I'll run it in its entirety, then provide my answers.
Lee: Joe, here’s my response to the points you made that interest me.
I think the first part of your reply (about relative success) can be summed up by quoting your words “That’s luck … the legacy industry never handed me the keys to the kingdom like they did with you.”
That’s a little self-pitying, don’t you think? Poor Joe! And it doesn’t hold up under analysis. We both started from the same place, albeit a few years apart, but as it happens those particular years saw no change in the model. We both had the same small print run in debut hardcover. We both had the same extremely limited distribution. We both had the same non-existent marketing support. We were first-year clones of each other. We were typical throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks gambits.
The same was pretty much true of our second and third years, too. Meanwhile, of course, we both went to work, trying to get ahead, by writing the best books we could, and promoting them as effectively as possible.
Now, I’m the first to acknowledge the existential luck I had in life. I was born white, male, middle class, tall, healthy, not visibly deformed, in a stable postwar Western democracy at peace, with a welfare state and free education. I think my own little demographic was literally the luckiest ever in all of human history.
But you certainly shared that luck. Not quite as tall, maybe, but certainly better looking … not as extensive a welfare state, but certainly a far more prosperous society. And so on. We started equal, and we made choices. Yours were poor. You threw immense energy into misguided – and actually damaging – stratagems. You didn’t understand the game. Which is not just hindsight. I remember trying to dissuade you, as a friend, in a conference hotel somewhere long ago. You ignored me, and were eventually dropped, while I stayed in the game.
No one “handed” me a key, and no one withheld one from you. Instead, a bean counter sat down and figured he could make more money out of me than you. It was that simple.
And in fact you were then very lucky – a new platform was invented that suited your skill set perfectly. I’m a close observer of the whole self-publishing scene (and I have read more than 600 self-published books) and I think your weaknesses under the old model have been matched by exceptional strengths perfectly attuned to the new model.
I think you should celebrate that, and I think you should stop letting traditional publishing live rent-free in your head. I think all self-publishers should. Because all these endless screechy blogs make you look whiny, not us. “I coulda been a contender!” Get over it already. Move on. Don’t perpetuate the “bitter reject” meme.
Later you said, “I believe you overestimate the value of Hachette’s catalog to Amazon.” No, I don’t. I said I think Amazon overestimates the value of Hachette’s catalog to Amazon. My point was quite clear – Amazon won’t dump Hachette because Amazon’s own internal credo is built on being the everything store. Which dilutes its negotiating power. All negotiations are built on a willingness to walk away. Amazon isn’t willing.
Later you mention print disappearing – which it might, and which I would regret, because I think it would happen without a positive desire on the part of customers. People like print. If it goes, it will have gone because of retail economics, not lack of appeal. Which sounds confused, but that’s an accurate analysis. Mass market is dying not because there’s diminished demand, but because there isn’t enough margin in it. “I can make more out of broccoli than books,” one retailer said. Will all readers switch to e-readers? Not all, I think. Sadly reading’s appeal is fragile now, and many folks will quit and find alternatives. Or not – I’ll be particularly sad about poor people. Any e-reading ecosystem is entirely inaccessible unless you have a working credit card or a viable bank account for PayPal – which poor people don’t. They love used paperbacks – all worn and furry, found, traded, borrowed, bought for fifty cents. But hey. This is the modern world.
As for the rest … I guess I have one question. One thing few people know about me is I love ironing. I just moved, which was a great excuse for a new ironing board. I checked Amazon, naturally, who had boards ranging from $18 all the way to $220. Has Amazon approached the expensive manufacturer and said, “C’mon, pal, America needs cheaper ironing boards! Think of the children!” No, it said, “Sure, throw it up on the site and we’ll see if anyone’s interested. We trust our customers to decide for themselves.”
Another interest is audio. Amazon has low-powered two-channel audio amplifiers listed from $24 to $24,000. Did it approach the expensive manufacturer and say, “C’mon, pal, America needs cheaper amplifiers! Think of the puppies!” No, it said, “Sure, throw it up on the site and we’ll see if anyone’s interested. We trust our customers to decide for themselves.”
Can you explain in detail why the e-book market shouldn’t operate the same way as the ironing board market or the amplifier market? Why do e-book buyers – uniquely – need Nanny Amazon to save them from deciding for themselves? Are books special? Are they different? Or are there others factors in play?
Joe: Thanks again for stopping by, Lee. Your thoughts are smart and refreshing. I'll respond point by point.
Ribbing aside, you had advantages that I didn't, but that's life. I'm pleased with what I've been able to accomplish, and don't lament what I never had.
