Your Blog Sommelier: Pairing ‘Agent Orange’ And Hugh Howey

iStockphoto / fiorigianluigi
iStockphoto / fiorigianluigi

Orange To Writers: ‘Amazon is no big rock-candy mountain of authorial freedom’

The interests of the self-publishing cheerleaders have been well served by their subsidy from Amazon over the past few years but, from where I’m sitting, it looks to me like they are cheering the creation of a world where Amazon will turn the world’s authors into piece workers, endlessly feeding the content monster for a few pennies.

The literary agent who goes by the pseudonym Agent Orange is someone whose identity I have independently verified. While I normally don’t use unnamed sources, this party — who freely documented his or her situation for me when I asked years ago — has consistently pushed important buttons in the #publishing community.

As on this occasion, you usually will find her or his essays in The Bookseller’s blog section.

Frequently, Agent Orange’s intent is to point up perceived shortcomings in the established publishing industry. An agent known for such insurrection could end up drawing retaliation against his or her clients — at least, this is what she or he has told me. Hence the cover name.

In Author Vs. Author, however,  Agent Orange looks at “how divided the global community of authors (inasmuch as there is such a thing) has become,” writing:

The schism is between the comparatively tiny percentage of successful, published “legacy” authors (Authors United) and the great, largely submerged rump of  “self-published” authors. Like any civil war, it is a bitter fight.

The Bookseller uses this image for the pseudonymous Agent Orange
The Bookseller uses this image for the pseudonymous Agent Orange, a literary agent.

And Agent Orange’s contention about independent authors in this piece is twofold:

  • He or she questions whether self-publishing through Amazons’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is really independent, saying it gives the lie to the idea of the Internet as “a wonderful pluralistic organic primal soup.”
  • And she or he also concludes that self-publishing authors may be too close to an Amazon that is offering the equivalent of subsidies: “It is not just that Amazon is virtually the only route to market (65%+ in the US, 80%+ in the UK) but, more significantly, even though it does not pay advances, Amazon subsidizes every author published through KDP: the more successful the author, the larger the subsidy.”

Agent Orange writes:

The indie cheerleaders of the new world order of self-publishing need to ask themselves what happens when (if) Amazon succeeds in destroying the “legacy” publishing industry? Do they really think that Amazon will continue to be their friend once it has no threat from publishers and deems them to be of little use? What happens when its investors start demanding serious returns, and Amazon stops subsidising indie authors?

What brings me to propose to you a pairing of Agent Orange’s questions for indies and a new essay from the #author-activist Hugh Howey is that Howey has questions, too, questions for Amazon, and sharp ones. Howey’s article followed Agent Orange’s by a couple  of days.

We must wonder if Agent Orange isn’t left wondering right now whether the Howey-led authorial camp really is quite as comfortable on the Seattle campground as has been thought.

Howey To Amazon: What Have You Done For Us Lately?

I would love to know how many readers borrow a book and then go on to buy a copy of the same book. I’ve done this before, and I tend to doubt my uniqueness. For Prime members especially, who only get one borrow a month, do they ever love an ebook so much that they decide to own a copy for good? The reason I ask is because authors tend to view a borrow as a lost sale. If you could show me how many duplicate transactions there were like this, it would be super useful in understanding reading and purchasing habits.

The bold emphasis there is Howey’s own. But the question he’s asking is one a lot of us have wondered about and would love an answer to.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Of course, we’re all accustomed to scant numbers from Amazon, which declines as a private corporation to share data that would help the industry quantify itself, understand itself, and serve its consumers. Amazon’s advantage, needless to say, is that its competitors don’t have such information. We understand this.

What makes the questions Howey lays out in Stuff I Want To Know so compelling, however, is that they are his.

Howey is prolific, as you may know. He doesn’t like the idea of being locked into one genre or another. He has recently been adding an interesting cluster of Kindle Single works to his output — The Walk Up Nameless Ridge, Glitch, A Second Suicide — and the short story Promises of London.

Needless to say, publishing a standalone four-page short story or a 22-page single of this kind is something, I feel sure that #Agent Orange would readily admit Howey could hardly expect to do with a standard publishing house. Asking his readers to choose for him which of two covers should go onto The Walk Up Nameless Ridge is another.

These elements of authorial license, however, don’t seem to have bonded Howey as unquestioningly to Amazon as some of hits critics might think.

Seen by many as a super-successful acolyte for the self-publishing platform of Amazon’s operation, he has arrived this week publicly questioning why the corporation isn’t supporting its authors more thoroughly.

Here are some more of his questions for Seattle. I’m excerpting his elaborative material and urge you to read his full text — same for Agent Orange’s post — if you have time.

The Walk Up Nameless Ridge Hugh HoweyHowey:

I would love to know how far into my books readers get. …If you [Amazon] hate sharing even anonymous data without permission, allow the reader to adjust a slider when they leave a review to show how much they read.

