Last weekend, the Seattle Times ran two opposing op-eds on the Amazon/Hachette contretemps. Frank Schaeffer wrote in favor of Amazon, while Nina Laden countered in favor of Hachette, creating a “debate” of sorts. I put “debate” in quotes because, from a purely debating standpoint, it was no contest.
Unfortunately, both pieces missed the main point.
If you’re not familiar with the controversy, it has to do with Amazon (retailer of physical and electronic books) and Hachette (a publisher of same). The two are fighting over pricing of e-books, each wanting a larger piece of the pie. During this contest, Amazon has been strong-arming Hachette by refusing to stock physical copies of Hachette titles (thus delaying delivery) and by refusing to discount those titles (thus making them less attractive). Amazon went further, and offered 100% e-book royalties to authors, enticing them to jump ship and abandon Hachette entirely.
Schaeffer’s pro-Amazon editorial clearly laid out the landscape on which Amazon and Hachette are battling, and succinctly dismantled the arguments that Hachette is fighting for “the little guy.” With concrete examples and personal experience, he showed how print publishers are trapped in a pre-digital mind-warp, underserving their authors (except for the mega-sellers at the top) and delivering piddling royalties via opaque statements and outdated practices. To Schaeffer’s mind, Amazon provides authors with control, freedom, and flexibility, and is a boon to writers of all stripes.
By contrast, Laden’s pro-Publisher editorial was weak and sentimental, written as a quasi-pastiche of a children’s book in which a giant (Amazon) and a king (Hachette) battle it out. Laden’s lament was centered on the fact that her book (a children’s book) is not available in electronic form, but she sidetracked her own argument by lamenting the dearth of brick-and-mortar bookstores and how (in her mind) parents can’t read to their children using an e-reader. To her, Amazon is some massive monster devoid of everything good about books and reading. Eventually, she jumps to a conclusion that the only answer to this is for the government to get involved, a non sequitur that made me blink twice, to make sure I’d read it correctly.
What both of these authors miss is the basic underlying fact that neither party–not Amazon, and not Hachette–is on their side. They are fighting for their own interests, not for the interests of their authors. Why is this? Simple: it’s business.
Publishing and retailing are an industry, a business, and publishers and retailers are in it for the money. Their goal is to maximize their revenue from their respective business activity. When they fight with each other, it’s over the money they will take off the top, not over how much will be left over for the author. If they had their way, the author would get nothing, thus increasing their own profit margin. Don’t be fooled by tactics. When Amazon offers authors 100% royalties on ebooks, it’s a tactic designed to harm Hachette, not some sudden largesse born of a concern for the plight of the midlist author.
At almost every level, in every creative discipline, it is the artist who comes out dead last. Musicians and bands are cheated out of rights, authors are paid a pittance, and performers are treated like chattel, all because there are so many of us who want to ply our artistry so badly, we’ll put up with just about anything to get our work in front of the public.
The publishing industry is undergoing radical change on every level, so there are going to be a lot of conflicts and skirmishes and all-out warfare as publishers are forced into new configurations and as retailers rise and fall. Throughout this unsteady time, it is paramount for authors to be realistic about what’s going on and act wisely. We must all decide, for ourselves, what is in our own best interests. For some of us, it may be the retention of control over our intellectual property. For others, it may be getting the greatest exposure. Still others may only care about the bottom line and their own revenue stream. All of these are important aspects, and different methods and strategies will provide them all in varying degrees.
But for myself, I will never, never believe that a publisher or retailer is concerned about me or my work or my art, except as something they can exploit for a profit. To do otherwise is to tango with the tiger.