the United States just because doing so is marginally cheaper and lets them charge that little bit less for fast shipping. If you’re siding with one company over the other, you’re siding with people who do horrible, shitty things to make a quick buck.
I feel bad for the authors who are losing sales while two huge companies duke it out to try to win their respective bets. But this is the nature of the system. We’ve decided on a world where that’s how creative labor works. I don’t think the authors who bet on Hatchette are more righteous and good than people like me who bet big on Amazon. I think they’re really unlucky right now because they were forced to operate as businesspeople in order to make any money at all from their labor and talent.
There’s no moral rightness here. Just people being screwed over, and a system designed to do just that. And if you don’t like it, don’t be mad at one of the many companies screwing people over as though they’re worse than any of the others. Be mad that right now, we only value artists if they happen to also be good at business.