Agree to Disagree

I made the point yesterday that if people, whatever their opinions or beliefs, just come with a considered point of view, they may get arguments but not as much disrespect. Obviously, the world is full of trolls, and some people, as Michael Caine put it, just want to watch the world burn. But I think it’s generally pretty easy to tell who’s thinking things past the top layer or two and who’s just got an ax to grind or a bill of goods to sell. Everybody runs the risk of crossing those lines sometimes, particularly in contentious circumstances like publishing where there’s a different opinion for as many people as can formulate a sentence on the matter. But, for myself, I respond better when I feel like the person speaking has an understanding deeper than everyone’s base rhetoric.

As you may have already seen, Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher books, and a signer of the Authors United efforts, exchanged views with Joe Konrath on the state of things. Read all the way through, the discussion continues into the comments, as well. I found myself alternating between agreeing and disagreeing with Child, but in the end, I was left thinking that, even though I’m generally opposed to their stated efforts, AU would be so much better off with someone like Child and his pragmatism at the helm rather than Preston and his, shall we say, questionable thinking.

“…as a guy entirely unafraid of the future, whatever it may bring – after all, I kicked your ass under the old system, and I’ll kick it under the new system, and the new-new, and the new-new-new, until I retire, or the lung cancer gets me, whichever comes first. I’m completely confident of that, and you’d be an idiot to bet against me.”

I like it! There’s no cowering in corners there, worrying about what tomorrow may bring. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, maybe he’s just arrogant, but so what? Publishing is a difficult, often cut throat business. You’ve got to be confident in yourself or you’ll get chewed up and spit out. I’m a basketball fan; talking shit then backing it up on the court is the game’s purest form, in my opinion. Or shutting up the guy talking shit by taking it right to him. And if you can’t shut him up, then he’s earned the right to run his mouth. I love the psychological game as much as the on court action. Child is showing no fear and that wins points with me from the get go.

“Almost every sale Amazon makes happens without a contract with the supplier or manufacturer. It used to be that way with Hachette. Hachette sold to wholesalers, at a certain discount, and the wholesalers sold on to Amazon, at a slight markup. Soon Amazon wanted to avoid that markup, so it went to Hachette and asked, “Please will you sell to us direct?”  And Hachette said, “OK.”  And that’s the so-called contract, right there.”

Ok, now we disagree. Yes, Amazon could just go through a distributor and pay the wholesaler price for Hachette’s print books and then do whatever the hell they’d like with them. But it’s not unheard of for large retailers to have direct contracts with large suppliers to remove the distributor middleman cut. The one thing about Amazon everyone seems to agree on is that they are not fond of middlemen. Barnes & Noble has contracts directly with these publishers, so does Walmart and pretty much every sizable retailer of books out there. It’s been that way for quite a while. It’s not something Amazon started and, in fact, it’s good business on their part to cut out the unnecessary distributor cut if they can.

However, ebooks are a different story. They do need an agreement directly with Hachette in order to sell their ebooks. The act of replicating the files to sell them would constitute copyright infringement without an agreement directly with the publisher. There are no first sale rights on ebooks. Amazon, or anyone else, can’t just buy one, even from a distributor, then turn around and resell it legally. Ebooks, in their present form, require a contract with the publisher, be it Hachette or me as an independent. Amazon couldn’t sell ebooks from me unless I specifically give them the right to do so. There is no circumstance where an agreement with a publisher isn’t necessary for a retailer to sell ebooks.

“Amazon larded on “fees”… in street terms, protection money, to keep the playing field level with other publishers also paying protection money. Equal visibility and honest rankings – which are the best kind of visibility – were at stake. In plain English, Amazon was saying, “Give us cash under the table or we’ll lie in public about the relative merit and appeal of your products.” Publishers were, of course, accustomed to that – B&N pioneered a junior version long ago – so it was business as usual.”

Again, I’m going to have to disagree. Co-op is a form of advertising, and it’s been around forever. Every magazine I ever worked for did a nice business in co-op fees for premium placement of ads within the publication, and that was well established long before Amazon was anything more than a river in South America. Amazon does have a much more diverse mechanism for selling things, so naturally, that likely produces more opportunities to add fees and such. A brick-and-mortar store has, basically, some tables and upfront displays. Amazon has dozens of ways to increase the visibility of books. I’m not surprised at all that they make some extra coin on that. Further, they should. It’s not protection money, it’s advertising, nothing more. And Amazon, or B&N for that matter, didn’t innovate any of it.

“If Hachette walked away, Amazon would lose… unless it was prepared not to carry Hachette titles ever again. Which it isn’t, because Amazon’s whole theory is to be the go-to, first-stop, everything store. Hachette’s best play would be to walk away and suffer a few lean years before an alternative presented itself.”

First, if Hachette walked, Amazon could still sell their print books by getting them through a distributor. Or through their vast network of third party sellers. Unless, of course, Hachette were willing to pull their books from distributors, which isn’t going to happen. The only thing Amazon couldn’t sell if Hachette walked is their ebooks, which they clearly want or they would have bailed on Hachette long ago.

