Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fisking Salon and Rob Spillman

Updated below.

Just when I think media coverage of Amazon/Hachette can't get any worse, Rob Spillman gets everything wrong in today's Salon.

Seriously. Everything. Doesn't anyone fact-check at Salon? Are there editors?

Rob in bold italic idiot font, my responses in plain reasonable text.

If you are an author, how can you possibly defend Amazon? 

Because Amazon is responsible for tens of thousands of authors making money, many for the very first time?

Is that a decent reason?

Here's another: I published with Hachette, and they suck. Poor royalties, shitty one-sided contract clauses, mediocre distribution, short-sighted editorial decisions.

Want more reasons to defend Amazon? Read my blog. Since May, I've been detailing how Hachette and its defenders have been morons, and Amazon has tried several times to end this dispute.

But don't let facts get in the way of a good story.

In their ongoing contract dispute, Amazon is punishing Hachette by disappearing their author’s books, delaying shipping, and directing customers away from titles by recommending others instead.

Just like I'm punishing you, Ron, because I don't subscribe to Tin House magazine, which you edit. I don't advertise in your magazine. I don't buy your books. I've never spent $25 on a Tin House tee shirt, either. And I certainly don't promote anything Tin House on my blog or homepage.

Am I a villain, preventing you from making a living, because I'm not giving you money and ad space? Do I have some sort of obligation to you?

Or maybe... wait a second here... are YOU the villain?

I don't see any copies of MY novels for sale on your website!

Why aren't you selling my books, Rob? All I see are books by other authors. Why are you selling their titles and not mine? Why are you punishing me like this?

Could it be that Tin House can sell whatever the hell it wants to? Because that's how capitalism works?

As for Amazon, aren't they also allowed to sell what they want to? And if they are having a dispute with a supplier, aren't they allowed to use leverage to get the terms they want? Or do they have to roll over because a supplier says so?

If you agree with the latter, maybe I will subscribe to Tin House, and then demand you publish my short stories, advertise my books, and sell my tee shirts (the shirt has a picture of me on it, giving you the finger). Because if we're throwing the free market economy out the window, I want to be able to dictate everything Tin House does, and make sure it's all in my favor.

Also, send me ten thousand donuts. Because I said so. If you don't, you're a bully.

In response, hundreds of prominent writers joined together to send an open letter to Amazon protesting their thuggish tactics.

Well, if you want to get technical, only a few dozen of those writers are what I'd label as "prominent". But there are many I'd label as "misguided" or "ignorant of the facts" or "motivated by greedy self-interest."

But there are several hundred who are the prisoners of Hachette's thuggish tactics.

You know, Hachette, who wants to keep ebook prices high in order to protect their paper distribution oligopoly. Remember? There was a DOJ suit you may have heard of? Hachette was guilty of collusion? Price fixing? Ring any bells?

How about Hachette's refusal to help their own authors? Do you recall when Amazon tried, on three separate occasions, to take Hachette authors out of the line of fire and monetarily compensate them during these negotiations?

Who is the thug? The one who has NO contract with authors but is offering to help them, or the one who HAS a contract with authors and refuses to help, or reach an agreement so their authors can go back to making money?

However, not all writers are on the same page. A few have come forward to say that they have Amazon’s back. 

A few? Did you go through every name in our petition supporting Amazon, and out of 8600 names only find a few writers?

I'll bet you one of those nifty $25 Tin House tee shirts that we have more writers than Preston's petition.

The most vocal is Hugh C. Howey, whose self-published sci-fi novel “Wool” has sold a half-million copies on Amazon. In an article in today’s New York Times, Howey defended Amazon and characterized Ursula Le Guin’s statement that Hachette’s tactics amount to censorship as “mostly lying.”

Did you read the article, Rob?

A commenter on the Passive Voice blog, Mir, is the one said Le Guin is "mostly lying."

And you edit a magazine? Do you do so with the same care you wrote this article? Meticulously checking facts and confirming details?

Mostly lying? That’s the equivalent of “a little pregnant.”

Bad analogy. A better one is, "Rob Spillman is mostly an idiot".

See, I can guess that maybe, sometimes, you aren't always an idiot. An idiot would make a glaring mistake like the Howey misquote. An idiot would make a ridiculous comparison between "mostly lying" which means "a lot of lies mixed in with a little truth" and "mostly pregnant" which means "pregnant."

But I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and not call you a "100% idiot" because maybe, elsewhere, you've written stuff that isn't idiotic. Hopefully.

