Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Advice to Authors United

Authors United is in trouble.

While they haven't lacked for biased media attention, they aren't swaying Amazon, and aren't swaying public opinion. Amazon's approval rating has gone up since the Hachette negotiations went public, and readers don't give a hoot about a bunch of rich, entitled authors whose pre-order buttons are gone.

Whining in public, wasting money on a $104k NYT ad, and whining in public some more, has accomplished the opposite effect of what they intended. Instead of getting sympathy and results, they've gotten a taste of the future. Namely, what the world will be like when their publishers aren't maximizing their sales potential.

Amazon is just the tip of the iceberg, you see. Yes, Hachette authors are currently losing sales. But Amazon has no contract with Hachette, and has no obligation to sell any Hachette titles at all. When Amazon completely stops selling Hachette books, Hachette's midlist will die. B&N and indie bookstores don't constitute enough sales to justify a 40k paperback run, and printing fewer than that isn't cost-effective.

Right now Amazon boasts it has 500,000 exclusive Kindle titles. As the brick and mortar shelves shrink, those who have been avoiding ebooks (casuual readers, late adopters, laggards) won't have a choice; if they want new titles, they'll need to finally embrace ebooks.

My mother held out during the VHS to DVD transition. She didn't buy a DVD player... until she had to, because they stopped selling VHS.

When this happens with ebooks--when the casual reader switches to a tablet app or cheap dedicated ereading device--it will hurt more than bookstores. All those folks who read 1 to 5 books a year (the ones who make the mega-bestsellers, of which many are Authors United signatories) will no longer get their summer reads at drug stores or airports. They'll simply download something.

All that prime real estate, putting mega-selling authors in front of peoples' eyes with widespread paper distribution, will be gone. Then James Patterson will be stuck with ebooks as his major source of income. If he's lucky, Amazon will still be selling his work, albeit for $12.99 with DRM and no Kindle Unlimited. If he's unlucky, Hachette will never capitulate, and Amazon will stop selling him altogether.

Consider the French Revolution. A bunch of blue bloods really thought they were born to rule, and the peasants couldn't live without them to govern. They were wrong.

Guess what? The reading community can easily live without books from every single Authors United signatory. Sure, some fans will be disappointed. But those fans will find other things to read. Just like I've been waiting for years for another Evil Dead film, but I've managed to find other movies to watch. The lack of Evil Dead 4 didn't mean I quit watching all films. The lack of Douglas Preston's latest in the supermarket check-out rack doesn't mean Preston fans won't find something else to read.

In 2011 I wrote two blog posts about this happening. One, The End of the Bestseller, goes into more detail about how the paper world, and its mega-bestsellers, will collapse. Check it out.

The other, The End is Nigh, has this quote:

"As I'd anticipated, print has become a subsidiary right. A niche market. Publishers will try to milk a few last drops of profit from it, and then they'll go bye-bye. 

At least, the old school publishers will. 

New school publishers, like Amazon, are primed to exploit this brave new world. They now control the distribution network. Watch as Amazon becomes the biggest publisher in the world." 

Hachette is cutting its own throat. By trying to protect its paper cartel, it is pushing readers away from its own catalog, and toward ebooks.

Hachette feels it has no choice. Unless they prevent Amazon from discounting ebooks, paper will die anyway. So why not go the contentious route and ruin the careers of hundreds of authors?

If other publishers follow Hachette's example, they'll fail. But if they allow Amazon to discount ebooks, they'll also fail. Their paper oligopoly will suffer either way. 

You fight technology, technology always wins.

But new technology, and the Amazon juggernaut, aren't the only nails in the legacy industry's coffin.

Authors United has tried to wage its battle in the court of public opinion, using the media to spread its nonsense. But it has discovered that readers don't care.

Writers, however, do care. They've been watching closely, and calling bullshit.

So while AU has been ineffective in changing Amazon's mind, or the public's mind, if has been an extremely effective propaganda tool for getting authors to stop submitting manuscripts to publishers.

"I'd always assumed that print publishers would begin to lose market dominance once ebooks took off in a big way, and they'd have to either restructure or die.

But now I'm predicting another death for them.

What is going to happen when authors stop sending their books to publishers?

If I know I can make $100,000 on a self-published ebook in five years of sales, and I have the numbers to back up this claim, why would any informed writer--either pro or newbie--ever settle for less?

The dominance of ebooks is coming. I have no doubt. But I always thought it was the readers who would lead the charge, based on cost and convenience.

