This Week: Will Publishing Change The Tone?

iStockphoto / styf22
iStockphoto / styf22

It’s Never Too Late To Embrace Your Cognitive Dissonance

Here’s an interesting irony for those following — or being battered to bits by — the Amazon-Hachette mania that’s enraging so many people in book publishing in this loud, hot summer.

Edan Lepucki, author of California, the Stephen Colbert-promoted Hachette book, is married to Patrick Brown — the main spokesperson for Amazon’s Goodreads. Lupucki told SFGate’s Julian Guthrie for his weekend story, “I’ve never bought books from Amazon because I’ve kind of seen them as a bully. But also, I love bookstores.” She has said this in previous interviews, as well.

Brown is a great guy: I’ve worked with him in several conference and trade-show events. Personable, superbly professional, entirely competent. And, by many accounts, Lepucki is a fine writer. I’m looking forward to getting into California.

Lepucki’s and Brown’s marriage comprises both her opinion that Amazon is “a bully” and his untiring advocacy for what the 30-million-member Amazon Goodreads platform is doing for readers and authors — and for how well Amazon is supporting it.

Maybe the rest of us need to consider a mass wedding.

Time To Dial It Back?

I thought I knew how tense things were getting until last Wednesday when a publishing-industry worker treated me to an incredible volley of abuse for something I’d written. The problem was the tone. There are ways that colleagues don’t talk to colleagues. This person and I will never regain the friendly working relationship we’d had before. Apparently, this one notch in publishing’s long, difficult redevelopment was worth ripping that up.

I’d experienced what GigaOM’s Laura Hazard Owen is calling today the “fever pitch” of rhetoric in this “Don’t tread on me” summer. She’s analyzing the shouting match in “class warfare” terms.

More plainly, this could simply be the best chance publishing people have had to scream at each other lately. They’ve long been under growing stress as digital realities have imposed wrenching change and uncertainty on both the traditional structure and the still-new independent response. Animosities have been growing in this hothouse all year.

David Streitfeld
David Streitfeld

After talking in a Digital Book World webcast last week about a “breaking point” sensation in the New York publishing industry’s perceptions of the Amazon-Hachette situation, the New York Times’ David Streitfeld went on this weekend to write:

From household names to deeply obscure scribblers, authors are inflamed this summer, perhaps more deeply divided than at any point in nearly a half-century. Back then, it was the question of being a hawk or dove on Vietnam. Now it is not a war but an Internet retailer and its unparalleled grip on the cultural machinery that is provoking fierce controversy.

Yes, and author-lobbyists have seized on this chance to try to make you take sides.

There are those who want you to stick up for Amazon and self-publishing, and those who want you to instead proclaim your support for Hachette and traditional publishing. Sign this petition. Choose up. Declare your allegiance. Wear the colors.

Neither recruitment effort may have affected the actual business negotiations between the retailer and the publisher at all, of course. Indeed, those negotiations may not even matter as much as much the apocalypse-mongers want you to think.

Jeff Jarvis
Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis this weekend followed an article from Fred Wilson with some terrific thoughts on how:

We are shifting from vertically integrated corporations and industries to ecosystems made up of three layers: (1) platforms, which enable the birth and growth of (2) entrepreneurial enterprises built atop them and then (3) networks that bring together these disparate enterprises into critical mass.

So how are you going to be able to take in such a high, bracing view of things if you’re trying to score points in the ground war, blog-shrieking at the 38th self-publishing romance writer from the left? Or zinging everybody in sight to curry favor with authors who make millions of dollars, some as self-publishers and some as traditionalists? It’s striking how much attention we pay to our “1 percent,” as The Bookseller’s Caroline Sanderson points out in a blog post.

The changes under way reflect far deeper transitions in our culture and our commerce than today’s percentage-split on an ebook.

And as author Jamie Ford put it in a comment here at Thought Catalog:

To get down in the mud seems unproductive. If you wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.

Whichever side you think the happy pig is on, maybe this week it would be worth trying to stay out of the mud. Spirited, informative, earnestly felt debate can be a huge help in such times of change and challenge. But it’s not necessary to take sides. In fact, it can be an education just to listen carefully to everyone trying to sway you.

The Gray Areas: They’re Where An Authentic Life Is Lived

Everybody speaks as if only one thing—the thing they want to be true—can be true at a time.

That’s the UK’s Bristol-based writer and technologist Baldur Bjarnason in a short essay, Both At The Same Time, posted on the US Independence Day, which gave it some extra resonance. Bjarnason reflects on how hard we try to wiggle out of dissonance.

John Scalzi
John Scalzi

And, boy, can that poison the debate in publishing right now.

This is what author John Scalzi was getting at in Amazon, Hachette, Publishing, Etc. — It’s Not A Football Game, People:

You’re allowed to think more than one thing about a company at the same time. I like what Amazon’s doing in the audiobook space, especially as it involves me. I think what it’s doing to Hachette authors sucks, in no small part because it happened to me, a few years back, when Amazon had a similar fight with Macmillan. Amazon has helped my career; it’s also made it clear to me that it doesn’t give a shit about my career when its interests are elsewhere. Amazon isn’t the only business partner I have that I can say that about. It’s clarifying, I will say.

