Monday, July 7, 2014

Escaping the Politics of Publishing

By Sandra Ruttan

I personally know people on both sides of the publishing dispute between Amazon and Hachette.

And this is one of those times that, if asked why I've foolishly decided to chime in on a bitter dispute in publishing, that I'd like to think I could say, "It's business.  It's not personal."

Here's what I know for sure:

1.  Everyone spins their own side to make themselves look better than the other guy.

2.  Authors can feel a sense of loyalty to their publisher.  Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

3.  If publishing was really treated like any other business, nobody would be talking about this issue.

Now, from what I understand, Amazon and Hachette are having a little tiff.  And the tiff is over book pricing.  Amazon wants the ability to set the prices on the books they sell.

Imagine that.  A retailer who wants to be able to set their prices.  Even if that means a deep discount.  Mmmmm, deals.  Who doesn't love a deal?  When I used to work at Canadian Tire, we could look up the price info on items in the store, and see the cost.  And there were times we put things below cost.  No retail markup.  A loss to the seller.  Why?  Because people love door crashers.  And when they come in for one great deal, they usually buy five more things they didn't plan on.

A loss on one item turns into a profit on many more items.

I also understand that apparently, Hachette wants to ensure they generate a certain amount of revenue from sales, and they therefore want to limit Amazon's ability to reduce prices of their books.

This dispute has been going on for several months, and Amazon is accused of taking punitive action against Hachette's authors, which allegedly includes not taking pre-orders of their books, slowing delivery, and in some cases, removing the page for the books so they aren't available for purchase on Amazon at all.

Many Hachette authors have urged readers to write to Amazon** to take their side.  There's talk of boycotting Amazon and trying to get the government to intervene.

The other side says "in this war, Hachette is using its authors as emotional ammunition. Hachette wants to control the price of its titles and keep those prices high, while Amazon wants to keep those prices reasonable. You may not realize this, but when Amazon discounts books, authors (and Hachette) still get paid the full amount."

They have a petition, and thousands have signed it.

Now, between work, family, editing and occasionally trying to write something myself, I don't really make a lot of time for all the online stuff anymore.  However, this dispute has been on my radar, because it's been able to reach even my limited online sphere.

There hasn't been a pissing match like this in publishing since sock puppets.  And that means this is a pretty big, as publishing disputes go.

And that means that chiming in on the subject is something I shouldn't do.

However, I'm going to share a few thoughts for readers to consider.

#1.  In any other business, a dispute between vendor and supplier could mean delays or inability to fulfill orders through that vendor.  Business is business.  I realize authors and readers can feel very emotional about their books, but Amazon is a business and Hachette is a business.  This is business.  And it really isn't abnormal.

I mean, seriously people, the fact that one retailer isn't selling a certain book or books isn't surprising.  Brick and mortar stores carry stock with publishers they have deals with.  And I do recall there's a standard policy about cost minimum and returns.  I remember when my first book was coming out, from an unknown publisher who were using POD technology.  They couldn't match the standard cost minimum, so retailers wouldn't carry the book.  They weren't the only publisher with that issue.

Look, I'm not with them now, and what transpired in that experience is water under the bridge, but nobody was writing letters crying about how readers were being hurt because vendors weren't making all books available to them.

Amazon may be the first company ever to offer all books from every publisher for sale, or to come close to doing that.

And if all of that is making you go cross-eyed, just consider this:  there are still places in the world that insist on selling only Pepsi products and won't let me buy a Coke instead.  Seriously, are people writing letters over which beverages are offered at the local restaurant?  Are people crying about the fact that their restaurant isn't offering them every option?  Is anyone boycotting them?

#2.  Amazon knows how to sell books.  And I think they've handily proven that they know how to do this so well, that prior disputes between publishers and Amazon have resulted in wins for the retail giant.

Here's all I really know.  I've had a lot of bad experiences in publishing.  With book #1 vendors weren't carrying my book, limiting it's ability to be sold and to earn profit.  And I was essentially an outcast in the publishing community because I wasn't with the right publisher.

I moved on to a NY publisher.  My books were in airports, and they were in libraries and bookstores.

But by book #3, it was nearly impossible to buy a copy of one of my books.  Eventually, I learned it was down to disputes between the publisher and the distributor.  Did it hurt me?  Sure.  But that's the way it goes in business.

My publisher went bankrupt, and I went through a long period where I considered those books a loss, and didn't hold out any hope of getting any further royalties or seeing them available again.

And then Amazon came along.  And they offered a deal and bought the rights from my former publisher.

I have a few things I've self published on Amazon, and books Amazon has the rights to.  And after a few years with Amazon, I've reached a few conclusions.

Every so often, Amazon promotes one of my books with a special sale price.  As a result, one of my books reached the top 40 in Kindle sales.  Not within a genre.  Not top 40 in Canadian-detective-serial killer-BC Coast subcategory.

