A Closer Look at Janet Fitch’s Letter to Jeff Bezos

Author’s Note: Earlier today, I referenced a quote from author Janet Fitch. I read her Open Letter to Jeff Bezos a couple weeks ago and pulled some choice quotes from the missive to opine on, like I usually do. Fitch is a signer of Doug Preston’s Authors United publisher front group grassroots organization. There’s nothing particularly compelling in her letter and I had initially only left a comment inquiring why she wasn’t directing her anger at the company she’s under contract to rather than a retailer only associated to her tangentially through her publisher. She did graciously reply (although without actually answering the question). I hadn’t really planned on giving it any more attention until I saw this quote from Preston himself in a letter to his group leading up to the hilariously inept and ill fated letter to Amazon’s board of directors:

“In the meantime, it might be a good idea to do what we can through social media, blogs, opinion pieces, and other means to counter Amazon’s disinformation campaign. The writer Janet Fitch, for example, publicly released her letter to Jeff Bezos, which generated (an) excellent story in the Los Angeles Times.”

There’s no point linking to the Times article. Follow the link in the Publishers Weekly piece that quote came from if you must, but it’s basically just saying what she wrote. Nothing new there under the sun. Mainstream journalism at its laziest! Preston’s call to counter Amazon’s supposed disinformation through social media made up my mind to counter their actual disinformation. So I started writing this piece. Before I finished, though, that Amazon BOD letter came out and it was so absurd that I simply had to direct my attention to giving his cluelessness the what for. Now that it’s settled down a bit, and Authors United astroturfing group has moved on to writing the DOJ in an attempt to spur antitrust action against Amazon, an attempt I sincerely hopes results in a closer look at Hachette and other publishers’ recent actions through the law of unintended consequences, I thought I’d return and finish this up.

Another day, another writer attacking Amazon. This time, it’s Janet Fitch, author of the bestseller of a few years ago, White Oleander. I understand the consternation over what’s going on with Amazon but the more of these I see, the more I find myself questioning how many of these writers have the slightest clue how this business really works. I always think it’s odd when I see someone who should know better espousing virtues to businesses that may or may not have even existed in their mystical golden days and certainly don’t anymore in today’s cut-throat, overly conglomerated publishing world.

Fitch was pseudo-complimentary to self publishing and Amazon, so I suspect the seeds of realization are planted there, she’s just too stuck on what she thinks she knows rather than the preponderance of the evidence. Despite the Doug Preston talking point nonsense right from the jump of her “Letter to Mr. Bezos”, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Writers, after all, have been intentionally sheltered from the business operations of publishers for long time now, so it’s not surprising that some misconceptions would fester from within the publisher/author infantalization feedback loop. I was looking for sound arguments in her underlying reason. Unfortunately, what I saw was condescending backhanded compliments to indies and adherence to the special snowflake, won’t-somebody-think-about-the-art, blind to business ethic that some seem to think is the author’s proper place in the food chain.

Let’s start with this this from the preamble of her letter to Bezos:

“The magic number which Amazon is holding out for, $9.99, is not based upon the actual cost of publishing books, which includes paying author advances, editor salaries, publicity and all the other costs of creating books for us to read. The publishers well know how much it costs to run their businesses. It’s simply an aesthetic decision, how that number looks to a consumer.”

First off, $9.99 isn’t a magic number Amazon is holding out for, it’s a number they have already been selling books at or below for years now. Years that, up until your publisher and others broke antitrust law to fix retail prices above that number, was generating a booming new ebook market. The market is still booming for some, those who saw the higher price push for what it is, an attempt to choke out the golden goose because she’s spitting out solid gold eggs too damn fast for their taste. Meanwhile, on the traditional side, the side your publisher represents, all signs point to ebook sales having plateaued. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

