Periscope Depth

the benefit of law

If you’re not in the publishing industry, or you’re not among the dozen people who still get a print subscription to the New York Times, you might have missed the full-page Authors United ad that ran on Friday. Helmed by bestseller Douglas Preston, Authors United is a collection of successful authors (some published by Hachette, some not) who, through this ad, have called on readers to email Jeff Bezos directly and ask him not to use the saleability of Hachette titles as leverage in the ongoing Amazon/Hachette negotiations.

Not to be outdone, the Amazon Books Team sent an email to all Kindle Direct Publishing authors, including yours truly, on Saturday. In it, Amazon called attention to a number of unconventional tactics they’ve suggested that would alleviate Hachette authors’ concerns while the negotiations continue – including paying all Hachette authors 100% of sales on Amazon. They also asked all authors to email the CEO of Hachette directly.

There are a number of passionate and sound thinkers in the independent publishing field, including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey, who believe that a self-published writer’s interests obviously lie with Amazon getting their way. As a self-published writer, I disagree, for one very clear and selfish reason.

As a self-published writer, I lack a number of advantages that my friends with traditional publishing contracts have. It’s harder for me to secure the reviews and blurbs that aid in sales. It’s harder for me to distribute my book to the traditional brick-and-mortar stores where half of all books in the U.S. are sold. It’s harder for me to get invited to the industry events that, even if they have little impact on sales, enable me to network with other industry professionals and uncover more opportunities. And it’s harder for me to take advantage of the marketing tools – pre-sales, co-op promotion – that larger publishers avail themselves of. These are all rewards that accrue to the prestige of a contract with a traditional publishing house. No matter how well I sell – and there are some self-published authors who sell as well, or better, than many mid-list authors – those doors are shut to me. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, “It’s quite possible to turn honor into money, almost impossible to convert money into honor.”

I have one substantial advantage that my friends lack, though, and that is agility.

On Amazon, the world’s largest market for ebooks (at the moment), I have a very high degree of control over the price at which my ebooks sell. Amazon sets a window, and reserves the right to alter the price if they see another retailer offering it lower – Amazon will not be undersold – but beyond that the power lies in my hands. If I think I can gain a foothold in the market by pricing my books lower, in order to drive up volume and get good reviews, I can. If I think I can gain prestige by pricing my books comparably to more recognized titles, I can do that as well*.

Authors who are published by Hachette have almost zero control over the price at which their books sell. That control is, at the moment, roughly split between Hachette and Amazon. In the current negotiation, Amazon wants the power to discount Hachette ebooks to a greater degree than they currently can. As Smashwords’ Mark Coker put it, “Amazon wants the ability to discount books, and to enable greater discounting Amazon wants a larger percentage of the publisher’s pie.” Hachette, of course, would prefer to retain or increase its control over what price Amazon can sell Hachette books at.

My ability to set my own price on Amazon is, of course, at Amazon’s sufferance. It may be suspended at any time, as Walter Jon Williams has pointed out, without giving me notice. But as long as I have that ability and traditionally published authors don’t, I would be a fool not to exploit it. And I would also be a fool to cheer for an outcome in which I lost that exploitable edge.

I don’t want David Baldacci or James Patterson’s titles to shift in price as rapidly as mine can. I like my agility. I like darting between the legs of these grappling colossi. It behooves me for the Titanomachia to continue as long as possible, for any negotiation between the world’s largest ebook retailer and one of the world’s largest media groups to be as hard-fought as possible, for concessions to be grudging, and for agreements to be mutually unsatisfying.

I don’t like the apparent future in which my best bet to remain free and hale is to decide which giant media corporation I’m going to side with. I harbor no illusions that the publishing model on which Hachette built its millions will survive another ten years. I also harbor no illusions that Amazon has my best interests at heart.

For the moment, the tide carries me where I want to go, but I would be stupid to think the tide an ally.

ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

- A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt

(For more on these dueling emails, both pro- and contra-Amazon, please read the recent blog posts by both John Scalzi and Barry Eisler)

* As of this writing, a Kindle copy of Too Hard to Handle costs $1.00 more than a Kindle copy of Diana Gabaldon’s insanely popular novel Outlander. It hasn’t hurt my sales any – they weren’t great to begin with, so why not take a larger slice of a small pie – but I’m sure the relative positioning won’t last forever. The price of Outlander will probably creep back up in time; Random House recognizes, as I do, the value of price flexibility.