Essay–A POX ON ALL YOUR HOUSES
I’m pissed. I’m beyond pissed. Why? Because a whiny bunch of “celebrity” authors have entered into a fray they not only DO NOT UNDERSTAND, but are purposely distorting a shit-ton of facts to protect their own self-interest.
James Patterson was the first shit-bag to do this. Now? Much to my disappointment, Stephen Colbert has shown his true colors. Instead of studying an issue from both sides, he’s simply towing the company line. The company line? That the pigopolist Big 5 (he’s published by Hachette) are being taken advantage of by a predatory pigopolist.
Deep breath. Okay, I’m calm. I promise. Guess I should explain what in the f’ing hell I’m talking about.
I’m a writer. I’m an independent publisher. I’m also, as of next year, going to be a hybrid author. As I’ve said before, I do all the things a big publisher does. I pay an editor. I pay a professional artist/designer to ensure my books are as beautiful as they can be. As a writer, I work my ass off. As a publisher, I do that too, but I also pay for the expertise of people who know what they’re doing.
When I first published several of my books, I didn’t follow this practice. It no doubt hurt several of my ebooks. But I learned my lesson and I’m still working to fix all of that. It takes time. It takes money. It takes patience.
Now, let’s talk about the ugly truth of marketing and sales. Many of you purchase ebooks. Many of you purchase trade paperbacks. Where do you purchase them from? For your ebooks, do you go to the independent sellers like Smashwords? Diesel? Oh, wait, that one went out of business. How about Books A Million? The Apple Store? WHERE DO YOU BUY YOUR STUFF?
I bet the overwhelming answer is Amazon.com. Why? Because it’s convenient. Because their prices are great. And also? Because if you buy enough crap from the Wal-Mart of the internet, you get free shipping. If you’re doing those things, you are succumbing to market forces. Those market forces? Amazon has the best, most complete store-front on the internet for purchasing items in the US. Rather than being a brick and mortar like Wal-Mart who originally put their internet store up as an after-thought, Amazon pays their technologists a lot of money and their only claim to existence and success is via the online marketplace.
That’s why you purchase from them. That’s why you bought kindles, or use their apps on your phone, and etc. It’s very simple–they are the only game in town that has your attention.
With all that said, let me now focus on the topics at hand as they relate to actual books, actual writers, and actual publishing.
You might have heard about the kerfuffle between a company called Hachette and Amazon. As previously mentioned, celebs whose book sales are being “hurt”, (poor fucking A-Listers who can cry into their million dollar royalty and advance checks) by the “disagreement” between the two monsters are now writing op-ed pieces in the NYT and other media outlets owned by their publishers. Colbert ran a piece last night that skewered Amazon without actually talking about how Hachette has been fucking over non-A-list authors for decades. Or the rest of the Big 5 for that matter.
So what’s the deal? WTF is going on that’s causing all this uproar? Simple. MONEY. Doesn’t it always come down to money?
In a nutshell, but is again very one-sided, here’s an article that explains what’s going on in easy to misread steps.
So basically what everyone loyal to Hachette and the other members of the Big 5-4-3-2-1 is decrying is that Amazon is “bullying” traditional publishing into a corner. Why? Well, because the then Big 6 colluded with Apple to fix e-book pricing. They wanted to protect their ability to manipulate the market and did so by working with Apple to essentially over-cut/under-cut Amazon. Nice job, guys. It ended up with everyone going to court. Apple and the Big 6 lost the judgement. Result? The Big 6 (now Big 5) have to negotiate contracts with online sellers. The first one in the bucket is Hachette. And Amazon is playing hardball.
I’m an indie publisher. I’m also a software developer. I also wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve been pissed about the e-book pricing thing from the very beginning. Why? Because the Big 5-4-3-2-1 want to charge nearly the same amount for an e-book as for their hardcover. $19.99 for a fucking ebook? Are you out of your goddamned mind?
Hardcovers are expensive. Hell trade paperbacks are going to run you some money when you go into production. They’re kind of a pain in the ass considering how much time and care it takes to lay them out, deal with the printing press that’s going to print them, and the expertise that goes into that.
But an ebook? Give me an f’ing break. The actual manuscript has already been edited. The artwork has already been produced for the trade paperback or hardcover. So why are they so goddamned expensive? An ebook has NO UPFRONT COSTS for the Big 5. It’s ridiculously easy to put one together if you know what you’re doing. And figuring that out? Not real f’ing difficult.
