Monday, July 27, 2015

Guest Post by Gordon Hopkins

So here's the deal:

When I decided to write my first novel, I was working as an insurance investigator. I had just moved from San Francisco to Hartford, CT and I hated it. There are no words to describe how miserable I was living in Hartford. Creative Writing 101 says "write what you know," so I wrote about an insurance investigator from San Francisco who moved to Hartford and hated it.

I lived in San Francisco for five years. It is still my favorite city. So why did I leave? Good question. I'm glad you asked. I was in San Francisco during the dotcom boom and bust. During the boom, the cost of living kept going up and up. I was promoted several times at work. Then the bust happened and my career stalled. You didn’t have to be working for a dotcom to get screwed by the bust. Everyone was affected. For example, the insurance company I worked for lost a lot of business when the dotcoms died and dropped all their insurance policies. Despite all this, the cost of living kept going up. By that time I was so sick of being broke that when I was offered a job as a fraud investigator in Hartford I jumped at the chance.

The moment I stepped off the plane, I realized I had made mistake. Just to be clear, it was Hartford I hated. I actually liked the work and was pretty good at it. Another upside was that my job gave me plenty of material for my book. I was investigating medical insurance fraud when I started writing the book. There are a lot of insurance investigators in crime fiction but they usually investigate murders (Did Lady Faversham bump off her husband for his million dollar life insurance policy?) or theft (Who stole Lady Faversham's heavily insured jewels?). There are a smattering of books about investigating arson (Don Winslow's California Fire and Life), car accidents (Dan Simmons' Darwin's Blade) and even a book about viatical fraud (Richard Dooling's Bet Your Life) but I couldn't think of a single example of medical insurance fraud as the basis of a mystery novel.

Having come up with what I thought was a good idea for a book, I just had to write it. I'm sure many of the folks reading this blog are aware of the difficulty of writing a book while also working a full time job. During my lunch hour I would take a pad and pencil (I didn't have a laptop at the time) and sit by the fountain, which had been turned off for the winter. I created a character named Gil DiMauro, who I named after my high-school Latin teacher, Mr. DiMauro (he was a teacher, so his first name was Mister). I made him a displaced San Franciscan and a Deadhead. He starts every morning by deciding which Jerry Garcia necktie to wear. Then I gave him a crusty, chain-smoking, ex-cop for a boss. His boss is never named. She is always just referred to as "The Old Lady." Most detectives in crime fiction seem to be either government employees (cops, FBI, etc.) or self-employed private eyes. I liked the idea of making my detective an employee with an office and a cubicle and a mean boss. The plot pretty much wrote itself. Although the book is fiction, all the scams described in it are real. I called the book Fraudsters, as one word titles were de rigueur at the time.

Okay, so I wrote a book. Now what? I heard from various sources (i.e. frustrated, unpublished writers like myself) that no publisher would consider my book without an agent, so I tried getting an agent. That didn't go so well. I sent out dozens of inquiries. No one will be surprised at how few gave a response. Then I found out that St. Martin's Press runs an annual contest called "Malice Domestic." No agent required. I sent in my book. It didn't win but it was a finalist. St. Martin's Press runs another contest in conjunction with the Private Eye Writers of America. I sent the book in. It didn't win but, again, it was a finalist. I tinkered with the manuscript a bit and sent it in to both contests again the following year. It was a finalist for the "Malice Domestic" contest again. I hadn't gotten published yet but this was enough to convince me the book didn't suck, so I tried again. It was about this time that I received a very nice (let me emphasize this: very nice) email from an editor at St. Martin's Press, which said in part, "I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your novel very much and we considered it for publication, outside of the competitions. I’m afraid we decided it wouldn’t quite work for us." In other words, "we ain't publishing it so stop sending it to us."

By this time, I had escaped Hartford. Every once in a while, I would try sending the book to some publisher but, for the most part, I held out little hope it would ever be read by anyone other than my mother and sister (who, I'm pretty sure, only skimmed it). Speaking of my sister, she was the one who first introduced me to Joe Konrath and Jack Daniels. Our first conversation on the subject when something like this:

Me: What's so funny?

Shelley: (laugh) cat...(snort) diaper...(cough) cat...(laugh) can't talk...

Me: What the hell is wrong with you?

I began reading Mr. Konrath's blog and, following his lead, published the book myself.

I'm a big fan of the Jack Daniels stories, so I jumped at the chance to write one, especially since Mr. Konrath was allowing other writers to use their own characters in the stories. I banged out the story in three days, again using a real insurance scam, the time honored "swoop-and-squat." In keeping with the cocktail theme of titles, I called it, The Whiplash Brokers. Yes, there really is a drink called the whiplash.

I was online when I stumbled across the recipe for a drink called a Japanese Slipper. I immediately thought that would make a great title for a Jack Daniels mystery. I wished I had a story idea. Five minutes later, I was reading about insurance fraud in a nail salon. I changed the nail salon to a massage parlor, added a few murders and wrote, The Japanese Slipper Murders.

Unlike some of the others writing in the Jack Daniels and Associates Kindle World, I am only just getting started as a writer. So far, I have published only one novel and the two Jack Daniels stories. I have now finished two books and have two more in production. I hope all four will be out this year. I will also be writing more Jack Daniels stories. In The Whiplash Brokers, I made reference to a case Jack's mother had worked on years ago when she was a cop. It was never intended as anything other than an excuse to talk about Jack's mother. Having brought it up, however, I now feel obligated to tell the story, so I am currently working on Black Mary: A Mary Streng Mystery.

Joe sez: Check out Gordon's books.

I'm always fascinated how authors decide they want to write books, and the route they take to publication. Everyone is different, and there is no "right" way to do things.

The thing we all need to focus on, especially in the beginning, is how much fun we're having. If you're having fun, it gets you through the rejections, the poor sales, the bad reviews. Hopefully, the fun you have also bleeds out onto the page, which allows the reader to have fun as well. The more fun the reader has, the few rejections, better sales, and nicer reviews the writers gets.

So have fun. Keep having fun. Don't be afraid to learn, to experiment, to fail. Help one another, and keep building your career.

Looking forward to Black Mary, Gordon.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Joe's Letter to the Assistant Attorney General

The Hon. William J. Baer
Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Whomever Has The Thankless Job Of Sorting Through Worthless Letters to Assistant Attorney General Baer:

My name is Joe Konrath, and I'm a professional fiction writer of more than forty books.

I'd like to apologize for the group who call themselves Authors United, who recently sent you a letter pleading for you to investigate Amazon.

To be blunt, Authors United are a bunch of whiny little babies with overblown senses of entitlement, and they deserve derision, ridicule, mockery, and contempt, and my tone in this letter of response will reflect that. They're wasting your time with their nonsense, and they only speak for a tiny fraction of professional writers. I'm truly sorry you have to deal with them.

I don't know if you're required to take their bogus complaint seriously, or if you can simply dismiss their bad logic, ridiculous examples, and outright lies. If you've already seen through their nonsense, you can stop reading this letter right now, and toss it into the garbage on top of theirs.

But, if their letter prompted you to seek more information about Amazon and its role in the publishing industry, maybe I can save you a bit of time by explaining a few things.

For the past fifty years, a handful of big publishers have functioned as a cartel, controlling the majority of what has been published. They did this by having an oligopoly over paper distribution. If a writer wanted to get their work into a bookstore, the only way to do so was to sign a contract with them.

My best guess is that out of every 1000 books written, only 1 was published. That meant 999 out of 1000 books were effectively deep-sixed, prevented from ever reaching the public.

Those writers lucky enough to be picked by a publisher were forced to sign one-sided, unconscionable contracts that required giving up rights for the length of copyright (the author's life plus 70 years), among other onerous terms such as non-compete and termination clauses, in return for poor royalties. All publishers offered the same, lockstep terms, and writers had no choice but to accept them, or never reach readers.

