A Piece Written For Free About Writing For Free

Should you write for free? That’s a question that bounced around the blogosphere this week. My immediate reaction was, “Hell no!”  But the more I thought about it, I kept coming up with situations and examples where it made perfect sense to do so.  Basically, my “Hell no” has morphed into an, “it depends.”  More than that, I realized it always has been.  I can’t even begin to offer a realistic estimate of the volume of writing I’ve done over the course of my life. Suffice it to say it’s a helluva lot.  For a sizable portion of it, there was a check involved on the back end.  But for a great deal more, there hasn’t been a payoff in direct monetary terms.  And you know what, I’m totally cool with that.  

This discussion suffers from elitist syndrome.  By that, I mean, there’s a certain subset of people who managed to finangle their way into regular paydays from strictly writing.  Not many, mind you. Nor have there ever been, but let’s not allow an accurate depiction of history to interfere with today’s doomsaying meme of the moment.  First, though, it’s instructive to ask what kind of writers are seeing their incomes decline like this? The answer, basically, is writers whose primary income streams depend on corporate media companies. Let’s review what’s happened in the past few years. There was a massive recession, the worst of any of our lifetimes so far. There was a giant disruption in their business model, which led to both the creation of an entirely new class of digital products and distribution and the emergence of viable alternatives to publishing and distribution that doesn’t go directly through them. They’ve not been receptive of these technological improvements, largely choosing to err on the side of protectionism for print. And when they do go after the digital dollars, they’ve created an industry standard for severely underpaying writers on this much higher margin product.  Given these circumstances, why is it in the least bit surprising that many writers who choose this path as a primary revenue option are seeing diminished returns? It’s entirely predictable, in fact.

There’s also the question of value. There’s a routinely trotted out theory that self published writers giving their works away for free or selling them for a pittance devalues writing.  But consider, if your finely crafted professional work can be so simply and easily swapped out by the work of what you consider inexperienced amateurs, maybe it’s not them devaluing the work at all. Maybe it was the rare set of circumstances that created the long-prevailing (and now broken) scarcity model that allowed you to over-value the work. Maybe you’re just not that special now that we’re in an environment where genuine choice has become a real factor.

Does that mean you should write for free? Well, it depends. If you’re writing for a major media company, fuck no, you absolutely should not. Under no circumstances. If the question is should I write for the Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, my answer is, if you’re looking for exposure, you should just stroll out into a blizzard in your underwear. It’ll be much quicker. The Huffington Post is a scam, a shop set up with the intent of not paying for content. All the better for their bottom line.  To hell with those kinds of folks.  But if you want to contribute something to some fringe website on some subject you know about, someone who isn’t exactly rolling in money and not backed by a mega-corp, why not? Maybe you care more about your ideas on the subject getting out there than if the purveyor of the platform can afford to toss a c-note your way. The idea that directly selling your words is the only path to success or achievement is perhaps the most narrow definition of being a writer I’ve ever seen.

It also seems to be the one adhered to by our friend Roxanna Robinson, the head of the Authors Guild, who did little to distinguish herself during the Amazon/Hatchette battle. A stance some people, me included, feel actually contributed to the declining revenues for writers that have their knickers all in a twist. But I’ll get to that later.  Robinson is the head of a professional trade group of writers, so it makes a certain amount of sense for this to be her position.  It doesn’t make it the right one. And it puts more than a little strain on her claims that they’re open to any and all writers when their principle position is one that basically only applies to an extremely small subset of writers.  

What I find interesting is that, way back in the pre-internet stone age, as a young writer just starting out, the accepted practice was to submit to small press magazines, most of which paid nothing at all or in copies, if you were lucky. The theory was build up your resume, as it were, with publication credits to make your query letters more attractive in the hopes of working your way up to small paying publications, then possibly to well paying ones.  But it all started under the presumption that your initial forays would be largely unpaid. And that says nothing of the numerous journalistic enterprises and the value of doing unpaid internships there in landing actual paying positions. Again, newcomers expected to work for free. If Robinson is arguing that these practices are exploitative, then I’m in total agreement. But somehow, I suspect her complaints are more geared toward the writers who now choose to avoid this particular set of trenches altogether.

