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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-02-01 05:30
Subject: [publishing] Amazon's Kindle readers, and the capitulation letter
Security: Public
Tags:amazonfail, personal, publishing
In case you're wondering, I won't be restoring my Amazon links, or reopening my cancelled Amazon account. The underlying issue of Amazon abusing their market power by pulling the print titles to score points in an ebook pricing dispute is unresolved, and probably unresolvable. I simply don't see any reason to support a business that makes decisions with such schoolyard petulance.

I don't yet have an informed opinion on Amazon's dispute with Macmillan. For obvious economic reasons (they publish me) I have a lot of latent and active loyalty to Macmillan. On the other hand, until Friday night, I had a lot of active brand loyalty to Amazon, a retailer with which I've spent many, many thousands of dollars over the years. But as to the underlying ebook pricing question, whether Macmillan's proposed 'agency' model is a good idea, how Amazon should be pricing or not — I have opinions on those elements, but I don't understand them well enough to take an position.

So, as I've said repeatedly, my issue isn't with ebooks, or Kindle, or even the core of the Amazon-Macmillan dispute. It's with Amazon's tactical decision to pull the Macmillan print titles along with the Macmillan Kindle titles. That is corporate bullying pure and simple, and it harmed a lot of people who had nothing to do with the core dispute. It's like me beating up your kid brother because you owe me money, except the Macmillan print authors and their fans are the kid brothers in this deal.

It's been very interesting reading the Kindle forum on this topic. As I predicted [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], to many loyal Kindle readers, the authors concerned about the suspension of print sales look greedy and short-sighted. The amount of anti-author sentiment on the board is saddening, and perhaps frightening, given that people talking there are readers. Even the anti-publisher sentiment is a bit saddening, though more understandable, I suppose. But where do these angry readers think books come from?

I've spent a lot more time and energy this weekend than I should hanging in on the Amazon Kindle discussion board, trying to respond even-handedly to comments addressed to me, regardless of their tone. (Some were quite abusive to me.) As I said over there this morning:
Believe me, it isn't a lot of fun for me to hang in here discussing this with you guys when I'm getting named called, yelled at, told I'm an idiot, and deliberately misinterpreted over and over again, but I'm making the effort because I care a great deal what the Kindle audience thinks. I fought like hell in my last contract round to get my books ON to Kindle because I believe in ebooks so strongly. And if you'd actually read any of my statements here or on my blog, you'd know I've not said one word against ebooks or their readers. My complaint is with the way Amazon handled print books in this matter, not with the Amazon-Macmillan ebook pricing dispute, over which I still haven't developed an informed opinion because it is so fricking complicated.

I realize that arguing on the Internet is like pissing on a forest fire, but I really do passionately care about what readers think. Any author who doesn't is a fool.

But the truly amazing thing to me is the Amazon response itself, which I'm going to reproduce below with commentary. It's a jolly piece of self-serving tripe that seriously misrepresents both the issue at hand and Amazon's response to the issue, while being very well crafted at riling up the Kindle loyalists against the evil, monopolistic publishers.

Dear Customers:

[Amazon isn't actually talking to their customers, given that this letter was buried on the Kindle discussion boards, and presented to a very Amazon friendly audience that is passionate about ebook pricing, especially the $9.99 movement people. So even the greeting is misleading. It certainly doesn't address authors or anyone concerned with the larger business issues either.]

Macmillan, one of the "big six" publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

[Ok, you're a retailer, so one of your suppliers is changing their terms. This isn't exactly a betrayal of free market capitalism, guys. It might even be that little thing we like to call "innovation." You know, like that company in Seattle that invented the Kindle.]

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles.

[Yes, we know that. Notice no comment on why print titles should be included in this cessation of sale. Print doesn't even come through the same distribution channel, or on the same contract terms, so this was truly pointless.]

We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate...

[Well, that's calling a spade a spade. I wonder if Amazon's corporate PR department saw this letter. Not to mention the shareholder relations people.]

...and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles,

[This is so laughable that even a high school economics student could take it down between the rolling giggles. As Lee Goldberg said, it's like complaining that Nabisco has a monopoly on Oreos. Or, wait, I know! Like complaining that Amazon has a monopoly on the Kindle! Nah, couldn't be. This phrase is the one that really makes me wonder if Amazon's PR was anywhere near this letter. Or their Legal department. Or their executive team. Or, really, anyone over the age of 12.]

and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book.