In short, the publishing industry effectively censored the majority of writers, and screwed most of the rest.

But there were a few exceptions to the abuse. Over the years, some authors were lucky enough to become bestsellers, which gave them tremendous wealth.

Some of these writers signed the Authors United letter you received.

As successful members of the status quo, these rich jerks want to retain their spots in the pecking order. Except, now they have an obstacle in their way.

Amazon.

By putting the customer first, Amazon has grown to become the largest retailer of books in the world. They've done so by offering a wide variety of books at low prices, coupled with terrific customer service. They also, almost single-handedly, invented the ebook market, which readers love.

At first, publishers liked this new revenue stream. The publishing cartel thought they could control the price of ebooks the same way they controlled the price of paper books. A hardcover book costs less than $2 to print, but publishers stamp $29.95 on the cover (what other industry puts prices on their products?) and expect retailers to sell it for that amount. They wanted to do the same with ebooks.

Amazon, realizing that ebooks had no printing, warehousing, shipping, or delivery costs, rightfully felt ebooks should cost less.

Publishers didn't like that, eventually colluding illegally to force Amazon to accept their pricing structure, keeping the price of ebooks high.

The DOJ wisely spanked the publishers for their collusive ways. But a small group of boneheads, acting out of greed or stupidity or a combination of the two, still want to blame Amazon for their problems.

I'm going to go through their short letter and explain why they're wrong. Their nonsense in italics, my counterpoints in regular text.

From the beginning of our nation, Americans have understood the central role that open and competitive markets play in promoting freedom of expression and protecting our democracy. The country's founders, Congress and the Supreme Court have repeatedly made it clear that a concentration of private power over any marketplace of information is incompatible with American ideals of liberty, free speech, and the unfettered flow of ideas.

Amazon earned its current market position by innovating, offering a wide selection and great customer experience, and keeping prices low. But Amazon's power is only a result of people choosing to shop there. Insisting that Amazon controls the "marketplace of information" is ridiculous. There are thousands of bookstores in the US, and thousands of online retailers that sell books. Amazon doesn't control anything.

Today a single company, Amazon, has gained unprecedented power over America's market for books. We are not experts in antitrust law, and this letter is not a legal brief. But we are authors with a deep, collective experience in this field, and we agree with the authorities in economics and law who have asserted that Amazon's dominant position makes it a monopoly as a seller of books and a monopsony as a buyer of books. 

At least they admit they aren't antitrust experts. But that doesn't excuse them for misunderstanding what "monopoly" and "monopsony" mean, or from wasting your time.

According to published figures, this one corporation now controls the sale of:

• More than 75 percent of online sales of physical books.

• More than 65 percent of e-book sales.

• More than 40 percent of sales of new books.

• About 85 percent of ebook sales of self-published authors.

Amazon is not a monopoly. They have plenty of competition, including Apple, Google, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Smashwords, Scribd, Oyster, and more than 2000 independent bookstores.

And even if Amazon were a monopoly, its 20 year track record has shown a consistent effort to keep prices low.

You can guess why publishers, and their lackies, don't like this tactic.

With its own traditional imprints and its near-total control of self-publishing, Amazon has also become the largest publisher and distributor of new books in the world.

This is a very important point. Remember those 999 books out of 1000 that could never reach readers because the publishing cartel rejected them? Amazon allows those authors to self-publish those titles, and make them cheaply and easily available to the public. And now those authors that the publishing industry passed up are outselling the books published by the major publishers. Visit http://authorearnings.com for the figures.

In recent years, Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America's readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.

This is bullshit.

Amazon has allowed more readers access to more books than any other company in history.

Amazon hasn't damaged the career of any author. They don't have the power to. They've certainly never targeted authors, or retaliated against authors who have spoken against them. Look at all of the Authors United signatories; all of them have books for sale on Amazon.

The only fear Amazon has generated is in publishers--overpaid middlemen who refuse to innovate, collude rather than compete, and are no longer needed because Amazon and its retail competitors have broken their oligopoly by allowing writers to reach readers without them. And a small minority of authors who Big Publishing has made rich don't like this.

Amazon has no control over ideas in our society. They don't control the Internet. Or the media. Or the government. Or the content of books. Or the distribution and sale of books.

Amazon is a retailer that readers, authors, and publishers choose to deal with. No one is being forced to deal with Amazon, and Amazon has scores of competitors.

Amazon, to pressure publishers over the past eleven years, has blocked and curtailed the sale of millions of books by thousands of authors;

First of all, Amazon can't block book sales. As a retailer, it has the freedom to decide what it wants to sell, and for how much. To suggest that Amazon somehow sent out an armed militia to prevent a book from being sold is insane.

Amazon, during its dispute with Hachette in 2014, appears to have engaged in content control, selling some books but not others based on the author's prominence or the book's political leanings;

What Authors United doesn't mention is that Amazon's contract with Hachette had expired months earlier. It was under no obligation to sell Hachette's titles, but it continued to do so in good faith. As negotiations dragged on (and you can guess what they were about--Hachette wanted to control the price of ebooks and charge more for them), Amazon no longer stocked some Hachette titles, and no longer offered pre-orders for some Hachette titles. After all, why should they stock or sell books when they might not be able to negotiate a new contract?

Authors United also failed to mention that on three different occasions, Amazon offered to monetarily compensate Hachette authors for lost sales while Hachette dragged its feet during negotiations. Hachette rejected Amazon's offers.

Amazon has used its monopsony power, and its ability to threaten punishment, to extract an ever greater share of the total price of a book from publishers;

Wait a second... a retailer negotiating with a supplier violates anti-trust laws?

Of course it doesn't. But Authors United doesn't let facts get in the way of a good story.

If you're curious, this is how the current ebook payout structure works:

Amazon gets 30% of the list price of an ebook.

Authors get 17.5% of the list price of an ebook.

Publishers get 52.5% of the list price of an ebook.

Compare this to self-published authors, who get the full 70% of list price.

A much better argument is that Big Publishing used its oligopoly power to keep author royalties low. Since no publisher ever offered authors higher royalties, authors had no choice. It didn't matter if a writer went to Penguin or Hachette, both offered the exact same royalty rate. And it didn't matter if a reader bought a Penguin or a Hachette book, they were both the same price, conveniently printed on the cover.

this has resulted in publishers dropping some midlist authors and not publishing certain riskier books, effectively silencing many voices;

This is just plain ridiculous. No author is being silenced. Any author who has been dropped or rejected by a publisher can self-publish on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, Scribd, Oyster, Google, Apple, etc. And they'll make much better royalties doing so.

Publishers do not create content. Writers create content. Publishers are overpriced middlemen. Once they were essential to authors, because of their paper distribution cartel, and they took terrible advantage of us. Now, thanks to companies like Amazon, publishers are nothing more than a very expensive value-added service.

Amazon routinely sells many types of books below cost in order to acquire customers for unrelated lines of business and to drive less well capitalized retailers - like Borders - out of business.

Amazon did not drive Borders out of business. Lousy management put Borders out of business. And loss leaders aren't illegal. Twenty years earlier, Crown Books became the third largest chain in the nation by discounting books.

This practice, extending over many years, has caused price deflation across the industry and reduced the amount of revenue available for publishers to invest in new books, thus depriving readers of wider choice;

See what they did there? This isn't about authors. Amazon's insistence on low prices for its customers is hurting publishers. Which is great, in my opinion. Publishers have parasitically lived off the blood of tens of thousands of authors over the last five decades. The alternative Amazon and its competitors present--self-publishing--coupled with Amazon's ongoing efforts to make books affordable and available to everyone in the USA, has broken Big Publishing's stranglehold on writers and readers.