You see, back when I was a relative newcomer, the submission gauntlet was more controlled. The scarcity that physical costs of production created inhibited most end-runs to the process, so a clear hierarchy became delineated on the “proper” way to strive for success as a writer. A path, mind you, that required a helluva lot of free work just to attract the attention of someone who might be willing to consider paying you at some point.  The difference now, though, is instead of the corporations benefitting from all this free labor, it’s the audience who’s benefitting. That is a direct threat to their tiered labor structure, and it’s exposed a pricing scheme that is built upon a crumbling foundation of scarcity.  Oh, wait. I’m sorry, I forgot.  It’s all Amazon’s fault.  Free labor is horrible, unless, of course, it’s our buddies expecting you to toil away unpaid. Then it’s called paying your dues.  But if your free labor isn’t benefitting our pals, or worse yet, is actually benefitting you directly in ways that don’t require their approval, then you’re a blight on the industry.

Robinson is right in some ways, Declining author incomes (in her particular wheelhouse) is a very real thing. I expect it to get much worse, with the increasing use of Agency pricing designed to steer readers away from digital and back to print.  That’s the theory, anyway. I expect it to be more a case of steering readers away from their digital stuff to other people’s digital stuff in the long term. The impact on print may be negligible, unless of course they do something stupid like tie the fate of their print and ebooks together while actively handicapping the more efficient, higher margin side. Whoops, too late.  

Robinson is correct to be concerned. It would have been nice had that concern shown itself last year when a group like the Authors Guild had a unique opportunity to apply some pressure to publishers while they were in the midst of freaking out that Amazon was going to end the world as they knew it. But instead, she happily fell in line with the publishers’ slanted viewpoint, maybe hoping they would see that loyalty as something to be rewarded later in some undefined way.  Well, you’re seeing the beginnings of what that loyalty earned her and the authors she helped lead down the garden path right now. Their publisher buddies, the ones they so willingly tossed their loyalty behind, are squeezing writer incomes to better their own. And now, thanks to their help, pubs have a level of pricing control in retail that, in my opinion, transitioned the threat level of their contracts all the way up to Defcon 1.    

It’s easy to point fingers at self published writers giving their stuff away for free. Low-hanging fruit, as the saying goes. But if Robinson wants to know why authors incomes are falling, she should look in the mirror. If anyone is guilty of devaluing anything, they are. She devalued author loyalty when she so blithely gave it away during a damn contract negotiation with a retailer. She devalued the writers she professes to represent by going all in with their support without extracting even the slightest bit of quid pro quo. She allowed the publishers to trot them out as the useful idiot to put a faux-cultural face on what was essentially a power-grab.  She did nothing at all to take advantage of the fact that they needed authors for that effort, and gave very little indication she actually recognized the situation for what it was.  She let her fear of Amazon drive them into a corner. Might as well have held their wallets open to the pubs and said, “Here, take what you like.”

And this is the best that advocates of “only write for money” can do? It’s a little disheartening. But should you write for free? There’s as many different paths (and different opinions on what constitutes success) as their are writers. That wasn’t the case not so very long ago. Free work by writers isn’t a new thing, something magically thought up by the internet demons to destroy vaunted cultural institutions. There’s always been an expectation that being a writer involves a certain amount of unpaid toiling to reach the point of actual paying work. All I can say is that you should strive to make certain, should you choose to do so, that unpaid toiling benefits you in some way. And despite what some of the well-heeled at what they perceive as the head of the writerly class might suggest, direct monetary rewards are not the end all, be all of the discussion.

So, should you write for free?  It depends.  What are you trying to achieve?

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

Royalties, Oh Royalties, Wherefore Art My Royalties?

“It is our hope that Hachette, in light of the loyalty its authors have shown throughout this debacle, takes this opportunity to revisit its standard e-book royalty rate of 25 percent of the publisher’s net profits.” Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild

So here we are. Hachette has a deal. Simon & Schuster has a deal. They have the pricing responsibility they wanted. Amazon has its “specific financial incentives” to compel them to use that power to price lower. Now we’ll get to see just how badly publishers want to institute a price-based windowing system for new releases (I’m setting the over/under on new release ebook prices at $16.99. And I’m taking the over.) But what did writers get out of this? I’m glad you (rhetorically) asked, because nobody else seems to be.

