#FutureChat: Authors in the hot zone

Each Friday, join us for a #FutureChat session, live on Twitter, at 4 p.m. London time, 11 a.m. New York time, 8 a.m. Los Angeles, 5 p.m. Berlin, 3 p.m. GMT. 

Crazy from the heat

Disagreements that might cause minor annoyance on a cool day have a way of escalating when the mercury rises. Most riots that have occurred in the United States have happened when the temperature was between 75 and 89 F (23-31 C).

So we have it from Laura Lee, author of Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History. Published by HarperCollins, by the way, not Hachette, lower that bayonet.

In a week like this, it's smart to keep your sense of humor chilled and ready. Need some ice? Let's contemplate, as comfortably as possible, the peculiarly febrile nature of where things seem to be on this Fourth of July. I shall offer it to you by the numbers.

(1) Tuesday, the lions asked for hand fans

"My goal is to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and, when I'm successful, to make it levitate."

That was how LIVE from the NYPL curator Paul Holdengräber opened the New York Public Library's (NYPL) "Amazon: Business as Usual?" panel discussion.

You know the stone lions outside the library, yes? He got them to perspire profusely, at the very least. In terms of reactions to the event, which you can watch on tape here, no knee was left unjerked.

You can read about it in my colleague Gayle Feldman's report for The Bookseller here; in my own aria here at The FutureBook; and wherever strong opinions are held.

(2) Wednesday, the Preston missive - "A letter to our readers"

Courtesy of the busy Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, we were confronted with "an open letter signed by a number of bestselling writers [which] has called on 'Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers."

One of the signers of the letter is James Patterson, who was on Tuesday evening's panel at NYPL as a "wounded gazelle," he quipped.

You can see this letter in a PDF posted here with some nine-and-a-half pages of signatures on it, I don't know how many signers that is. If you have time to count them, shout out the total to me.

(3) Thursday, the Indies' letter - "To thank our readers"

The pixels on Philip Jones' report for The Bookseller on the Preston letter were barely dry when, lo, a counter-letter appeared in the form of a Change.org petition, and here is Jones' report for The Bookseller on that one.

A cordial comment has landed on that second report from author JA Konrath, kindly noting The Bookseller's and Jones' "balanced coverage of this issue," very decent. Konrath tells us in his own write-up that he, Hugh Howey, Barry Eisler, "and others" are the authors of the Change.org piece.

At this writing, that one has logged the support of close to 3,000 people. (The Change.org system counts them for us. My kind of software.)

(4) Friday, a #FutureChat on authors battling each other

You're invited to join our weekly live Twitter convo using the hashtag #FutureChat (and you may see #AmazonHachette flying by, as well). The key question I'd like to put to you is this:

What does it mean when our authors square off against each other, trying to sway reader opinion about Amazon?

The two letters are both aimed at readers. How wise is it to try to turn your readers against one or another part of publishing?

The message to readers in each letter: Take sides now

The traditionally published authors' letter (Preston, Patterson, Grisham, et al) blames Amazon for using strong-arm tactics on Hachette and hurting authors and readers in the process by making certain books hard to get. To wit, "We feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want."

This letter contains a direct call to action, aimed at the readers:

We respectfully ask you, our loyal readers, to email Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at jeff@amazon.com and tell him what you think.

It contains an unusual use of the term "boycotting," too, saying that Amazon for the past month has been "boycotting Hachette authors, refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette's authors' books, claiming they are 'unavailable.'"

As we'll see, there's more confusion around this word "boycott" ahead. As Konrath writes, "Amazon isn't 'boycotting' anything."

The independently published authors' letter (Konrath, Eisler, Howey, et al) at Change.org is less decisive in laying out what it wants readers to do. It seems not to be an actual petition, in that there's no mention of a plan to present it and its many signatures to anyone as a demand for one thing or another. In a standard case, we all might sign a petition that said we think mustard-based barbecue is better than catsup-based barbecue (in parts of the US South, this is a perennial hot-weather discussion), and that petition would then be presented to the Ministry of Barbecue Sauces (I made it up) to try to sway the minister to decree that all barbecue should be mustard-based, not catsup-based.

