Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Amazon Agenda

I have a few disparate thoughts and observations that I'm going to attempt to coalesce into a single theme.

Amazon was recently the subject of world news when the ever intrepid David Streitfeld, the NYT reporter that gave us the wonder of whale math, did a hit piece on Amazon corporate culture that came to the startling and controversial conclusion; Amazon employees work really, really hard.

Streitfeld has a haterection for Amazon, and while he has yet to make a cogent point, this recent piece got big attention, so much so that major media outlets covered it, and there was outrage and pandemonium on social media, culminating in The Fault In Our Stars author John Green calling Amazon the "worst cult ever" and cancelling his Prime subscription, though his grave disapproval didn't extend to actually showing a backbone by demanding that Amazon stop selling his books. I mean, would you want your work associated with the worst cult ever? I wouldn't. But then, I've been cursed with integrity.

Streitfeld, too, has a book available on Amazon, though his dismal 700,000 rank may be part of the reason he dislikes Zon so much.

Last I checked, the five hundred plus signatories of the latest Authors United bullshit letter also all had their titles available on Amazon. That letter recently arrived at the DOJ, and I'd bet it wasn't a coincidence that it was on the heels of Streitfeld's anti-Zon piece. I can imagine their delicious, mutual self-gratification as Preston and Streitfeld exchanged super-important emails about how to best coordinate their Anti-Amazon efforts for maximum impact, and about how Suzie in Algebra is dating Brad now because he dumped Melissa after she gained weight, and OMG doesn't gym class suck this year 4 realz?!?

If you missed my pointed satire, I imagine them as immature, gossiping middle school kids. The loser ones, not the popular ones.

Here we have all of this vocal, public author disapproval of Amazon, yet no one has the guts to actually pull their books. But why would they? Amazon is making these authors a shit ton of money (with the exception of David Steitfeld). It's much easier to whine in public and hope that Amazon stops trying to disintermediate their publishers, who pay them large advances. Some of them so large, in fact, that they'll never earn out.

Which means it really doesn't matter how many books Amazon sells, because these authors won't ever see a dime of that money.

Hmm. Makes a little more sense why they're attacking Amazon, doesn't it? Because Amazon doesn't pay them. Amazon is harming the publishers that do pay them.

It is highly doubtful the DOJ will go after Amazon. Randal J. Morris looks at some legal precedent relevant to Authors United's six claims, and it becomes pretty obvious to anyone, even without any legal training, that the AU foot-stamping will go nowhere.

But the AU, and its incestuous fuck buddy the Authors Guild, keep petulantly stamping their feet anyway.

CBS Moneywatch wrote about this issue, and I was surprised to see it was a more-or-less balanced piece; something unusual since Zon hating in the media is currently en vogue. I normally eschew interviews, but I liked the questions asked. The reporter painted me in a kinder light by choosing my less-insulting quotes, but to drive home the gravitas of my intent here are my complete answers to his inquiry:

The Authors United letter to the DOJ is an embarrassing joke. I take it apart line by line here and point out everything wrong with it here.

I also fisked their longer letter here.

Amazon has allowed more writers to reach more readers than any other company in history. They’ve done this by innovating, giving readers what they want, and working with authors to offer us much better terms than any publisher ever has, in the past, or the present.

The Big 5 are a price-fixing cartel who want to charge readers high prices. That’s why the DOJ went after them and Apple, and that’s why they lost the suit. They had an oligopoly over paper distribution for decades (the only way to reach readers was through bookstores, the only way to get into a bookstore was through those publishing gatekeepers). Because they controlled who got published, they could get away with giving authors take-it-or-leave-it unconscionable contract terms

Amazon has broken that oligopoly by allowing readers to reach readers via ebooks. 

Because of this, the Big 5 can no longer control book pricing—and independent author can undercut them—and as a result the Big 5 are losing marketshare to Amazon and to indies. 

