When Authors Turn Against Authors, Or: Storytelling Folks Should Stick Together

iStockPhoto / MLiberra
iStockPhoto / MLiberra

“The Corn Is As High As An Elephant’s Eye”

I started by asking James Scott Bell about Casablanca. Bell is an attorney, a fellow former Equity actor, and both an indie author and one published with Hachette. And I told him that last week’s dueling open-letters between independent and traditionally publishing authors reminded me of the scene in which the Germans’ chorus of Wacht am Rhein is sung down by the others singing La Marseillaise. 

I then mentioned a dance number in the second act of Oklahoma! 

In Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II’s first musical, the Oklahoma Territory farmers (who build fences) and cattle ranchers (whose herds dislike fences) are fighting. Over those fences.

Bell and I were soon dickering over a new round of lyrics to R&H’s song from the show, “The Farmer and the Cowman.”

So before we get on to our own fence-mending, let me offer you this new version. If you know the tune, you’ll find that these lyrics scan quite well. Here it is, suitable for choreography:

The Indie And The Trad Scribe Should Be Friends
Copyright © 2014 by James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Except the right to re-post with full author credit!

Oh the indie and the trad scribe should be friends!
Oh the indie and the trad scribe should be friends!
The Indie likes to pub himself,
The other likes a bookstore shelf.
But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.

Storytelling folks should stick together,
Storytelling folks should not be mean.
Some will go with direct-to-Kindle,
Others dance with the trad machine.

I’d like to say a word for the indie.
The road she trods is difficult and lonely.
She pubs for months on end
Without a download for a friend.
And some trad writers think that she’s a phony.

And what about the writer for the trad pubs?
His contract terms are dicier than ever.
If his books do not earn out
It puts his livelihood in doubt.
And the publisher will hold his rights forever.

Storytelling folks should stick together,
Storytelling folks should not be mean.
Some will go with direct-to-Kindle,
Others dance with the trad machine.

Keep humming…

“Oh, What A Beautiful Morning!”

Fences keep going up. Despite the efforts by some to say that choosing up sides and squaring off won’t work, authors are drawing lines and soliciting others to join them.

On one main side, per Bell’s lyrics, are indies, independents — meaning, in most cases, self-publishers — who say that Amazon is being unfairly blamed  in its negotiations with Hachette.

And on the other side are our “trad scribes,” the traditionally published authors who say that Hachette’s writers and readers are innocent victims of Amazonian strong-arm tactics.

Warnings about splitting the author corps seem to be falling on some receptive ears — and on some deaf ears.

Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig

Some, among them author Chuck Wendig in Publishing Is Not A Religious War, have tried for some humor:

Presenting this as if it’s TWO SIDES, SO PICK ONE completely misrepresents the sheer potential of the landscape. This is a truly bad-ass time to be an author, and this makes it sounds like we’re fighting some fucking apocalyptic hell-battle on steeds made of Kindles and jousting ostriches ridden by slavemaster Big Five editors.

Hugh Howey, one of the two main authors of the “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages” petition of Hachette, has written much more seriously about opening a dialogue with Douglas Preston. in Douglas Preston And I Agree, he writes:

We chatted today, and as I suspected, Douglas and I agree on far more than we disagree. We both want what’s best for writers. The confusion is on how to achieve that.

Preston is the traditionally published author who led the initial open-letter effort that triggered Howey’s petition. If you need it, there’s something of a timeline here in this Friday setup at The FutureBook to our #FutureChat on the issue.

Howey’s and the other independents’ response now is a bona fide petition at Change.org. It was launched so hastily last week (to catch the news cycle on which the Preston letter was moving) that it wasn’t framed as an actual petition and was bafflingly directed at writers and readers.

Updated over the weekend, the newly coherent petition is now directed squarely at Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group. Re-framed, the piece ends with an actual appeal to Pietsch:

Please help put an end to these negotiations. Accept Amazon’s offer to create a 50/50 joint fund to support your authors. And then work on a resolution that keeps ebook prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the “50/50 joint fund,” it’s a challenge Amazon made to Hachette in a May 27 blog post. During a similar standoff with Macmillan, a pool of money was created and equally funded by Amazon and the publisher to help compensate authors whose books were not being sold on Amazon while the buy buttons were removed. Hachette rejected the Amazon overture to help authors, as reported by Jeffrey Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal.

Douglas Preston
Douglas Preston

In Douglas Preston and I Agree, Howey seems to want to telegraph that he isn’t trying to split the field. He tries to paint a reconciliation, even though he writes, “We would both probably write similar pleas a second time around. But we’d probably do even more to assume that the other side is seeing the world differently but with the same generous spirit.”