[Strangely enough, Macmillan's own statement in the matter claims that ebook prices will drop overall with this proposal. I can't tell you if that's true or not, but Amazon conveniently mentions the high end price point without referencing the rolling nature of the price drops as proposed by Macmillan. Or the $5.99 price point proposed as the low end. Omitting some of the facts is always a better way to make yourself out as the victim, so go Amazon!]

We don't believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan.

[Translation: We're down on our knees praying this doesn't happen.]

And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

[Right. Because the independent press hasn't been active in ebooks up until now, and it never occurred to self-published authors to jump into ebooks until Macmillan's bullying woke them up to the market opportunity. Or something. Wait, does this statement by Amazon actually mean anything at all?]

Kindle is a business for Amazon,

[Yep. And books are a business for Macmillan. Amazing how that works.]

...and it is also a mission.

[Excellent for you guys. Explain to me again how your Kindle mission means you should pull my print books from sale? Still wondering about that one.]

We never expected it to be easy!

[It sure isn't easy when you make it harder on yourself, embarrass your company, piss off the authors whose books you sell and the readers who buy them, and generally behave like schoolyard bullies. So way to go Amazon, fulfilling that "not easy" mission statement.]

Thank you for being a customer.

[Not any more, not me.]

Um, yeah. I'll be curious to see if the grown-ups at Amazon comment today.

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User: manmela
Date: 2010-02-01 14:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I see the problem as 2-fold (IMHO)

1) Publishing has done a very bad job of managing the reader's perception of the cost of manufacturing a book. Ask most readers and I reckon you'd get a response back that about 50% of a book's cost is pure production costs (i.e. ignoring editing and layout). And so if a £8 paperback can make money, an ebook should therefore be £4. Anything more than that, gets seen as greed. The numbers and percentages might be different but the perception is the same.

2) Writers claim they are caught in the crossfire, that they are innocent parties. And yes they are, but having signed contracts with Macmillan they are seen as having made a decision to "have got into bed" with the publisher. "As they are happy to reap the rewards" (because as we know everyone who publishes a book is a millionaire!) so it is that some readers feel they can't really moan when things go bad.

Note: these views have been compiled from several people I spoke to on the matter over the weekend, and whilst my own views are slightly more informed I do confess that there are elements to point #2 that I do have some empathy with.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-01 14:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Point 2 is one of the things I've been commenting about. Authors are the most public face of publishing. As for "getting into bed" with the publisher, how else does one get published? That's either an oxymoron or a tautology, but it's too early in the morning for me to figure it out. All of which underscores my observation that the writers have the most to lose here, in PR terms, while still having no power in the dispute at hand. (How am I, a writer contracted to Tor Books, supposed to influence Macmillan's negotiations with Amazon?)
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User: manmela
Date: 2010-02-01 15:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Understand that as a writer I can see both sides, and I have read feverishly this weekend to genuinely try and counter my ignorance where it might exist. And I still may be wrong (well as wrong as an opinion can ever be) but I think it's more important to be honest in the hope that through debate things can become clearer.

As for "getting into bed" with the publisher, how else does one get published?

You don't have to sign with MacMillan. In the free market economy, you are not obliged beyond your current contractual obligations to publish through them. Now I know that's easier said than done, that in this day and age a writer is just happy to be published, but each person has their own happy balance point between principles and commercial risk. Look, if this happened to me, I'd try and be stoic but would be as annoyed as you or any of the other authors. If I have a financial relationship with the publisher, I might not be able to influence the outcome, but I'm still linked. And of all the things I've read this weekend (and believe me I have changed a lot of my opinions this weekend based on some excellent posts by yourself, Tobias Buckell, and more) the one problem I still have is the way some authors have claimed to be innocent victims. Victims - yes... one hundred percent agree, no doubts there. But innocent? The opposite of innocent is guilt, and I don't believe writers are guilty (so maybe innocent isn't the right word). But they are part of the MacMillan machine, the family. You benefit from MacMillan's profits and you have actively decided by signing a contract with them to do so. That doesn't mean you have any say in pricing or board decisions but my own feeling is like marriage, you've agreed to take the rough with the smooth, "for better or worse"
A really bad example (I'm at work and my co-workers are being so noisy it's hard to concentrate on being unproductive). If I join a group who then decides they want to drown kittens, if I protest that I don't like being accused of being a kitten-drowner, people will tell me not to associate myself with a group who drowns kittens. There's probably a better analogy, that given time and a bit of quiet I could convey. And I'm not suggesting MacMillian are drowning kittens BTW!

