Do Writers Need a Union?

SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) is drawing heat in some quarters for endorsing Hachette’s side in the ongoing negotiations with Amazon. The move was made unilaterally and without the consultation of its members (of which I am one). Author Don Sakers posted on his blog that SFWA does not represent him, and I add my voice to Don’s.

On the website ThePassiveVoice, commenters bring up trade and labor disputes and organizations, and I think these and class warfare comments I’ve seen elsewhere are spot-on. Trade fiction and narrative nonfiction authors do not have any meaningful representation. There is no group busting balls on behalf of writers, and there are a lot of balls out there to be busted. Amazon, the Big 5, B&N, Apple, Google … no one is fighting these people for better terms and pay. The Writers’ Guild seems to exist to fight Amazon and stands for the rights of bookstores and major publishers.

I’d say the closest thing we have to a trade rep is Passive Guy himself (not sure what he would say to hear this. Maybe he’d want to slap me). His blog, his advocacy, his smarts, his law degree and decades of experience with contracts, his familiarity with self-publishing (not just from being part of a household that does it, but from his blog, which is like a reading room at a law firm, cardboard boxes everywhere), and last (and in someways certainly least) his admirable and immortalized role as the lone and oft-interrupted voice on That Panel.

The Passive Guy’s blog, forums like KBoards, all the private FB groups, all the writers’ blogs, and all the interconnected readers and writers via social media have reached a tipping point, I believe. When a third of all bestselling ebooks on the largest platform are self-published, that signals a groundswell of support over content. Threaten that content . . . and watch out. Hachette’s supporters seem to be threatening that content.

So what we’re seeing is a protest of a lot of little voices, and they add up. It’s what a union is supposed to do, to unite a bunch of smaller, weaker forces so they can negotiate with a single, larger force. Writers have never had this before. I’m not confident they have it now. There is excitement from some, but also a call from others to get back to work, that this doesn’t affect us. Protests pop up now and then, but they rarely sustain themselves. They fizzle.

Here’s the tricky thing, I’m learning: How can anyone represent so many disparate interests? I sympathize with unions and trade groups like never before, as people are emailing me to ask me what authors stand for. I can’t speak for writers. We stand for a lot of shit. Our stances contradict. I would never expect us to agree on anything, much less everything.

Our readers are probably the one thing I can say with confidence that we love and adore. Without them, we in this trade are whispering to ourselves. Starting from there, I might be comfortable saying that anyone who serves our readers and facilitates our getting together with them is better than anyone who abuses our readers and works to keep us apart. I would sign that charter, and I think most writers would.

When physical bookstores decided to ban Amazon imprint titles, thinking that attacking a tiny fraction of larger Amazon was worth decimating the individual authors, they fell into the coming-between-us camp. When 5 out of the then-Big-6 got together to raise prices on consumers, they fell into the coming-between-us-camp. When B&N refused to stock Simon & Schuster authors last year, and when they decided to manipulate their online bestseller lists, they fell into the coming-between-us-camp. These middlemen work to blockade. Whatever you think of Amazon’s faults, they have worked to unite storytellers with listeners and readers. They have done this like perhaps no other entity in history.

So when this division broke, there was of course a 1% element to this movement not unlike many other protests. A small group of elitists think the universe aligns with their ideals. The system that made them rich is to be preserved, and screw anyone who disagrees. When you gain power, you tend to use it to maintain power, not to empower others. Human history is littered with these stories. But all it takes is a few megaphones in the crowd and gathering bodies to show them the other side.

A few nights ago, an email popped into my inbox. It appeared a letter in support of Hachette had gone “viral.” I searched for this letter and could not find a copy, because it had not yet been released. The pro-traditional news source claiming virality seemed to have hopeful aspirations more than news coverage in mind. But the threat of this letter’s impending release sickened me. More of the one-sided debate from those with the most money and the most power, and what they are calling for will harm those with the least of both.

