Thursday, October 16, 2014

Eisler & Konrath & Patterson... Again

Barry sez: Well, James Patterson is at it again, issuing alarums from the sumptuous grounds of his bazillion-dollar mansion about how Amazon Must Be Stopped lest Jeff Bezos fulfill his evil plan to usher in The End of Days and yada yada yada. Joe’s been doing yeoman’s work for a long time in keeping up with these Pattersonian pontifications -- see here and here and here and here and here, so naturally I asked him to join me in tackling Patterson’s latest, a video interview with The Telegraph.

In a weird way, this interview is probably Patterson’s most interesting outing to date because he actually goes full circle through the stupid and winds up demonstrating that he’s for everything he’s been saying he’s against. We've transcribed what he said so we can comment on it. Joe and I in normal font; Patterson in italicized crazy.

James Patterson: This thing of comparing his company to cheetahs, and pouncing on wounded gazelles, and those are publishers, I don't think that's a great idea. And you have to say if it looks like a cheetah and it bites like a cheetah it's probably a cheetah. I'm not sure if that's the optimum for companies in this country.

Joe sez: So never play a game of Parker Brother's Monopoly with Amazon... because they're cheetahs.

Bad pun aside, let's talk about making money as a retailer. Bezos famously said, "Your margin is my opportunity." There is so much waste in legacy publishing that it was low-hanging fruit for a smart upstart to come in and feast on the giant margins.

Publishers are middlemen. They can be disintermediated. They may not like this--I can't think of any prey animal that enjoys predation--but that's the law of the jungle, folks. For decades, writers were the ones preyed upon. Now the Big 5 have gotten a taste of what it's like to be on the losing end of a power dynamic, and their top authors don't like it. So they've begun an ingenious media campaign that revolves around calling Amazon a meanie.

Newsflash: It isn't a company's job to bolster competition, or prop-up suppliers.

Authors United seems convinced that Amazon needs the Big 5, and their books. But Amazon has shown it can get 500,000 titles in Kindle Unlimited without major publisher support.

When big shots like Patterson keep spouting off in the media, they're showing how scared they really are. Patterson's interview here is akin to a pufferfish, inflating itself and trying to act intimidating so it doesn't get eaten. Look at me! I'm fearsome and powerful!


Patterson: In that respect (Amazon/Hachette) I think Jeff has done a bad thing to hurt writers. I'm fine, obviously. But a lot of writers really depend on those, you know, the back list.

Joe sez: Only the ones that earn out their advance depend on their back list to make royalties. But how many actually earn out?

It occurs to me that some Hachette authors may not be hurting financially right at this moment. They aren't making royalties anyway. So how are they losing money?

Mike Shatzkin likes to argue that big advances actually mean authors are earning royalties higher than 25% of net, because their books never earn out. If that's true, should it matter to the writer if sales are down? The writer pockets the advance, the book isn't supposed to earn out according to Shatzkin, then the writers sells another book and makes another advance that won't earn out.

To quote the Shatz:

"Only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty."

So who's right? Shatzkin or Patterson?

Neither. Only a few writers can live off their advances, and many never earn royalties above those advances, even when the advances are meager.

However, this is just me playing devil's advocate, because some writers do depend on those twice-a-year royalty checks. But Jeff Bezos isn't the one preventing those writers from making money. Amazon has no contracts with Hachette writers. Amazon doesn't have a contract with Hachette, either, but continues to sell Hachette titles.

Writers signed a contract with Hachette because they valued Hachette as a business partner, and one of Hachette's most valuable attributes is its ability to distribute books. When Hachette isn't able to come to terms with the largest bookseller on the planet, and sales are falling as a result, Hachette is failing its authors.

In a previous comment on my blog, former attorney John Ellsworth said:

"Implied in the publishing contract is the requirement of acting in good faith. Right now, it could be argued that publishers appear to be hurting their own authors by representing their own interests (higher profits) ahead of authors' interests (sales platform) by failing to contract with Amazon. This could support a claim for bad faith by author v. publisher, which could result in damages and could result in a breach being declared such that the author can then take steps to acquire what is called "cover" for oneself, which is law talk for mitigation of damages. Mitigation could take the form of self-publishing."

It seems obvious the guilty party here is Hachette. And I hope some Hachette authors hire an attorney and pursue a bad faith claim.

But rather than address that very real issue, Patterson et al keep flapping their gums about the evils of Amazon. They use fear words. Absurd arguments. Propaganda. Nonsensical appeals to emotion. Ineffectively use the media. They avoid the actual problem, and its possible solutions. But their whining isn't working. In fact, many are calling it out as the nonsense it is.