That’s why they’re pissed. This isn’t altruism on Authors United’s part. It’s greed. It’s wanting to return to the old ways, where top authors got seven figure advances. Great for that 1%, not great for the 99% that Big Publishing ignored, harmed, and/or took advantage of.

Because Authors United is a bunch of entitled rich and famous authors (who should be celebrating the luck they’ve had in life rather than whining like babies about Amazon), they’ve been wooing their media contacts to wage a public opinion war against Amazon by painting Zon as a bully.

There isn’t ONE SINGLE point Authors United makes that is truthful when it comes to their criticism of Amazon or their so-called defense of authors. All of their points are easily refuted. But the average reader doesn’t try to refute their nonsense. They see “Amazon is bad” and take it at face value. Because no journalists dig any deeper, “Amazon is bad” becomes the public sentiment.

Except it isn’t. Readers still love Amazon. Amazon has been voted #1 by customers for 9 consecutive years

More than 500 authors signed that nonsense DOJ letter, and every one of them should be ashamed. I’m happy to call them out for it: If you really can’t abide by Amazon’s nefarious practices any longer, put your money where your mouth is and DEMAND THAT AMAZON STOP SELLING YOUR BOOKS.

Hypocrisy much, Doug Preston?

I’m happy to send more blogs posts your way to show that Amazon goes out of its way to be fair to authors. The problem is that it takes exponentially longer to refute bullshit than it does to spout it, so you’d need a strong background in the DOJ lawsuit and the Hachette situation before you can fully understand how Amazon was being squeezed by publishers, not the other way around (which is how the media erroneously portrayed it).

Authors United are a bunch of greedy whiners who don’t want the status quo to keep shrinking; and it is shrinking, for the good of all readers and the vast majority of writers. So they beat their chests and flail about, trying to spin media, hoping public opinion will make big bad Amazon stop disintermediating the publishers who have made them rich.

It won’t work. Authors United knows this. Their argument doesn’t hold up to US antitrust law, logic, or majority opinion. But they are seeing their livelihoods slip away because their corporate masters don’t control the book world anymore, so they’re throwing a public tantrum.

All of those so-called “Author Organizations” need to be publicly chastised for their continued disservice to the authors they purport to represent. 

I’ve negotiated many times with Amazon, for contracts with their various Amazon publishing wings. I’ve always gotten much better terms than I had with any of my trad publishing deals. Not only more money in my pocket, but more control over my work.

To my knowledge, Amazon hasn’t used its alleged monopsony power to shut out any suppliers. In the Hachette instance, Amazon offered to compensate Hachette authors on three different occasions, to keep them from being collateral damage during the contract negotiations. Hachette dragged their feet for many months before negotiating, and their contract with Amazon had expired. amazon was under no obligation to sell ANY Hachette titles, but it did anyway. In the previous case of Amazon removing Macmillan’s buy buttons, this was in response to Macmillan colluding with Apple and four other major publishers to illegally force the Agency model upon Amazon. And again, Amazon compensated authors afterward.

I’m sure Amazon is a fierce negotiator. But under the Agency model, Amazon earns 30% of the ebook price. Authors earn 17.5%. Publishers earn 52.5%. Why should publishers earn more than the author who wrote it, or the retailer who sells more copies than anyone else?
With this new Kindle Unlimited compensation model, Amazon is rewarding good writers. My KU income doubled under their new terms.

I’m pretty tied into the indie community, and the thousands of writers I’ve encountered are smart, and aware. Sometimes they draw incorrect conclusions, or feel persecuted, but the difference between dealing with Amazon and dealing with the Big 5 is like the difference between and honest, open, friendly relationship, and being beaten up by a group of muggers.

There is no wrong way to do business with Amazon. Authors can opt out of Kindle Select after 90 days, or opt out of Amazon completely. Authors keep their rights.

The authors who are getting screwed are the ones with publishers. Publishers charge $12.99 for an ebook on Amazon. They do this in hopes readers will instead by the paper version—remember that publishers have a paper oligopoly they want to protect.