Secondly, you’re wrong about it not being based on the cost of producing the book. The traditional world is still very much a print-first environment in many respects. Everything is based upon that premise, even the higher cost of ebooks is often cited as a means of protecting print rather than fully exploiting the digital format. Advances and royalty rates for print haven’t appreciably changed in the past 10 years, other than widespread reports of both shrinking advances and increased use of discount clauses that keeps the publisher cut intact while slashing the author’s take. Those rates are well established as the means of paying for the costs of producing the book. Once the print version is already produced and paid for (through those royalty rates on print) the cost of producing an ebook from it is minimal to virtually nonexistent. Plus, once that’s done, the marginal cost of producing every other ebook copy sold is statistically insignificant from zero. Ebooks are as close to pure profit as is possible. Your publisher and their accountants know this, and yet, even with the production costs for the book already accounted for in the print royalty rates, they still pay out only between 12% to 17.5% of the ebook proceeds to the author. Why are the rates so low?

Expenses are covered, there’s only the one time charge for creating the first ebook strictly dedicated to that upfront. That money from the increased margins can go three places, to you in the form of higher royalties, to the reader in the form of lower prices or into the publisher’s pocket, ostensibly paying for expenses that are already covered elsewhere. The third option is the worst one for the long term health and growth of the industry as a whole, specifically readers and writers. It’s also the one your publisher prefers and is trying to permanently stick us with.

As for how that number looks to the customer, that’s a pretty important dynamic. Whether you realize it or not, there are a sizable number of customers who see $9.99 for an ebook as still too high and rightly so, in my opinion. The only justification for both high ebook prices and low royalty rates is an open admission that print is flagging and not producing the returns they need. But the response to that is to handicap the infinitely more margin friendly ebook? This strategy is making the publishers’ bottom lines bright and shiny today but it’s not doing a single thing to protect or encourage new growth in print long term. In fact, this path is putting at risk the ability of everyone signed on with one of these publishers’ to even have an outside chance of getting a decent return on that contract past the next few years.

I’d recommend you read up on the newspaper industry and how their strategy of print-first and digital as supplemental revenue lost them half their print business in just 5 years as well as doing irreparable harm to their emerging digital business. Might be some parallels there you’d like to think about.

Here’s one directly from her letter to Bezos (by the way, calling someone a parasite isn’t generally the best way to win them over to your side.):

“The difference between a symbiotic and a parasitic relationship is that in symbiosis, the host is not harmed in any way. The two organisms work together for mutual benefit. In a parasitic relationship, the growth of the secondary organism outstrips the ability of the host to sustain itself. Unlike symbiosis, a parasite kills its host, and eventually, itself.”

Who are you talking about here? You seem to imply it’s Amazon, but maybe you’d like to point that parasite lens at your own publisher. Very few writers inside or out of the traditional industry would consider the large publisher/writer relationship as symbiotic. Very few writers who’ve worked with or taken advantage of opportunities from Amazon would consider them parasitic. You may have this one backwards. Attacking Amazon is like killing off the beneficial bacteria that helps you digest your food so the tape worm infesting your bowels has more to eat.

Down in the comments after her letter, I found these next few quotes. I do give ger kudos for showing up and engaging her detractors directly. So many of the people defending publishers and demonizing Amazon refuse to (I’m looking at you, Preston. You too, David Streitfeld and the NY Times.) Here’s the first snippet:

“I disagree that more people buy based on price. I think the people who are going to buy Paint it Black are going to buy it at $12 as at $8. All dropping the price to $8 will do is take money out of my pocket. And to think that the publisher’s overall plan for the book doesn’t include all forms–to see the ebook is sort of a toss-off after the “book” is published, is mistaken. The cost of producing a book–editing, acquisition (ie paying the writer and his or her agent), design, marketing, overhead–is spread out over all the forms, the hardbound, the paperback, the ebook, the audiobook, large print, etc.”

Two things; one, you’re not taking money out of your pocket, you’re putting it back into the pockets of your fans and customers. And you are leaving something on the table; the zero dollars from all the people who would pay $8 but not $12. It’s nice to think the people buying our work are all strongly committed and willing to pay whatever we charge, but that’s not realistic. Price is an extremely fickle creature, especially when you’re pricing in a range that includes a psychological barrier like $10. The difference between $9.99 and $10 may be small in truth but it’s much larger in perception.