So I’ve had sand in my jockeys about this for several years. It’s one of the reasons I’m so far beyond on Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. I love those books, but I’m not going to pay so goddamned much money for them. I’ll wait until they’re discounted at a sane price (which is still too goddamned high).
So here’s the deal. Hachette and its pigopolist brethren want the right to set whatever damned price they please for their e-books, hardcovers, and paperbacks. That’s their right to want to do that. But when you actually go out to the retail market, things change a bit. A retailer has the right to push back and say “no, we’re not selling it for that because we won’t be able to move them! Our customers will just go to used bookstores to get a decent price and we’ll be screwed!”
Or, if you’re Amazon, you say “Fuck you. You’re giving Wal-Mart and others discounts because they put your shit-quality paperbacks in racks and sell ’em at the checkout counter. We ain’t accepting this lying down.” That’s the market. Or at least…it should be.
For decades, the Big 6 (back then I have no idea how many “Bigs” there actually were) started colluding on advances. Also royalty percentages. Also? Contracts. They became their own quiet monopoly. They also had this quiet agreement with the retailers regarding how much they would discount their books from the list price. These are multi-billion dollar companies. Any one of them could have broken from the consortium and decided to deal on their own. But that would have started a war. And that’s why no one wanted to do it.
And what would that war be? It’s this thing called “competition.”
Back in the olden days, writers got advances. Publishers marketed the shit out of their authors because in order to support those new authors that they believe in, they had to spend some money to try and get them to be a household name. Smaller presses were trying to compete for that too. So many great authors came out of the small presses that were willing to take a chance on them (I’m looking at you, Joe Lansdale). But then something happened: the pigopoly.
A pigopolist is a monopolist who is extremely selfish, loves distorting the truth, and shits on all their suppliers and consumers. The Big 5? They’ve been in the pigopoly business for a long time. And now they have met their match with an even larger one: Amazon.
The pigopoly in publishing started with the massive consolidation known as “the media monopoly.” This phenomenon began in the 90s. And while the Federal Government ignored the problem, more and more of the country’s newspapers, radio stations, and publishing companies started to disappear and reappear as “imprints,” or “partners,” or “sisters,” or whatever they wanted to dress it up as.
A smarter person than I will have to go back and find where this first started and what actually drove it, but that’s what happened. So publishing companies like Little, Brown, and Co were swallowed and then broke back into the market as an “imprint” of Hachette. And, of course, Little, Brown, and Co have their own imprints. Just wait until those imprints have imprints.
But I digress. I’m simply attempting to explain how all this has been see in the past and will no doubt happen again. It’s even more insane in the tech industry (where I actually earn a livable wage). If you knew just how many companies Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and etc have purchased just to keep them out of the way, your head would spin.
Regardless, the publishing industry thinks that it’s sacrosanct. They claim they’re a cultural institution and therefore should be protected at all costs.
So they feel they should have to the right to collude on contracts, advances, retail prices, and etc. They are acting as one large organization with five different moving parts. We have laws that are supposed to prevent this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, proving the obvious in a court of law, after lobbyists have finished paying off our senators, reps, and president, is rather difficult. So the pigopoly continues.
Am I on Amazon’s side of this? Not really. But I do think the average person needs to know what the hell is going on, especially when someone like Colbert, whom I used to respect, start coming out and flinging self-serving bullshit rather than facts.
Now, I’ve said I’m an indie. That means I run a de-facto publishing company. I’m running a business to sell books and media. I obviously don’t pay myself an advance, but all the royalties are mine. All the rights are mine. No one has any say over what I write, how I write it, and what prices I charge for it. It’s a wonderful amount of freedom with a humongous amount of responsibility. I’m by no means good at all this yet, but I’m improving.
Well, I’m bad at marketing, write in rather niche genres, and I’m by no means a household name. So I don’t make money anywhere except from my site, although The Street paid for itself in two days (thank you patrons) and is still outselling everything. I’ve made ten times more money by selling my own wares than I ever have by letting Amazon, BN, etc do it for me. That’s because I podcast, engage with my patrons, and do my best to be an interesting, if foul-mouthed, writer to read. It’s worked. But let’s not kid ourselves–it’s not a living wage. Far from it.