Before, readers could only choose books that Big Publishing selected, at the price Big Publishing insisted upon. Now, we finally have a free market, with competitive pricing and previously unavailable books able to reach readers.

Amazon offers readers more choices, not fewer. Publishers were the ones depriving readers of choice. Publishers were the ones marking up the cost of books over 1000%. Publishers were the ones preventing writers from reaching readers.

And now publishers are hurting? Boo hoo! Get the hankies! But even if every publisher in the world went out of business, it wouldn't deprive readers of choice, because writers can reach readers without publishers.

Amazon routinely uses its market power to steer readers toward its own books and away from books published by other companies;

Hold on, can businesses be forced to sell products they don't want to sell?

Penguin Putnam is the largest publisher in the world. They've used their market power to steer readers toward their own books, and away from mine. Can the DOJ go after them for me? Please?

Amazon dictates pricing to self-published authors, requiring them to price their books within a specific range or be subjected to a 50 percent cut in royalties.

Translated: Amazon incentivizes authors to keep ebook prices within a certain range by offering them higher royalties for doing so. Authors can choose a 35% royalty, or a 70% royalty.

Contrast this with publishers, who offer no choice; authors are stuck with 17.5% of a price the publisher sets.

So for a $3.99 ebook, a self-published author on Amazon earns $2.78. A $3.99 ebook published by a Big Publisher earns the author $0.68.

The present inaction by regulators is not in keeping with the history of government response when a single company has come to dominate a venue for communication. In the 20th century, Congress repeatedly passed laws that prevented a concentration of ownership in vital informational markets, including newspapers, radio and television.

Amazon is not an information market. Amazon does not control authors or books or readers. Amazon is under no obligation, legal, fiscal, or moral, to sell anything.

But the precedent for this thinking extends back to the First Amendment and in 19th Century law. In 1866, long before the creation of antitrust law, Congress passed the Telegraph Act, which blocked a private company from gaining monopoly control of this very first electronic medium of communication.

Amazon is not a utility. Readers, authors, and publishers choose to deal with Amazon, and it is completely voluntary. Readers, authors, and publishers also can choose to deal with Amazon's many competitors. Amazon doesn't prevent that.

The courts have regularly found that existing antitrust laws can and should be used to protect information markets from private monopoly. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the 1994 Turner Broadcasting v. FCC case, articulated the reasoning. He wrote: "Assuring that the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources is a governmental purpose of the highest order, for it promotes values central to the First Amendment… The First Amendment's command that government not impede the freedom of speech does not disable the government from taking steps to ensure that private interests not restrict, through physical control of a critical pathway of communication, the free flow of information and ideas."

So, by selling more books than any other retailer, and allowing more books to be published than any other time in history, Amazon is somehow controlling information?

WTF?

As far as I know, other than certain types of pornography, Amazon sells practically every book ever written, with the exception of those authors and publishers who freely choose not to sell on Amazon.

Should those publishers and authors be forced to sell their books on Amazon, because Authors United apparently thinks Amazon controls the the free flow of information and ideas in the USA?

It's also worth noting that Amazon allows third-party sellers to sell books on its website, effectively competing with itself. So if Amazon ever did decide it didn't want to sell a certain book, third party sellers could still sell it on Amazon.

For example, if Amazon hadn't reached a contractual agreement with Hachette and stopped selling Hachette titles, third parties could still sell Hachette books on Amazon. This makes it impossible for Amazon to block anything.

Americans are just as opposed as ever to seeing private interests gain control of any marketplace of information. In February this year, the FCC, responding to the strong consensus view of the American people, ruled that no private interest should be allowed to manipulate the flow of information across the Internet, and established rules for "net neutrality."

This example actually made me chuckle. So Authors United supports the idea that there should be no government regulation of the Internet, yet it is demanding government regulation of Amazon.

Really? They don't see the irony there?

Only a few months ago, your Division was reportedly among the regulators who opposed excessive consolidation of ownership in broadband Internet, which halted the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. As recently as 1999, the FTC made clear that such principles also apply specifically to the book business, and blocked the purchase of Ingram Book Group, the country's largest wholesale book distributor, by Barnes & Noble, the country's largest retail bookstore.

This is United Authors making good on their confession that they aren't anti-trust experts. Neither am I, but I do know that monopolies per se don't violate US anti-trust law. If monopolies use their power to, say, raise prices (like the publishing cartel did), that violates the law. Or if a company attains a monopoly by merging with competitors, as in the above referenced instances, that also violates the law.

Don't any of the geniuses at Authors United know how to use Wikipedia? Perhaps it's good that they don't, because they might call upon you to break up Wikipedia for controlling information and ideas...

For two centuries, America's book business was the freest, fairest, and most competitive in the world. More than a business, it was a marketplace of ideas, with publishers acting as venture capitalists, advancing funds to give authors the freedom to write books, and thereby hoping to make a profit. In this way the profit motive was put in service of a vital national interest and our fundamental rights. 

And now, thanks to new technologies such as ebooks, retailers such as Amazon, and readers having more choices than ever before, publishers just aren't needed.

But rather than try to innovate and compete, publishers and their lapdogs in Authors United want government intervention to suppress progress and freedom.

Thanks to Amazon and its many competitors, writers no longer need venture capitalists to invest in them. Anyone can publish a book, for free. If a writer needs venture capital, they can raise it via Kickstarter or Indiegogo. And best of all, writers can now keep their rights, and they get the lion's share of the profits.

This doesn't sit well with the minority of Richie Rich bestsellers who made millions through the old system. So now they are wasting your time by shouting "monopoly!"

"The best test of truth," Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1919, "is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." What Americans seek, Holmes said, is "free trade in ideas."

Amazon is one of the major reasons we finally have a free trade in ideas.

Over the years, Amazon has benefitted (sic) readers and authors in many ways. But no temporary price cut can compensate for the costs to free expression and the health of America's book industry that have resulted from Amazon's abuse of its dominance in the world of books. Accordingly, we respectfully request that the Antitrust Division investigate Amazon's power over the book market, and the ways in which that corporation exercises its power, bearing in mind the very special constitutional sensitivities that have historically been applied to any business that has established effective control of a medium of communication.

I humbly request the Antitrust Division look at the publishing industry, and the practices they used to control the book business for decades. You'd be surprised how badly authors have been exploited, prior to Amazon's entrance into the marketplace.

I know Authors United also wrote a longer, stupider letter. If you're interested, I took that letter apart piece by piece here:

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2015/07/authors-united-epic-fail-o-rama.html

It is also my understanding that the Association of Authors Representatives, and the Authors Guild, sent letters to you, backing Authors United. It's worth noting that one of the reasons authors have been so exploited by the publishing industry is that we have no advocates or organizations to help us. The AAR and Authors Guild have repeatedly sided with publishers over authors on many important issues.

If you'd like to learn more about how Amazon has benefited authors and readers, and how these organizations have harmed authors and readers, I've written extensively on this subject. You might find the following posts of mine interesting or helpful. I apologize that there are so many; there has been a great deal of hate directed toward Amazon over the last few years by the media, and by several of the rich authors behind Authors United.