How am I, a writer contracted to Tor Books, supposed to influence Macmillan's negotiations with Amazon?
I genuinely like Tor, they publish great writers and seem like really good people. But as a writer, if I felt there was more than a one-off risk that my books could be delisted by a major online store (costing me sales) or that prices were set so high it would cost me readers, or so low that my royalties would be non-existent, I'd seriously consider the merits of signing a deal with them. Just as readers can protest in a free-market economy by deciding where they buy from, Authors (to a much lesser degree) can decide who they sign a publishing contract with. Yes, it isn't easy and everyone has a different tipping point for principles to override a commercial decision, but then a lot of writers decide not to self-publish for reasons of principle.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-01 15:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First of all, it's not the least bit clear to me that Macmillan has done anything unprincipled in the ebook pricing negotiations. Amazon clearly has with delisting the print titles, but that's been my point all along — that really isn't Macmillan's responsibility in any way that I can see, as it was a unilateral decision by Amazon.

But for the sake of argument, let's posit that Macmillan has in fact acted contrary to my interests as one of their authors. Why would switching to one of the other six houses improve my position, when they all follow the same business models and trade practices? I'm no more likely to find a 'safer' haven with one of the other major trade publishers, as they substantially share Macmillan's business interests and issues, in much the same fashion that airlines or automakers or fast food chains share business interests and issues.

However, again, let's posit that I can be assured that one of Macmillan's competing houses will treat me better, hold my interests closer, and not behave in our assumed unethical manner. Switching houses is difficult at best. I'd essentially have to wait out my current contract cycle (which extends through 2012 for initial releases and 2013 for follow-ons) to be clear of Macmillan. I'd have to convince another house to invest in my author brand, which is closely associated with Tor at this point. I'd have to convince another editor to sufficient interest in my work, which is a deeply idiosyncratic process more or less lateral to the publishing house issue. Yes, I'm established, I could probably pull it off, but only at a likely substantial cost to my career and my income — I would probably miss a year or two or more of releases, and have to deal with contract entanglements. And that's assuming I could even sell to another house, which is far from a given. Yes, easier for me as an established author, but I'm low midlist, which is about the lowest form of life in the trade press. I'm simply not popular enough for another house to go to the trouble of taking me on, were I in this theoretical dispute with Macmillan.

Switching publishing houses isn't like changing your grocery store of choice, or even car model of choice. While the writer has ultimate and final control of who they publish with — we own the copyrights, after all — we have very little control and only slightly more influence over who wants to publish with us. It's a very strange power dynamic at best.

In other words, my principles had better be mightily offended before I'd be willing to mess with my Macmillan relationship for their sake. And I've said before, it's not at all clear to me why I should consider Macmillan a villain in the first place here. Pricing disputes occur every day between corporations, there's nothing unusual about the basic issue here, even if the larger implications are enormous.

Edited at 2010-02-01 03:39 pm (UTC)
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User: manmela
Date: 2010-02-01 16:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
One of my positions that has changed a full 180 degrees is on whether MacMillan is the villain here. That is in no short part due to blog posts made by you, Scott Westerfield, Tobias Buckell and others. I can now see where my thinking was wrong. Seriously, for all the time they took to write, those blogs were not a waste as I am sure there are many more like me who were the better for them

There's a lot above to think about, and to be honest I probably need the benefit of time to mull it all over before seeing if my opinion on those other points has changed rather than blathering on regardless. This isn't about me trying to say I am right and you are wrong, but in trying to get a better understanding. Thank you for taking the time to respond
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-01 16:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Of course. And I know you're not messing with me. We've been communicating online for a long time, and have a level of conversational trust arising from that.

Happy to take the effort to work it through — that's how I learn stuff, too, and since we're having this conversation in public, it might be helpful to others to follow along.