I’ve read all the coverage I can find and, as far as I can tell, the sum total of what writers got from this is that Hachette writers will have preorders reinstated and be back on two-day shipping. That’s about it. Oh yeah, there’s all the sales they lost during the past seven months. They’ve got that, too. There’s no Macmillan-like pool of recompense for those folks; no extra royalty payout for the damage done to their business. And they’ve got the hit yet to come from all those lost sales when their next contract rolls around. But at least, like the Robinson quote above, they’ve got hope that possibly Hachette (and others) maybe might take some time to reconsider their ebook royalty rates, if it’s not too much trouble. Because loyalty. My dog is loyal, but if I screw with his food, he bares his teeth and growls. I don’t screw with his food. Loyalty unrespected is subservience.

The blatantly obvious here is that anyone who thought writers would get anything but screwed on this was deluded. Especially after their authors interjected themselves into it in, bluntly, the stupidest possible way. They threw all their weight behind one side, not coincidentally, the side that needed them and they had leverage with, and asked nothing in return. Now we’re told they did it out of loyalty as if that’s some kind of honorable thing and not horribly misplaced naivete. Now we’re told authors are going to try to get better terms. My thoughts on that strategy were summed up nicely:

“What opportunity would that be? The one where they’ve settled up with Amazon, already have you all under contract at that standard, and don’t need to name-drop you morons in an obviously coordinated PR assault on a rival anymore? The opportunity to do a hell of a lot more than “hope they revisit the standard” was the past seven months when Amazon had Hachette over a barrel and the other publishers were all worried they were next.”

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what some publishing executives have to say:

“Speaking at a Society of Authors (SoA) panel on hybrid authors, Little, Brown CEO Ursula Mackenzie defended publishers from criticism by audience members that they now only take on books that will make money.

“Every book can’t make money,” she said. “There are careers we support for years…there are many books we publish lovingly where we don’t make money.”

Mackenzie said that publishers “are not taking a disproportionate part of the profit”, and that “no one benefits if publishers go out of business.” Little, Brown has a “fair rate for our e-books,” Mackenzie said.”

Good luck parsing the logic out of that one. “We publish lots of stuff that doesn’t make money, so we can’t pay you fairly for the things that do or we’d go out of business.”

That’s a helluva sales pitch. So even if I’m succesful, I’ll still be underpaid? Where do I sign up?!? This is the ultimate conclusion of the cultural enrichment argument. They’re not regular businesses, they’re a public good. So you can’t expect to be paid like a regular business. The company has to reap most of the proceeds so they can continue to underpay you to pay for all the stuff they produce that nobody wants. It’s all bullshit, of course, and pretty blatantly so. These are all huge, multi-billion-dollar publicly traded corporations. Do you think they’re shareholders are down with pissing money away in business-threatening chunks for culture’s sake? Or are they simply feeding you a line they know plays to your sensibilities to justify squeezing suppliers (you) to maximize profits?

Think about that last part for a minute. Just the idea of paying a better royalty rate caused her to pull the going out of business card. If you can’t even consider paying me a fair (or even just slightly higher) ebook royalty without it triggering fears of going under, does that make you more or less attractive to me as an author? You’re leveraged so thinly that fair recompense to writers can threaten the very existence of your company? What’s the upside for me to sign with you? A “quality” product no one buys or a product they do buy but I don’t reap fair reward for?

Now, of course, she claims to think their ebook royalty is fair, which is the problem. I don’t really believe she thinks that but enough of you do that they can continue to get away with pushing this nonsense. Here’s another:

“Questioned on author earnings, CEO Tom Weldon said that Penguin/Random House was always looking at how much authors were being compensated, but for the moment the 25% digital royalty rate would not be changed.

“Authors are, alongside readers, the foundation of our business,” he said. “We are always, always looking at our commercial arrangements with authors to make sure they’re fair and equitable. With e-book royalties, firstly and most importantly, the business model is as clear as mud. Rather than arguing about what slice of the cake we should distribute, we need to work out how big the cake should be.”

