Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Your Book is Not a Special Snowflake

I know I promised not to talk about the Hachette/Amazon thing ever again, but it just keeps dragging on and on, and when things drag on and on, ugly things get exposed. The latest of these is a letter to the Amazon Board of Directors from Authors United, a group of authors who've banded together to stand up for the Everyman/woman writer whose books are caught in the middle of the corporate struggle.

To be clear, I have no problem with this in theory. I think authors should have a voice in the business side of their livelihood. In practice, however, Authors United's efforts to be a voice for all authors have been, shall we say, highly disappointing, and this letter is the worst offender yet. Just take a look at this choice paragraph:
We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers.
Casual racism much? I'm pretty sure China has many, many talented authors who might take umbrage to the idea that their stories are only important as a cheap replacement for American novels. Also, note how the needs of authors are so much more important than the needs of the people who make razor blades and shoes. Clearly, exploitation of foreign workers is totally cool with Authors United, so long as those workers are not authors.

There's more, of course, but Courtney Milan has already eloquently torn into all of this, so I'll just point you to her post and add "Ditto." My personal bone to pick here, however, is the assertion that books are somehow different from other commercial goods.

This is hardly the first time the "books aren't like all that other stuff, books are SPECIAL!" argument has cropped up in the Amazon/Hachette morass. Even all around cool dude John Scalzi writes "[Readers] do not see books as an interchangeable commodity with a garden rake, even when they aren't bestsellers." But while I agree that novels are not interchangeable, that every story represents the sweat/blood/tears/time/etc. of its author, that books have the power to touch people more personally and profoundly than any garden rake (hopefully), they are still marketable items produced to satisfy wants and needs, which is the very definition of a commodity.

The whole business of book selling is based around the treatment of the book as product. For years, the widest available book format was the Mass Market paperback, whose commercial, commodity nature is right there in the name! Books act like commodities, too, just look at the numbers. My own novel, Fortune's Pawn, is currently discounted to $1.99, and sales correspondingly shot up because that's what sales do when there's a discount. Likewise, publishers will sometimes give a book a different cover if sales are low, as happened to my own Eli books. Why? For the same reason cereal makers keep redoing their packaging: things that look better/newer/more exciting sell more. It's the same pattern you see with hair dryers or rakes or any other commodity.

If books were truly unique, non-commodity works of art, there would be only one copy. New works would be sold in book galleries, and classics would hang in a book museum for people to stand in front of and read as a unique book experience...and it would be HORRIBLE. There's a reason the printing press is hailed as one of the most important inventions in human history. It took books, which had previously been unique, hand copied works of art available only to the rich, and made them reproducible, vastly expanding the number of people with access.

It is precisely the cheap, abundant, easily accessible, commodity nature of books that makes them such a huge part of our lives. Clearly, Authors United thinks so, too, because one of their primary complaints is that Amazon has stopped discounting their books, a move they claim has made sales go down "by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent." To be clear, this is a valid complaint. By ensuring Hachette books have a relatively higher price to the rest of their stock, Amazon is intentionally hobbling sales. BUT OH MY GOD, PEOPLE, you can't say "Books are special! Books are not commodities!" in one breath and then complain that Amazon isn't treating your book fairly as a commodity the next.

So look, Authors United, I get that you're mad at Amazon and that you don't appreciate being used as pawns in a larger corporate battle, but y'all need to get a grip. No one's saying you have to wholeheartedly embrace the cold, commercial side of publishing, but you do have to acknowledge that it exists. You have to accept that you're not a unique unicorn with magical bookmaking powers and that the basic rules of economics do, indeed, apply to you and your work. Books are commodities. They behave like commodities, function as commodities, and they're going to be sold like commodities. If you have a problem with how Amazon is treating the sale of your commodity, that's fine, but don't try to argue that the rules should be different for you because your book is a special snowflake. It's not. You're not. The rules apply, and perpetuating the lie that they don't helps no one, least of all authors.

Someone designed that rake, too, you know.


Leila said...

Rachel, great post. It's funny to me how much people fear change. The publishing industry is in flux. This public spat with Amazon and Hachette has done neither group any favors. But it has show everyone interested in being published that we have to be business smart as well as creative. There is no one true path, there is a ton of opportunity.

Daniel said...

"exploration of foreign workers"

I'm pretty sure you meant "exploitation". :)

Anyway, excellent post. I'll add my "ditto" as well.

Kai Herbertz said...

Hi Rachel,

I agree with you that while the story is a unique work of art, the book itself is a commodity. However, I disagree when it comes to the assessment of the intention of the Author's United quote.

"Casual racism much? I'm pretty sure China has many, many talented authors who might take umbrage to the idea that their stories are only important as a cheap replacement for American novels."

Since they were specifically mentioning razors and shoes, I don't think they wanted to imply that books by Chinese authors are cheap or of poorer quality. Also, companies do outsource to countries like India or China in an effort to increase their profit margin by utilizing the lower wages in those countries. That in itself is certainly sad, but not necessarily racist.

"Also, note how the needs of authors are so much more important than the needs of the people who make razor blades and shoes."

The people who make razor blades and shoes are employed and have a steady income. The comparison with authors does not really work. I agree that the whole point of Author's United was weak in that sense.

"Clearly, exploration of foreign workers is totally cool with Authors United, so long as those workers are not authors."

I don't think it is that clear and I disapprove (for what it's worth) of headlining that - certainly possible - interpretation with the word "clearly".
The line "We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes" seems to mean that they condone exploitation of foreign workers, but at the same time I personally do like cheaper anything, but would buy higher priced items from countries with better conditions for the workers (case in point, a big suitcase manufacturer gave the customers the option to buy "made in China" or "made in Belgium"). Therefore I don't think it's a clear case of condoning terrible conditions, but rather a case of unfortunate phrasing.