As for a few lean years, I think you’re underestimating how much revenue Amazon generates for Hachette. Far from a few lean years, it would likely be a couple catastrophic years followed by their corporate parent dropping them like a bad habit, either shuffling them off to someone else, likely after massive, destructive rounds of cost-cutting, or spinning them off, a la B&N’s Nook business, to while away the time without dragging down the rest of the company, until straight up bankruptcy. Amazon walking away from Hachette would be inconvenient. Hachette walking away from Amazon would be suicide. You may be right, though, it could be Hachette’s best play. How many different ways can I say the word “screwed”?

“It’s staggeringly naïve to think the current KDP landscape is anything other than a short-term tactic. Note well – I am NOT saying don’t get into it now just because it will get worse in the future… instead I say, hell yes, make hay while the sun shines. Exploit Amazon’s game plan for all you can get, as long as it lasts, and more power to you. But understand that today’s KDP is a pressure point, designed to suck authors out of the established system.”

Indeed, I think we’re in agreement on this. My only question is who thinks it’s not a short-term tactic? In fact, KDP and the offerings associated with it seem to be constantly shifting. And it’s clearly designed to pull authors out of the established system. Specifically, though, it’s authors who have either been tossed aside from that system or those on the outside who couldn’t find a way through the gates. I do think they’d like to attract some name authors but I suspect they’d rather have them under one of their imprints, if at all possible, rather than strictly in KDP. KDP is more like a third party seller program than acting as a publisher itself.

And I am in full agreement with your make hay while the sun shines. That’s a good plan for whatever you do. Large corporations use people for their own ends. Amazon does it, Hachette does it, they all do it. The key, I’ve always found, is to use them for your own ends first. Absolutely take full advantage of any opportunities you can find. That’s not a piece of publishing advice, it’s a mantra for life. Opportunities never last forever.

“I am NOT talking about nurturing or culture or curating or any of that kind of non-existent crap. I’m talking about money.”

Sir, let me say thank you for saying this! If you could get Preston to quit with that nonsense in his AU missives, that’d be really great, too. Might get some people off his back.

“Storytellers will be working for whatever few pennies they choose to hand out. (Or some will. I’ll be doing something else by then. I don’t work for pennies.) And don’t tell me some alternate savior will ride to the rescue. There won’t be one. Publishing makes no sense to any other player. Certainly there won’t be a publishing-only player. Not enough margin in it.”

I don’t work for pennies, either. That’s why I got out of newspapers. There are many who will, though, and many over time who have. These publishers have been the ones principally handing out those pennies over the decades. I don’t agree that there won’t be other competitors. Amazon, no matter how powerful it looks today, is not infinite. And if they actually engaged in many of the things AU is afraid they will, that will only expedite their fall.

I’m not sure where this notion that publishing isn’t profitable enough to attract other competitors comes from, particularly now that the massive barrier for entry that print used to constitute is no more. I also think it’s odd that line of reasoning so often comes from people like yourself (no offense), Doug Preston, Stephen King and James Patterson, people who get paid by publishers in fat stacks of cash. If they truly weren’t profitable, your cut would be infinitesimally smaller.

“So really we should all be equally concerned. We should make common cause. Behind the noise and the bullshit we’re all trying to do the same thing – sell our stories to the same people, for a living wage. And it’s those last four words that made me sign the letter. Not my living wage – that’s already in the bank – but yours, and the people that come after us.”

I agree, to a point, but that’s why I wouldn’t sign a letter like AU puts out there. I’ve seen from the inside how much concern publishers have for a living wage for their creative talent. It’s akin to my concern for the sport of soccer, that is, just slightly above none whatsoever. This is an industry that has long needed its ass handed to it. Change and reform is difficult. Say what you want about Amazon but they ask for my support and offers incentives for me to give it to them. Hachette and the like demand it as a toll for getting to market. Will it always be the case? Probably not, but if the publisher hierarchy isn’t disrupted in a big way, it’s pretty clear to me that they will never change.

“I don’t believe the established publishing industry is good. I believe it is what it is, i.e. reasonably satisfactory for most, and likely better for most than a projected Amazon-only future.
I understand that Amazon is tremendously enabling for writers – at the moment. My advice is make the most of it while it lasts.”

I don’t believe the established industry is good, either. But I would change it to reasonably satisfactory for some instead of most. Amazon is enabling and I’m right with you on taking full advantage of that while we can. The one key area we differ is that I don’t believe such an Amazon-only future will ever come to pass. I’m not even convinced they want it to be that way.

“Re: standard contract terms being shitty: They’re the result of many decades of back-and-forth between agents and publishers, in good times and bad, and as such were completely acceptable to most. Now they look very bad compared to KDP… and one’s feelings on that depend on how one sees KDP.”

