Tag Archives: Amazon

Thoughts on the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

Others have commented succinctly on the inadequately-known details of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon over a new contract to sell the publisher’s books online by the retail giant. But there’s one thing that has seldom been mentioned, and that is what I believe to be Hachette’s (and other publishers’) real problem with Amazon.

My thought is that the real dispute isn’t over what discounts Amazon wants to offer on the publishers’ books, or who controls the pricing, or how much Amazon will charge the publishers for preferred marketing. All of these are important issues to be disputed, but this sort of thing arises between publishers and booksellers all the time, and doesn’t result in the kind of high-profile dustup we’re seeing in the media today. If it weren’t for a completely different issue that makes publishers regard Amazon as The Enemy (albeit also a necessity of their economic survival), these arguments might (and probably would) still be taking place, but we wouldn’t hear about them. Amazon and Hachette would resolve them quietly and there would be no battling author open letters or media storms of protest.

What I believe Amazon’s great sin to be, the thing that sends Hachette and other publishers into a frenzy of opposition, is self-publishing.

Ebook pricing disputes threaten to shave off some profits from one side or the other. But self-publishing threatens the big publishers with extinction.

The problem lies in the way that publishing houses, especially the Big 5, operate or historically have operated. The publishers have, in the past, held control over distribution of books. Authors who wanted a chance to sell their books sought a publisher to publish them because there was no other choice. Publishers could dictate terms to all but the biggest and most successful and popular authors, because they had the authors over a barrel. Sign the contract or fade into obscurity — that was the choice.

To a somewhat lesser extent, the publishers could exercise similar dominance over consumers. They were the only source of books, and readers had to pay what the publishers charged or do without.

Self-publishing with print on demand and ebooks has changed that, and although Amazon isn’t the only company offering that service to authors, it’s by far the biggest, and the main reason why self-published books have become a significant and growing part of the book market.

The reality in today’s literary world is that publishing houses are unnecessary, and none more so than the Big 5. Smaller publishers often deliver a genuine service to writers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, but the Big 5 act like entitled mandarins or Medieval chartered monopolies, so entrenched in the attitude arising from the choke-hold on distribution that they used to hold that they cannot innovate or adapt, nor can they humble themselves to offer authors genuine value for what they ask.

When readers can buy excellent, well-reviewed books for a fraction of the price the big publishers ask, the publishers lose readers. When authors can enjoy superb distribution of their self-published titles, and retain complete artistic control and a high share of royalties, publishers lose writers. And without readers or writers, they will cease to exist. Because they have always been middlemen, not producers.

More than any other company in the world, Amazon is responsible for this change in circumstances.

Publishers regard Amazon as the enemy for this reason. It’s not because it’s the biggest book retailer in the world. That’s the reason given, but it’s disingenuous in my opinion.

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A Little More on Taboos — and Censorship

15574703_sI observed two events today in the world of publishing and book distribution that alarm and offend me.

First, it appears that Kobo has removed all directly self-published titles and many of the titles distributed by third parties (such as Smashwords and Draft2Digital) from its UK e-store. This was done in response to complaints about erotica being sold through that store. Apparently it’s only the UK store that’s involved here, so Kobo outlets in other countries including the U.S. are still carrying self-published titles.

Second, and a bit more disturbing because the distributor is much bigger than Kobo, Amazon appears to be engaged in its own overreaction to complaints about erotica, or certain kinds of erotica. An author of erotica I’m aware of has seen a book pulled by Amazon because it had a title that was suggestive of incest (even though that’s not the subject of the book).

Our culture is in the end stages of a transition from one paradigm of sexual morality to a new one. It’s not difficult to confuse that conflict between the old and new paradigms with the much older and in some ways more basic conflict between any set of sexual taboos (old or new) and freedom of speech and expression. Advocates of the new sexual morality are just as prone, it would seem, to excessive zeal and to imposing unacceptable restraints on freedom of speech as advocates of the old one ever were. To a creative person, to someone who values artistic liberty, this is not made any more tolerable by the fact that I agree with their views on sexual morality as such. These people may not be objecting to the expression of sexuality itself; they may not have the idea that women should be virgins until marriage or that sex in itself is obscene; they may not attempt to ban all expression of homosexuality. Their objections — as applied to actual sexual behavior — to treating women (or men) as objects, to exploitation of teenage children, to the abuses of the sex trade, to incest, and in general to abuses of power in connection with sex, may in my opinion be well-taken. I may agree with them completely as far as actual sexual behavior is concerned.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they make themselves enemies of art, of creativity, of the imagination, and of freedom itself, by attempting to restrain creative expression according to the same rules that apply to actual behavior.

Censorship was not abhorrent in the past merely because the standards applied to censor books, movies, and other creative expression were outdated and inappropriate to today’s world. It was also abhorrent because censorship is always abhorrent. It is not less abhorrent when applied to creative works that describe things which are forbidden by our modern, up-to-date taboos.

After all, we have plenty of ideas about wrongful behavior that have nothing to do with sex. Crime. War. Murder. Corporate greed. Religious intolerance. Would it be appropriate to censor books containing descriptions of that sort of wrongful behavior? Should we ban all detective fiction because it includes nasty behavior on the part of criminals? Should no war novel ever again be published?

But when it comes to sex, some people seem to see nothing wrong with using whatever tools they can to silence talk, to ban books, to put the creative imagination in shackles. No artist should tolerate this, not in the past, not now, not ever.