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/unconscionability.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/exploited-writers-in-unfair-industry.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/aar-fail.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-publishers-guild-strikes-again.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/08/for-authors-guild-other-legacy.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/12/konrath-and-eisler-vs-richard-russo-and.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/04/scott-turow-and-politics-of-cowardice.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/must-stop-stupid.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/konrath-and-eisler-vs-richard-russo.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/03/barry-joe-scott-turow.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/03/presumed-inane.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/so-real-authors-guild-is-amazon.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/joes-letter-to-doj.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/05/fisking-lilith-saintcrow-and.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/05/fisking-charlie-stross-more-on.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/11/amazonhachette-negotiations-finally-end.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/amazon-hachette-sounds-of-silence-guest.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/10/is-nyt-coverage-of-amazon-vs-hachette.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/08/amazon-vs-hachette.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/amazons-latest-proposal.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-hachette-job.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/10/guest-post-by-barry-eisler.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/authors-behaving-badly-and-authors-who.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/07/douglas-prestons-blood-money.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/09/nonsense-united.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/05/amazon-speaks.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/10/agents-behaving-badly.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/08/william-ockham-fisking-michael-pietsch.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/06/i-understand-and-sympathize.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/10/fisking-salon-and-rob-spillman.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/12/konrath-and-eisler-vs-richard-russo-and.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2015/07/fisking-douglas-preston.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2015/07/more-authors-guild-nonsense.html
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2015/07/douglas-prestons-fail-thon-continues.html

But hopefully you'll find no need to wade through thousands of words I've written just to reach the inevitable conclusion that: Amazon isn't a monopoly, Amazon is beneficial, the real harm has been done by the publishing cartel, and now a bunch of rich whiners are about to be disintermediated, so they're wasting your time with this silly Hail Mary pass.

Again, I apologize for my peers. I know you have better things to do. But unlike Authors United, I actually do care about my fellow authors. It is worth noting that I am not employed by Amazon, nor does Amazon know I'm writing this letter. I do offer my self-published books on Amazon.com, and Amazon has published several of my books. I've also been published by many other big publishers. I don't speak for Amazon in any way, shape, or form. I'm also openly critical of Amazon, and have publicly chastised them for doing stupid things the same way I've chastised Authors United and their ilk.

Thank you for your patience, and feel free to reach out to me if you would like any more information or clarification.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Douglas Preston's Fail-A-Thon Continues

In his continuing press junket to prove to the world he's a one piston shy of a two-stroke engine, Douglas Preston did a brief interview with the American Booksellers Association. Same old nonsense, but I had some new thoughts. So a fisking I shall go...

Bookselling This Week: Why do you think there is such overwhelming support for the Authors United appeal to the DOJ among booksellers, authors, and author reps?

Joe sez: Way to load the question. The only thing overwhelming is the blind hubris of organizations like the Association of Authors Representatives and the Authors Guild, who have worn out their usefulness to a whole new generation of authors.

You folks deserve the slow, lingering spiral into obsolescence that you've brought upon yourselves.

Douglas Preston: Amazon has used its dominance of the book market in ways that harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry, and hurt authors.

Joe sez: Indeed. Amazon is harming readers by offering a huge selection, low prices, and great customer service.

Tell me something, Doug; if an author or publisher chooses not to sell books through Amazon, are they harming the interests of America's readers? Shouldn't it be mandatory that all books are sold on Amazon, no matter the wishes of the author or publisher? Or is it only retailers whose wishes we aren't supposed to respect?

In that case, if a bookstore chooses not to sell certain titles, are the harming the interests of America's readers? Shouldn't we force them to sell everything, even if they don't want to?

If someone painstakingly explained to you, over and over, why 2 + 2 = 4, and you continued to ignore it, would you call that person ignorant, stupid, or a liar?

Everything you say about this issue has been refuted many times over, and yet you keep repeating it.

Hmm. I wonder why.

Remember when you said this about readers, Doug?

Douglas Preston: “The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing,” said Douglas Preston, whose novel “Impact” reached as high as No. 4 on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction best-seller list earlier this month. “It’s the Wal-Mart mentality, which in my view is very unhealthy for our country. It’s this notion of not wanting to pay the real price of something.”

Joe sez: We know you want ebook prices high. We know that's your agenda. So you keep popping up in the media, spouting bullshit and trying to convince people you're helping them.

But that isn't the truth, Doug.

Preston: By interfering with the sales of books, Amazon deeply alienated many authors whose careers were damaged.

Joe sez: Interfering with the sales of whose books? Can you name a single title where Amazon did that? A single one?

No, you can't.

Enough, Doug. It's embarrassing.

Preston: By free-riding on bookstores, and by selling millions of books below cost to acquire customers for other lines of business, Amazon put hundreds of neighborhood and community bookstores out of business.

Joe sez: The number of indie bookstores has risen 27% in since 2009.

Preston: How can bookstores compete with a company that sells books at a loss, to acquire customers with “good demographics” in order to sell them other stuff, like TVs and diapers?

Joe sez: The number of indie bookstores has risen 27% in since 2009.

Maybe if I keep repeating the statistic, it will sink in.

But the fact is, even if the number of bookstores were shrinking, the blame should be placed on readers, who vote with their dollars. You know, that group who don't want to pay the real price of something, according to your above quote.

Preston: By extracting an ever greater share of the cost of a book from publishers, Amazon has reduced the amount of funds available for publishers to take risks with new authors or controversial ideas, which has silenced many voices.

Joe sez: This isn't true, Doug.

Your publisher, first through illegal collusion, then through prolonged contract negotiation, forced Amazon to accept the agency model. That model earns authors less money over the previous, wholesale model.

Also, your publisher, Hachette, made a deal with Amazon to take 30% of the price it sets on ebooks. That's the deal Hachette wants. Authors get 17.5% of that price. Publishers get 52.5%.

Let's put that in bold:

AUTHOR'S SHARE: 17.5%

AMAZON'S SHARE: 30%

PUBLISHER'S SHARE 52.5%

Who is really reducing the amount of funds to authors, Doug?

Hint: Amazon gives the full 70% of a book sale to self-pubbed authors, and those authors can set their own price. Which means I'm earning more on a $3.99 ebook than you are on a $9.99 ebook.

Unless, of course, you've signed an NDA with Hachette and can't reveal that you're making higher royalties than the underpaid peers you claim to be championing. That's a thing, according to the Authors Guild.

Some bestselling authors have managed to obtain a 50% e-book split, though they’re asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep these terms secret.

Is that you, Doug? If so, since you're so worried about the funds your publisher has available, perhaps you should give the money back? Aren't your big advances and higher royalties taking money from your publisher, which prevents them from taking risks with new authors, which has silenced many voices?

Can you comment?

Or has your publisher silenced you?

Let's talk about authors being silenced, since you brought it up. Which voices have really been silenced, Doug? How about the 99.9% of authors rejected by your publisher, and other publishers?

See, that's what silencing really means. Preventing books from reaching readers.

Amazon doesn't prevent books from reaching readers. But the Big 6 have done so for decades. Every book they rejected, they killed. It never made it into print. It never got into bookstores. It never found readers.

That's what silencing means.

I gotta be honest here, Doug. I'm really starting to dislike you a little bit.

Preston: It’s important to point out that Authors United is only part of this broad initiative. The Authors Guild is a full partner in this effort (I’m on the board of that organization). The Guild — the staff and council — provided crucial help with legal advice and drafting the letter.

Joe sez: That letter is embarrassingly bad, and everyone involved with it should feel a deep sense of shame. Not only is it letter poorly done, but what you're calling for is abhorrent. Forcing retailers to do what you want to, and then trying to paint yourself as an altruist, is disgusting.

Preston: We worked together on this for almost a year. ABA and its CEO, Oren Teicher, have also been fantastic and effective supporters.

Joe sez: Wow. Now my dislike has turned into pity.

That letter took a year? That's just pathetic. A year? Really? For that piece of shit letter?

How many eyes were on it? How much input did you get? Didn't anyone with an IQ higher than the atomic weight of potassium take a look at it?

I weep for my fellow authors if they are, indeed, this stupid.

You don't need to worry about Amazon staving the "free flow of ideas" or the "marketplace of information", because your collective intellectual well is dry.

Instead of collaborating on nonsense like this, perhaps your time would be better spent taking some sort of adult education class.

