June 23, 2014
Should self-published authors side with Hachette?
by Dennis Johnson
Laura Miller has long been one of the most perceptive critics in the book business. First as a founding editor of Salon, then as a New York Times critic, now as columnist and critic for both places, she’s consistently written with a wonderfully direct style, and an intelligence and acuity second to none. (Full disclosure: Back in the nineties, before Melville House even existed, she commissioned a couple of stories from me at Salon.)
But lately she’s become one of the most perceptive critics of the business itself. In a series of smart columns about Amazon over the last few years, she’s covered the waterfront from a devout reader’s perspective, in particular discussing her own usage of Amazon and her devolvement as a genuine fan.
It’s bittersweet stuff, but her most recent column — regarding the Hachette – Amazon standoff — is, to this publisher, not only notably insightful, but dares to say things publishing commentators have been understandably timid to discuss. That is, she has the nerve to discuss the role of the so-called “independent writers” — and to depict them as perhaps independent only of reason.
Note that Miller isn’t the first to dare to speak about vanity press authors critically — last year Andrew Franklin, head of the terrific UK indie Profile Books famously declared “The overwhelming majority [of self-published books] are terrible — unutterable rubbish. They don’t enhance anything in the world.”
Still, the virulent onslaught Franklin underwent for saying that shows you why Miller is one of the very few to similarly comment.
She does so, it should also be noted, with a notably less pugnacious style than Franklin, but it’s no less lethal. “It’s easy to understand [self-published writers’] impulse to defend Amazon’s e-book publishing programs,” Miller begins, “given that many had tried in vain to publish their books with traditional houses before opting for, say, Kindle Direct Publishing.”
“However,” she goes on, “the dispute with Hachette has nothing to do with Amazon’s publishing programs and everything to do with the way traditionally published books are retailed, a distinction that self-published authors ignore at their peril.”
There’s been lots of great peripheral reporting related to the siege of Hachette, including from some unexpected places — a Time magazine report by Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Here’s Why Amazon Is More Ruthless Than Walmart,” is particularly compelling. (His observation, brilliant in its simplicity, is that Walmart, at least, has some skin in the game, in that they do actually buy products from suppliers they then have to sell.)
But Miller’s observations are the keenest I’ve seen yet on the Amazon-fueled insurgency that’s done so much to make the literary marketplace a bizarrely nasty place nowadays.
She’s worth quoting at length:
One reason for the crossed wires here is that most self-published authors really, really, really hate traditional publishing, which has either rejected them or (in the case of authors who use Amazon to make their out-of-print titles available once more), let them down. The intense rage such experiences instill can lead to strange glitches in logic, such as the charge that it is publishers who have engaged in “monopolistic” practices because not everyone who wants to publish with a traditional house has succeeded in winning a contract.
“Big Pub basically runs its own monopoly over writers,” a commenter on a New York Times article retorted, and I received an email about the Amazon-Hachette clash in which the writer complained of “the impossibility of a non-NYC writer just getting his foot in the door without sleeping with professors, visiting authors, publishers; without an M.F.A.; or without publications in major magazines (100 percent of which are supplied by agents). Talk about monopolistic!” [Note: The Big Five — until recently the Big Six, but conglomeration is an ongoing reality when suppliers must negotiate with a single enormous retailer — compete with each other for the books they want to publish. The fact that none of them want to publish a particular book is not proof that they are conspiring against the book’s author, however frustrated the author may be by the experience.]
In fact, it sometimes seems that self-published authors hate traditional publishing far more than they love Amazon, and because they believe Amazon will destroy traditional publishing, they’re happy to cheer it on.
It’s enough to put into perspective all those reports that try to appear evenly “balanced” by finding some self-published talented and articulate lottery-winner like Hugh Howey to momentarily stop going on about the imperiled right of everyone in the world to play the lottery and give them a quote about the “other side.” (While Howey seems to have been anointed the go-to self-published author of the moment, Mike Shatzkin, at least, has been masterfully taking him apart, albeit with strange delicacy, in a series of posts — here’s his most recent — at his Idealog blog.)
But anyway, as Miller goes on to note, the bilious animosity animating self-published writers is making them miss the point — the price point, that is: “Even the science fiction novelist Hugh Howey, a talented writer who has made an established success of self-publishing, does not charge more than $5.99 for any of his titles …” compared to the more expensive books from the big houses still making the bestseller lists. Which is why “it’s in the best interest of self-published authors that traditionally published books retain their higher prices.” As Miller explains, “the Kindle top sellers remain dominated by traditionally published e-books, despite their higher prices.”
It’s simple enough, once Miller spells it out:
It helps to understand what’s happening here if we all stop thinking about a traditional book publishing contract as a halo of literary worthiness bestowed upon an author by entities invested with a sacred, ineffable authority. Actually, it’s a business deal. It signifies that a disinterested party (i.e., not your mom or spouse) believes enough in the book’s potential appeal that it is willing to put its own money into the project. Publishers don’t just supply professional services (editing, design, distribution, marketing); they are investors. Doesn’t mean they’re always right; publishers often aren’t. But publishing a book is always a gamble of sorts, and a traditional publisher has ponied up.
From the perspective of many readers, this is a meaningful testimonial. Yes, self-published authors also believe passionately in their own work, but as we’ve all had a chance to learn by now, even really bad writers are convinced that they are good writers.
Regardless, even those bad writers stand to benefit from Hachette winning the current war with Amazon. As Miller also sagely remarks to the self-published, “Amazon may seem like your best friend right now, but so it also seemed to traditional publishers when it appeared in the late 1990s, as a counterbalance to chain bookstores. A self-publisher is still a publisher and occasionally all publishers clash with the retailers who bring their wares to market.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives