Maybe I’m naïve, but I didn’t expect the Amazon-Hachette dispute to be so long-running. And as other contracts come up for renewal, publishers are considering their options as they watch this draw out. I’ve avoided addressing the topic to a large degree, since opinions about the dispute are a dime a dozen, and I’ve been content with tweeting the more realistic and interesting views from people I trust and admire. But even then, some alliances have been disrupted as the war drags on, and I watched with surprise as essay-length comments appeared under some blog posts in ever more divisive arguments.
Posts by traditionally published authors who became strong advocates for self-publishing have resonated the most with me. J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler are everywhere these days, offering data and real-world insight. Self-published authors such as Hugh Howey, who benefitted greatly from the self-publishing tools Amazon provides, show their gratitude by supporting Amazon. Was the pro-Amazon petition a bit over-the-top in tone? Perhaps, but I signed it anyway, because its aim was true. I also get that Amazon is a corporation. Yet, it’s in their interest that self-published authors succeed. Yes, they can certainly survive without us, but their publishing program is flourishing, and indie authors to stand to make more money with their royalties.
Two posts in particular inspired me to finally speak my mind. One, J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler’s response to a gushing piece in the New York Times dedicated to showcasing the so-called hardships of the 1% of the trad publishing industry’s authors. The NYT piece was hard to take, fitting right in with political discourse from one end of the spectrum about how tough the super-rich and privileged have it. Konrath and Eisler’s response is hilarious.
The second came from Digital Book World. Under a very defensive pretense of journalism, the snit calls out indie authors for advocating against their self-interest by siding with Amazon. The argument is that if traditional publishers lower their prices, indie authors will lose their competitive edge in the market. Responses to the contrary are quickly shut down by the author of the article. Saying that indie authors, as consumers, want to buy more books too at lower prices didn’t cut it for him. The post’s writer seems to think we live along starkly demarcated lines—it’s either all for the indies or all for the traditionally published. In the real world, if I didn’t have to spend $10 to $15 on just one ebook, I’d buy from Neil Gaiman AND a favorite indie author. And let’s not forget many trad ebooks are already offered at low prices, too. I got Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for $2.99. Promos from BookBub regularly have bestsellers for indie-level prices. And on the other hand, some indie authors price their stuff at high prices and do well. Some don’t. There are a lot of nuances that are missed in posts such as the one from DBW. The author of the DBW piece called out the top names in the indie world for not responding—but they sure as hell did, and while they’re acknowledged now as having done so, they are summarily dismissed as being altruistic, silly, and even dishonest.
In my support of Amazon, I draw upon several experiences here:
- I worked in a nonprofit publishing office that can be classified as a vanity press. It sold paperbacks for $65 and hardcover books for $100. As they considered DRM-protected ebooks, potential prices started at $20. I felt like I was on a sinking ship. As enthusiastic as a large portion of the readership was, they were catching on to the fact that this business model needed to change to meet 21st century needs. Did the office? Nope. Will it sink? Time will tell, and I know where I’d put my money in a bet. True, curating digital content costs money in time and resources for editing, design, etc. But after producing the paper versions, creating the ebook was a click of a button. Extra costs included DRM and housing it on an outside server.
- As a teaching assistant who cares deeply about the state of academic publishing, I strongly support the Digital Public Library of America and Harvard’s Open Access DASH project. Why wouldn’t I? Like Hugh Howey, I want people to be excited about reading.
- As an indie author who studies the topic closely, I know that DRM limits the shelf life of an ebook. Someday, on a future device, that file will no longer be readable. Don’t believe me? Then go dig out some 1980s-era floppy disks and see how useful they are. Ebooks are ephemeral, particularly with the licensing structure in place. If Hachette wants the ebooks you bought with your hard-earned money to disappear from your tablet, they can make it happen. You’re just licensing the content under their terms and conditions.
True, I’ll have more competition if publishing houses offer all ebooks a lower prices, but shouldn’t we also factor in quality of work, and the broad interests of readers around the world? There’s a tsunami of competition anyway. As passionate as I am about writing and wanting to be read, I’m realistic. I have a day job. So do many traditionally published authors who can’t make a living on their royalties.
In recent years, focused on the bottom line, publishers have been very top-down, opting not to give many great new writers a chance. The benefits of being a midlist author in their ranks have diminished immensely. Just look to J.A. Konrath for his data. Or any of the other indie advocates out there: passivevoice.com, the Alliance of Independent Authors, and so on. The democratization of literature is not a bad thing in my view. Yes, it’s a business. Everyone gets that. We all want to be successful. But the corporate monopolies of the traditional publishing world still have a lot to learn from what happened to the music industry, or they won’t survive. And that will make ALL authors indie authors. And maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.