I don't want to be rude here. I'm concerned.

BTW: Since Monday’s announcement, what kind of feedback are you receiving?

Preston: We’re getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from authors and booksellers. Out of maybe 700 e-mails I got [on Tuesday], I did get one nasty one, from Amazon champion Hugh Howey, who called me “disgusting” and “sad” and “bonkers.” That relieved me; I was getting worried that the usual critics were staying so quiet.

Joe sez: Oh, Doug. Your critics are still here. My recent posts have over a hundred thousand views. Just Google your name, see what comes up.

And is that the treatment authors can expect if they email you? For you to publicly reveal things said in private?

I won't say it privately, Doug. I'll say it publicly.

You're a disgrace, and a loser, and an idiot. Hugh has reached out to you to help, because you are clearly off the deep end, and you use it as an opportunity to cherry-pick a few words from a personal correspondence and air them to the public?

That was a real dick move, Douglas Preston.

Hey! Internet! Don't email Doug Preston! He'll parse out anything critical you said to him privately and post it to the world, without any context or permission!

#DouglasPrestonDickMove

BTW: How is the landscape of the book business different for readers, publishers, and authors in today’s world, compared to when you first entered the scene?

Preston: There have been huge changes, and many for the better, particularly from new technologies in electronic publishing and retailing. We’re not Luddites against technological change, as some Amazonians would have you believe.

Joe sez: I'm the one who called you luddites. So you DID read my blog, and ignored it.

Coward.

And nice work proving that you aren't luddites by...

Um...

By... uh... saying you aren't.

Brilliant deflection, Einstein. I also recommend the "I'm rubber, you're glue" defense used in Oxford style debates so often.

Preston: But new technologies can become instruments of monopoly and reduced competition if our laws and regulations fail to prevent the concentration of power they make possible. One set of rules can ensure that a new technology promotes competition and diversity in the marketplace.

Joe sez: Please, enlighten us with your business strategy. Tell us of these rules that ensure tech promotes competition and diversity. Invent something and then freely share it with others.

Preston: A different set of rules can allow a single firm to wield that same new technology in ways that amass profit, control and power in itself. This is what is happening with Amazon.

Joe sez: Amazon, the firm that invented the online shopping experience people flock to, and the ereader people prefer, through entirely legal means.

Hey! Here's a fun idea! I'm going to publish all of your novels under my own name! Why should you be rewarded by the fruits of your labors? We need a set of rules to ensure that intellectual property promotes competition and diversity in the marketplace.

Maybe I'll write the Assistant Attorney General and tell him about your monopoly on your own IP.

I'm kidding, of course. I'd never sign my name to your books. I like my readers, and my fans have taste.

BTW: How do you respond to critics who say that Amazon is simply a successful model of free-market economics, of ongoing business evolution, at work?

Preston: Amazon is indeed a successful company, convenient for consumers, and it presents a friendly face to the public. It’s hard for people of good will to see past that to the real issue: There isn’t a single instance in American history where a vast concentration of power in a single corporation has been good for the American consumer.

Joe sez: And yet, Amazon has been voted #1 in consumer satisfaction for nine years in a row.

I see what you did there, Doug. I can do it, too.

Other than earth, there isn't a single planet in the universe where we've discovered life. Ergo, there can be no possibility of life, ever.

Of course, any thinking person can recognize this as a fallacy. Funny that I referenced Green Eggs and Ham the last time I fisked you, because your "It's never been done so it must be bad" mentality is about that remedial.

Preston: Never in American history has a private corporation achieved monopoly control over a vital marketplace of information — not in telegraph, radio, newspapers, television, or (most recently) the Internet. This is deeply troubling, even if the corporation in question were benign.

Joe sez: Amazon isn't a monopoly, no matter how many times you say it is. Amazon doesn't have control over the marketplace of information, no matter how many time you say it.

Repeating a lie over and over doesn't make it a truth.

BTW: In what ways does Amazon fit the role of a monopoly or a monopsony? What are some examples of how its actions have affected the free flow of information?

Preston: Amazon’s share of the book market is about what Standard Oil’s was in the petroleum distribution market before it was broken into 34 companies. It is a monopoly by any standard.

Joe sez: How long ago was Standard Oil broken up? Over a hundred years ago. Don't you have any more recent examples?

No? Maybe because US anti-trust law has evolved in the last century?

Funny you should mention oil, though. Because until Amazon came along, the Big 6 have acted like a cartel, owning an oligopoly over book distribution.

I think that's the next step. You want to whine to the DOJ about Amazon? I'll get a few friends together and write two letters. In the first letter, I'll explain why your letter is full of shit. In the second, I'll focus their attention on your publisher, Hachette, and the other major publishers, and their unconscionable treatment of authors for the last fifty years.

And it won't take us a year.

Preston: To pressure publishers over the past 11 years, Amazon has abused that immense market power. It has blocked and curtailed the sale of millions of books by thousands of authors. As the New York Times documented, Amazon appears to have engaged in content control, selling some books but not others based on the author’s prominence or the book’s political leanings.

Joe sez: The NYT has shown no such thing.

Preston: Amazon, by retaliating against those who oppose it, has generated a level of fear among authors that I have never seen in all my 40 years in publishing.

Joe sez: They discounted your book as one of their Prime Day sales and sold a whole lot of them. You must be quaking in fear, you poor thing.

Preston: Taken together, this has affected the free, vigorous, and unfettered flow of information in the book market.

Joe sez: The ABA website doesn't allow public comments about your stupid interview. Isn't that affecting the free, vigorous, and unfettered flow of information in the book market?

Or are they allowed to do what they want to do, even if it sucks and squelches public discourse, because of, you know, that Constitution thingy?

BTW: Do you think the United States’ new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, will change how the Department of Justice looks at Amazon and its business model in the book industry?

Preston: Yes, I do. I have a lot of admiration for her and I believe she will take a fresh look at some of these issues that were neglected by her predecessor.

Joe sez: The DOJ investigated Amazon before. They found no wrongdoing. But maybe if a bunch of entitled crybabies whine loud enough, they'll investigate again.

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fisking Douglas Preston

Douglas Preston, the brains behind the brilliant think-tank Authors United (see what I did there?) was interviewed by Salon today as part of a media barrage meant to show the general public how stupid he is. There were also "articles" in the New York Times, by staff stenographer David Streitfeld, and by the perennially unbiased (not) The Bookseller.

I recently shredded Authors United's letter, intended to be sent to the Assistant Attorney General at the end of the month, probably by FedEx. But Salon has served up a floater so now I can shred Preston's own words.

Salon: The group Authors United came together last fall during the fight between Amazon and the Hachette publishers. Now, one of its founders, thriller writer Douglas Preston, is speaking to the Department of Justice about larger abuses by the online retailer, who he says has established something like monopoly power in the book world. Preston sent a letter on Monday to fellow authors, explaining: “The settlement of the dispute did not change the fundamental problem: That one corporation now dominates the book market in the United States. We believe Amazon has used its power in ways that harm the interests of authors, readers, booksellers, and the publishing industry as a whole.”

Joe sez: If my publisher couldn't close a deal that prevented my books from being sold by the largest bookseller on the planet, I'd be miffed at my publisher. It's bad faith. Hachette had a contractual responsibility to sell to as many markets as possible on behalf of its authors.That's why authors signed with Hachette. If Hachette was pursuing its own needs ahead of its authors' needs, Hachette authors should have sued them for breach of contract.

But instead, Preston (who has made a mint through Hachette) thoughtlessly defends his corporate master, because he wants to continue to get gigantic advances from them. I don't fault him for that. But don't claim it's for some grandiose, universal good.

Amazon does not harm authors. It sells more books than any other retailer. It pretty much single-handedly created the ebook market. It has allowed more writers to earn money than ever in the history of writing.