Joe: I'm pretty sure your advance and print run were higher than mine. Didn't Stephen King review your first book in Entertainment Weekly? Didn't you also debut in the UK? You already had several advantages out of the gate.
Joe: Right after my third book came out, my publisher dropped their entire mystery line. Not only my series, but others as well. This was after I signed a deal for three more books.
My first three novels never got coop, never got discounting, never got worldwide distribution. I went on book tours for #2 and #3, which I'll get to in a moment. But we were very far from starting at the same place.
I grew up in America a privileged white male in an affluent family. But as I neared adulthood, our family lost everything. While in college, and for years later, I was poor. I wrote my first novel in 1992, in a basement apartment in the Chicago suburbs, and often had to choose between eating and turning on the heat. (On a particularly cold winter night went to the bathroom and couldn't shower because my shampoo bottle had frozen).
It wasn't a quality issue. It wasn't because your books were better.
Before I self-pubbed, I had less than 500 reviews on Amazon, all of my titles combined. I wasn't being read, because I wasn't easy to find.
Now I have 13,000 reviews, averaging four stars. Not many authors, no matter how they publish, have over 1000 reviews on a single title. You do. So do other monster bestsellers. So do I.
For my first book, I got some minor support from my publisher. They took me to BEA, introduced me to many mystery bookstore buyers. They printed up 10,000 Whiskey Sour coasters with my book cover on them. But they refused to let me do book signings, because that cost coop money and they didn't feel giving a bookstore $25 would result in enough debut hardcover sales to cover that meager cost.
Since I wasn't allowed to tour, I popped into bookstores and signed stock, then handsold that stock until it was gone. When the store restocked, in larger numbers, I did it again.
To counter that I spent 8 hours in a Waldenbooks and handsold 100 hardcovers at $23.95 a pop. During the holiday season, I did this every day, at every bookstore within driving distance. From Thanksgiving to Xmas, for several years.
And as a result, I sold more books than anyone expected.
For Book #2, sensing they could enhance my efforts, my publisher arranged for a West Coast tour, comprising of 7 events over ten days. Besides the official signings, I also signed stock at 100 more stores. I also mailed out 6500 letters to libraries, each with a signed coaster, telling them about my books.
Since I wasn't getting big distribution or discounting or coop space, I enlisted booksellers to help me, which meant meeting as many as I could, signing stock, and explaining who I was and what my books were about.
This also circumvented the dreaded return system. Booksellers were less likely to return signed books, increasing my shelf life. Booksellers I met were more likely to order more books and handsell them. And bookstore algorithms (I believe B&N called it "modeling") would automatically order new copies of books that sold well.
For book #3, I signed at over 500 stores during a single summer.
Then my publisher's mystery line vanished.
For book #4, my publisher gave me ZERO support, even though my sales had been rising. No touring, no marketing. They screwed up the drop date of my launch, and didn't care. And my hardcover still went into a second printing.
Books #5 and #6, also effectively orphaned, weren't even submitted to the usual reviewers. For my last book, Borders couldn't even order it because of some colossal distributor screw-up, and they were my biggest supporter (I got to speak at a Borders regional sales meeting--something I set up, not something my daddy set up for me).
It's nice that you get to write about the same character in the same genre. Some of us had to diversify in order to survive.
Those books Hachette didn't want have earned me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That series Hyperion didn't want to continue has earned me a million.
And you still want to insist my publisher gave me the same shot that yours gave you? If that's the case, you need to quit your publisher right now, because your sales will go up 1000% like mine did. :D
I believe all newbie writers should read this blog post, to see both sides. Your experience is unique, mine is common. The majority of legacy writers get excoriated by the legacy system.
That's how well your system works. I bought my house and two cars for cash, with books that the Big 6 were convinced wouldn't sell. I'm talking about my rejected novels, not the ones that were legacy pubbed.
But my luck was still greater than thousands of other legacy authors, who sold 1/10 of what I did when I was with Hyperion and Hachette. And I never thought I was better, or more deserving, than any of them.
Joe: And yet Amazon has zero problem removing pre-order buttons and discounts. This runs counter to your statement.
Amazon can still be the everything store without giving into Hachette's demands. It's doing that very thing right now. And Amazon readers don't care. Since this dispute began, Amazon's reputation has gotten even better. Its approval rating has gone up, and it has claimed the number 1 spot in customer reputation.
Amazon doesn't need to walk away. They still sell Hachette's books, and other Big 5 publisher titles, while also selling 500,000 exclusive titles.
Hachette's sales have gone down. I doubt Amazon even noticed a blip. They may be selling fewer Hachette titles, but they're making more per title because they aren't discounting, as well as selling titles in lieu of Hachette titles. This Hachette book takes 3 weeks to ship? I'll just buy a different book that ships overnight.