There you go, fair and equitable and the rate would not be changed. Get a load of that last sentence. We need to work out how big the cake should be? What the hell does that even mean? Is he talking about pricing? Is it a more ominous suggestion of further attempts at limiting the ebook market itself to a certain market share? Or even more ominously, is he talking not about how big the whole cake is but deciding how big the portion of the cake is that your portion comes from? The cake is a pretty big one, dude, I think portions are an appropriate topic of discussion at the moment. Look at how he phrased that, too: “Rather than arguing about what slice of the cake we should distribute…” They’re planning on keeping the whole damn cake and then deciding what tiny sliver they can afford to slice off for you. Do you need any more evidence that they see the proceeds from your book as “their cake”? Funny how they’re not waiting to work out how big the cake should be before touting the increased profits they’re reaping from this particular literary confection. But let’s not argue about it. Then they might actually have to address the issue rather than keep enjoying all that delicious extra cake they’ve got. Did you catch him wiping the crumbs from the corner of his mouth as he said “fair and equitable”?

Even the Author Guild itself admits the publishers have no will to even consider making a change in ebook royalty rate:

“Jean Craighead George’s original decision to publish an e-book edition (of Julie of the Wolves) with Open Road (which pays a 50% e-book royalty)—rather than with HarperCollins, her longtime publisher—was a principled rebuke of the major publisher’s measly 25% net e-book royalty. HarperCollins’s aggressive strategy (the publisher spent over $1.5 million to litigate a case that ended up being worth only $30,000) illustrates the importance to publishers of keeping e-book royalty rates at 25%.”

So if you already know this, please explain why you failed to do even the slightest bit of advocacy during the past year when the Big 5 in general, and Hachette specifically, were more vulnerable than they’ve been maybe in all of our lifetimes? You think it was a good idea to show unbridled loyalty to companies who, by your own admission, are being miserly with ebook royalties and intentionally underpaying your membership? Something you’ve been complaining about since, at least, 2009? That’s five years of talk with zero tangible results. Loyalty is a positive thing in some cases, but in this one, it’s high past time to bare your teeth. The question increasingly being asked, and rightly so, is does the Authors Guild have any teeth to bare? Instead of falling lockstep in line with the publishers, why didn’t you take advantage of this opportunity to make some progress? That’s what real advocacy is. What you’re doing is no different than what I do, talking. Only I’m not collecting dues or pretending I’m representing anyone’s interests.

Speaking of the blind leading the blind, here’s the Authors Guild meeting with members of Congress ahead of an upcoming review of copyright law:

“Executive Director of the Authors Guild, Mary Rasenberger’s speech was part of a panel co-hosted by the Authors Guild and aimed at giving the Congressional group a behind-the-scenes look at “a book’s passage from manuscript to marketplace.” The panel consisted of authors, editors, and publishers.

In her speech, Rasenberger focused on the “urgent state” of authorship today. “Even authors who made a living writing books for decades now need to find alternative sources of income,” she told the assembly. “This means they write less—and, in some cases, not at all. Fewer professional authors means fewer types of books that might take years of research and writing. These are precisely the kinds of books that further the knowledge and learning that copyright is meant to foster.”

Do you think her presentation of “manuscript to marketplace” included even a word about indies who skip the publisher involvement altogether? I don’t either. I’m certain it was a glowing testament to how essential publishers are, with writers and editors simply add-ons to the process, shepherded by their greatness. Maybe the urgent state of authorship wouldn’t be so urgent if authors had effective advocates. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many authors needing outside income streams if you did something about low royalties other than hope and talk. Don’t miss the loaded use of the term “professional” in there either. Who does this woman represent? They’ve done nothing about the royalty rate, they are dismissive of indies in presentation and implication if not in direct language. And they just came to heel when the publishers blew their dog whistles over the past few months, a time when they actually had some leverage to get something done. Amazon was practically begging them to do something. Is it any wonder publishers think they have you all locked down?

The question I’m asking is can authors get some real representation at these things? The only seat at the table we get is through groups like the Authors Guild, and sometimes that’s even less useful than having no seat at all. So what were they talking about at this congressional get together other than how crucial publishers are? Here’s the release from the committee:

“Great books, both fiction and non, have an incredible ability to capture our hearts and minds, taking us to another place or time with words on a page. Yet many of us do not think about the hard work and collaboration that goes on between authors, publishers, and many others to help take a book from manuscript to marketplace,” said Reps. Judy Chu and Howard Coble, co-chairs of the Creative Rights Council. “Together, this collaboration is at the heart of a $27.2 billion industry, but challenges like digital first sale, unreasonable expansion of fair use, and online piracy are threatening the livelihoods of the hard working men and women who bring these works to life. We are proud to have hosted this important panel in order to influence the conversation on copyright law as we continue moving forward.”