It does not hurt readers. It offers the widest selection, fastest delivery, and lowest prices anywhere on the planet, and has brought books to many who don't live near bookstores.

It has hurt competitors, but that's legal, and pretty much the point of capitalism and a free market.

It has also hurt publishers, but who cares? Other than authors getting multi-million dollar contracts?

Salon: We spoke to Preston from his home in Maine. The conversation has been slightly edited and condensed.

Why don’t you start by telling us about the letter you’re sending to the Department of Justice and what motivated it.

Preston: It arose out of the Amazon-Hachette dispute and the way Amazon treated its authors. A lot of what they were doing was unfair, outrageous, harming authors, and harming the whole publishing ecosystem. We consulted with some antitrust lawyers, and they told us about some ways Amazon was skirting the edge of antitrust violations.

Doug, Doug, Doug, I'm really getting tired of the same bullshit talking points.

Amazon tried THREE TIMES to take authors out of the firing line during the negotiations with Hachette. When Amazon contacted you, proposing a solution, you refused to listen.

Preston: The thing that said that was most interesting and surprising was that never in American history had any corporation achieved monopoly control over a vital marketplace of information. 

Amazon is not a monopoly. Repeatedly whining that it is one doesn't make it so.

Last year I interviewed lawyer Paul Biba:

Paul: Amazon is not a monopoly. There are plenty of competitors in the book and ebook arena - B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, etc. If Amazon were a monopoly it would have put these guys out of business. A monopoly is NOT illegal. The illegality comes in GETTING the monopoly. If you get a monopoly by legitimate pricing techniques, unique product, good customer service, etc. then that is just fine. If you get the monopoly by predatory pricing or other illegal activity then that is what is illegal, not the monopoly per se.

Predatory pricing, to make it simple, is when you price a product so low that it drives competitors out of business. Generally, that means pricing below your cost. To be honest, this doesn't happen too often because doing it hurts the seller who has to have pretty big coffers to sustain it. Amazon is clearly not engaging in predatory pricing because one can see many other sellers selling the same stuff at similar prices. To be "predatory" Amazon would have to sell most, or all, of its books and ebooks at prices so low that no other company could possibly compete. This is clearly not happening.

On the whole predatory pricing is not a viable antitrust theory any more. This is because the Supreme Court has set a very high bar for proving it (because by lowering prices the consumer is actually benefited) and, as a practical matter, not many companies can afford to do it.

I would categorize Amazon as a typical large business that uses normal, everyday business practices, just like the businesses I have worked with all my life. What makes Amazon unusual are two things: first, they are so good at what they do. Second, in the publishing area, what they do is so different from that the publishing industry has done over the centuries that it is a complete mystery to those involved in the industry. I am continually amazed that the publishing industry is astonished by Amazon's activities. I've been to enough conferences with the top execs of the publishing companies to see that they somehow think that the publishing business is a special, unique thing that is unlike any other business in the world - and should be treated as such. Amazon doesn't buy this and so it has become the publishing industry's bugbear.

Joe sez: Also, Amazon doesn't control any so-called "marketplace of information", because they don't control the Internet and don't own every bookstore in the world.

Books are not special snowflakes, Doug.

Preston: Even before there was no antitrust law at all, when the first telegraph wires were being strung across the continent by Western Union, the Congress  in 1866 passed the Telegraph Act to keep one company from monopolizing this means of communication. 

Joe sez: The telegraph was a utility. Amazon is a retailer. They aren't comparable.

Preston: Since the 20th century, the Congress and the courts have been absolutely diligent in protecting against monopoly in newspapers and radio and even the book business. And yet, here one corporation has achieved monopoly control of the book market. Amazon’s control of the entire book market is about the same as Standard Oil’s when it was broken up into 34 separate companies.

Joe sez: Let's look at the US Department of Justice's ruling on the Standard Oil case:

"The evidence is, in fact, absolutely conclusive that the Standard Oil Co. charges altogether excessive prices where it meets no competition, and particularly where there is little likelihood of competitors entering the field, and that, on the other hand, where competition is active, it frequently cuts prices to a point which leaves even the Standard little or no profit, and which more often leaves no profit to the competitor, whose costs are ordinarily somewhat higher."

Doug, show me where Amazon charges excessive prices where it meets no competitors. Then show me some competitors it drove out of business.

Wait... you can't? Perhaps because Amazon isn't a monopoly, or engaging in illegal business practices that drive competitors out of business? There are still a lot of bookstores, both online and physical. In fact, haven't you heard? The number of indie bookstores is growing.

Preston: This is very concerning. Even if Amazon were a benign corporation, this would be very concerning, but we’ve all seen that it’s not at all a benign corporation.

Salon: Tell us a little more about what you mean by that.

Preston: Starting with the smallest and weakest publishers, since about 2004, whenever they get into a commercial dispute with a publisher, they take it out on the author.

Joe sez: No, Doug. When Amazon has a commercial dispute with a publisher, they take it out on the publisher. The author who signed a deal with that publisher may suffer because of their publisher's bad negotiating skills, but Amazon is not directly targeting authors.

Preston: They make the books harder to sell, they claim “shipping delays,” say the book isn’t available – in every way mess with the book’s sales. Because Amazon is so powerful, they can actually destroy a publisher by doing that. This has happened to dozens and dozens of small publishers over the last 11 years. It’s just one way Amazon has harmed the publishing eco-system.

Joe sez: First, name these dozens and dozens of publishers Amazon allegedly destroyed.

Second, tell me how, by destroying a publisher, the author is also destroyed. You mean the author can't find another publisher? Or self-publish? Amazon somehow prevents that?

Preston: And over this time period, Amazon has been demanding a larger and larger percentage of the sale price of a book. What that does is suck money out of the publishing ecosystem, to Amazon, which has caused a lot of publishers to take fewer chances with midlist authors, to drop midlist authors, and so a lot of voices have been silenced by this removal of money from the publishing world.

Joe sez: Doug, publishers are middlemen that take a much larger chunk of an author's money than Amazon does. And if Amazon really is destroying the corrupt, archaic, lazy bullies who have run the paper distribution cartel for decades, giving them the ability to screw thousands of authors... well, they deserve an award.

Salon: Defenders of Amazon will said, “They have a large market share because they’ve worked for it fair and square.” You call it “unprecedented power” in your letter. How do you respond to people who say, “They’re good at what they do, they’re convenient, they know their audience…  That’s why they have a dominant position in the marketplace.”

Preston: Everything you said is true: Amazon is very good at what it does, it presents a warn and friendly face to the public, it’s one of the most admired companies in America. John D. Rockefeller was one of the most visionary businessmen of the 19th and early 20th century. And because of his efforts, the price of kerosene and petroleum products went down by about 50 percent. But along the way he completely destroyed hundreds, maybe thousands, or smaller businesses through extremely aggressive tactics.

So just because a company’s actions result in price-cutting doesn’t mean it’s good for our company. 

Joe sez: "Our company"?

Holy Stockholm Syndrome. Did Doug even recognize the Freudian slip there?

And that was the oil market: We’re talking about a vital informational market. Amazon, by its actions, has been interfering with the free flow of ideas.

Joe sez: Are you noticing the buzzwords? "vital information market", "free flow of ideas", "marketplace of information".

I wrote about this last year in my post The Name Game about the disingenuous use of words Preston and his pundits were using during their press junkets:

Amazon is not a monopoly. But people know monopolies are bad and illegal, so the term keeps getting used.

Publishers don't create culture. They don't create anything; authors do. But Authors United want you to believe publishers are indispensable. And they aren't.

Books aren’t commodities. Well, yes, they are. They’re bought and sold, after all. AU wants to say they aren't, that people recognize the importance of literature and are above crass, plebian capitalism. But publishers print prices directly on book covers -- if that’s not a product, what is? 

