Backing the Wrong Horse: Why choosing sides in the Amazon—Hachette feud is a moron’s choice for writers.
Let me state at the outset that the following is likely to outrage writers and publishers. Those who deign to comment will dismiss me as being ignorant or mistaken or secretly in agreement with the “other side.” I want to be clear: the “side” I’m taking in this discussion is mine and mine alone. I’m in business. The only person who will look out for my interests is me. The same is true for any business—Amazon, Hachette, Apple, the rest of the Big Five included. To assume, especially in this environment, that anyone has your best interest at heart (aside from yourself) is delusion.
Why are writers being foolish in picking sides here? Consider the following:
1) A writer is the least important part of the book selling eco-system.
Sure, read that again. You’re thinking, “But without writers, how do they get the stuff they sell?” The problem with your question is that you miss the answer—which you’ve buried in your question. Publishers don’t need writers, they need product. If they needed real writers, James Patterson, Snooki and any other ghosted celebrity author would never have a book appear on a shelf.
Any one writer, myself included, is expendable. And as the explosion of RAW work proves, for every one writer working today, there are five thousand or so souls eager to take our places. Heck, in teaching classes at conventions like DragonCon, I’ve trained thousands to take my place. Any one writer has plenty of competition, and the law of averages suggests that at least one of them is going to be just as talented as the writer they replace.
Moreover, and here’s the really scary part, the desire for validation—the desire to have an authority figure choose your writing as worthy of publication and promotion—is so fierce, that many authors will accept incredibly crappy deals, just so they can be “living the dream.” This means that publishers have zero incentive or need to be making better deals with beginning authors.
2) Publishers feed popular tastes, they do not set them.
Publishers are reactive, not active, when it comes to delivering work. In my publishing career, there have been three trends which have died horrible deaths. Technothrillers became a thing when Ronald Reagan read a Tom Clancy book. Cyberpunk became a thing because Bladerunner. Horror blossomed with Stephen King. All three of these trends blew up, became huge, then collapsed under their own weight.
Publishers bring out a limited number of books per month. If something gets hot, like paranormal romance, it starts getting more slots in the monthly schedule. This extra demand for books means that editors still get to choose the Grade A books that come in, but have to fill in with B and C grade books. A glut of mediocre books leaves readers unsure of what they’re going to get for their money. This, in combination with the fact that no one could afford to buy all the books in any fad, means sales slump. Once sales start to slump, publishers cut their losses, eat the advances on unpublished novels, and start looking for the next fad.
And woe be unto any of the authors whose mediocre skills earned them massive advances just because their subject area was hot. Publishers will remember that author as owing them money and that career will be dead. This, even though the debt was created by the publisher’s irresponsible spending in the first place. (Self-interest, as mentioned above.)
Because publishers react, they buy in the now, not looking at the future. Return on investment is what is good for the business this month, not what is good for long-term sustainability. They remain ignorant of the fact that by poisoning the well for some folks, they can drive them to other entertainment media. (Remember: all the tablet devices now allow the streaming/playing of movies. One more thing to sell, for when there are no books you want to read. Entertainment merchants understand what publishers do not.)
If a writer isn’t writing in the now, for the now taste, they simply don’t exist as far as publishers are concerned.
3) The economy of publishing demands publishers abandon seasoned authors.
This comes down to a case of simple math. Sales volumes on books has been on a downward slide for decades. Because it is in a decline, it is impossible for publishers to correctly gauge advances. Were a publisher to buy a trilogy today, they would be figuring the advances based on sales five years in the future. That’s very tough to do. That’s money they’re risking which they might never recoup.
A seasoned author, ten years ago, might have gotten $30,000 for each book in a trilogy. If a publisher chooses not to buy that book, but in turn spends that $30K in $2,500 lumps as advances on first novels, they get a dozen books, any one of which might become a hit. The $30K book would have to be a hit, whereas the $2,500 books don’t have to be. It’s roulette, and winning chances go up if you spread your chips around the table.
The seeming logical fallacy is this: the seasoned writer has a fan base and the skills to tell a good story. The problem is that publishers don’t have the data to measure that fan base, and quality has never an overriding consideration when it comes to publishing stories. James Patterson, Snooki and others, again, prove this point. In a declining market, what ought to be a sure bet is perceived as a high-risk bet.
4) But digital will save us all.
While folks on both side of the Amazon-Hachette fight champion their patrons as being the altruistic folks who look out for writers, it strikes me that they’re forgetting some very recent history at their peril.
As concerns Amazon, folks have forgotten that back before Apple and the iBookstore entered the market, Amazon paid authors 35% of the cover price of any digital book. Amazon’s backers will point out that that price is still better than the 25% that legacy publishers offer today. Amazon, in its wisdom, had decided then that 35% was the best place for it, and only came up to 70% when forced to by the competition. If 35% was in their best interest then, it’s hard to see how the corporation would view taking less as in its best interest now. There has to be some internal pressure to start moving that price down—which is something they’ve done with books they actually publish with their own imprints.
On the other hand, folks have forgotten that, prior to 2009, the standard legacy publishing contract offered authors 50% of the income earned from digital sales. Then, in 2009—two years after the Kindle had established that there was a market for ebooks, the Big Six—in lock-step, with no DOJ investigation into this bit of collusion—universally dropped the percentage to 25%. They cited the cost of preparing ebooks as the reason they needed more revenue. (Though I doubt that the scan-and-code houses in Pakistan and Singapore got all of that for their work.) That 25% became a deal-breaker in contracts.
On top of that, legacy publishers engaged in several, very well publicized fights with authors over the publishers’ contentions that even though their contracts had never mentioned ebooks, that the contracts covered ebooks, and that the publishers would bring out ebooks and just start shipping the 25% to the authors, thank you very much.
To sum this all up: all corporations will act in their own self-interest. Publishing and book retailing companies have self-interests which do not align with those of writers or, in particular, readers. For writers to take sides in this fight is silly. It wastes energy we should be expending on writing our own work and creating our own retail sites to sell our work directly to our customers. Those are the things which are in our self-interest. We neglect them at our peril.