Notice authors is mentioned only once, in the context of the collaboration. Is it authors’ livelihoods they feel are threatened, because, as everyone should have already been expressly aware, the vast majority of traditional authors don’t have livelihoods from their work to be threatened. And that is in no way a recent development, rather a consequence of the industry’s very structure. So get ready for copyright law as publisher bailout (none of the benefits of which will even trickle down to the writers), coming soon to a congressional hearing near you.

It’s telling that both first sale and fair use were specifically cited as “threats”. Is this how the Authors Guild presented them? What exactly does Rasenberger mean by what “copyright is meant to foster”? First sale and fair use are both consumer rights granted by copyright (yes, consumers have rights under copyright law, too. Although maybe not for much longer if these folks are any indication.) How about we discuss life+70 that flies directly in the face of what copyright intended as a limited time of exclusivity for creators. It exists not for the benefit of creators, but of transferees (not mentioned there, by the way) so they can continue to profit from creators’ works for generations after their death. Or how about the fact that this standard has basically caused the public domain of recent material to wither and die (another element copyright law intended to be vibrant and available for both creators and the public).

But, alas, no. The “threats” here are like they are every time copyright comes up; the rights of consumers are given short shrift, if acknowledged at all, and the rights of creators are subverted, in direct opposition of what was intended, to protect corporate licensees’ profits. If you want to have a frank and open discussion of copyright law, let’s do it. But can we get someone other than the Authors Guild at the table please? I have no faith they’re even on the right side of these issues for authors and won’t simply fall lockstep in with publishers when push comes to shove (again). I’m sure they’ll talk a good game but when it comes time to pick a side to support, they’ll be right there with the publishers, no matter how much more ground creators and the public have to give up so Disney can continue milking Mickey Mouse in perpetuity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe the Authors Guild, once it sinks in that their loyalty has gotten them squat, will finally break out the snarl and get down to the real business of business and stop validating the publishers’ “enriching themselves while underpaying writers is essential to culture” argument. And maybe pigs will fly.

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

A Letter to Doug Preston

So I’ve sat quietly and absorbed the mighty fury that Doug Preston and the Authors United group have unleashed upon Amazon in their latest round of pressure tactics. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of a somewhat sternly worded yet awkwardly kiss-ass proposed letter to Amazon’s board of directors! Oooooh! It burns just thinking about all the carnage these kinds of extreme tactics will bring!

With open letters to people suddenly being all the rage, today, I thought I’d pen one with some advice for Doug Preston and the Pretensions:

Dear Mr. Preston,

Just stop. You’re making a fool of yourself. Your arguments are misdirected, faulty, elitist and lacking in any evidence of your awareness that a world exists beyond the little bubble of your personal experience, which in no way reflects the experiences of the vast majority of writers you and your group of self-important do-gooders claim to be speaking for. In the immortal words of Black Dynamite, you need to shut the fuck up when grown folks is talking.

Normally, I would just pluck some quotes from your letter and comment on them but this effort from your group doesn’t even raise to the level of deserving such treatment. There’s not a single element that merits the attention of anyone actually interested in the business reality of the matter, let alone serious consideration. You’ve revealed yourself to have zero knowledge of retail business agreements, and even less understanding of contracts and who is accountable for what and to whom within them. Despite your protestations on each count, you’ve shown yourself to be both cluelessly elitist and most definitively staking out a side.

Whether you realize it or not, your attempt to shame the board is actually reinforcing to them that the tactics being used in the negotiations by Amazon have been extraordinarily effective. Little tip for the future, generally speaking, when involved in a contentious negotiation with a stronger party, you typically don’t want to begin by providing a point by point list of how badly your circumstances are unless you’re trying to get the side you’re implicitly supporting to end up eviscerated in whatever deal finally results. In fact, your sad attempts at garnering sympathy by talking about how far your sales have fallen, especially the point about other retailers failing to make up the difference, may be making a strong case that Amazon isn’t asking enough for their contributions in selling Hachette’s books. Think before you speak, and think twice before you broadcast it to the world. You can play the “we’re not involved” card all you like to appear impartial but you can’t possibly be ignorant enough of reality to believe that, can you?