Writing is a job. It isn't some special calling for the elite. It isn't some form of magic where the shaman practitioners must be deified. I'm a writer, and damn lucky to be one, but I'm no better than someone who makes toasters on an assembly line.

Authors aren't being targeted. Amazon's goal isn't to put books in their crosshairs for systematic termination. In fact, Amazon has tried, three times, to compensate authors for the duration of the negotiations. Hachette no longer has a contract with Amazon, but Amazon is still graciously selling Hachette’s titles. If Amazon truly wanted to leverage Hachette into signing a new contract, it could stop selling all Hachette titles. But it hasn't done that.

Amazon isn't delaying Hachette titles. It simply isn't stocking Hachette books, and why should it when there is no contract in place?

There isn't any boycott or sanction. Hachette books are available elsewhere. Amazon isn't blocking any sales.

Amazon isn't reducing book discounts. They're pricing books according to the prices Hachette itself stamps on books. They aren't refusing preorders, either. Is it a smart practice to sell titles that haven't been released yet when there is no surety that they'll ever be able to fulfill those orders if they can't come to terms with Hachette?

Amazon isn’t punishing writers who are helpless. Writers are only helpless in that they signed a contract with a publisher who refuses to negotiate with Amazon because the publisher wants to protect its paper oligopoly by keeping ebook prices high. Amazon isn't negotiating with writers, it is negotiating with Hachette. Writers are collateral damage--and writers put themselves in harm’s way by signing with a member of a cartel with a specific agenda. 

Look at these words again: reducing, refusing, boycott, sanction, blocking, delaying, targeted, commodities, culture, democracy, monopoly, punishing, helpless. They’re all being used to deliberately mislead.

And now we can add all of this crap about Amazon blocking the flow of information. Blocking information is bad! Nobody wants that!

(Well, unless it's the Authors Guild, who wants SOPA to come back.)

Preston: During the Hachette dispute, the New York Times has been able to show that Amazon exercised content control – sanctioning some books that had a certain political event, and not sanctioning books by very powerful politicians and not others. That’s very concerning.

Joe sez: See? Sanction. Sanctions are bad.

But Amazon didn't sanction anyone, and the NYT didn't show anything of the sort. But if you repeat a lie as truth often enough, maybe people will start to believe it.

Salon: Are there misconceptions about Amazon? How does the average American view the company, and what are they missing?

Preston: Amazon is like any other corporation; it has two goals. One is to increase market share, and the other is to increase profits. So anyone who thinks that Amazon is their friend is deluded. Is Exxon the friend of everyone who fills up their tank with gas? I don’t think so. Anti-trust laws are to prevent the natural growth of companies to grow to a monopoly status, and then use that monopoly power to stifle competition. And that’s what Amazon has been doing.

Joe sez: Nope. Anti-trust laws are 100% okay with the natural growth of companies. See Biba's words above.

And Amazon isn't stifling competition. Competition abounds. B&N. Smashwords. Kobo. Scribd. Oyster. Over 2000 indie bookstores (a number up 27% from 2009.) Who is being stifled?

Preston: Another thing that Amazon has done is to use books as a loss leader – to acquire customers and sell them consumer good at a higher margin, like televisions and shoes. They sell millions of books below cost, acquiring customers with good data, good demographics, to sell them other stuff with more money. That has really damaged the publishing industry.

Joe sez: First of all, loss leaders are legal, and many retailers use them. Second, the publishing industry isn't a retailer, and not in competition with Amazon. If Amazon does destroy the publishing industry, it doesn't violate any anti-trust laws.

Salon: What happens if Amazon continues to move forward this way with no opposition? What are the real-world consequences?

Joe sez: Um... low prices on a large selection of products, coupled with excellent customer service? You know, like Amazon has been doing for the last 20 years.

Preston: I think Amazon is going to continue capturing more and more of the book market – that’s only going to increase. And Amazon will continue to use its overwhelming market power toward those two goals – increasing market share and increasing profits. Amazon is a barely profitable company, and Wall Street clearly expects Amazon to make big profits sooner rather than later. 

Joe sez: I agree. It's been 20 years. Any minute now, Bezos is going to raise prices on everything and focus on profits.

Any minute now...

Preston: Amazon stock is soaring, and the only way those investors are going to get a return is if Amazon starts making big profits. So what is Amazon going to do when it acquires an even larger market share? To increase its profits in the book/publishing universe.

Joe sez: I'm clueless when it comes to the stock market, but isn't it possible to make money on stocks without being paid dividends? You know, buying low and selling high? Isn't that how a lot of stockholders make money?

Salon: Companies make money all the time – that’s what they do. What do we have to worry about it Amazon keeps growing? What do we lose as they get bigger?

Joe sez: We lose the bloodsucking publishing industry. I won't be attending the funeral.

Preston: I think what we lost most of all are a vigorous diversity of debate in country. The most important and nuanced debate we have in our democracy is generally in books. Newspapers, radio and TV are fine, but books are where the big ideas are developed with complexity. That’s what were gonna lose.

Joe sez: Wait, what was that? I missed it because I was in the middle of a deep discussion with my copy of Green Eggs and Ham.

Joe: So would you, could you, on a boat?

Green Eggs and Ham: I would not, could not, on a boat.

Joe: I see your point, and appreciate the discourse.

Joe sez: Okay, debate over. I'm back. I see Doug is still pushing that meme about Amazon destroying books, even though it sells more books than anyone else. And Amazon, which allows anyone to self-publish and list their books, is preventing big ideas (buzzword!) by allowing anyone to self-publish.

Green Eggs and Ham: I will eat them in the rain!

Joe: We're done with that joke. Go eat somewhere else.

Green Eggs and Ham: But what about the vigorous diversity of our debate?

Preston: According to George Packer in the New Yorker, publishers are retrenching, taking fewer risks, [signing] fewer midlist authors, taking fewer risks with nonfiction. 

Joe sez: Doug, for the love of all that's good, stop confusing the publishing industry with the people who actually write the damn books. You know. They're called "writers". There's a buzzword for you.

Preston: A lot of authors who would have been published 20 years ago are not being heard – publishers are going after the big bestsellers and celebrity authors. They’re getting much more attention from publishers rather than a more diversified list. That’s a real impoverishment of the intellectual life of our country.

Joe sez: Well, I'm certainly seeing a real impoverishment of intellectual life, but I'm not looking at Amazon when I see it...

More Authors Guild Nonsense

I was willing to ease up on my constant critiques of the Authors Guild, because last week they did something I thought was a step in the right direction. They blogged about how publishers need to increase ebook rates.

Good for the Authors Guild, for addressing an issue that would benefit authors. They get a polite golf clap for their effort.

Why not a rousing, standing ovation?

As far as I know, and someone please correct me if I'm wrong, the Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative thusfar isn't putting any pressure on the Big 5.

In the coming months, the Authors Guild will address the major inequities and critical issues in many boilerplate contract terms. (...) It is time for publishers to eliminate one-sided agreements and policies that are patently unfair. We hope the Fair Contract Initiative can be the first step in that process. 

So, on the surface, it seems that the AG is doing what it should have been doing since its formation; advocating and fighting for the rights of writers. Their mission statement is:

...to support working writers. We advocate for the rights of writers by supporting free speech, fair contracts, and copyright. We create community and we fight for a living wage.

One simply needs to search my blog to read about the many times the AG has sided with publishers over authors. But this Fair Contract Initiative seems like it is making an effort to better serve its members, and seems like a step toward fighting for better contract terms with publishers.

So far, however, it's only publicly acknowledging a problem that the majority of writers have known about since publishers insisted on Agency Pricing: ebook royalties suck.