Amazon needs to be stopped? Check out this Washington Post article by David Post which shows otherwise. (It's literally a post in the Post by Post).

Amazon is a monopoly? No, it isn’t, writes Maxwell S. Kennerley, Esquire, on the Litigation & Trial website.

Amazon plays rough? So what? writes Joe Nocera in a New York Times op-ed piece.

Amazon is what's wrong with American capitalism? Actually, it’s what’s right, writes Reihan Salam in Slate.

Is Jeff Bezos really the bad guy in this dispute? Alex Beam of the Boston Globe says no.

The media coverage of Amazon/Hachetter is fairly balanced? Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York times, thinks not.

This isn't only bloggers like me and Barry and Hugh Howey and Courtney Milan calling out the bullshit we see. Even the establishment media is reporting what’s really going on.

Patterson: It can put them out of business or ruin their families… I understand the strategy, although it hasn’t worked, that they would put pressure on the publishers… attacking writers…

Joe sez: First of all, for the eyerollingeth time, Amazon isn't attacking writers.

It has tried, three times, to compensate writers so they aren't caught in the negotiations.

How is Amazon supposed to negotiate with a supplier--one it currently doesn't have a contract with--unless it applies some pressure? Hachette sells books on, and wants fast shipping and pre-order pages and discounting on paperbacks. Amazon wants the ability to discount ebooks, which is normal; almost all retailers set the prices of the things they sell. Hachette doesn't want Amazon to discount their ebooks, because it will accelerate the downfall of their paper distribution oligopoly.

That's what's happening. No authors are being attacked, boycotted, disappeared, censored, banned, or sanctioned.

Second, the reason publishers aren't feeling pressured is because super-rich bestsellers like Patterson keep flapping their gums in the media, emboldening Hachette to hold out.

Maybe if Patterson and Preston and the rest of Authors United and the Authors Guild actually tried to pressure Hachette, this would all be over.

But Patterson and Preston want the paper cartel to continue, because it makes them assloads of money.

Patterson: Throughout the history of the world, getting into religious wars by powerful countries or organizations does not seem to work. It didn’t work in Iraq, it didn’t work in Afghanistan, it’s not working in Syria, it didn’t work in Ireland. Amazon in attacking writers has created a religious war. Writers are religious about books, and they’ll take the punches, they’ll take the blows, and they’ll use whatever they have to do. They are not going to let books get hurt in this country.

Barry sez: I don’t want to make too much of Patterson’s analogy, but I will say it’s a little odd that he’s comparing writers (or the ones at Authors United, at any rate) to jihadis, mujahadeen, the IRA, and others the USG calls terrorists. But I guess one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and all that.

Joe sez: So Patterson thinks this is an actual ideological movement? For whom? The .001% of wealthy writers, and those with Bookholm Syndrome who want to join that exclusive club?

Barry sez: I know it’s weird, but at least there’s some humor here. Because it’s typically the self-published writers who are accused of being ideological. Meanwhile it’s always the establishment writers who bring in the religious references.

So, shorter James Patterson: “Publishing. It’s not just a business. It’s a religion.”

Joe sez: I want to see Patterson really prove that this is a religious war for him, since he brought up the analogy. If Patterson demanded that Hachette remove his books from Amazon, it could function as the equivalent of a suicide bombing; hurting the enemy while killing yourself in the process.

Do you have the stones to do that, Mr. Patterson?

Actually, that doesn't take any courage. Patterson is financially set for life. He could never sell another book, and still be rich.

But how many of the other Authors United signatories could say the same? How many need to fall on their swords to prove…

What exactly are they proving? That Hachette should be able to keep the prices of ebooks high?

Patterson: So Amazon has attacked a group, that, it’s small and I don’t think writers have really turned up the heat yet, but we could… one of the things we could do is literally come out and ask for a ban.

Barry sez: Holy “Writers Literally Calling For Book Bans,” Batman!

Okay, okay, just giving Patterson a hard time. I don’t think he really means what he says. What he seems to be threatening isn’t so much a ban as it is a boycott. Or call it a “direct targeting,” or “sanctioning,” or “disappearing” books and authors, or any of the other nonsense terms Authors United and their media enablers throw around as though English were a second language they tried to learn while focusing most of their energies on sniffing glue.

Joe sez: I'm unclear if he's suggesting customers boycott Amazon, or authors boycott Amazon. I don't think either would work.