Readers don’t like paying $12.99 for a non-tangible ebook. So a lot of midlist authors don’t sell well. When they do sell, they only earn $2.27 on that sale. I earn $2.74 on the sale of a $3.99 ebook on Amazon, and I keep my rights.

The publishing industry wanted to slow the public adoption of ebooks. The Big 5 were fine with loss leads as long as it was for paper books. But once Amazon began to discount ebooks, with lured people to digital media, the Big 5 were willing to lose money to slow that transition down.

So that was my full response, and the CBS report quoted my less inflammatory bits. He also quoted some nonsense from the increasingly moronic Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild.

"We have one company that is virtually controlling the terms of publishing in many, many ways. They have the power to force publishers to accept their terms."

Okay, stop. This is the Authors Guild, remember? The ones who are paid dues by AUTHORS to look out for AUTHORS. Not PUBLISHERS.

Let's change two words to show what the Authors Guild should really be concerned about.

"We have one cartel that is virtually controlling the terms of publishing in many, many ways. They have the power to force writers to accept their terms."

Amazon allows any author to publish on their platform, and earn up to 70% royalties while still keeping their rights. The Big 5 pay shitty royalties, keep rights forever, and are exclusionary.

Yeah, that's the kind of guild I want representing me. 

Rasenberger goes on to spout more bullshit:

Rasenberger says that while "everyone loves low prices," the result is to eventually devalue books. "You're causing long-term harm that will be very difficult to recover from," she said. "Publishers have less money so they have less money (for) authors, they buy fewer books, and they offer lower advances." 

Ok, for the zillionth time, low prices DO NOT DEVALUE BOOKS--see Zombie Publishing Meme #2. And again with the Authors Guild playing mouthpiece for publisher concerns. 

Guess what, Mary? If publishers buy fewer books, authors can still make money BY SELF-PUBLISHING ON AMAZON. Need an advance? Try Kickstarter or Indiegogo. But stop perpetuating the bullshit that the Big 5 are the only way for authors to get paid and reach readers.

Other nonsense in the piece:

Eleanor Fox, a professor of law at the New York University School of Law and an expert in trade regulation. "What it did to Hachette a year ago was really outrageous, withholding books for sale. It was to me definitely an abuse because it was using its power to get a better price on its contract by holding off the market books that people wanted to read.

This is a meme that won't die: Amazon didn't withhold any books for sale. Not one. 

But, I suppose, if you keep repeating the same lie over and over again, people start to believe it. That's a cornerstone of propaganda. And that's what Authors United, the Authors Guild, and the NYT are doing; engaging in propaganda.

But to what end? Why are all of these folks, and me, going on and on about Amazon? What is the agenda of all interested parties?

The NYT Amazon-bashes for traffic. Anti-Amazon stories are incredibly popular.

Authors United and the Authors Guild are doing it to try to harm Amazon's image in the public eye, so Amazon is more favorable to their corporate master; the Big 5.

I'm doing it to help newbie authors, who might inadvertently believe all of the anti-Amazon nonsense because that's what the media keeps parroting, and in doing so miss out on an opportunity to find readers and make a few bucks.

Amazon keeps doing what it has always done; work hard to be the most customer-centric company on the planet.

Even though the public seemingly loves all the current Amazon hatefest, they vote with their dollars, and spend those dollars on Amazon.com.

And the authors I'm trying to inform are either paying attention to my harsh fisks, or more likely they're ignoring all the drama and using Amazon to their advantage. Self-pub ebooks now outsell Big 5 ebooks, much to the chagrin of the former status quo. And even old school legacy authors seem to be taking notice. As Barry Eisler just observed:

Did you know Authors United signatories have gone from 1081 to 575 in under a year?

So much for the propaganda. Heads up Authors United: When you can't even convince your own constituents to sign your nonsense, your cause is doomed.