Top 40 of all Kindle sales.

During the months that Amazon promotes my books, my sales increase astronomically.  And my overall royalties increase astronomically.  My payout for March, when my book was promoted, was 12 times what my payout for May will be.  Additionally, when Amazon promotes one of my titles they hold the rights to, my sales increase overall, and my royalties for my self published titles for March were more than 7 times the anticipated payout for May.

Amazon knows how to sell books.  And when they discount my books, they don't hurt readers by making my books cheaper, and they don't hurt me.  Just the opposite.

I understand that authors do feel a strong sense of loyalty to their publishers.  I also understand that traditional publishers have had the ability to make or break an author to a far greater extent in the past.  They choose to push some books for awards, and choose some authors to send on tours, and sometimes, they choose to pay for advertisements for certain books, and pay for displays in bookstores.

I understand that if a traditional publisher has done all those things for you, and brought your sales to the point where you can earn a living from writing, that you're going to feel a sense of obligation.

And I understand some people will assume I feel a sense of obligation to Amazon.


I feel gratitude.  I'm appreciative.  My experiences with Amazon have been the best of my publishing career to date.

But Amazon has never asked me to wade in on publishing matters, to take sides, or to take any action in their defense, or involved me with the business side of things.

I'll never be the sweetheart of the writing community, and perhaps this post can add to the numbers of people who've spontaneously stopped talking to me over the years.  (You see, in my experience, publishing has cliques and the rules of high school apply.  Some people are popular.  Some aren't.  Some people are fantastic, genuine, and would give the shirt off their back to help someone else.  And some aren't.  Some people will accept that a review is business and as long as it's an assessment of the text, it isn't personal.  And some people say any negative review is wrong wrong wrong.)

I've learned over the years that some people take everything about publishing personally, so some people aren't going to like this at all.

However, publishing is a business, and I think that if we apply business logic to publishing disputes, it's better for everyone.  Most of all, it's better for readers to not feel manipulated or pressured by these disputes.

I have enough drama elsewhere in my life, and I didn't start writing a book to live in a publishing industry soap opera.  I'm pretty sure that, like me, there are many people out there with their own personal struggles and challenges to deal with, that don't feel they have much energy for all this crap.

I think it's an absolute and total loss to everyone for there to be open letters calling for reader action or petitions online.  We are well past talking about quality books, or hot reads, or what should be trending in the book community here.  We're focused on taking sides in a pissing contest between two giant, international businesses.

Does anyone have any idea how massive a boycott would have to be for Amazon to even notice?

So in the long run, this dispute will carry on.  Each side will feel vindicated with each letter or signature or blog post supporting their position.

And readers will continue to lose.

Books used to be a safe escape for me.  I could lose myself in a bookstore or library, and imagine all the possible journeys I could take through the pages of different books.  It was the ultimate escape.

There are times I miss the days before I knew how publishing worked, before I knew people in the industry.  Before I knew about sock puppets and petitions.

Now, I pick up books, and so often they're mired in controversy or dispute or politics, and sometimes, I don't even want to read them.  I don't want to risk the act of reading this book or that book to be interpreted as an endorsement for a position or a behavior or anything else.  As an author, and not strictly a reader, how do I not consider what people will think if I'm reading Orson Scott Card or anyone else.

How do you truly lose yourself in a book when it comes to you with politics and posturing and the feeling of strings attached?

You don't.  You pull up Netflix and watch 7 seasons of Supernatural instead, because it's the honest, unfettered escape you're looking for.

** Within an hour of me drafting this post, the letter I'd linked to, with some of the authors listed, was no longer available online.  Another copy was available, but without the names of the authors supporting it.  I sourced that letter through this article

Perhaps by the time this post is live, the original letter will be available again.  I have no sense of anything occurring to effect this change and I don't care enough to spend any more time on this issue this fine Sunday.


John McFetridge said...

Maybe because we're Canadian we're used to the idea of regulated monopolies but that's a fairly new concept in America (although America was the first to recognize 'regulatory capture' as an issue). The way the cable companies have gotten together and divided up the territories is fairly new. Imagine if Burger King and McDonalds agreed not to have restaurants in the same cities. It's your only Pepsi at the restaurant analogy at the retail instead of wholesale level.

My question through all of this is how important is Amazon going to become? Will it be possible to sell books, e-books or print books - without going through Amazon. As long as that's possible it isn't an issue.

We've seen the same fights between cable companies and networks and I imagine we'll see them between distributors and producers, too. Maybe someday Netflix will have a fight with the producers of Supernatural and drop the show. As long as you can get it somewhere else it doesn't really matter.

The bigger issue here is the choice between competition and regulated monopoly. My worry is that by not really discussing it what we'll end up with is non-regulated monopoly.

Dana King said...