Howey, like most writers who are Amazon defenders, is a self-published genre writer. 

Can I rewrite that sentence without the bias it reeks of?

Howey is a hybrid writer who has published on many platforms and with many companies, including Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes, and Simon & Schuster, has defended Amazon because he, and tens of thousands of other authors, are treated well by Amazon, given great royalty rates, fair contract terms, and control over their careers.

(And he has become the Times’ go-to author to predictably take Amazon’s side; yesterday’s piece was at least the fifth he has been quoted in since the end of May 2014.) 

And now, Rob, you have become my go-to author to quote. But I'm not going to call you and ask for specific quotes. Like the NYT, I'm going to take things you've said online, and use those quotes to make you look bad.

I know this current piece of yours attacks both Hugh Howey and Amazon, but how do you really feel about Amazon, Rob?

"Once again, Amazon is a step ahead of their competition." - Rob Spillman

Rob, that makes it sound like you're on Amazon's side. But this current piece makes you seem like you're delusional and deathly afraid of Amazon. Like you're worried they're going to spy on you, NSA style.

"...my paranoid self can’t help but imagine that Amazon already has my data in its claws." - Rob Spillman

Yikes. That does sound paranoid. Do you have any particular reason to hate Amazon, Rob, other than paranoia?

"My first publishing job, in 1987, was at Random House." - Rob Spillman

Ah. I see. Maybe you could have disclosed that in this anti-Amazon rant, huh?

And maybe you can do just a tiny bit of research next time and see where the NYT is getting its Hugh Howey quotes, so you can read them in context. Because taking quotes out of context just doesn't seem fair, does it?

The most elite among the romance, fan-fiction and sci-fi writers can do quite well on Amazon—according to Slate, self-published titles made up 25 percent of the top-selling books on Amazon in 2012. This bank is good news for Howey and company, but at what ultimate cost?

What ultimate cost? Let's see:
  • 70% royalties in most markets
  • 12 different countries to self-publish in
  • Author keeps their rights
  • No non-compete or next option clauses
  • KDP Select is optional and offers additional benefits
  • Control over content, title, and cover art
  • Incredible speed to market
  • Monthly payments
Ulp! That sounds awful!

I'd much rather sign with Hachette, who pays 17.5% ebook royalty rates, owns the book for my life plus 70 years, won't let me write other books, can change my title at their whim and force me to accept shitty cover art, takes 18 months to publish and pays me every 6 months, and can't even make a deal with the LARGEST BOOKSTORE IN THE WORLD, which severely compromises my sales.

Yeah. That's the much better option.

By getting in bed with a rapacious efficiency, a corporation that prides economy over artistry, profits over people, they are no better than Ayn Rand libertarians who decry sales taxes and then complain about how underfunded their local public schools are.

Rob, you're seriously making me rethink my "Rob Spillman is mostly an idiot" statement earlier, and forcing me to lean toward the 100% alternative.

No Amazon author is in bed with Amazon. When authors have goals that align with Amazon's goals, it is mutually beneficial. When authors and Amazon have different goals, authors can leave because self-pubbers DON'T SIGN A CONTRACT WITH AMAZON.

Hachette authors, on the other hand, cannot leave Hachette. The publishing term for this is "fucked."

Can you show me how the Big 5 value artistry over Amazon? Seems like the Big 5 only publish some books. That sounds a lot like limiting artistry.

As for profits over people, Amazon gives authors 70% royalties, and offered to pay Hachette authors out of its own pocket. Hachette gives authors 17.5% royalties, and refused to pay authors out of its own pocket.

Also, your analogy just plain sucks. Can you show me where authors making a fortune off of Amazon are complaining that Amazon doesn't care about people or artistry? Can you quote me one rich Amazon author who has said this? For that matter, can you quote me one Ayn Rand libertarian who eliminated sales taxes then complained about underfunded public schools?

Honest question, Rob; do your analogies get any better?

There are several other analogies one could use, such as selling your land rights to a fracking company. You may get a mountain of cash, but your land is poisoned. Oh, well, let future generations deal with the cleanup. 

Answer: No. Your analogies don't get better. And neither does the article.

So I've sold over a million books on Amazon, but in doing so I've ruined... um... what have I ruined? What's being poisoned here? What needs to be cleaned up?

What the hell are you actually trying to say?

In a spectacular bit of short-sightedness, Howey complained to the Times that independent bookstores “blacklist my books.”