Again, I digress. I want to give you an idea of where I’m coming from. I don’t make shit from Amazon, although my books are there. I use CreateSpace to produce my paperbacks now. I used to use Lightning Source, but they became too damned expensive and a distribution nightmare. So I switched. I didn’t want to, but I really had no choice. It was a good business move (I’m rarely known for those) and I’m not looking back. So I’ll be with CreateSpace until something better comes along.
Amazon has become so choked with books by Indies like me, as well as ton of less than quality offerings, that it’s become nearly impossible for readers to find new authors with good books. That’s just the way it works. Amazon’s algorithms are so twisted that I consistently get my own books recommended to me. That’s rather insane. And another sign that it’s become just another echo chamber.
The best way I attract new readers is by word of mouth, by showing up at cons, being on panels, and in general, being a loudmouth. Or writing something ridiculous like The Street. It works. It’s moving my back catalog of hardcovers. Not only that, but people are purchasing e-books and audiobooks from my site. Could I do better on Audible? Probably. But they have a little problem with podcasters offering their own works for free via podcast and then charging for audiobooks. And yes, that’s another channel that’s presently out of reach. And yes, Amazon bought them and then fucked that up for everyone.
Amazon is a nasty bully. They are anti-competitive, they are a pigopoly, and they’re the biggest retailer. The Big 5-4-3-2-1 is another nasty bully. They are anti-competitive, they are a pigopoly, and they’re the biggest suppliers of books. And who is caught in the middle? Writers.
I’m not talking about Stephen King, or assholes like James Patterson. I’m talking about people like me, us little people, who will never make anyone’s A-List, will get offered contracts by the Big 5 (if we’re lucky) that are low royalty, little to no advance, and lose all your rights for three years kind of contracts. I’ve seen two of those from small presses and said “fuck you.” The small press I’m currently working with? They’re f’ing awesome. So the small presses still look like they’re the best option if you don’t want to go the indie route.
But the Bigs? Forget it. Unless you’re a well-known property or someone who has sold a shit-ton of books for a small-press, a celeb, or just plain f’ing lucky, you’re not going to get a contract that’s worth taking a shit on. Many have signed these contracts. And many of those folks have regretted it. Trust me, I hear the stories every damned time I go to a con.
So what are we to do? I don’t know. But you should have all the facts before you pick a side. Don’t let the mouthpiece fucktards of the Big 5 lead you down the primrose path that they’re the good guys in this. They’re not. They’re just as culpable as Amazon, for different reasons, mind you, but it doesn’t change the fact they’re just as guilty of the same business practices.
What I would like to see happen from all this is for the Big 5 to get their heads out of their asses and to finally realize the old ways of doing business are fucking over. Stop trying to fix advances, royalties, and the like. Be movable on your bullshit, “go write, we make all the money and own your shit, little writer” contracts, and continue to do what they used to do–help writers find readers and help promising writers become successful. They did it before, and they’re still doing it, but only only for the privileged few and by fucking other writers as well as their readers.
I’d also like to see Amazon come to its damned senses. In many ways, I’d like to see them blown out of the water by a new competitor. It will happen. But it’s going to take some time. Maybe a long time.
If Amazon turns out to be even more shitty than I think they are, they’re going to roll back royalties from the 70% they currently offer down to something like 30%. That would still be nearly three times what the Big 5 offer their writers. If they do that, then the smaller retailers will have a shot.
Perhaps authors of the Big 5 should realize how their hallowed masters are fucking all the non A-list writers and band together to form a new publishing company. Maybe they should just sell books from their sites. After all, the bookstores, except for the independent ones, are all but dead. They could make more money, have more freedom, and still find fantastic editors, artists, and etc. Plus they already have the money to pay for those services. That makes more sense to me than letting some fucking huge corporation that’s making billions by squeezing both their writers and consumers dictate how their books are sold. But wait, that would require some fucking ethics and the drive to do something more than collect royalty checks twice a year.
So fuck you, Colbert. Fuck you, Patterson. Fuck you, Amazon. And fuck all those that aren’t making sure the writers are being taken care of. We work damned hard to create. They work damned hard to make sure we don’t get paid. A pox on all your houses.
Now, do me a favor. Have a favorite author published by a small press or who is an indie? Check to see if their wares are available from their site or their small press’. If so, BUY THEM THERE. It’s the only way to make sure the message is heard–the corporations shouldn’t control your content and writers’ lives.
And now, I’ll get back to work on my new novel. Because that is what you want to hear. I’m a writer. I write. It’s what I do. Sometimes I even get paid for it.