Patterson: It’s come up with a lot of writers. One, we could all take our books off Amazon… if myself and all the Hachette authors and then all the authors who are sympathetic, which range from Stephen King and John Grisham to Philip Roth… if everybody’s saying they’re doing a wrong thing here, you would think that would mean something.

Joe sez: It does mean something. It means rich authors don't want the gravy train to end, so obviously Amazon is bad.

Barry sez: Can anyone explain what Patterson is doing other than suggesting books be made harder to find until a troublesome distributor capitulates?

Hmmm… now why does that sort of thing sound familiar?

Oh, that’s right, because it’s exactly what Authors United, within which Patterson is a prominent voice, purports to decry. As the organization so eloquently puts it:

Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of any books as a negotiating tactic.”

“We appeal to you [Amazon board of directors], with hope and goodwill, to exercise your governance and put an end to the sanctioning of books, which are the very foundation of our culture and democracy.”

And this:

“As writers--most of us not published by Hachette--we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.”

“None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”

“We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without further hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.”

“Currently, Amazon is making it difficult to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central, which affects readers of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, me, and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales. What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers.

I haven’t seen something this hypocritically self-indulgent since Stephen Colbert urged Amazon customers to stop buying other authors’ books until Amazon agreed to ship his more quickly.

Yes, I recognize the easy rejoinder: “But Barry, it’s different when authors voluntarily remove their books from a retail channel as opposed to the retailer not offering preorder buttons, reducing its inventory, and otherwise not making it as easy as possible for readers to find the title in question at that retailer.”

I’d call that a distinction without a difference. Either way, aren’t books being “suppressed” and “sanctioned” and “disappeared” and all that? Aren’t readers inconvenienced either way? Aren’t the very foundations of western culture threatened either way?

Actually, there is a distinction. Every one of Patterson’s and all other Hachette authors’ books are available on Amazon. Yes, some of them aren’t as easy to order there without preorder buttons etc, but charges of a “boycott” etc are a massacre of plain English. But what Patterson is proposing would be a real boycott, with books being outright unavailable through Amazon. Wouldn’t that be worse than anything Amazon is charged with doing?

Joe sez: Hint: yes.

Barry sez: Now personally, I find the Pattersonian and Authors United arguments to be bullshit. Joe and I have repeatedly asked Authors United what they propose a retailer do -- beyond outright capitulation -- when it can’t come to terms with a supplier. No one from the organization has ever responded. And that’s because there is no response. When a retailer and supplier can’t come to terms, the retailer typically stops selling the supplier’s wares (in this sense, Amazon is being extraordinarily kind to Hachette; after all, it’s still selling Hachette’s goods even though the parties’ contract has expired). That’s the way of the world, and you’d have to be neurotically narcissistic to imagine you’re so special you’re somehow immune from it.

But what interests me, as always, is when truth bleeds through the bullshit. What Patterson unintentionally demonstrated in his interview is that he and Authors United don’t particularly care about whether readers are inconvenienced by books being harder to find on Amazon. They don’t even particularly care whether books are available through Amazon at all. If they believe making books unavailable to readers might gain them leverage, they’re more than happy to do it.

Given the incoherence of their underlying position, the hypocrisy doesn’t surprise me so much. What surprises me is that anyone is still taking these bozos remotely seriously.

Joe sez: So, in essence, Patterson finds the death penalty to be inhumane and reprehensible, so he's going to hang everyone who supports the death penalty.  

Am I right? He whines that his books aren't available on Amazon, so his solution is to make his books unavailable on Amazon?

It's a pufferfish bluff.

Barry sez: I wouldn’t even call it that. Did you see how fast he backpedaled when the interviewer said, “If you were take your books off Amazon, that could change something”?

Joe sez: As a thought experiment, let's say he's serious. Let's imagine his titles no longer appear on Amazon.

Will Kindle owners and Amazon shoppers, en masse, abandon their ebook reading devices and favorite online bookstore so they can find Patterson's latest release elsewhere?

Or will they not bother and instead one-click some other thriller?

I suggest Mr. Patterson perform an experiment. Are you reading this, Jim? Remove just one of your titles from Amazon, and then see if your sales go up proportionately on other platforms. If they do, it shows readers will follow you.

Stop the chest thumping and do it. Actually make a stand, since this is so important to you.

And be sure to let us know how that turns out.

P.S. Did you know that in 2010, during negotiations over digital pricing, Penguin withheld digital books from Amazon? Those unconscionable, bullying, boycotting, sanctioning, disappearing, directly-targeting, culture-killing, monopolistic monsters! Oh, the humanity...