And think of all the warehouse space they're saving. :)
Joe: Print won't disappear. It will become a subsidiary right, which I blogged about four and a half years ago.
It's nice that you feel bad for the poor. Thankfully, even the poor have access to computers and smart phones, and many ebooks are a lot cheaper than used paperbacks. You may have heard that there are also millions of free ebooks.
As for people liking print, this is a tired old meme that I debunked years ago.
You were paid more, and the publisher certainly wants to recoup as much of that as possible. Since your brand is strong, you're able to move a lot of ebooks at $12.99.
My sales went up 1000% once I got my rights back from my publishers. How many midlist authors are being held hostage in a similar way, just so publishers can maintain control of the paper oligopoly that makes them and a handful of authors like you amazingly rich?
You're thriving, but thousands of others are withering.
I don't mean to pick on Sarah, or put her on the spot. I don't know her, she was just the first debut Hachette author I found when I went looking. I did notice she didn't sign your little Authors United petition (I say "little" when comparing it to the petition Hugh and I did with 8x as many signatures).
Amazon offered, three separate times, to compensate authors who were being harmed by this negotiation. I bet Sarah would benefit from that compensation. So would hundreds of other authors. Where was AU? Hint: they were immediately rejecting the proposals, as was Hachette.
These are the folks you've chosen to side with.
That isn't whining, Lee. That's activism. And I need to point these things out, repeatedly, for new authors who are learning about these topics for the very first time. This is A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, not an Insider's Guide for Pros.
Authors United is harmful.
Thanks again for your thoughts on this. You're always welcome here, and it's a pleasure to have someone with a much different perspective than mine voice their opinion.
I also asked Barry Eisler to chime in (even though he and I vehemently disagree about airline seats) and he emailed me:
Barry: Hi Lee, you mentioned ironing boards and amplifiers as products that Amazon allows suppliers to price as they like, knowing some people will prefer the high-end items and others the low-end. In this system, no one is being denied access to ironing boards etc because low-priced alternatives are plentiful. And you asked, Why not just do the same for books? I think this is a great question and a great way to frame the issue — by far the best presentation I’ve seen on the topic yet from anyone affiliated with Authors United. So thank you for that.
For the most part, I agree. We already live in a world where there are more low-priced and probably even free books (not to mention library access) than any one person could read in a lifetime. So if some readers can’t afford, or don’t want to spend the money on, what we might think of as the luxury end of the book market, it’s not exactly a national tragedy.
I wouldn't want to go too far with this argument; I think reading is an important public good and in general I’m in favor of lower prices, more choice, and easier access for everyone, and therefore I tend to favor the business model that’s built to accomplish those aims rather than the one that’s built to impede them. But I’m also in favor of people having the freedom to price their goods as they like. There’s a balance in there somewhere, and maybe we fall to slightly different sides of it, or we have somewhat different views of the best way those possibly competing interests can be reconciled. Thinking about your points, I had the sense that our views might not be so different.
But this is what gets me. Why is this the first time anyone affiliated with Authors United has made an argument in such a cogent, no-bullshit, non-propagandistic way?
Just today, the New York Times ran another puff piece quoting new Authors United member Ursula K. Leguin saying, "We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author… Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy.”
And Andrew Wylie, who’s pitching all his clients to join Authors United, is quoted as saying, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.”
Not to mention all the existing rhetoric from your cohorts about books being “sanctioned,” and “boycotted,” about “We’re not taking sides,” etc.
Lee… do you really believe any of that craziness? If not, why are you lending your name to it?
If Authors United were as thoughtful and honest as you were in the thoughts I’m addressing here, l’d probably have written a blog post or two analyzing our different visions of the best system for serving readers and authors and that would have been the end of it. But instead what they peddle is overheated rhetoric, distortions, and propaganda. All of which we might loosely classify as “bullshit,” and all of which is what concerns me so much about the effect the organization is likely to have.
Because as I’ve said many times: I don’t care what choices authors make for themselves; I care that they can make those choices based on accurate information. I think it’s great that for the first time there are competing systems within publishing. What’s disturbing is when one of those systems peddles disinformation as a way of attracting new entrants — and this is the essence of what Authors United is part of. For lots more on this, here’s a post Joe and I did earlier this year called Publishing is Lottery/Publishing is a Carny Game.
If Authors United is on the level, why can’t they take a straight-up position, as you have? Why all the distortions and bullshit?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a rhetorical question. But as long as the organization continues to present itself as propagandistically as it does, I hope people will keep calling it out. I wish you would, too.