This street fight fascinates me, and not just because I'm a writer. Because I'm also a reader and person with an interest in art and culture and the evolution of the two. If you haven't been following the arm wrestling between Hachette, a traditional New York publishing house, and Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, here are the crib notes:
The two are in a contract dispute about how much Amazon will pay Hachette in book royalties (you guessed it; the big A wants to pay less, which other big publishers have agreed to). Because they aren't seeing eye-to-eye, Amazon has interfered with Hachette's book sales on the website. With me so far?
Here's where the gumball gets hairy. Every author and aspiring writer on the planet is weighing in on the fight. Many, many readers and consumers of books are, too. So, here I go. My weights, please.
I'm conflicted. There are so many tentacles to this gangly beast, it defies definition as the Kraken. Both Amazon and Hachette are successful, cash-rich companies going fist-to-cuffs over more profits. That's the way of capitalism, eh? To compete, get richer, make stockholders happy, the system is set up to fight dirty. Because I have a book for sale and an author's account, Amazon dropped me an email last night (Amazon posted it online here) that points out Hachette has been slapped for price fixing. Are anyone's hands clean in this fight? Far from it.
Groups of writers on both sides of the argument are circulating letters why they are opposed to the actions of one or the other company. A new generation of indie writers, some of whom make money self-publishing, are obviously on the side of Amazon. Right now, Amazon doesn't charge anyone to upload a book and sell it electronically or in print. More traditional authors, in lesser numbers, are rallying, arguing that Amazon is unfairly squeezing their product out. In both cases, money is an important crux. (A Horcrux, perhaps?)
Which gets me to my point. Book publishing, for all its cache, mystique, glamour (ha), is a business. For most, not for all. These companies are arguing over money; writers are arguing over money and access. The art of the matter -- the quality of our literature and entertainment and knowledge -- is given second-hand attention. Does the quality of our literature and knowledge base deteriorate when price is the bottom line? I can't answer that confidently. I think it does, but I also believe that readers have the right to buy affordable books. I want affordable books. I also want bookstores (the places we browse in person) to thrive. At the same time, I want convenience and a wide selection.
But better books just don't write and edit themselves. They take time; they take money, or in my case and the case of many other writers, personal investment. The investment a writer makes in a book is incalculable, IF the writer truly cares. I've written about this before (here and here and here). I continue to delude myself that my words are enough. That my passion for my subject matter or project is enough for it to succeed. If my work doesn't sell (and the jury is still out on that one), if it doesn't pass the reader sniff-test, guess what? My prospects for keeping my traditional publisher and a wider audience diminish. With Amazon (and a whole slew of other self-publishing outfits), I still have access to an easy way to publish.
I've enjoyed working with a traditional publisher for my debut novel. What an experience! But, don't kid yourself that this means I'm set for life. My book must appeal to readers and sell sell sell if I'm to continue a business relationship with my publisher. Did I say business relationship? Shit, yes. It's not an artist's cocktail party. Is it an ideal situation? No. We both want to make a few coins; me, a little less so than the publisher. I just want my book to find wonderful readers who identify with it. Then, we share a secret. (PS-If you want to chat endlessly after you've read my book about plot points, Musketeer trivia, etc., feel free to email me directly.)
I don't mind that many, many writers use Amazon to self-publish. I'm actually happy that this avenue exists. I personally know writers who self-publish, and they are GOOD writers. Not for lack of trying, they haven't found agents or publishing houses to champion their words. I want their work to be available to someone other than their aunts. Curious readers will find them. Maybe a good agent or small publisher will, too, because those folks are spending more time these days cruising the best indie sellers on Amazon to find clients (not many admit it). A good-selling indie book is now better than an excellent query letter.
As for readers, who doesn't love a good book? I read all over the map. I buy books at full price; I pick them out of free boxes. I buy my friends' self-published work; I loan out anything from my library. I don't expect books to be returned. My favorite authors are both well-known and obscure. I've had coffee with writers who have pushed me to the next level. I'm lucky. I have options. I want options to continue; I want writers to have options to publish and to make money. I want readers to have options. I dislike that Amazon has chosen to smite Hachette by limiting access to its authors. Poor, poor form. But Amazon isn't the only place where we can buy books. If you feel strongly about how they've behaved, don't patronize them.
Except for my book. You might want to buy my book first. Or not. Your choice.
Maybe the answer is: Facebook should publish books.