This is as well-reasoned an opinion on this topic as I have read. It's business, folks. Neither side is pure: they're both here to make money. I understand well-off authors sticking up for the Big 5, but a lot of lesser lights need to remember one thing: your publisher bought your book for one reason: they thought they could make money from it. Not as a favor to you. Be appreciative, be grateful--I know i was, and still am, appreciative and grateful for the opportunity Stark House gave me--but don;t be fooled. You'll be gone quick as yesterday's newspaper if you don't make your numbers. Stay on an even keel here.

Unknown said...

I agree with so much you have said. For years I worked as a retail buyer, and we didn't buy everything from everybody. I remember when one customer asked why we couldn't just charge what another retailer charged, I'd explain about "price fixing" and how we were different companies that would make independent decisions. This is a volatile topic among authors, but it *is* business, and nobody said business was a happy, friendly, nice, everybody wins game.

Great post.

Mike Dennis said...

Amazon = competition
Big 5 = non-competitive, price-fixing cartel

Amazon knows it can compete with the Big 5. The Big 5 know it cannot compete with Amazon.

John McFetridge said...

I have no personal interest in this, I don't make any money writing and I never will (I'm in that bestseller in "Canadian-detective-west-coast-serial-killer" category) but I am fascinated by the theories.

Competition can be good or bad depending on how its regulated. A good, competitive football game is a lot of fun to watch, a game with no referees would devolve pretty quickly into something unwatchable. Or a game in which the refs only called penalties against one team.

So, from what I understand, Amazon want to set the price on products it had nothing to do with producing, it wasn't involved in the R&D or development in any way.

But, as Mike says, Amazon also sells products it does develop and competes with the other publishers for product. So it is complicated.

One thing I'm pretty sure of, no individual will ever be able to negotiate terms with Amazon - it'll always be offered at a take-it-or-leave-it rate. Right now those rates are pretty good but there's no reason to believe they'll always be good.

Charlieopera said...

I felt good about being vetted into the industry with my first book (but it wasn’t through any top anything, it was Carroll & Graf). A few books later they were bought out by Avalon and I switched publishers (with former C&G people). I felt less good over time and went further south (as regards publisher size), but they’re good people I trust. Ed Gorman, thank you once again, got me a read at Stark House and they took me on (and even took some recommendations for them to expand—something that makes me as happy as first being published myself).

By the start of my Stark House life, the rights to my first 5 or 6 crime novels reverted to me and I went ebook with them. I probably make a tank of gas a month with those sales (‘m nowhere near what I read about other authors doing, but it’s probably my fault for not understanding any of it) … but I have new readers, so I’m very, very grateful for that opportunity.

I went for an MFA degree (for personal reasons) and wound up with a ghostwriting gig (technically it’s not because my name will appear on the book) and that gig is paying me more money than I received for all 8 crime novels x 2.5. In fact, I just received the first half of payment today (I’ll celebrate when the check clears), but (and here’s the irony) it’s from Hatchette (which bought out Perseus, under which, Da Capo (the originally purchasers of the memoir) lived. I was in genuine fear of the thing being orphaned because I’d worked on half of it without that first check …

I don’t pay enough attention to any of the details in my life. I don’t know, for instance, how much money my paycheck reads week to week. It goes in our bank and I make believe I’m an adult. I’m not an adult, not when it comes to such details (or giggling for 5 minutes sometimes when I fart). I can’t imagine what authors my size (and many way bigger, but not in the so-called big leagues) would do without amazon. And, yes, of course amazon will take over the publishing world someday and probably maximize their profits at every author’s expense.

So it goes, on and on (and on, on, and on—I always loved that rap verse … ending with something “until the break of dawn”). I guess I have dogs in the fight, but if you think I’m going to miss the reruns of The Killing over it (or pretty much anything else), guess again. I don’t know what my paycheck reads now and I won’t know what it reads in another five years from now (assuming I still get one). The “battle” between Hachette (I usually forget to add that last fucking “e”) and Amazon is out of my hands the same way the inequality of income in this country remains out of my hands … and our middle east foreign policy … and the offensive schemes of my beloved New York State Buffalo Bills … and the asinine New York Rangers (for trading my favorite player) … the point being, life is way too short to get involved in things out of my control. I have a theory about why such things are out of control, but it probably contains a bit of Marxist theory, and that remains analogous to pushing a boulder up a 90 degree incline.

Right now I have to get to the store and buy my 12 bottles of Zero calorie PowerAde, way too sweetened water … then I have to get to the gym and start reading All The Young Warriors … then I have to work on Chapter 6 of the Hatchette (EEEEEEE, there, you happy?) book … but I did enjoy reading this post, Sandra, and I appreciate learning what the fuss is all about. I don’t like business in general … mostly because it would require me to know what my paycheck says … and I have no desire to start doing that shit now.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree this is a topic that's good for discussion.