But scroll down five comments. Despite Howey’s efforts at hands across the open letters, you find his co-author of the petition, Joe Konrath, having none of it. In fact, he writes in a surprisingly condescending tone to Howey, as if Howey — easily the most prominent and articulate of the independents’ ethos — is misunderstanding the issues:

It’s not a confusing issue, Hugh. Preston asked readers, in the most public way possible, to support Hachette–a company that wants to raise ebook prices while keeping author royalties low, and to express their displeasure directly at Amazon, a company that wants to keep ebook prices low while giving authors higher royalties.

Hopefully, our letter [at Change.org] opened up his eyes. In which case, he can change his public position on this.

Or he can wait until more information is revealed about this dispute, and look even sillier when it is shown how wrong he is.

I met Doug at a convention a while ago, and found him to be quite personable. I really like his books. And I’m sure you had a nice, friendly chat with him. If I had to guess, he’s probably a great guy, gives to a lot of charitable organizations, and cares a lot of about writers and this business.

None of that has anything to do with his letter. A letter calculated to manipulate public opinion in a disingenuous way.

This is the kind of public in-fighting in the leadership of the independent authors’ statement — the two key authors of that petition — that may undermine its efforts to redress what Konrath describes as “the negative press the media is giving Amazon for its negotiations with Hachette.”

And it is difficult to believe any assertions — from either side of those fences, traditional or independent — that the players here are not asking fellow authors to choose sides.

A serious polarization seems to be in progress between the “indies and the trad scribes.”

“It’s A Scandal! It’s A Outrage!”

That song from Oklahoma! is not in the 1955 film (and is mostly spoken, not sung). But its title is certainly apt to our moment.

While it’s no secret that many self-publishing authors harbor a bitter dislike of big-corporate traditional publishing and its contractual treatment of authors, the he-said/she-said of the initial open letter and the answering petition were, as one observer has noted in a message to me, “fine and robust First Amendment missives.”

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

What followed, however, was a display of ill temper inside the independent group that may be damaging to what appears to be Howey’s exploration of possibly organizing the writers. His post before the Preston one is Do Writers Need A Union? In this post, he reveals that he has been thinking about these issues for years.

If you have a print copy of any of the self-published editions of the Wool series, you may have noticed something strange on page 99 of each book. Doesn’t matter which book in the series, they all have as the page number: 99%. That’s the rest of us. Of course, another writer pointed out to me while we were crafting this open letter that he and I are now in the 1%, but I don’t think that’s true. We get to choose which side we stand on; our income doesn’t decide for us.

And what would a union of writers stand for?

In one of his long comments this weekend at Chuck Wendig’s site, Howey writes, “if we could draw up a platform,” and offers seven planks. They include:

  • Higher royalties
  • Limited terms of copyright
  • Rejection of DRM
  • Author input on pricing in contracts
  • Abolishment of high-discount royalty clauses
  • Joint accounting; most-favored nation clauses;
  • Print-only deals

Some detractors, of course, will argue with Howey that he, Konrath, and Barry Eisler, who worked on the petition, as well, most certainly are in the proverbial “1%” of successful self-publishers, easily as much as they see the Preston-led effort on the traditionally publishing side. And such criticisms of the independent effort will stick more easily if the leadership can’t manage to present what looks like a unified front.

“People Will Say We’re In Love”

Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the commercial voices of Konrath and Wendig. Sometimes, they seem stuck in their own stylistic cleverness. In fact, they’re intelligent, dedicated players, fully capable of dropping their writerly characters when they want to, to work together.

Joe Konrath
Joe Konrath

When I hosted our weekly #FutureChat for The Bookseller’s The FutureBook on Friday on the topic, I was delighted to find a constructive, smartly spoken, congenial Joe Konrath in the group. We had one of the most thoughtful and collegial exchanges I’ve seen in such live-on-Twitter discussions of a controversial topic. And we had seen this side of Konrath before, when he wrote a truly eloquent and wisely phrased letter to the court during the public comment period of the Department of Justice’s anti-trust case against the publishers.

Some of the points Konrath made in #FutureChat included the fact that he has no blind allegiance to Amazon, despite his support of it: “Indie authors often publicly disagree with Amazon. I’ve taken Amazon to task several times.”

Even as he termed the Preston letter “BS,” he also wrote, “There is no Us vs. Them. No Amazon vs. Legacy Publishing. There is only what’s best for authors.” And: “I don’t feel it is my job to show publishers or authors that they are wrong. My public service is to inform writers so they have the correct info to set goals and make decisions.”