Amazon’s research shows an extra 3/4 of a sale for ebooks priced at 9.99 as opposed to 14.99. As a rough estimate looking at your pricing argument, you wouldn’t be losing $4, you’d be gaining $6 and two readers instead of just one. It’s a fairly well accepted idea that lower prices lead to higher volume sales. It’s not an exact science, of course, but to assume you gain nothing from lower prices isn’t really accurate. Besides that, you are indirectly advocating for intentionally charging higher prices to your most fervent and loyal customers, and for shrinking your audience. I, for one, prefer lower prices, rewarding the best readers and generating a wider audience. Makes for happier customers and more opportunities in the long run.

Secondly, you’re right, they are trying to spread out the total costs across all formats of the book and that’s the problem. If the differential in cost structure wasn’t so great, it may not be an issue. But ebooks are so much more inexpensive and efficient to produce and distribute that there’s no way to spread those costs that doesn’t artificially inflate the prices of ebooks and hinder their growth in order to carry formats that aren’t or soon will be no longer pulling their own weight. You’re just not going to win an argument with readers who know several dollars on the purchase price is just padding or worse still, paying for a version of the product they don’t even want. Like it or not, readers are far more informed about the business dynamics that set prices than ever before. The one-sided conversation of the past is no more.

It’s my opinion that combining expenses like this won’t have any tangible impact on improving the long-term fortunes of print, and may well handicap the long term fortunes of the publisher’s digital business as well. It’s happened before (CDs, newspapers) and it will happen again (movies). It may look like print and ebooks are the same business but they’re not. You have to careful tying them together in such a way. Rather than digital revenue being a raft to raise the total business, it could just as easily be the rest of the total business dragging down digital revenue like an anchor. There is clear precedent for this happening in other media.

“I think the world of self-publishing, where everyone can publish his or her work is amazing, and I think sooner or later, conventional publishers will develop self-publishing arms, which will be cash cows for them, and also serve as ‘bush-league’ teams from which they can cherry-pick for the majors.”

Bush league? Cherry pick for the majors? This is a bit insulting. Actually, take out the word “bit.” It’s 31 flavors of insulting. They’ve already tried to cherry pick from successful indies and it’s not working. There were some a couple years ago who fully signed up with publishers, but what have we heard from them lately? Today, most of what I hear in this regard is about indies turning down offers from publishers. There’s a simple reason for that, once an indie is successful enough to attract their attention, they have to come to the table with a sizable enough offer to compensate for their success and the things they have to give up. I see very little indication that publishers are willing to up the ante on their offers to actually attract successful indies.

As for publishers creating self-publishing arms, it’s been tried once or twice, the most notable of which being Author Solutions, which is about the scammiest of scams going. It also speaks volumes to the lack of general respect publishers have for indies. If they truly want to partner with them, then don’t behave as a predator toward them, and Author Solutions is a far bigger and more devious predator upon writers than Amazon’s been, if they’ve ever been one at all. On top of that, I’ve read quite a lot if these kinds of missives from writers like you or in your position. As for understanding the business of publishing, there certainly are more than a few Bush Leaguers around, and it’s usually not the indies.

“But for the writer who devotes three, four, five, eight years putting his or her all into a book, who aspires to greatness, who doesn’t have a readymade following, a different kind of structure is appreciated, one where agents negotiate contracts and editors refine work, where his or her book is published with some presence. This writer, this kind of literature, generally requires a conventional publisher.”

See, here’s the thing I don’t believe; nobody takes 8 years to write a book. They may take 6 months to write a book stretched out over 8 years, but they certainly didn’t slave away full time, week after week, for 8 solid years to write one book. Don’t get me wrong, I see value in the downtime between bursts of writing on a particular piece of material. I don’t necessarily believe straight through, start to finish, is always the best way to produce the best material. But when you’re dragging one piece out over years with long patches of nothing in between, I can’t help but think that’s a bit lazy. But to each their own. I just don’t buy the romanticized ideal of the writer slaving away for years on a novel when they’re really slaving away for a week then sitting it in a drawer for two months before the next slaving away for another week, but then it’s the holidays, so a few more months off, then another few days of work in January but winter is rolling in now, so you’ll pick up where you left off when spring sets in.