I was thrilled when I landed my first gig in publishing. A few years later, I got away from the large corporate publisher I was thrilled to be working for as quickly as I could, moving on to an independent start up publication (which turned out to be very successful until we sold out to another large corporate publisher who ran us right into the ground, reminding me why I hauled ass away from their kind in the first place.) Things always look brighter from the outside. I had no expectation that I would grow anywhere near as disillusioned as I got so quickly when I landed that first gig. What it taught me was that promises are cheap, even if made in a contract, and the perception of what it was far outstripped the reality. Besides, things always look brighter than they should when there are no equivalent alternatives, which has been the case until recently for nearly all writers. The one thing I learned about big publishers is that the glow comes off the rose pretty damn quickly.

“My contracts are exactly the same as they always were, apart from larger advances to reflect larger anticipated sales. Call me a jerk, but I don’t take higher royalty rates or preferential treatment, as a matter of principle. I was effectively subsidized early on (as all new authors are) and I won’t pull up the drawbridge now. I want to earn my corn the old-fashioned way, by selling books, not by using leverage.”

Good for you! One of the criticisms I made of Preston is that his gang could be doing a lot more to help early-career and midlist writers. I’m glad to hear someone out there in your position is actually doing it rather than cashing their checks and complaining that someone else needs to. That being said, I’m not sure your leaving money on the table is actually helping any other writers. I doubt it led to higher advances or better royalties or even more contracts than they would have issued in the first place. Very likely, all it’s doing is enriching some already enriched executive or other, likely after being siphoned off to the parent company as “management fees” or some other mythical line item on an imperceptible budget sheet.

I once worked for a publisher who, like many, failed to pay men and women equivalently. On one occasion, I got a raise (it was my second one within eight months) but I knew there were other people I worked with that hadn’t gotten even one in nearly two years. So I said, how about instead of giving this to me, you give it to my coworker who needs the money far more than I do, especially since I had just gotten one a few months earlier. I was told it couldn’t be done. They had procedures and such, even though they were fully prepared to pay that money out to me, they in no way would even consider giving it to someone else. I argued, as is my wont to do, and I was eventually told either you accept it or no one gets it.

I applaud your efforts in this regard but, if I may make a suggestion, there may be a better way to achieve that end than leaving money on the table and trusting it will trickle down to where you’d like it to go. I can almost guarantee you that it’s not.

Anyway, I see someone here who’s got a much clearer-headed view of the industry than AU in general comes off as having. There’s still some consternation about Amazon’s size and market power, which isn’t irrational, I share some of that myself. But I prefer a world where I have freedom and flexibility and the ability to do just as he suggests, make hay while the sun shines. I don’t see the value in acting to prop up a system that’s more myth than reality, more faith than fact these days. That system needs to be broken down.

As for Amazon, only time will tell who’s right about their intentions. The only difference being, if Amazon does turn sour, it then becomes just another system that needs breaking down. They’re not there yet, or even close, in my opinion. I have no fear that it can and will be done, should it be necessary. It’s the 21st century now. Entrenched systems break down faster than ever these days. I see no reason to believe Amazon is any kind of exception to that. I don’t believe they think they are, either.

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

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Published in: on September 28, 2014 at 11:56 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. After reading all that I’m heartbroken you don’t like soccer.
    No, not really.
    Great read.

  2. […] Build a Book Fort?. Browsing Bookshelves is in a Book Slump. From The Watershed Chronicle we have Agree to Disagree, another look at the Amazon/Hachette […]

  3. I get a feeling from some opinions I’ve read about KDP that Amazon is using the program “to pull authors” from other programs or to pick up those who have been rejected etc…

    Probably right.

    But to classify it as a short-term program? Probably wrong.

    Amazon seems (by its past business activity and direction) to act in an algorithmic way. So long as there is business benefit to having a program, they keep it running.

    KDP pulls authors from the surrounding publishing industry, but it also provides a platform from which to gain more of an edge as a publisher.

    It (KDP) gives the “little person” a chance to publish and sell titles, the person no one else will pick up. Since a good portion of Amazon’s business is based in the “long tail,” it wouldn’t seem likely that Amazon would use KDP in the short-term.

    It seems more likely Amazon will develop KDP further, so that a competitor that might be trying to challenge Amazon in this arena will have a more difficult time doing so. Not that a competitor couldn’t beat Amazon with the right approach, but it would be more difficult.

    Anyhow, that doesn’t seem like short-term thinking to me.

    But as you mentioned Dan, only the future will tell.

    • I think the terms it operates under are probably short term, to a degree. The program itself is not going anywhere. I don’t understand why Barnes & Noble, seeing what Amazon built, didn’t try to become as indie-friendly as it could. I think the company that finds success competing against Amazon is going to be the one that takes Indies away from them. If Amazon starts relying more and more on exclusivity to access certain avenues, that door’s going to be wide open. And someone will walk through it.

  4. […] If you’d like to discuss the Hachette case in this context, please read these links first so we don’t waste each other’s time exchanging opinions and facts already […]


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