Later the same day, however, he was Fisking Chuck Wendig, his fellow author, for questioning the first release of the petition.

Mind you, Wendig had spared little sass, himself, in The Petition To Paint Amazon As Underdog.  Wendig is frequently the independent voice calling for a middle ground, but like Konrath, he performs a sort of scatological dance for his blog readers.

Shock-jock verbiage is apparently a key to success with both Wendig and Konrath’s respective audiences. Granted, those personas are absolutely their right to promulgate. But they can really distract from the importance of a discussion of this kind.

Among the less emotive but pointed commentary in his “Underdog” piece, Wendig wrote:

I don’t know exactly why Mega-Company Amazon needs a… petition of support? I like Amazon well enough, and as my publisher they’ve been aces. I don’t boycott them — but I also try to diversify my buying habits in the same way I try to diversify my reading and writing and publishing habits. But I also recognize that Amazon has received a lot of criticism for the way it does business (as have many big publishers, to be clear), and further, puts out an ebook environment where you do not really own your ebooks.

Konrath’s “fisking” response at that point:

That last sentence was lazy and I don’t know who it is directed toward. Authors? You keep your rights when you publish on KDP, so you do own them. If you’re referring to readers owning ebooks, that’s the nature of digital downloads. You don’t own your iTunes purchases either. Every software download includes a license agreement. What’s your point? You’re bringing this up why exactly? Non-sequitor divergences make it tough to tease out your intent.

In comments on the “fisking” piece, there were a surprising number of Konrath’s readers objecting.

One wrote: “Sadly, when you resort to insults, it undermines any point you were trying to make.”

Konrath replied:

I know. :(  But it made me smile when I wrote it. Also, I try to fisk using the tone of the original poster. Chuck isn’t exactly subtle when he’s displeased with something, and he’s a big boy who can handle a little ball-busting. I’m not above being a petty dick if I think it’s warranted. But I admit to the immaturity.

“I Can’t Say No”

While the self-publishing leadership looks for accord — or continues chewing each other’s legs off — questions will be waiting. They might include:

(1)   If the traditionally publishing 1 percent is protecting its own interests in its pro-Hachette stance, isn’t the self-publishing 1 percent also protecting its interests in its pro-Amazon stance?

(2)   If this de facto leadership among independents finds self-publishing to be so satisfying, how is it that they seem to be trying so hard to reform traditional publishing? Why not move forward to deepen and enrich self-publishing and woo their traditionalist colleagues to follow?

(3) And if either side is to grapple effectively with genuine questions of authors’ rights and the traditional publishing industry’s stance on them, is it truly authentic to keep casting all this as something about the readers?

Both sides court the sympathies of the readers — asking them to choose sides, just as they’re asking writers to do.

  • The Preston letter wants “you, our loyal readers” to contact Jeff Bezos.
  • And the independents’ petition says, “It’s about you, the readers.”

In truth, it’s about them, the authors. That’s as it should be. And these groveling expressions of undying love for the readers are incredibly cloying.

James Scott Bell
James Scott Bell

None other than James Scott Bell, our Hammerstein-nouveau, writes to Howey in a comment on the “Do Authors Need A Union?” piece:

I don’t think there is cause for thinking that “the power is in the hands of our opponents” or that “a lot of readers…see us as ditherers and cranks.” I see no evidence of massive reader interest in the competing letters. Among authors, certainly. But not among the folks who buy our books, from whatever source.

The power of media in this instance is not going to sway reader opinion. Readers are smart and they like to….read. This infighting among authors might register to some as an interesting blip….but then they are going to continue to shop for books the way they shop for books. They are not going to boycott a retailer nor will they write angry letters to a publisher.

Bell may well be right: the readers are doing just fine, thanks.

The readers have much more marvelous prose and awful crap to read right now than ever before in history. The books market is hopelessly glutted. Authors could stop producing for six months, slog through their differences, reform the industry top to bottom —  and the readers would still be crawling out from under the mountain of material dropped into the market in the past couple of years.

Even well intended, much of this thanking of the readers can come across more as smarm than gratitude.

Readers don’t need authors’ valentines. They need a less dysfunctional book industry.

So. Indies and trad scribes have scrambled everyone out into the pasture for the big emergency dance number. They have our attention. The orchestra is vamping. And the greatest show on Earth right now? — may be a little cohesion.

Storytelling folks should stick together,
Storytelling folks should not be mean.
Some will go with direct-to-Kindle,
Others dance with the trad machine. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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