I’ve been as guilty of this as anybody. Sometimes, life gets in the way. But here’s where indie publishing helps, motivation to produce. It helps that you can almost instantly reap the rewards of that production, too, even if it’s not on the scale of a publisher advance (and especially if it meets or exceeds those levels). The industry still runs at a near-glacial pace and it’s going to be a problem in the long run. Many would say it already is. I doubt publishers of the future will be thrilled to invest in too many writers who they may get one book a decade from.

“All I’d like to see is that creators of literature still have the conventional publishers to turn to, and have a chance at a literary career which will pay them a living wage. I know many fine, fine musicians—on the order of our great writers—who no longer can make a living, because the cheapening of the product has broken the music business.”

Those aren’t mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to have a chance at a career that pays a living wage without turning to a publisher. And it’s entirely possible, likely even, that turning to a publisher isn’t going to produce that living wage either. This is fairly new, admittedly, but that’s what has changed; the single path to success has been split off into as many possible paths are there are people to walk them. Certainly, publishers will hopefully find a way to adapt enough to stick around, but if they don’t, it will be because they lost relevance to what readers and writers want and need. Stay relevant and they’ll be fine.

You and I have very different views of the music industry. I know many excellent musicians myself who couldn’t earn a living prior to cheap digital music and open distribution. Now, they can. The music business was much like books, only those who got that label contract really had a chance to earn. Given the horrid nature of those labels and their contract structures, it’s difficult to say if many of them actually did. The music business isn’t broken, the old label system is. Look at those musicians who you know having trouble. Have they adapted? Are they doing anything differently than they were 15 or 20 years ago? Or are they just hoping the same path that worked then will suddenly start working again?

There are many authors who will soon be in this boat, as well. Hachette authors caught up in this mess may well be some of the first. Signing that publishing contract is only worth it if the publisher has sufficient efficacy within the market to support what you give up. It’s questionable to me, at this point, if Hachette (without Amazon) still possesses that efficacy at a necessary level. It’s a question that will only get louder and louder the longer this dispute drones on.

As I mentioned earlier, I asked a question in the comments section of her article, one I have asked repeatedly of others making similar critiques of Amazon. Have you written to Hachette to express your concerns about this dispute and what they’re doing to rectify things? Here is what she said:

“The thing to remember is that it’s not just my publisher–all the publishers are going to have to go through this. Believe me, at Hachette they keenly feel the loss to their writers–also their own loss–in the revenue that’s vanished during this dispute. But all of the publishers will find themselves in the same boat.”

I hope you’re right about Hachette caring about the loss to its writers. I have my doubts, though. And I agree, all publishers will be in the same boat sooner or later. It’ll be interesting to see if the ones coming later learn anything from the early ones. I have a hard time believing any publisher is looking at how Hachette has handled this negotiation and said, “let’s use those tactics! ” Just the fact that they made no effort at negotiation and simply let their contract expire would infuriate me if I were a Hachette author. I’m at a loss for why it hasn’t infuriated more of them. I can only conclude that many either don’t feel free to be openly critical of Hachette (notice she didn’t answer the actual question and no one else I’ve seen has, either) or they don’t truly understand who dropped the ball here. It looks to me like Hachette actually wanted an impasse, which, if true, doesn’t speak well for any concern for their writers. Also, refusing to kick in on a pool to compensate their writers during this negotiation isn’t worthy of much praise either.

I’m not sure how this ends, but I am certainly glad I’m not under contract and helpless to do anything about it. I feel for writers who find themselves in that kind of personal hell. But they need to ask themselves who put them in that position? The answer isn’t likely going to be one they want to hear; a generous contribution from their publisher with a heaping helping of their own choices.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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