But in this case, who is being petitioned? And to do what? And to whom will the petition be presented?

Helpfully, there is ample language to clarify the petition's pro-Amazon stance:

The best way to support Hachette’s authors is by showing Hachette where you prefer to get your books. Let Hachette know that you agree with Amazon that e-books should not cost more than paperbacks. Help us urge Hachette to stop hurting its own writers. Help us urge them to agree to reasonable terms with Amazon....We urge you to support [Amazon], the company that supports readers and authors. 

But the petition also repeatedly mentions "boycotts" of Amazon, which, as far as I can tell, have not been called for -- at least by what Konrath terms that "silly Douglas Preston letter."  One reader, Robotech_Master, in a helpful comment to this post makes the point that boycotting Amazon has been recommended in some of the surrounding hubbub, including the Stephen Colbert commentary. It would be useful, especially as these camps of authors square off, if the petition's language could specify that or some other source of such calls in a passage like this:

You may be urged to boycott Amazon. But a call to boycott Amazon is unavoidably a call to boycott authors who can't get their books into other stores. Boycotting Amazon is unavoidably a call for higher ebook prices. Boycotting Amazon is preventing us from reaching you. it is an end to our independence.

In fact, one of the authors of the petition, Barry Eisler, a former #PorterMeets interviewee at The Bookseller, makes the point that a much more measurable form of boycott has long been practiced by many brick-and-mortar stores against books published by Amazon Publishing imprints and, in some cases, by independent authors. Characterizing the Preston letter's complaint as coming from a proverbial "1 percent" of authors, Eisler writes:

My own Amazon-published titles are boycotted by Barnes & Noble and by many indie bookstores.  Tens of thousands of Indie-published authors face the same widespread boycott.  An actual boycott, as in, outright refusal to stock books written by these authors — not because of price or other contractual terms, but simply because the retailers in question don’t like these authors’ way of publishing. 

Eisler's piece, in general, offers more specificity and nuance than the group petition, in fact. You pick up on the vagaries of the petition's ask in author Chuck Wendig's column, The petition to paint Amazon as Underdog:

A petition out for...well, I don't know exactly what it's for, except I think it's like, an anti-boycott for Amazon? A love-fest for Amazon?

Meanwhile, the Preston letter is hardly anybody's best moment, either. Its intro says, the goal is to create a New York Times ad. Well, that's no more original a channel than a petition, is it? And, frankly, a display ad in the paper is about as scattershot a means of motivation as you can get. Full-page Times ads are always more about show than tell.

So let's be clear about what we can actually see happening: This is (1) a quick coming apart of the author corps -- to arms! -- with (2) each side trying to sway readers' opinion about Amazon and publishers. Hot-weather stuff. The sudden insurrection. The barricades go up, the lines are drawn, "tensions are rising" as they love to say on TV newscasts.

And can it really be good for the authors to turn on each other?

And can it really be smart for the authors to try to deputise the readers to competing industry causes?

Context: What about the books?

When I first joined The Bookseller, Sally Whitaker, then chair of its parent firm Whitaker, told me that my job was to support the book. We could be rude about publishers, booksellers, librarians and even authors, but the bias towards books was unimpeachable.

In writing that for today's leader piece in The Bookseller, Philip Jones adds, "The thinking was not wholly disinterested. So long as the book existed-- in whatever format -- there would be an industry around it that The Bookseller could usefully serve. It's a piece of advice that I still follow, even though the trade is now a world away from what it was back in the day."

The irony here isn't lost on Jones: "It might seem odd for the editor of The Bookseller to say it," he writes, "but it can sometimes feel like we forget about the power of the book when talking about this business."

And while we might expect nobody to be closer to an understanding  of the primacy of the book than our authors, don't let their phrasing fool you: these are wizards at war, slamming each other up against the stone walls of their dreadful towers with big blasts of poesy...we've seen it in the films. It's not as entertaining to see our authors turn on each other as it is to watch guys in floor-length robes hurl special effects around a screen. 

Could this be, as Wendig speculates in a comment, "a wild, wild miscalculation" on the part of the authors? "It leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. It actually turns advocacy away from authors, I fear."