I want to get to know my collector readers, the people who love a signed physical copy of an ebook they really enjoyed. …There are two awesome ways you could tap into the signed book market, and I’d love to know if either are feasible: A) Let me digitally sign a page with a unique inscription. Ingest this page into the Createspace .PDF, print a copy and ship it to the reader. Easy-peasy. B) Use your 3rd party seller infrastructure to handle orders of signed books. I get the order, sign the book, print the label, and have UPS pick the package up at my door.

Why can’t I see my lifetime sales anywhere on my dashboard? …You do it on the ACX homepage.

Why not include print and audio sales as well? Are you all working on consolidating these three dashboards? The only thing comforting to me about how different the three interfaces look is that I assume the ACX royalty drop can’t have anything to do with future KDP decisions since it appears from the UX at each site that the people from these three companies have never actually met in person. You should get them all in a room together. Just don’t bring royalties up.

I would love to know why we don’t have any sort of gamification of writing implemented yet? Writers should receive little congratulatory badges for hitting reasonable sales milestones…And readers should get badges for the number of ebooks they finish.

Glitch Hugh HoweyNote the parallel between the idea of badges used to reward readers and Richard Nash’s comments in Sweden about the need to understand what the “quantified self” might mean in terms of encouraging reading.

Here’s a good one. And Howey’s use of the phrase “you all” is his direct address to Amazon:

Why don’t you all come out and assure KDP authors that the 70% cut to us will never decrease. Ever. That it could only go up in the future. You would calm a lot of jittery nerves.

Why the 70% price cut-off?…I’d love to package my entire Silo Series trilogy together and sell it for $12.99. That would be an amazing savings to the reader, a great value to your customers. But you all treat every ebook product the exact same, which means my royalty rate would drop from 70% to 35%. That’s not good.

What about offering everything published by a particular author at great discount? This could be a dynamically generated package, so whatever is available at that moment is included…iTunes does this with individual tracks. You can “complete the album” with a click. Why can’t we do this? I’d love to know.

Why don’t you all create a newsletter system for authors? Do you know how much MailChimp is making from writers right now?

How about something to compete with BookBub?…We would pay for the service. I bet you could beat BookBub both on price and efficacy.

Second Suicide Hugh HoweyBookBub is a book promotion service to which authors and publishers submit their output for consideration. The service curates the titles it offers to its readership at discounted prices through a daily email.

Why can’t you help us hook up with cover artists, editors, ebook formatters, and beta readers? …You could even allow us to do a revenue share with freelancers. ACX does this (you should meet those people. If they start talking about royalties, tell them to shut up).

For all the humor he brings to those references to the Amazon-owned, or Audiobook Common Exchange program (which dropped its royalties dramatically in February), this is a serious Howey in a serious moment.

His readers seem to know it. The post has more than 133 comments as I write this.

Your Sommelier’s Prerogative

In bringing these two articles together, I suggest just a couple of thoughts about the pairing — beyond the fact that I’m sorry it’s not happy hour yet as I write this.

It is generally held by critics of self-publishing that independent authors are courting eventual disaster: Amazon one day will reel around in that awful dragonly way of terribly big beasts, breathing fire, and incinerate all its trusting self-publishing authors by frying their royalty rates, their searchability, their promotional opportunities, everything.

This is called the Amazon is not your friend line of thinking, and it has considerable currency among what Agent Orange calls the “legacy” side — never mind that 70-percent royalties would really have to drop a long way to get even close to the widely condemned 25-percent ebook royalties typically paid by publishers.

Promises of London Hugh HoweyAgent Orange makes the case for this not your friend viewpoint well. He or she also is right to call into view the powerful rift between certain factions of authors in these days of Amazonian-Hachetttian-Bonnierian negotiating controversy.

And she or he also holds out that tantalizing question of just how indie are “indies” this way:

I had my moral high horse boiled down for glue some time ago, and I have written extensively on the bad decisions of publishers. I do not think I have seen anyone really explore the fact that that behind all the excited noises coming from the indie side of the business, there is an uncomfortable suspicion forming that the whole idea of an “indie author” is increasingly suspect. Maybe there isn’t really any such thing as an “indie author”—or at least, not a successful one.

Howey, however, also will have brought to our table today a certain surprise for some who are willing to concede it.

Lo, the favorite son of Seattle may not be quite so blinded by the science of the algorithms, after all.

Of Amazon, he writes, “They are sitting on a pile of data that would help me reach more readers.”

And there, he has invoked the holy grail of common cause. However hotly our authors may hanker for more sales, so, surely must the Amazonian hall of money. And if Amazon doesn’t answer Howey’s list of questions, it will not go unnoticed by his throngs of writer-followers.

Cordial fellow that he is, Howey may actually have just put Amazon on the spot.

And if this is the case, then we shall have had the kind of pairing here that makes a good sommelier’s day, rich in texture, fresh in combining the unexpected for an effect of ….what next?

I think Agent Orange’s eyebrows are raised.

I think Amazon’s are, too.

And I think Howey is waiting for answers.

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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