You should also be aware that when you spout off about how special books are, how much they’re not like other products and the people who write them deserve special dispensation from the hard economic realities everyone else on the fucking planet faces just to put food on the table every damn day, you sound precisely like a man who’s spent his whole professional life sheltered. Can you tell me where you’ve met these young writers who get advances large enough to live on before they write their first books, based on simply the idea? Did you ride your unicorn over the rainbow to chat with them about it?

Not to mention, Amazon will ship my books right now, there’s no delay. I can get preorders on books right now, there’s no prohibition. And so can everybody else except people like you because the contract you signed prevents it. Every last complaint you have could be addressed but for the fact that you willingly chose to give the rights to your work and any power or influence to do anything about it to someone else. That’s why you’re left doing nothing but throwing nonsense missives at people who have precisely zero reason to listen to a single word you have to say. You don’t like the results of Hachette’s business dealings with Amazon? Take it out on them. And if those dealings are negatively impacting your career because they can’t reach a deal with the largest retailer of books in the world, I’m sympathetic but that’s your problem, the result of the path you chose, to take the advance and give up control.

I’m sorry that you’re having these issues and I feel for the newly enlisted writers whose careers may suffer but nobody is entitled to anything. Those of us here in reality understand that. You know how you earn a living? You hustle and adapt and take advantage of opportunities. You don’t bitch and moan at other businesses who have no legal, moral or ethical obligation to you when the one you signed on with drops the ball or can’t keep the promises they made you. That’s life. It’s hard, ever-shifting and filled with risk. Don’t like it? Too goddamned bad! Welcome to the club with the rest of us.

One area where you’re mostly right is that books can’t be written more cheaply. That’s because 99% of them are already written for free. The struggle is to find a buyer after they’ve been written. That’s the world most of us live in. However, one of your esteemed signees, James Patterson, gets advances into seven figures. Could those books be written any cheaper? What was your last advance, sir? Could you have written it any cheaper? If you’re moving books, I have no issue with that. But that’s a commercial argument, justifiable, or not, in the numbers as I’m sure you’d agree. Your group, however, is trading in sentimentality and actively arguing for being exempt from normal commercial pressures. You can’t have it both ways, the commercial argument when it’s your check on the line and the non-commercial one for everybody else. We have a word for that; it’s called hypocrisy.

If you’re so concerned that Amazon is siphoning away the resources publishers use to support authors, how about putting your money where your mouth is? And I don’t mean on another tone-deaf and extraordinarily wasteful print ad in the New York Times. Jesus, you do realize we’re in the 21st century now, right?!? Tell Hachette you’ll forego an advance on your next book so long as that money gets divided up amongst a few first time or midlist authors. You and all of your best selling brethren could support the early careers of numerous young authors if you chose to wield the leverage and resources you have in the direction you can actually use it, on your own publishers. Advocate for change; better treatment, bigger advances, higher royalties, no egregious non-competes. If you’re not willing to even pay lip service to doing that, then get the hell outta here with your false sentimentality.

If authors are united under the whiny, perspective-lacking, factually detached line of nonsense you’re pushing, then I’m happy to let you all keep that term for your self-important, “prominent” and “outraged” selves. I’m a writer. I work for my living and earn my money any way I can. Nobody, least of all, Amazon, owes me a goddamned thing. If you just want to throw some kind of disingenuous shade of a literary culture argument out there to protect your own position and sizable advances without even taking the time to understand the whole of the industry and the interests of writers not like you, then as far as I’m concerned, you and yours can unite together and go jump off a cliff.

In short, to hell with you. Go away before you do even more damage to the poor writers attracted by your self serving bullshit and misrepresented ideals of what publishing actually is. Let those of us interested in the future and paving new paths to our careers go about it in peace. We don’t need your high-minded horseshit, especially when you don’t even bother to take the time to educate yourself.

