And Then I Said No

by wjw on August 12, 2014

So . . . the other day I said no to a contract from a major New York publisher.

Not that it was a terrific offer or anything.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm, the money wasn’t great, and the contract was non-negotiable.

(Non-negotiable contracts are a thing now.  Because publishers are so threatened by Amazon and other signs of change that they say to themselves: “Instead of expanding our business, let’s just squeeze the artists!”)

But I declined to be squeezed.  Instead I looked at the offer and said, “You know, I could self-publish this and make more money.”

And that’s because we all have options now.  For all my complaints about Amazon, they send me money every thirty days, and that’s more than a New York publisher has ever done.  My ebooks aren’t selling brilliantly, I’m not consistently in the Amazon Top 100 or anything, but I have a lot of books out there producing a comfortable number of sales every month, and generating new readers.  It’s not a living exactly, but it’s enough so that I don’t have to take every crap offer that comes along.

And apropos Amazon, I’ve been watching the Amazon/Hachette conflict, though I haven’t had the time to comment on it.  Suffice it to say that it continues, and as usual the principal victims are authors.  Who are beginning to respond, most notably with a two-page ad in the New York Times signed by more than 900 authors, and sponsored by Santa Fe author Douglas Preston.

Which resulted over the weekend in the most amazing email to every Amazon author.  In it, Amazon misquoted George Orwell and otherwise reiterated what they’ve said before, which is that they want ebooks to be cheaper.  Which is fine as far as it goes, though of course cheaper ebooks will benefit Amazon and harm its competition, the brick-and-mortar stores, which won’t be able to sell hardbacks for $9.99.

As John Scalzi noted, Amazon’s plan makes perfect sense if you assume that Amazon is the only retailer in the market.  Which is what it wants to be, and will be if its plans mature.

(And I could point out that Amazon is absolutely lousy at explaining its decisions.  They’re really terrible at it.  I mean, deliberately misrepresenting Orwell?  And in a way that practically screams “Orwellian!”  They  can’t open their mouth without sticking a great big size-12 foot in it.  You’ve got to wonder who’s steering this PR effort, anyway.)

And meanwhile, pre-order and buy buttons have started vanishing for Disney products.  So Amazon is trying the same tactics on Disney, which it may think is vulnerable because Disney’s products are priced higher than comparable goods from other companies.

But this is Disney, who are notoriously careful with money— and the Rat is more cutthroat than, well, anybody, and people seem willing to pay a premium for their Disney products, which they can obtain readily from a lot of other suppliers besides Amazon.  So it should be fun watching that fight from the sidelines.

Elsewhere, I’ve read some comments about how publishers are full of very smart people who are looking carefully at the situation, and how traditional big publishers aren’t going away any time soon.  Which is probably true— they are multi-billion-dollar enterprises, for all they’re stuck with a 19th Century business model and mid-20th Century distribution— and they’ll be here for a long time to come.  Non-negotiable contracts, and all.

As long as Barnes & Noble stays in business.  Because they’re the last big bookstore chain, and if they fail, the whole shebang goes crash.

Do I have any confidence in Barnes & Noble?  Well, umm, I have maybe already commented on that.

TCWriter August 12, 2014 at 4:27 pm

What, a nuanced look at the dispute from a writer? Rare.

I’ve been blown away by the sheer volume of “Amazon, right or wrong, because, you know, self-publishing” rhetoric appearing on the Interwebs. As if Amazon isn’t going to squeeze the life out of those locked into its self-publishing kingdom after it finishes putting the boots to B&N and traditional publishers.

I’m happy that writers have choices (and also a healthy market for out-of-print backlists, the kind of passive income stream that makes writers more secure, not less). But frankly, Amazon feels a lot like Facebook to me — one of those bubbly, happyhappyjoyjoy tech companies with an underlying sociopathic streak.

Like most corporations, they want to rule the world. Once they do, they’ll start pillaging, and likely turn it into a smoking ruin.

Traditional publishers have a lot to answer for, and their response to digital media has often been defensive (at best). Offering up contracts featuring a relatively insulting 25/75 cut for digital sales — contracts which essentially retain digital rights to works forever — is driving more than a few writers into Amazon’s arms.


But like you said, choices.

Amazon’s PR efforts have been typically heavy handed and unaware, at times providing a kind of Keystone Cops comedic relief in this mess. They have gotten one piece right — they’ve managed to frame their dispute with Hatchette in the reader-friendly terms of wanting ebooks to be cheaper.

My understanding is that they’re also asking for a bigger percentage of the sale price, and making their typically over-the-top demands for marketing payments which dwarf anything publishers paid prior to Amazons rise.

In other words, Amazon’s mostly out to squeeze whatever cash it can from publishers (it has investors, so you knew this day was coming). But cloaking that reality in the sheep’s clothing of reader-friendly lower ebook prices.

It would be nice if both sides emerged from this treating writers better, but it seems unlikely.

TRX August 12, 2014 at 6:30 pm

> non-negotiable

I’ve found over the years that “non-negotiable” is often just a negotiating ploy.

>>”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
>>”The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

I have, a couple of times, done the same thing you did, causing some bad feelings on both sides of the deal. Later, I realized there’s nothing stopping me from crossing out $XXX and writing in $YYY and passing the offer back to them. If they reject it, hey, I’m not out anything. If they accept it, I win.

pixlaw August 12, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Wait a minute, does this mean you might have a new book coming out soon? I mean, I like the stories and novellas and all, but a new novel? Count me in, no matter how it gets published. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, if it’s $50 I won’t buy it (there’s a limit, after all). But still, something to look forward to.

Ralf T. Dog August 13, 2014 at 5:25 am

I give Amazon a bit of credit. They have not yet started putting ads in the middle of Kindle books. I am more grateful than I can explain that I am not yet required to watch a 30 second video, before I can flip the page. I am unimaginably thrilled that the Kindle software has yet to start editing the book I am reading to insert product placement.

Amazon, please keep up the good work of not sucking as badly as you probably will in the future.

Elizabeth Burton August 13, 2014 at 8:45 pm

“You’ve got to wonder who’s steering this PR effort, anyway.”

I’ve always assumed it was the legal department, who are more concerned about (1) not giving away any business plans other people can steal and (2) not being sued than in actually communicating information that could be used to make a business decision (cf. the Great Booksurge Kerfuffle of 2004).

As for putting ads in the middle of Kindle books, Ralf T., they tried. The original contract they tried to get all of us then doing ebook business with them actually contained a clause giving them permission to insert advertising. We politely told them it wasn’t happening. It didn’t.

Johan Larson October 4, 2014 at 8:31 pm

Have you considered Kickstarting the book project? Perhaps that would yield more money than just self-funding the writing and publishing.

How well do crowd-funded proposals to write books do, anyway?

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