He may not be alone in that fear. Is that really what it's come to? Eisler's "1 percent" of authors and the wider, entrepreneurial camp, chewing each others' legs off?

Look at the tenor of comments you can find attached to various posts and columns. Mixed in between the frequently sneering tone and brazen over-statements are some serious questions.

  • Are independent authors confusing Amazon's position as platform and retailer with publisher?
  • Does Amazon not have dominance over a market it actually invented -- as Mathew Ingram writes at GigaOM -- "because publishers like Hachette and other members of the traditional 'Big Five' cartel... showed no interest in doing so?"
  • How can readers be expected to respond  to "do this / no, do that" appeals and demands from "your writers." Can this possibly resonate in a constructive way for the book buyers being fought over? Divide the readers? And conquer whom?

On this flag-waving day, can it possibly be our authors who can be forgetting that, as Jones puts  it, "the book is the flag we all rally behind?"

Come join us in what I probably should call our #FutureChat Day of Rage and be done with it.

Maybe we're all just crazy from the heat.

Image - Shutterstock: Daivi

Comments

Readers ARE being asked to boycott Amazon

Sure, they're not being asked by Preston's letter, but there's plenty of rhetoric going around with Hachette authors like Stephen Colbert calling for boycotts.

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/its-time-to-turn-your-back-on-amazon/Content?oid=19708679

http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/06/06/stephen-colbert-calls-for-boycott...

So it's quite reasonable that Howey et al should ask people not to do so.

Thanks for the note

Porter Anderson - @Porter_Anderson's picture

Good point. For my money, it would be really helpful if the writers of the petition could be more specific about who they're referring to on the boycott issue, but I think your assumption is right and I've made a note in the piece.

Thanks. Join us for #FutureChat if you can.

-p.

On Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

Actually, no, we can't read about it on The Bookseller

Actually, no, we can't read about it on The Bookseller. Not unless we fork over a sum that might be reasonable to industry professionals (who can probably just expense it anyway), but is ridiculous for consumers who feel they have an interest in events that affect how much they might have to pay for the e-books they buy. How funny that they want to charge for commentary on an event that the general public could watch for free!

Paywall

Porter Anderson - @Porter_Anderson's picture

Sorry if you're unable to see all the material linked here, I know that can be frustrating. The Bookseller's Blogs section and this site, The FutureBook, are open to readers without charge. While the news section is behind a paywall, this is an important part of how journalists are paid today.

More than 41 percent of news outlets in the United States, in fact, are paywalled now, according to Ken Doctor writing for Newsonomics. Writers of all kinds, including journalists, deserve payment and as the traditional advertising-based structures of media revenue have faded in the digital dynamic, paywalls have become an extremely important element of income provision for writers -- which I'm sure we both support, even though a paywall's intervention can be inconvenient.

This is why, for example, the team working on the New York Times' highly regarded Innovation Report pointed out that the Times' paywall has provided the revenue stability that has seen that paper through its digital transition so far. As Doctor puts it, even former critics of paywalls are coming around to realize that they represent a highly effective and helpful financial approach to the economics of media coverage today. 

Thanks for reading and, again, for commenting.

-p.

Inconsistency

Oddly enough, when I went back and tried again, this time it let me read it. For that matter, when I clicked through a lot of the "news" stories on the Bookseller's front page, it let me read them. So I guess there's no way of telling when or if a particular article will be available or not.

I can understand a paper, especially an industrycentric paper, wanting to go paid-only. And if it were something like £10 or £20 a year, I might even be induced to kick in. But £167? $286 in real money? Or even more if I didn't want just the digital edition? What real person has that kind of cash to spend on news when there are so many other good sources out there? Seems to me the Bookseller is sort of the equivalent of hospitals these days—overcharging because it knows its customers are just going to get someone else (their corporate publishing employer) to pay for it anyway.

paywall

Philip Jones's picture

Chris, we unlocked the piece out of courtesy so those who don't have a subscription could read it ahead of the FutureChat with Porter. We try to strike a balance between what we make available to our paying readership, and what we put out there for those who don't wish (or can't afford) to pay for it.

 

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