As an example of the kind of damage your sad little group is doing, watch Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson in this interview segment. I’m certain you’ve already seen it. Does it make you feel good to see someone in her position, one that could be a strong advocate for authors, made to look like a blabbering fool, spouting occasional lines from your letter in between completely incoherent arguments?

Watch the end very closely, because it encapsulates the flaws of your entire movement. When faced with a clear, concise, logical (and some would say common sense) economic argument, she was left muttering, largely to herself, “I am not a special snowflake!” Even the moderator was laughing at her. Your group, your rhetoric has revealed to Authors Guild members a leader woefully ignorant of business realities. Do you think Guild members feel good about their leadership after watching that? It was painfully embarassing. As is your letter to the Amazon board. Do yourself, and all of us, a favor and just stop talking before you embarrass yourself, and by extension all writers, any further. Have a nice day!

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

The Defenders of Literature and Cultural Heritage? Ha!

In the past week, there’s been several long-winded screeds written about the end of days for publishing at the hands of the exploding supernova that is Amazon.  This isn’t altogether a rarity, but I’ve noticed, as print sales continue to decline, ebook sales continue to pick up, and the traditional ways of doing business continue looking more and more like a quaint remnant of a past soon to be forgotten, the bile and vitriol thrown around at those who are at the vanguard of this vast cultural shift have gotten more pressing and severe.  First there was Scott Turow’s “Grim News” letter defending big publishing’s (alleged) collusion and price fixing.  He followed that up with a somewhat more tempered but still massively slanted and misdirected interview on Salon a few days later.  I myself, along with several others, took a swing at the hanging sliders Turow threw into all of our wheelhouses here.  After that, there was Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur’s rant on what he calls the “internet con-men who have ravaged publishing”.   I fully intend to expound upon his comments a little later, as I did find myself agreeing with bits and pieces of what he had to say about the newspaper business’ futile  addiction to elusive web ads, but his overall missive was still very much misplaced.  Finally, I ran across this piece by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, on what he calls Amazon’s assault on intellectual freedom.  It’s been a pretty busy week for the dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

None of this is particularly surprising to me.  I’ve seen a lot of this before, watching the legacy newspaper industry’s response when the internet first started to really take a bite out of their once whole-ly locked down apple.  The newcomers were usurpers, illegitimate, doing nothing but stealing their hard-earned positions and work.  The folks heading the industry at that time were so caught up in the belief that the mechanisms they had been in charge of were the pinnacle of their business, and virtually omnipotent, that they failed to see the handwriting on the wall.  It was much easier to lash out and demonize the agents of change than to actually admit to themselves that they had to change as well, or be left on the scrap-heap of history.  So bitch, moan and complain they did.  For years while their revenues shrank, their marketshare plummeted and their customers–both advertisers and readers–moved on to bigger and better things.  The newspaper industry today is roughly 40% the size it was only a half-dozen years ago and still contracting.  Their big plans for the future are website paywalls, an argument that really should have been settled somewhere around 1998.  They slipped, ignored the reality of change by spending too much attention to the quirks of those bringing it right to their doorsteps and, in the process, doomed themselves to a slow, wasting death.  Look closely and you can see the same thing happening to parts of the book publishing segment.

So this isn’t exactly an unheard of development, the disrupted lashing out at the disrupters, and it is more than predictable to see their points of view on the precise business aspects of the issue.  Obviously, they will violently defend the status quo mechanisms while disparaging the strange, new and different ways others have found to achieve the same ends, that being to put written works in the hands of readers.  That, I expected.  It still strikes me as living life with blinders on, but at least it makes sense from a business perspective.  After all, the new digital revolution is barely a few years old.  The legacy bookselling model has existed, pretty much as is, for decades, if not centuries.  You don’t make money that well for that long without developing a nearly-religious belief in your business model.  That faith won’t save them, but it is understandable.

