Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bury the Hachette and Jeff Bezos, While We're at it

     Those of you who've stuck with me since the beginning of this blog in July 2008 are well aware this is mainly a political/social blog and not one dedicated to the publishing business (I had a blog for that but it never took off). But I often do write about the unimaginable evil in today's corporations in this 21st century of ours. And the standoff between the Hachette Book Group and Amazon.com is something that strikes near and dear to my heart because as well as being a political/social commentator, I'm also an independent author.
     Now, for those of you who are aware of things taking place during my so-called writing career (although it may be fairer to say, what's not going on in it), you'll know at least the abstracts of how I feel about Amazon. I loathe and despise Amazon.com with a screaming, unholy passion despite them publishing three of my books. Their crappy Kindle platform is purely a mercenary operation, one of a two-pronged attempt (the other being the even crappier Create Space) to corner the publishing aspect of the book business, since they've already essentially cornered the distribution and online sales market. When they publish my or your books, they're not doing you any favors. You're merely an afterthought, an ancillary concern at best.
     So, when I'd read about their ongoing war with the Hachette Book Group and at how they're essentially sabotaging their ability to sell their titles on Amazon's monopolistic website, I almost yawned. For years now, Amazon's been using their bully pulpit to strongarm publishers into giving the deep-cutting discounts they feel they deserve and have come to expect. But in this particular case, Amazon's been showing how nasty they truly are:
     Essentially, they're demanding Hachette has to buy early ordering buttons and timely shipping times through those discounts they're demanding, discounts that are so drastic, they're noticeably impacting on Hachette's bottom line. And until Hachette heels to, the early order buttons will stay gone, shipping times will be artificially delayed and customers will be given incredibly inappropriate recommendations by other publishers, i.e. Hachette's competitors. The next step, obviously, a hole card they've used in the past, is to disappear their entire catalog altogether.
     Amazon's public position is, "Readers love the deeply discounted books and we're doing this for them!" In reality, it's nothing as Altrustically noble as that, just a PR fig leaf intended to position themselves as the good guys, the poor victims (although it's hard to see how Amazon reasonably expected anyone to see their monopoly as a victim in anything). In fact, it's quite the contrary, something Ayn Rand would've publicly applauded. Because Amazon's private position is, "There are plenty of fish in the sea (meaning publishers) and while we may be hurting our bottom line a little bit, we're hurting their bottom line a lot more."
     It's kind of like allowing yourself to suffer a non-fatal gunshot wound in order to kill the bad guy behind them with a head shot.
     Except, while I have no love nor loyalty for them, Hachette's not the bad guy here. Being a corporate entity, they're just looking out for their bottom line like any other company. Hachette's not the monopoly thumbing its nose at antitrust laws and allowed to run afoul of them while the impotent Federal Trade Commission looks on. The business of business is business, as I always say, and what's so bad about a corporation such as Hachette Book Group wanting to maintain a fair profit margin?
     But Amazon is doing more than just that. Their goal, obviously, is to own and control everything, including, as I'd said above, the sales, distribution and publication of books. Maintaining a healthy bottom line isn't nearly enough. In fact, when you get as big as Amazon, it's just the beginning. And it isn't enough that you succeed. Everyone else must fail or get bought out.
     So, this is old hat. or you would think. You baseball fans out there may remember the MLB strike 20 years ago in which Montreal's bid for the World Series and the late Tony Gwynn's chase for a .400 batting average were cut short when billionaires went to war with millionaires and fans were caught in the middle. While we may have eventually sided with the players, there wasn't much sympathy to be had for either from Joe Lunchpail.
     Ergo, in some ways, we're seeing the same here: Billionaire Jeff Bezos, taking a break from playing the bored rich man salvaging shipwrecks from his luxury ocean liner, is waging war on the millionaire executives at the Hachette Book Group and Grand Central Publishing, with readers, typically, caught in the middle.
     And what brought me into the fray, albeit briefly, is a question someone had asked yesterday. In a particularly condescending piece of tripe from Melville House, Dennis Johnson asked, Should Self-Published authors side with Hachette?
     My short answer is, Why should we? We don't have a dog in the fight and since when do the Powers That Be in the publishing world give a flying rat fuck what we think?
     The real answer, the long one, is more nuanced and deserves some unpacking.
     First off, the indie author reading this piece is tempted to hit the backspace button when Johnson says (emphasis mine),
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.”
     Excuse me? Vanity Press? Amazon's Kindle and Create Space programs are a lot of things but "vanity presses" (aka subsidy publishers) aren't among them. Same goes for Kobo, Smashwords, LuLu and other outlets for indie authors.
     Writers, especially we independent authors, are like human schefflera or ficus plants- We can and will endure and perhaps even thrive even if we're neglected. Technically, whether we're talking desk top publishing or self publication through a corporate entity such as Amazon.com (Which, again, is no friend of yours whether you're a reader, author, employee or publisher. Its only friends are their top executives and shareholders), we're all micropublishers trying to put our product and brand out there like so many microbrewers.
     And while Miller may be incidentally correct in saying some indie writers hate traditional publishing with a vengeance, it's the height of arrogance to assume and to tell us that all indie authors loath tradpub. That's simply not true and I'm one case. Just as virtually every rock'n'roll group's goal is to sign with a legit record label, the ultimate goal of virtually any independent author is to sign with a traditional publisher. Regardless of what some may say outwardly, they still yearn to be part of the establishment.
    So, fuck you, Ms. Miller, but you don't speak for us all.
    No more than Amazon speaks for all its authors and customers. Even if Amazon hadn't banned me for life across all their domains, I'd still revile them with a burning passion just based on their treatment of their own customers, authors both trad and indie, their temp workers all the way up to the Five Big Houses. Amazon's cynically using their customers (We, the Readers) and Hachette authors as human shields much in the same way the GOP uses workers, veterans and unemployed workers as a way to cudgel the Democrats, in a despicable and transparent show of fake empathy.
     When Amazon bleats its usual corporate spiel about forcing lower wholesale prices from publishers so we can pass on the savings to you, the customer, I hear Wal-Mart almost in the foreground. Isn't that how Wal-Mart became the top retailer in the world and the #1 private employer in the nation? By having sweat shops make cheaper and cheaper goods, paying their workers poverty wages and passing the savings onto you, the customer?
     And look at how reviled Wal-Mart is now.
     So when will it be Amazon's turn?
     Look, traditional publishers like Hachette don't give a fuck what you have to say or if you take their side in this latest millionaire vs billionaire battle. If they actually gave two shits about you, they'd be looking at or publishing your Great American Novel.
     But they don't give a shit because you're just angry, frustrated, second rate scum to them and they will never even invite you to the kiddie table.
     But publishers are still honestly trying to learn how to strike a deal that works best for all parties concerned in what is still, 18 years after Amazon's founding, a very volatile and Protean business. While consolidation and mergers are a reality of the business and always will be until all print publishing is just one gigantic conglomerate while the FTC continues impotently looking on, they are not the monopoly. Amazon is and they are the Wal-Mart of the online retail world.
     People like Miller are telling us indie authors we should cynically support traditional publishing even if only because their higher prices make our work look more desirable, at least as far as price points go. But that's not going to happen until and unless readers as independent as independent writers are willing to dive headfirst into the slush pile that traditional publishers nor literary agencies dare not tread and to start seriously separating the wheat from the chaff and supporting those worthy of support.
     And that necessarily involves skeeving both traditional publishing and Amazon.


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