Yeah. He said that because, you know, indie bookstores blacklist his books.

See, he used the word "blacklist" correctly. Indie stores refuse to carry his books.

They have a right to not carry his books. It's called capitalism. But I didn't see your Salon article calling indie bookstores "thuggish" or bemoaning how indie bookstores are "punishing" Howey. Or me. Or thousands of other indie authors.

Bias much?

So, let me get this straight—you would like your books, which are published by the company whose avowed goal is to eliminate brick and mortar stores of any kind, to be carried in the same brick and mortar stores your publisher is trying to destroy?

Note to Rob "mostly an idiot" Spillman: Amazon isn't Howey's publisher. Howie self-publishes. Amazon is a platform he publishes on.

I won't speak for Howey, but I personally don't care if my books are in indie bookstores. I was one of the first authors they boycotted, and my sales haven't suffered. But I think it would be a good thing if reporters actually reported, and both sides of a story given equal weight.

Amazon isn't boycotting Hachette books, even though that term is trotted out regularly. So are other loaded terms. The NYT and Salon apparently get tiny elf priapisms repeating this nonsense. But when there is an actual book boycott mentioned, the NYT and Salon treat it with derision, sarcasm, and contempt.

It would be nice to see a bit of balance in the media.

Happily, there are bloggers like me, who have the freedom to call articles like yours bullshit.

Maybe Howey needs to be reminded that Amazon is the company that notoriously squeezes the little guy. They instituted the “Gazelle Program” to “deal” with small publishers. Oh, you are thinking, how cute, swift gazelles! No, Amazon aimed to isolate wounded small publishers — then hammered them with ruthless terms. 

Sort of like Hachette hammers authors with ruthless terms?

Look, I signed the Hachette contract. No one forced me. I found it to be unfair, but I accepted those terms willingly. That's what happens when one party has more negotiating power than the other party. It's called business.

This is the company that relentlessly fights local sales taxes, has horrible warehouse conditions, and introduced an app that would let you scan a book in a bookstore then order it from Amazon at a discount. 

Hey Rob, I'm from Illinois. If I plunk down $40 for an 8 issue digital subscription to Tin House, how much of that do you give to the Land of Lincoln?

Also, have you ever worked in a warehouse? I have. It was horrible. Can you find me a warehouse job that isn't horrible? Instead of parroting other stories you read, can you maybe do a bit of research and see how Amazon's warehouse conditions compare with, say, Walmart's? Or Nike's? Or Hachette's? I'd like to know. I don't think anyone should have to deal with unsafe, unfair, or horrible working conditions, and I'd like to know how bad Amazon is compared to everyone else, rather than just hearing all the time that they're bad.

And lastly, can you show me how fierce competitors who aim to lower prices are bad for customers? Or how high prices are good for customers?

This is the company that would like to have complete vertical integration, where they publish and sell all books, eliminating rival publishers, bookstores, along with anyone who works in publishing.

Wait... I finally get it. You want Amazon to be a company that fosters competition and works to limit its own market share. You know, like all other companies in the world. Because none of them would want to ever get rid of their business rivals.

Did you actually reread this article before you published it? You know, in a kind of editorial capacity?

What company encourages its own competition? Why would you say something so stupid?

INT. COCO-COLA BOARD MEETING, DAY

The CEO speaks to the BOARD

CEO: Today, we're going to pull out of ten major markets in order to allow PepsiCo to better compete with us.

BOARD: Hurray!

CEO: Then we're going to double our prices, chasing customers away from our brand and encouraging them buy our rivals' products.

BOARD: The stockholders will love us!

CEO: Then we're going to split our own company into fifteen competing companies. Two of those new companies will be dedicated to tracking down and beating up people who use our products. Our Superbowl commercial this January will show three thugs kneecapping a blind, elderly man who is sipping a Sprite.

BOARD: Thanks for the advice, Rob Spillman!

What is particularly galling to book lovers is that Bezos really could care less about books. As super-agent Andrew Wylie put it, “Amazon is nothing more than a trucking company, a digital truck company.”  

Okay, not to be all grammar anal, but the expression is "could not care less". I'd normally forgive this, but you were quick and eager to point out (incorrectly) how you didn't like the term "mostly lying". And I'm pretty sure Bezos's personal opinion of books doesn't gall book lovers. Because book lovers can get the widest selection, at the lowest prices, on Amazon, and that's what they tend to care about.