We are protected by the First Amendment in the United States, and by parallel laws in most other advanced nations, from fear that the government will impose censorship. But nothing in the law protects us against censorship by corporations engaged in the publication or distribution of art, in response to demands by the neo-Puritans among us. Unless we protect ourselves, by demanding that freedom of speech and expression be held as more precious to us than sexual purity, even according to modern standards incorporating feminism and gay rights.

We are in many ways living in a golden age of art. The Internet, electronic communication, self-publishing not only of the written word but of the visual arts and music as well, these free artists from the control of those who want to exploit them. But this freedom is not invulnerable. It must be protected.

Next week: More on contemporary fantasy, as I originally intended to write this week before I became sidetracked (or sideswiped) by outrage.

Image credit: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

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Vanity Publishing

As if we didn’t have enough reasons already to loathe and despise the Big 6 publishing companies, now they’re dirtying their hands with vanity publishing scams, and to add insult to injury this foray into the even-darker side of the publishing world is being described in press releases as publishing companies getting into “self-publishing.” Both Penguin and Simon & Schuster have bought or partnered with a vanity publishing company to lure writers into giving them their money.

Despite the press releases saying they are, Penguin and Simon & Schuster are not getting into self-publishing. Vanity publishing is not self-publishing. The Big 6 publishers will never support self-publishing in any way; self-publishing (the real thing) dooms their control of distribution, on which their profits depend, and is their death sentence. But they don’t mind fleecing would-be authors that might otherwise genuinely self-publish their work. If this isn’t final proof of just how much contempt the big corporations who control traditional publishing have for authors, what would be?

A review of the history of vanity publishing might be useful here. Vanity publishing is an industry that arose in the old days, before the internet, before real self-publishing existed, when books were marketed almost exclusively in brick-and-mortar bookstores. There was no such thing as an e-book, or print on demand, or even the ability to order books on-line for delivery by mail. Printing a book was expensive. It required a large capital investment. Distribution was limited, and reputable publishing companies had it under lock and key. It was not completely impossible to self-publish in those days, but it was expensive and extremely difficult and hardly any authors succeeded at it. If you were a writer and you wanted your book published, you submitted it to publishing companies because there was no alternative.

Although it was easier in those days to get your book published with a publishing company than it is today (in those days, publishing companies weren’t threatened with extinction, there were more of them*, and they were more willing to take a risk on a new author because they were a growing business not a shrinking one engaged in cannibalism), it still wasn’t easy. Since publication was expensive, publishers could only publish so many titles a year. They were selective. Authors typically piled up rejection notices for years before finally having a book accepted for publication. Naturally, many authors found this frustrating.

Enter vanity publishing, a dubious business model created to take advantage of that frustration. Vanity publishers were not selective the way standard publishing companies were, because they made the authors pay for all the costs involved rather than paying those costs themselves — and then some. And not only that, but once you had ponied up thousands of dollars to see your book in print, you didn’t own the books, the vanity publisher did — you had to buy copies from them, and they paid you “royalties” just like the big boys, taking a hefty share of any proceeds of sale, even though the author had shelled out the capital to produce it and should, by any reasonable judgment, own all of it!

Of course, with no promotion and few to no bookstores willing to carry vanity titles, sales would be meager to nonexistent anyway. Vanity publishers made their money from author payments, not from sales of books. Vanity publishing came with a heavy load of stigma and rightly so, because an author would resort to it only because he could not find a conventional publisher, and usually that meant bad writing, poor editing or none, and poor judgment on the part of the author. (Some of that stigma transferred to real self-publishing, but that’s changing.)

There’s a very simple rule of thumb that can tell you whether you are dealing with a genuine self-publishing platform or a vanity-publishing scam. If they want your money before they will publish you, DON’T!

Now, there are two services that may be offered to an author for which up-front payment is appropriate. These are editing and cover design. To add to the confusion, publishing companies (large and small) normally include these services for any book they accept for publication without charging the author up front. A company that charges for these services isn’t necessarily a scam, but two questions must be asked. First, can you publish with the company without making use of these services, at no charge? And second, is the price involved appropriate given the market rates for freelance editing and cover design? If the answer to the first question is no, my advice is not to consider using that service for a split second. If the answer to the second is no, then obviously you should look elsewhere for these vital services. (There are actually ways to have both without paying a cent — which is not to say that professional editors and designers aren’t worth what you pay them.)

Here’s the baseline. You can publish an e-book or a print-on-demand book with many different on-line retailers directly. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (for e-books), Amazon CreateSpace (for printed books), Smashwords (e-books only, also acts as a distributor), and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit! are probably the most important ones, but there are others. For all four of these genuine self-publishing outlets, you can upload a book that meets their formatting guidelines and sell it on-line through the platform’s web site at no charge to you whatsoever. Of course, you’re responsible for the quality of your book, and far too many self-published authors cut corners here that they shouldn’t, but the fact remains that as far as making the book available to readers, no genuine self-publishing platform charges for this service. Instead, they each take a share of the proceeds when the book is sold. (A small share. Smashwords takes 15%, Amazon slightly more than 30%, and Barnes & Noble 35%.)

One could go into a lot more detail, but if you follow that one rule you can’t go wrong. If they want you to pay up front to have your book published, that’s vanity publishing. If not, that’s self-publishing. Know the difference, and don’t be fooled.

 

* Let me qualify this statement. As the advent of self-publishing causes a revolution in the publishing world, a lot of small publishers have begun mushrooming to accommodate the new reality. When I speak of publishers in this article’s context, they’re not the ones I’m talking about; I’m referring to the major corporate-owned publishing companies. Please excuse any confusion that arises as a result. These are confusing times.

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