Monday, September 22, 2014

The Name Game

Elsewhere on the Internets, David Gaughran gives the publishing industry a spanking, Dan Meadows gives Douglas Preston a spanking, and Hugh Howey gives Authors United a spanking.

I'm finding this highly amusing. The Hachette/Amazon situation has become a true comedy of errors. It's like watching Groucho Marx lead Freedonia into war by intentionally being greedy, dishonest, and self-serving.

I'm not sure if Authors United is a bunch of elitists who know they're full of shit and are trying to make the best argument they can to sway public opinion because they don't want the gravy train to end, or if they're truly as stupid as they appear.
I go back and forth. Think-tank forced to defend an unwinnable debate, or self-deluded pinheads?
What I'm really enjoying is the Law of Unintended Consequences. They're in a large hole, and they keep on digging. The situation has become a farce. And even though AU has the media in its pocket, the ridiculousness of their stance is becoming impossible to hide.

The same silly things are being repeated, over and over. Preston, Colbert, Russo, Patterson, Turow, Robinson, are attempting to use buzzwords and terms in order to evoke fear and sympathy, and failing spectacularly.

Collectively, they feel threatened, and there really aren't any good ways to defend their sense of entitlement, so they have to zero in on the same nonsense they've been preaching for years; protectors of culture, nurturers of writers, champions of indie bookstores, and defenders of fair business practices. Amazon is using "sanctions" and "boycotts", Amazon is a "monopoly" that is "targeting" authors.
This is all very specific language that the status quo has collectively adopted in order to spin the real story.

Barry Eisler wrote a hilarious piece on this kind of thing back in 2010, and it applies perfectly.

When waging the battle for public opinion, word choice matters. As Barry said in the above article, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, erupting 60,000 barrels of oil into the ocean per day, the media, government, and oil companies called it a "leak" and a "spill." It was actually an "ecological disaster". But describing it accurately would alarm the masses, so the language was tailored to put everyone at ease.

Authors United can't win on logic, facts, or even common sense, so they are appealing to emotion to sway public opinion, and the language they're using is tailored to that. So the same lies keep getting trotted out, with Authors United hoping that the public will start repeating them and public opinion will side with them.

I'm going to put the buzz words that are being repeated in italics, and explain why they're fallacious.

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 wants 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.

Writers, who in the past were afraid to speak out against publishing nonsense like this because they didn't want to be blacklisted, are now actively pointing out how asinine publishers, and authors, are acting. Authors United, in its effort to win public support, has become a laughingstock. The publishing industry, and status quo authors, despise the term "legacy" to describe them. But it is an apt term, and is becoming widespread.

Authors United and their allies (I'm looking at you, NYT publishing apologist pinhead David Steitfeld) are not only failing to get their buzzwords accepted by the public, they're introducing derogatory terms that are eventually going to be adopted the same way "legacy publishing" has been.

"Whale math", which is attributed to Streitfeld in one of the most hilariously inept analogies in modern journalism, is a term coined to describe a ridiculous comparison in order to bolster one number while downplaying another. To quote Hugh Howey:

"the opinion of 900 authors is worth a fawning article (complete with Douglas Preston hanging out by his writing shack on his 300 acre summer estate), while the opinion of 8,000+ authors is meaningless . . . because far more people care about saving whales."

"Special snowflake" has been applied to Authors United because of their insistence that books, and authors, must have different rules applied to them because this is Important Art and Culture. Writers aren't assembly workers, they're better than that. Books aren't disposable razor blades, they're better than that. Elitist, self-important bullshit. Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson insisted she isn't a special snowflake. I agree, Roxana. You aren't special at all. So stop asking for special treatment.

"Typocrite" is someone in the publishing industry (someone who should know the value and meaning of words) who repeatedly claims they aren't doing something, then does it. Authors United says they aren't taking sides, while repeatedly chastising Amazon and not placing any blame at all on Hachette. AFAIK, they haven't even contacted Hachette. Roxana Robinson states readers are buying books from places other than Amazon, but that Amazon is still hurting authors. Authors United pens a letter praising the importance of editors, and then doesn't have anyone edit all of the typos and nonsense out of their own letter. Believing 900 signatures is somehow greater than 8000. Stating Amazon's reputation is at stake, when Amazon customer approval since the Hachette dispute went public has actually gone up. Publicly whining that Amazon is hurting authors, which is the equivalent of saying that "Your negotiation tactics are hurting us so your method is working." This is all typocritcal behavior, and something the legacy industry does a lot.

"Bookholm Syndrome" is when authors fight to protect the publishers that are exploiting them, even though they can't do so well because publishers actions are selfish, harmful, and indefensible. This applies to midlist authors yearning to become bestsellers, or newbie authors yearning for a publisher deal.

So what does all this mean?

It means the legacy industry has lost control. In the past, it was the only game in town. It controlled the only kind of book distribution--paper distribution. If you wanted to get onto bookstore shelves, you had to deal with a legacy publisher because they had a lock on it. You also had to accept unconscionable contract terms as a writer, because it was that or nothing.

Amazon has given authors a choice. We no longer have to bow to the cartel. And because of that, coupled with the rise of the Internet and the ability for everyone to seek out information and voice their opinion, we have a whole group of writers who aren't going to kowtow to legacy publishers. Once afraid to speak out, we can now freely criticize the stupidity and unfairness of the business. We can be honest without fear of reprisal. We have access and means to discredit bullshit when we hear it.

Legacy publishers, and their special snowflake authors, can be easily discredited. It doesn't matter that they can get all the press coverage they want by contacting media outlets. It doesn't matter that they can waste money on $100k ads in the NYT. Their message isn't being accepted by the largely uninterested public, but it is being widely vilified within the author community.

Years ago, I likened the legacy industry to dinosaurs after the asteroid hit. They still think they're relevant, but it is only a matter of time before they die off.

In the last Authors United letter, they mentioned the term dinosaurs and tried to dismiss it typocritically:

"But what these commentators and Amazon itself may not realize is that traditional publishing houses perform a vital role in our society."

In reality, legacy publishers have no vital role. In fact, they’re being the opposite of vital; they're actually harmful. Through their actions--price fixing, collusion, refusing to negotiate with Amazon, treating most authors like shit--they are disintermediating themselves. They are the living definition of shooting themselves in the foot.

What I didn't know, years ago, was that watching an extinction-level event would be so damn funny.