Anyway, I've rambled enough and have been far more contrary than I like.

All the best,


Peter said...

I'd actually go further and argue that books are, in fact, an interchangeable commodity, or at least are to a much greater degree than anybody in publishing is willing to admit in public. Show me a reader who has never walked into a bookstore and agonized over spending the month's book budget on "This $25 hardcover or those three $8 paperbacks" and I'll show you somebody whose last name is Rockefeller.

Anonymous said...

Glad you spoke up for the rake.

Courtney Milan said...

Sorry, Kai, I can't see how we would parse the statement that authors cannot be outsourced to China except to assume that the books that Chinese authors created would be inferior.

Their argument is not, "Publishers can save money by outsourcing the production of books to China and India, because those authors can be paid less." It is, "Unlike other industries, publishers are stuck using American authors, and so we must make sure we keep paying authors American wages."

Shawn said...

I also believe you misunderstood that bit about China. I took it as a comparison to American, British, etc. Authors and Chinese factory workers. Still offensive, but I'd consider it more high hopes on their part than an actual argument and a counter productive point at its base regardless.

As you pointed out, Humans love bargains, Americans more than many. We buy things we don't need if we can get it a rock bottom price. Hell, if its free people will take it even if they don't know what it is. Amazon knows this.

Authors United may like to believe that each book is a priceless work of art, but consumers disagree. They don't care if the product is made by penny paid Chinese children or by starving authors. They want the best deal while still feeling they obtained it fairly (or perhaps not).

Amazon knows there are authors that would work for free if it would get their name on a book. They also know that these dime a dozen books are far easier to sell than an ebook that costs as much as a Hardcover.

So Authors United have undermined themselves by denying that books aren't the dime a dozen products that they are. If they weren't it wouldn't matter to consumers if they were five dollars more, Authors and Chinese workers be damned.

Sites like Fictionpress and Wattpad prove how large the market (or lack of market) there is for free, mixed quality books and that authors will produce for only the prestige of doing so. I've seen published authors make the mistake of baiting users there with samples, not understanding that many have no intention to pay for a published book on a site where they can get entire products for free. Perhaps they understand and the few extra sales are worth it, but I've also seen users get annoyed at the authors when they realize they're being baited.

I hope I didn't just rehash your post. I tend to lose focus on my point when I rant.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Leila yep. Every author climbs the mountain in their own way.

@Daniel doh. Fixed! TY!


I appreciate your point. Honestly, I'm sure the author of this letter didn't "mean" to imply those things, especially once the awfulness was pointed out, but that's what casual racism is: the thoughtless exposure of true beliefs.

This is bad enough when it slips out during conversation, but this isn't conversation or some off the cuff piece. It's a curated letter that's supposed to represent writers, all of whom supposedly read and approved it before sending. The fact that this paragraph got through all of that with no one going "hey, wait a second" shows to me that either 1) these letters aren't being as widely read and approved as advertised or 2) the whole of Authors United is suspect. Personally, I'm leaning toward #1.

Thanks for commenting! I didn't make the above clear in the post, and I appreciate your voice in the discussion.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Peter I think you're more right than you know. I've paid through the nose for authors I love, but I'm a huge booklover, and I make book decisions based off price all the time. I wait for sales and don't buy if I feel the value isn't there and generally behave like a consumer. The vast majority of book buyers do, and people who say they don't are being willfully blind.

@Anonymous Someone must speak for the rakes!

Pretty much ditto everything @Courtney Milan says :D (Thanks for stopping by!)

@Shawn, As I said to Kai above, I really don't think the racism was meant nastily. I think they were trying to reference the flood of local work overseas and just weren't thinking about the racist overtones, but (as Courtney pointed out above) that doesn't mean the racism isn't still there and doesn't need to be addressed, or at least called out as not cool. Personally, I hope this was just the work of one author that got rubber stamped by the rest. Doesn't say much about Authors United, but it's better than the alternative.

I think we're pretty much on the same page in all of this. Books are commodities, and the sooner we all wake up to this, the happier we'll all be.

Thanks for stopping by to add to the discussion!!

Peter said...

On second reading once I got past the blind and casual racism of the China crack, the notion of James Patterson signing a letter stating that "authors can't be outsourced" and "each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual" caused my irony-meter to explode.

Carl Sinclair said...

Great post Rachel.

J.C. Fann said...

Hi Rachel, I really appreciate your and Courtney Milan's takes on that awful letter; I felt the same revulsion when I read it. On a hilarious note, they've gone and taken out the "razor blades and cheaper shoes" bit, and replaced "China" with "another country". Now it's all better! Hope they recalled those FedEx packages in time.

These people (person? Maybe one genius wrote it and the others didn't bother to read it) can't get out of their own way...

Anonymous said...

Isn't it curious how they don't talk directly to the one side they have contracts with, Hachette? In my view the authors (suppliers) just don't have a dog in the fight between Hachette (their publisher) and Amazon (H's distributor). There are a lot of issues in common, no doubt, but Amazon has no reason to listen to them as they "work" for Hachette.

Seems they should direct their issues and ire at their publisher where it may make a difference.

From other sources it looks like all 5 big pubs will be going through a renegotiation phase in the next couple of years. Amazon needs to nip this in the bud before it carries over to their other big pub contracts. Even so, dropping a major supplier would not be easy or good for anyone. Even so, it would be so emotionally satisfying to hear the howls were that to occur.

I for one, would hate to see this repeated for each big pub that comes to the table (assuming they don't pull a H and not negotiate).