It's all the animosity and crap that people are slinging that makes it a tough topic.

Thanks for the comments everyone! Charlie - LOL!

Unknown said...

"We're focused on taking sides in a pissing contest between two giant, international businesses."

Exactly. It amazes me how otherwise intelligent people will embrace the Big Five's inevitable shouts that Amazon is a monopoly (which appellation fits them more than it does Amazon) and will destroy the publishing industry as we know it (when it's only likely to destroy the publishing industry as they know it). It's hard to think of a company that had $16 billion in book sales last year as a desperate David doing battle with a nasty Goliath.

BTW, I doubt it was the cover price of that first book that kept it out of the regular distribution channels, Sandra. We've always priced our on-demand paperbacks competitively, and the "we support authors" bookstores all turned up their noses and still do. The simple fact is that they don't want to have to actually sell the books; they want to have them on loan for a week or three then send them back so they can borrow more.

Thomas Pluck said...

Excellent and reasoned discussion. There's so much HATE from authors over this. But I notice no one, not even James Patterson, is saying "Don't sell my books on Amazon."
Or daring to criticize Hachette. A lot of authors I like are with Hachette. But it's very funny that everyone feels safe to criticize "the big bully" and "the monopoly" but not the other dog in the fight, who is so powerless.

We don't know what the offers and terms are; we're hearing it secondhand. I hope it all works out. But as a reader, when e-books go higher than $9.99 or $11.99 I look to the library. I like paperbacks. The way they've priced e-books reminds me of the CD revolution in music. Our $8.99 vinyl was crap, buy these $14.99 CD's instead! The price will go down soon... sure it did.

A friend at Simon & Schuster said it costs the same to print a hardcover as a paperback. Not sure that's true; maybe in enormous bulk? So pricing is based on demand and limited supply. When e-books came on the scene they tried the same, but e-books have no physical limits. They do cost money to DESIGN if not "make." But I'm not sure it's worth $13.99 unless you're fixing prices and not allowing your retailers to discount products, even they pay you the same amount. Oh, it "Devalues books." Like B&N's discount pile, used bookstores, mass market paperbacks did?
I know writers that hate used bookstores. So e-books, which can't be resold, should be a pleasure. (Sure, you can "lend" some, but you get a royalty).
It's begun to feel like politics or a religion, where reason doesn't matter. (The same goes for the Amazon evangelists).
When readers can find your books and you are paid when they buy them (unlike with used bookstores) it is a good time to be a writer, even if it may be harder to be traditionally published these days.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, Thimas, it's good to finally talk about the price. The publishers certainly seem to want the prices as high as possible, but they are the producers, they put up the capital - in old style capitalism that meant they made the decisions.

But it's changing. We just had a ruling in Canada over what streaming services have to pay musicians and it's not very much. I'm concerned that someday all ebooks on Amazon will cost a dollar and the writers will get a cent. Writers have already shown a willingness to take zero cents for their work and Amazon has certainly been paying attention.

Unknown said...

As someone who has been in the ebook publishing business, in one position or another, for the last 15 years, I will say only that, based on discussions with New York-published authors and the treatment received from other elements in that business model, it IS more like a religion than anything else. Basically, to question that model is heresy.

What most people don't know about the history of the Kindle is that before it was launched, Amazon spent several years placing people on mailing lists and on discussion groups where readers and publishers of ebooks hung out. In other words, they researched the industry while the Big Five were turning up their collective noses and sneering.

As a result, Amazon learned that the successful ebook publishers priced their books between $6 and $7, and that the majority of dedicated ebook readers weren't prepared to pay much more than that. Amazon didn't pick that $9.99 price out of a hat; they chose it deliberately because they knew that was the price point above which people would not be willing to go.

So, after Amazon did all the heavy work, the major publishers waltzed in and started making demands, despite the fact they knew squat about ebook publishing. Still don't, if you were to ask any successful ebook publisher, but that's for another time. What everyone conveniently forgot was that, back in about '03 or '04, an exec from one of the Big Five went on record that they saw ebooks as just a handy way to subsidize the costs of hardcovers.

Some of us have long memories.

Pre-production costs for a high quality ebook are no less than those incurred for any other format, and the $1 and $3 price tags so popular in self-publishing just aren't possible if the author has employed qualified professionals for such things as editing and cover art. However, $10 for an ebook by any of the big best-selling authors is perfectly reasonable to the majority of ebook readers, especially in light of the fact the author receives exactly the same royalties whatever the selling price is.

No, the main reason the Big Five hate $10 ebooks isn't because they fear it will "devalue" books. It's because they want to sell hardcovers, and they're afraid (rightfully so) that a $10 price tag on a new release by Stephen King of J. K. Rowling will drain off sales of the $30 hardcover to that $10 ebook.

Or, to make it simpler, they're afraid of losing their hardcover cash cow.