Baldur Bjarnason
Baldur Bjarnason

Bjarnason was saying the same thing to anyone who’d listen:

Self-publishing can sometimes be a great, empowering thing for authors. And it can sometimes be a huge, crippling mistake that dead-ends their careers. Both at the same time.

Big publishers can be vital in building the careers of writers who never would have had a chance otherwise. And big publishers can be exploitative and ruthless. Both at the same time.

Amazon can be a company that has done incredible things in terms of access, reach, and distribution for authors, readers, and publishing. And [it] can be a greedy, self-centered, amoral, ruthless, bullying, and dangerous multinational with so much power that it redefines the very concept of moral hazard. Both at the same time.

Know Anybody Who Says They Hate Amazon But Keeps Selling Books There?

Leon Festinger’s 1954 concept is still one of the most accessible ways to understand what happens when we’re confronted with opposing beliefs, assumptions, loyalties.

The Festinger theory suggests that when we experience the uncomfortable friction of a new “truth” that conflicts with an existing “truth,” we’ll attempt to convince ourselves that no conflict exists. We’ll rush to one side or the other of the issue, in other words, and tell everybody that “the truth is plain as day.” Rationalize away the conflict. Walk it off.

The old line “Do as I say, not as I do” is a wry evocation of cognitive dissonance.

Mike Shatzkin
Mike Shatzkin

You can see a lot of balance in how Mike Shatzkin looks at The New Amazon Offer To Hachette, that widely discussed 100-percent offer. In his column, Shatzkin is having to shift positions, as a matter of fact, having given a quick thumbs up when caught off-guard by a journalist, then gone back to evaluate the situation later. Notice how Shatzkin can revisit the concept, come to a new conclusion that the proposal was less good for Hachette than for Seattle, and promulgate that revision without rancor:

It would already seem that Amazon holds the high cards here. They are apparently around 60 percent of Hachette’s ebook business. But Hachette’s ebook business is a smidgen of Amazon’s, almost certainly less than 10 percent. And the percentage of its total operating margin Amazon loses in the Hachette dispute is a fraction of the percentage of operating margin that Hachette loses, even before this latest gambit. From the outside, it would appear that Amazon’s “staying power” during this dispute was already much greater than Hachette’s.

When someone in publishing wants to co-opt you into their interpretation of what’s happening right now, they’re preying on the discomfort of your dissonance. They know it doesn’t feel good to think that Hachette’s authors are being financially hurt and its readers inconvenienced by the same Amazon that has delivered to authors the means to write, produce, and sell more books than any other single entity. They want to walk you right over to their side — whichever side that might be.

Biz Carson
Biz Carson

What cooler voices are saying is that you don’t have to engage.

If the firebrands are coming in hot from the beginning — if they sound snarky, belligerent, ugly — one option is to strand the hostility. The worst thing a ranting person can hear back is nothing: you may want to provide them with just that.

Do you need to know how to mute someone on Twitter or Facebook or another social medium?

Here you go. GigaOM’s Biz Carson produced one of the most useful articles of the weekend, and boy, is it timely: How To Unfollow, Mute, Or Ignore People On Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, And More.

And because it’s really not at all sometimes easy to sit with our mixed feelings on this whole mess, let me offer you some interesting comments that can move you beyond it.

On “Selfishness…Are We Helping Each Other?”

I was the last generation of writers given one chance; the generation before had two chances; the generation now doesn’t have a chance.

Chris Cleave
Chris Cleave

The novelist Chris Cleave chaired the judging panel this year for the £10,000 ($17,120) Desmond Elliott Prize, which went to Eimear McBride for her A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

In an interview, he warned of “a lot of selfishness” in the writing community, telling my colleague Benedicte Page at The Bookseller:

Established authors are starting to develop a real career mentality. There’s a lot of selfishness, a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that writing should be a vocation, not a career. You have to leave it [the world of books] better than you found it.
More writers need to celebrate new writers: “This is my protege, I want you to read their books.” In music, artists feature less well-known artists on their album, to bring people on – they need help. I’ve never seen an author pick up a major prize and say, “Now [that] you are listening to me, you should read X, Y and Z.” It’s a big platform to bring new people to public awareness.

And that’s a great place to start, surely. Says Cleave:

We are creating a culture within which we are not doing anything to help each other. It’s an isolationist culture and not as collaborative as it should be. Every time an established writer opens their mouth in public, the first thing they should say is something helpful to a writer trying to make it work. It’s quite a profound attitude shift. Are we helping each other? And concretely, how?

So when the upset, the frightened, and the rude come by this week to tell everybody what to think about this and how to react to that, maybe more folks will find a way to spend that time and energy better highlighting their cohorts’ work — and leaving the loudest folks to chew each others’ legs off.

My grandfather in Charleston used to tell me that when you were being pushed one way or another by someone, the last thing that person wanted you to do was to evaporate on them.

“Baby,” he loved to say, “you can just walk away.” TC mark

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