Last I checked, Andrew Wylie didn't have a big S on his chest and could leap tall buildings, but you're allowed to think he's super if you want to. I couldn't care less. (see how I did that?) But again, who cares if Amazon is a digital trucking company? That's what readers want.

SuperWylie, however, probably doesn't like it, because he's being disintermediated. Maybe he can use his super freeze breath to stop progress.

In his book, “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” Brad Stone explains how books were just a gateway, a testing ground for selling everything from shoes to salamis. 

Okay, you've finally hit on an important point. I mean, there is a huge difference between books and salamis. Have you ever had a Dostoevsky grinder? It's too long, and almost impossible to digest.

Conversely, nothing of substance can be printed on cured sausage.

These are completely different products, and shouldn't ever be sold under the same roof, because...

Uh.

Hmm. Can you explain why books are somehow sacred, and food isn't?

According to George Packer’s thorough and sobering New Yorker profile of Amazon, the company now makes $5.25 billion on book sales, only about 7 percent of the company’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue. This is chump change to Amazon, yet this amount still accounts for half the book sales in this country. 

Your point? If you get near one, make it.

Many, like Salon’s Richard Eskow and now Franklin Foer, writing in the New Republic, have begun to argue that Amazon is close to establishing a monopoly, and that it’s high time the Justice Department to step in and deal with the monster they’ve helped create through inaction.

You know that monopolies aren't against the law, right? Neither are monopsonies, which is a much better description of what Amazon might be.

When a retailer fights to keep prices low, which benefits customers, for some insane reason the government considers it a good thing.

Books are not widgets. They are art and ideas. 

So I don't have to pay $40 for a subscription to Tin House? You're making it free because art and ideas aren't products to be bought and sold like widgets?

They have lasting cultural value beyond immediate sales. 

How does the writer get compensated for the value he contributes to culture? Do we get to eat for free? That might work, unless food also has a cultural value beyond immediate sales. It might. I hear a lot of farms are subsidized. Maybe writers could be, too.

Hey! Great idea! The government will decide what's worthy to publish! Isn't that better than Amazon letting readers decide what they want to read on their own?

Publishing is a community, an ecosystem where we all contribute so that it not only survives, but thrives. 

You actually just wrote that publishing exists for publishing's sake, and we all need to support it.

Really. That's what you wrote.

We're really creeping toward that 100%...

Howey and company are eschewing community for efficiency.

Translation: Thinking outside the box can hurt those who depend on the box for expense accounts and 401k plans, even if it benefits those pesky readers.

And, for now, they are reaping the financial rewards. 

Sounds awful. All those poor writers, making money.

One has to wonder though, will Howey and company still be making bank once Amazon is the only game in town? Or will Howey and his cohorts find their profits diminished when Amazon, not needing to compete with other publishers, sets whatever terms they would like. What happens when the only books that exist are being published and sold by Amazon?  

Oh sweet Jesus with a chocolate filling, what name could we possibly call a horrible situation where there is no competition in publishing and authors are forced to accept shitty terms?

Oh, yeah. We call it "publishing"

At least we used to, until Amazon came around.

When the only forum to discuss the merits of any book is on GoodReads, which is owned by Amazon?

Holy shit balls rolled in oats! Amazon is buying the entire World Wide Web!?!? There won't be anywhere left on the Internet to discuss books?!?

Won't someone think of the children!

Dear Mr. Bezos, when you own the entire information superhighway and every ISP and URL, please don't charge an email tax of more than three dollars...

Ethically, do you want to do business with a company that is capitalism at its very worst?

Of course not. That's why I got my rights back from Hachette and now self-pub via Amazon. Duh.

According to Forbes, Jeff Bezos is now the 20th richest person in the world, worth $30.2 billion. He got there by being the most ruthlessly efficient seller our country has ever known. 

In other words, Amazon will destroy the world with enormous selection, great prices, and terrific customer service. Those bastards.

But think of all the bodies that have been trucked over along the way—the hundreds of bookstores and publishing houses, not to mention the tens of thousands of writers who have been squeezed by shrinking margins. 

Um, so far the only writers being squeezed are those who have signed with publishers.

But you can go ahead and worry about the wolf that may eat you next year, rather than the tiger currently gnawing on your leg.

In the end, you are judged by the company your keep.

If that's the case, Salon is the worst online magazine ever. Or everr.

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

Hmm. Maybe I spoke too soon...

Rob emailed me to reply to this post, and I emailed him back. The result was a follow-up article on Salon.