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.