All good, my friend.
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User: fledgist
Date: 2010-02-01 17:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are set up to lose either way, it seems. As the, ahem, public face of publishing you're going to look greedy, although you're not. As a company that has made access to books easier, and often cheaper, Amazon has positioned itself as the friend of the customer, which makes criticising them look self-interested. The fact that Amazon is trying to grab as much as possible of the market and that Macmillan is just as self-interested, and is on your side because it is selling what you produce and not for any altruistic purpose, does tend to get left out.
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User: anghara
Date: 2010-02-01 21:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Writers claim they are caught in the crossfire, that they are innocent parties. And yes they are, but having signed contracts with Macmillan they are seen as having made a decision to "have got into bed" with the publisher. " "


Double blink.

What, exactly, does this mean? You do realise that "getting into bed with a publisher" means, er, you know, actually GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED? Which is the thing that everyone's fighting over - the published book? As written by, you know, oh, SOMEBODY, I guess anyone could write any book and you wouldn't know the difference?

There's plenty of blame to go around in this issue but the ONE group of people who (a) haven't actually DONE anything other than produce the basic goods being fought over (and then has no further control over what happens to those goods) and (b)seems to be increasingly blamed by the readers for whole mess. I've seen it over and over, in commentary on Amazonfail blogs - "well, I"ll just buy other writers' books" - "I"ll buy books from writers who are willing to sell to me" - is anybody out there listening? WE AREN'T selling you the books. We don't have an input on the price. And if you don't care WHOM you're reading so long as you don't spend more than $10 on it (why is THAT such a magical number anyway?) well - there isn't much I can do about that. But I do find it sad that people seem to be more loyal to a piece of hardware - the Kindle - than they are to the living and breathing human beings who provide the content which makes that Kindle actually perform any sort of useful task.

I know that writers are like dragon's teeth, and if you kill one a hundred more will spring up to take their place. But individual writers are unique voices. You kill that one and the hundred that spring into being to fill the vacuum may just be a loud white noise.

Don't dismiss the writers as of no consequence. We are the beginning. We are the source. Without us Amazon and Macmillan would have nothing to fight about. Without us there would probably BE no Amazon or Macmillan.

Just a thought.
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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-02-01 23:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's a truism that for any mass-produced product the first item, the prototype, 'costs' much more than the umpteenth.

In the rare case of a title published only in e-form, the e-prototype cost might be comparable to the paper-prototype (though I doubt it).

But when the prototype has been made (especially if a paper prototype was made), then there will be quite a difference between the publisher's cost of the umpteenth paper copy and the umteenth e-copy (approaching negigible).

See my LJ post, "Where's Korzybsky and how much should he cost in ebook?"
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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-02-01 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Typo alert:

" but Amazon conveniently mentions the high end price point with referencing the rolling nature of the price drops as proposed by Macmillan. Or the $5.99 price point proposed as the low end."

Shouldn't that be "withOUT referencing"?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-01 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you! A rather critical typo at that... Corrected, with gratitude.
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They Didn't Ask Me: 7of9borg
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2010-02-01 16:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
While I have some other thoughts on this whole "Amazon Kindling Bonfire of Vanity Fail"® ™, I've very much appreciated the time you've taken to describe the author's position in all this. I, too, have been dismayed at some of the posts on the Kindle comments. Your commented version of Amazon's letter is right on point.

Thank you, good sir, as always.

Dr. Phil
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Elizabeth McCoy
User: archangelbeth
Date: 2010-02-01 16:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Of course Macmillan has a monopoly on its books! DUH! It publishes them! And Apple has a monopoly on Macintoshes! And I have a monopoly on my unpublished works! These people, they say "monopoly" as if it's a bad thing.

Pulling the print books was stoopid. That just loses them money and makes them look dumb, in my eyes. They think they can be like Apple iTunes, dictating prices to the record companies... But Amazon set themselves up to sell print books first. All they can do, if they want to control the price (and I wonder if the control they really want is to set books at 9.99 and leave them there rather than risk them going down to 5.99 or worse), is what iTunes does: say "this is the price we want to sell ebooks at; take it or leave it" and then shrug if a publisher leaves it.

I wonder if the true, underlying control part is that Macmillan said something like, "Yeah, you see your contract here? With the 'you suggest the price and Amazon prices it whatever it feels like' clause? No. We set the price and it will go up or down as we see fit. Change the contract."
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User: shaolingrrl
Date: 2010-02-02 08:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What disturbs me is that even as late as tonight, one of the local news stations was reporting that Macmillan pulled its titles.

I wrote them and asked for a correction. May not do any good, but I did write them. *sigh*
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-02 14:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The amount of misreporting the media on what are basic, publicly accessible facts has been bizarre.
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