One thing, however, that has begun to emerge in these anti-Amazon (truthfully, more anti-future and anti-change) rants is the notion that legacy publishers, editors, distributors, agents bookstores and the authors entwined with them aren’t simply defending a means of doing business; they are beginning to position their plight on a higher plane.  They aren’t simply disrupted business people, they are pious defenders of literature, heritage and the very culture itself.  Every time I see one of these comments, I can’t help but snort.  I’ve even taken to putting down my drink whenever I get the slightest hint I’m reading one of these for fear of shooting some of said drink out of my nose, a fate I’d like to avoid if at all possible.  It’s one thing to defend your business and how it operates, even if you do so in absence of facts, reason and rationality.  It is quite another to pretend to be martyrs on the cross of literary heritage.  Of course, it’s entirely possible they’re not pretending and that would be telling in and of itself.  I’ve always approached these types of backwards defenses as willful blindness by those so worried about losing their meal tickets that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing arguments.  But, perhaps, what we are dealing with here are actually “true believers” so indoctrinated by legacy publishing’s dogma that anything challenging its preeminence is immediately treated as heresy.

When a Konrath, an Eisler or any of the other outspoken proponents of the changes that have torn through the industry advocate their positions, is it possible that these true believers don’t see a reasoned argument supported by observation, statistics and facts?  Does Turow look at Konrath the way the Pope looked at Galileo when he challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe?  Did he consider the matter at hand, looking at all the available evidence and make a reasoned judgement or does he simply launch into an inquisition-style defensive assault that twists logic like a Philly soft pretzel to suit his preconceived beliefs?  I sincerely hope it’s the former because, even though I believe he’s wrong, at least he would still retain the possibility that further evidence and reason could have a positive effect.  If it’s the latter, no amount of reason will have any effect, except to make the vitriol even stronger because if there’s any one trait that defines true believers of any stripe, it’s that they almost always double down against things that challenge their faith, no matter how logical or reality-based they are.

Read each of the four pieces I linked to above and look for the similarities in their arguments.  Far from simply a discussion about the difficulties of transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, they each pine for the glory days of yore, nostalgia for the way things have always been done literally drips from their words.  And they each, at various points, make the proclamation that, as the new digital frontier continues to spread over the old physical one, our culture and even literacy itself will suffer for it.  The literacy point is somewhat inexplicable to me.  How, exactly, can literacy decline through the act of more people reading more than ever?  It’s seems a lot like Barry Eisler excellently pointed out on Turow’s allegation that Amazon is trying to destroy bookselling, apparently, by selling lots of books.  I guess when logic, reason and facts fail to produce a convincing argument, scare tactics are a consistently easy fallback.

“The end is near!  If our business fails, the world will be consumed by hellfire!  The people will become illiterate slugs if we’re no longer around to tell them what’s worthy of reading and spending their money on!  Without us, our culture will collapse into an horrific hodgepodge of things regular people actually enjoy, without having a gatekeeper like us to tell them it’s okay to like it!  What about our heritage?  Won’t somebody think about the children and how they’ll be able to learn of their heritage on their own, god forbid, without the facts they’re exposed to being vetted and approved by we professional keepers of what’s right and just!  It’ll be the end of days!  The horror…the horror…”

Publishing is a business, folks, not a religion.  They operate, as they always have, on a business model that allowed them to make money on the written word.  Technology has changed the ways in which people can access those words, undermining publishing’s long-standing business model.  Now, if they want to survive, they must transition to a model that fits today’s (and tomorrow’s) readers.  That’s all this is.  The world won’t end.  Great masses of people won’t suddenly lose the ability to read.  The written word will continue on as it always has, only now with the means of reaching more people more inexpensively and efficiently than ever before.  Our culture will not suffer.  Our heritage will not evaporate.  In fact, they may well be greatly enhanced by what’s coming.  The fact that a relatively small number of people who used to make a living putting words in ink on blank sheets of paper and selling them could possibly be out of work isn’t going to doom civilization as we know it.

Print publishing has had a good run.  They’ve existed as an industry largely undisturbed for numerous generations, far more fortunate than many, much more successful industries before or after them.  Change in life is inevitable.  How we deal with that change is what separates the people who keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles and the people who just whine about how much better things were back in their day.  Some of these old-guard folks sound to me like they’re desperately in need of a rocking chair, a tall glass of lemonade, a quilt to keep the evening chill away and a nice front porch to retire to.  Put enough of them together, and they should have plenty of tales to share amongst themselves about how great things were back in the good ol’ days.

As for the rest of us?  We’ve got things to do.  There’s a disruption going on, don’t you know?

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