While public acknowledgement is the first step, it isn't enough. The AG has been acknowledging this for years. Where is the call to action? Where is the petition demanding change? Where are the letters to the CEOs of the major publishers saying the current situation is unacceptable?

Maybe all of this is coming soon. Inform first (even if it is information we've all known for a very long time), then take action.

But a few days later, the AG sent a letter to Congress insisting they do more to combat piracy. So apparently they can, and do, take action. Just not against publishers.

Where's the letter to Congress asking them to investigate the Big 6 and their history of price fixing (what other industry prints prices on their product, but doesn't try to undercut competitors on price? Hint: cartels), identical unconscionable contract terms, stranglehold on book distribution, terrible royalties, and general ongoing abuse of writers and readers for more than 30 years?

Answer: there is no letter. To anyone. Only a blog post saying 50% royalties is fair. It concludes with:

We hope that established authors and, particularly, bestselling authors will start to push back and stand up to publishers on the royalty rate—on behalf of all authors, as well as themselves.

So, here is the guild that authors pay a annual fee to join, so said guild can advocate for writers, and the Authors Guild basically tells them to help themselves.

No show of force. No demands. No promise of support.

Maybe a golf clap was too much.

But if the issue is piracy, which doesn't involve biting the hand that feeds, to Congress we must go!

Now this piracy nonsense is among the most egregiously shitty things the Authors Guild has done. Anyone with two functioning neurons and a passing understanding of how the world wide web works knows the term "net neutrality" (namely that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, without discrimination.)

This is a Really Big Deal. Once ISPs and governments begin to police what can and can't be viewed on the Internet, it becomes a First Amendment/censorship fight, which anyone who values freedom (which is everyone but maniacal dictators) should rightfully abhor.

This reached a head in 2012 with SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy bill introduced by some idiot in Congress.

Provisions included the requesting of court orders to bar advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, and search engines from linking to the websites, and court orders requiring Internet service providers to block access to the websites. The proposed law would have expanded existing criminal laws to include unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content, imposing a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

That's right. Your government wants to put you in jail for half a decade for torrenting yesterday's episode of Game of Thrones.

Naturally, there was resistance. On January 18, 2012, the English Wikipedia, Google, and an estimated 7,000 other smaller websites coordinated a service blackout, in protest against the bill. As they should.

Well, your Authors Guild wants to bring SOPA back.

ISPs have the ability to monitor piracy. Technology that can identify and filter pirated material is now commonplace. It only makes sense, then, that ISPs should bear the burden of limiting piracy on their sites.

Hoo boy.

So let's get the government to force ISPs to censor websites.

Slippery slope, anyone?

No doubt the AG knows this idea wipes its ass with the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech is pretty damn important, especially for a group of writers who make their livings trafficking in words. In sending this letter to Congress, the Authors Guild must have overwhelming evidence that piracy harms writers, and this harm must be so egregious that we should be willing to ignore the Bill of Rights in order to stop it.

Right?

Wrong.

I have yet to see a single controlled study that conclusively shows the financial impact piracy has on sales.

The publishing industry as a whole loses $80 to $100 million to piracy annually, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Sure it does. How is this figure determined? Where's the math? Where's the data? Where's the proof?

A common fallacy of piracy paranoiacs is that a pirated book equals a lost sale.

Here are several reasons this is untrue.

1. A pirate wouldn't have necessarily bought the book.
2. With file sharing, there is no tangible loss of physical property.
3. A pirate who downloads a book may then buy that book, or other titles by that author.
4. There is no data to show how many pirated books are actually read.
5. Studies have shown that file sharing doesn't harm sales, and may actually boost revenue.
6. Currently copyright law is woefully out of date, and needs to be reformed.

If someone breaks into your warehouse and steals $100 million worth of goods, that's a $100 million loss. If someone uploads your book to the Pirate Bay and shares it with 1000 people, there is no way to estimate loss. It might even be a gain, as obscurity is a writer's biggest hurdle to overcome.

The hysteria over file sharing is emotion-based. Intellectual property law doesn't apply well to a digital world, and global attitudes toward file sharing are changing as more and more people find it acceptable. At the same time, digital media sales and subscription services are thriving. Money is rolling in. This fear is all unfounded, and cannot be connected to any artist's pocketbook.

67% of our authors earn less than poverty level from their writing

And global warming is directly linked to the the declining number of seafaring pirates in the world.

This is one of the oldest fallacies in the book, confusing correlation with causality. Hey! Authors Guild! Maybe your writers can't earn a living because publishers don't pay them enough. That's something you can actually prove, with real numbers. Instead of sending that 67% statistic to Congress, send it to the heads of the Big 5 and tell them no guild member will sign another contract until they pay more.

Ha! Like that will ever happen.

Despite many publishers’ implementation of anti-piracy software and technological protection measures, the problem continues to grow. 

Do you AG folks know that Apple--the world's biggest music retailer--stopped using DRM on songs in 2009? Because DRM hurts consumers. All this time and money being wasted on lawyers and anti-piracy software and takedown notices could instead be shared with authors in the form of better royalties and higher advances.

This will all be a moot point soon, when digital streaming becomes the norm for ebooks. AFAIK, this topic isn't even on the Authors Guild's radar yet. But they'll get to it in five years, like the luddites they continue to prove they are.

Finally, to complete the fail trifecta, the Authors Guild threw their support behind that nauseatingly awful Authors United letter.

The Authors Guild supports Preston’s actions and endorses his request, as do the American Booksellers Association and the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

Great. Not only the Publisher's Guild is supporting that halfwit, Preston, but so is the Association of Publisher's Representatives.

From the AAR's Canon of Ethics:

the members pledge themselves to loyal service to their clients’ business and artistic needs, and will allow no conflicts of interest that would interfere with such service. 

Hint: Amazon sells more books than any other retailers, and treats writers better than any other publisher. Supporting Preston's half-assed efforts to break up Amazon's imaginary monopoly is the exact definition of conflict of interest.

Fear can make people act stupid. And when your ship is sinking, it's natural to cry for help. It's also natural to feel that the situation is unfair. While frightened, people can lament, do stupid things, and lie to themselves.

These are scary times. Lots of technological disruption. Lots of change. Lots of uncertainty. But being scared isn't an excuse for all of this sloppy thinking, reckless behavior, and abuse of power.

Protecting the status quo isn't forward-thinking. Especially when that status quo harmed more writers than it helped. How about, instead of fighting the future in an increasingly pathetic attempt to return to the old ways, you do yourselves, your clients, and your members a favor and start trying to figure out how to thrive in this new publishing environment?

Me? If I was sinking, I'd start bailing. And repairing my boat. And looking for alternative means of flotation.

Amazon has helped me earn a lot of money. But I don't feel Amazon, or anyone, owes me a living. I'm not envious of authors that outsell me. I'm not angry I never had, and likely never will, have a NYT bestselling book. I don't feel slighted because most ABA members refuse to carry my Amazon published novels. And I certainly wouldn't ever write Congress or the Assistant Attorney General about these things, or support any pinhead who did.

I don't whine. I adapt. I look at the present publishing climate, and try to adjust accordingly, while also keeping my eye on the future.

Blaming Amazon, or piracy, for your sinking sales isn't looking toward the future, or even maximizing the potential of the present. Even if Amazon or piracy were indeed illegally responsible for the implosion of your industry, that horse has left the barn. The digital age is here. Deal with it.

An Authors Guild worth its name would help writers navigate this new publishing terrain, rather than cling desperately to the Old Old Ways. An AAR worth its name wouldn't support actions intended to harm the majority of authors.

But, as I've said repeatedly, this is because the Authors Guild, and the AAR, don't work for authors.

They work for publishers. That's who has been buttering their bread. That's who they serve.

When are we authors going to have a group that actually advocates for us?