Now I'm starting to believe that the ones with the real power are the ones who should have had the power since the beginning of publishing. The ones who create the content in the first place.

The authors."

Authors United is an ironic name for a group that is prompting authors to take sides. It is reinforcing the path indie authors have chosen, and embarrassing many who chose the legacy route. Publicly bitching that Amazon is hurting authors--when it is obvious that Amazon has an open door policy for authors via KDP and it is actually Hachette's inability to negotiate that is hurting authors--will scare more authors away from the Big 5. I was actually just talking with a bestseller who isn't going to even bother submitting a new book to the Big 5 out of a very real concern that they won't be able to sell via Amazon.

It's all a big, oven-baked plateful of fail with a generous slice of stupid for dessert.

Even more embarrassing is Authors United's failure to engage with peers who disagree. We're dishing out heaping helpings of humiliation and getting radio silence in return.

Where's the pride? Where's the desire to fight for what you believe in?

It does make some sense. Anyone who watched Authors Guild president Roxana Robinson get spanked when debating Paul Kedrosky can plainly see why they don't engage their critics; they're full of nonsense and could never win.

But if they're cognizant that their position is indefensible, why try to bother writing letters at all? Are they hoping the general public, and Amazon, are as stupid and accommodating as David Streitfeld?

Perhaps because, when you're really rich and have that oft-accompanying sense of entitlement, you tend to go down swinging. 

Even if you're swinging at empty air.

Now anyone who has been reading my blog for years (or followed the links I posted above) knows I'm pretty good at giving advice and predicting the future, because I tend to be right a lot. So I'm going to actually give Authors United some tips on what they could do in order to help themselves, and their fellow authors.

1. Write an open letter to Hachette. You've stated, repeatedly, that you aren't taking sides. Prove it. Let Hachette know how unhappy you are with their negotiating tactics, and do so publicly. Which leads to:

2. Leverage Hachette. Hire lawyers to get out of your Hachette contracts. Proclaim you'll refuse to sign any more deals with them unless they fix this situation. They have failed you, so let them know.

3. Force Hachette to accept one of Amazon's offers to compensate authors during the negotiation period. Amazon has tried several times to take authors out of the line of fire, and you've dismissed this without good reason. 

4. Stop whining. It looks bad. You aren't coming off as righteous and noble. You're coming off as privileged little snits. With all the money in play, you could hire a PR team, and media coaches for anyone who appears on TV. And if you've already done that, hire me. I've already told you what not to say, for free, on this blog. But if you're willing to waste $104k on a NYT ad, I'll take another $104k from you (which I'll give to a deserving charity) and walk you through how to win this battle.

5. Fix your soundbytes. When they are so easy to refute (Hint: Amazon isn't boycotting anything), all you do is show how lazy and ineffective your attempts at manipulation are.

6. Pay attention. You might think you're above the petty criticism authors like me level at you, but you're not. Ignoring what the blogosphere and Twitter and Facebook and the Internet in general are saying about you isn't taking the moral high ground; it's the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going "Nyah nyah nyah we can't hear you!" I've been showing you for months that your arguments are unpersuasive and your points are silly, and I'm one of many who have done this. Listen and learn and maybe you can correct some of your many mistakes. What kind of person doesn't look at the opposing viewpoints and try to grow from them?

And you can even take that a step further and:

7. Engage your critics. My blog is yours. If Roxana Robinson, Douglas Preston, Lee Child, James Patterson, Stephen King, Scott Turow, or any of the Authors United signatories wants to use my blog to make a statement, please do. I'm sure I also speak for David Gaughran, Courtney Milan, Barry Eisler, Hugh Howey, Bob Mayer, and other popular authors who have opined on this issue. We'd love to host you. Believe it or not, we agree on the core issue: We know writers are being hurt, and we don't like it. Let's build from there.

8. If you aren't going to change, quit. Seriously. You're hastening the demise of the industry that made you rich, which means you're hastening your own demise. Hachette, stupid as they're acting, are at least looking at the long game. Authors United is not. You're so concerned about short-term losses, you're helping to ensure a long-term loss.

It isn't too late to help all of the Hachette authors (and all of the future authors who will face this same situation when the other Big 4 negotiate with Amazon). But it will require taking a few steps back and being honest with what your goals really are. If you really aren't taking sides, and really want to help authors, you can be a force for good. With a reboot, your 1000 author petition could be 10,000 authors.

Authors United could actually effect change. So could the Authors Guild. But not if you continue down the path you've chosen.