I reached out to a dozen or so others, and we cobbled together a messy open letter to explain many of the gross misrepresentations that have emerged during the Amazon/Hachette debate. A Google Doc buzzed with so many cursors, it was impossible to keep up with it all. We had a few hours to craft a response to what the other side had worked on for a week. Our hope was that any coverage of this debate would include both sides. That’s all we wanted. Maybe a few hundred people to say that we do not stand for this. We will not stand for this.

Right now, those voices number 4,792. Thank you if you are one of them.

Our open letter was posted on Change.org, because more people wanted to sign the Google doc than I could manage. What we needed was a petition. What we wrote was a letter to readers. We ended up with something of both. The testimonials are as heart-wrenching as some of those we saw on this thread and in this thread. And it’s not just writers chiming in. Readers have taken to social media to show their support. Many have signed what started as a letter to them and is now a letter from us. Change is messy, people.

My fear, however, is that nothing will change. Nothing will come of this. I think the power is in the hands of our opponents, because they own the media (actually, the media owns them. Several of the major publishers are owned by companies like CBS). They have the bigger names. They also have the support of a lot of mid-list writers who really want to make the jump up and win the respect of those above them. And there are a lot of readers who haven’t given indie books a chance and see us as ditherers and cranks.

So I don’t have my hopes up, which is rare for me. My unabashed optimism is on hiatus. What I do see is the potential, the response to be had if there’s the right spark. And it highlights for me the need for a trade organization that represents writers, an organization with a focus on those who NEED representation, not those at the very top.

Groups like the aforementioned SFWA have minimum requirements for membership. I think there should be maximum requirements for representation. That is, once your earnings hit a certain level, your rights are no longer the focus of the group. Those rights might align at times with the focus of the group, but it won’t be an active concern.

Why? Because labor unions shouldn’t exist to win raises for the managers and the foremen. They sometimes devolve into this, and that’s the beginning of the end of their usefulness. Our guild long ago subscribed to that philosophy. I like to think it happened unintentionally and innocently, bias building upon bias, closed rooms echoing, monocultures spreading. I think some of the people who have it all and are fighting for more aren’t bad people; they just aren’t exposed to enough dissenting opinions. Many of those fighting for Hachette have no clue what is happening in the publishing trenches right now. They’ve been in tents with generals for far too long. It’s a rare sage like Val McDermud who understands those two worlds and the current gulf between them.

I hope the outcome of this is at least awareness. There is a new world out there for creators and those who wish to be entertained. It can be a beautiful world, but it can also be a bleak world. Hollywood has been struggling with these same issues. Just this week, there was this depressing account of current trade representation in the film industry. Another movement of the 1%.

If you have a print copy of any of the self-published editions of the WOOL series, you may have noticed something strange on page 99 of each book. Doesn’t matter which book in the series, they all have as the page number: 99%. That’s the rest of us. Of course, another writer pointed out to me while we were crafting this open letter that he and I are now in the 1%, but I don’t think that’s true. We get to choose which side we stand on; our income doesn’t decide for us.

I have been called a shill for taking this side. I have been accused of being shrill. I’m a crank and a kook. A lot of us are. Anyone fighting for progress should wear these accusations with honor. It means you’re finally being heard. I means you’re now hitting a nerve.

4,792. That’s a lot of voices. I hear you. I don’t speak for you. No one does. I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself. And again, maybe no one else does.

But perhaps someone should.

COMMENTS (82)

Nice post and well said, Hugh. Every day I’m thankful for each new reader I reach. Whenever I get an email from one of them saying my stories took them away from their troubles for a little while I’m humbled and awed. If not for the ability to self-publish, I might not have had that opportunity. Nor would they have been able to find my books.

After eleven years of serving in the military I feel even more strongly about our freedom of speech and the right for our voices to be heard. Even if that is through fictional tales we’ve spun in our heads and set to paper. No one should be allowed to decide whose voices may be heard and whose may not.

Many men and women have fought and died to give us that right. How can anyone think it’s okay to brush aside their sacrifices? Every book we publish, whether through traditional means or indie, is paying tribute to those fallen. It’s shows we will not ignore the right they gave us, but rather exercise it at every opportunity.

I personally hate to see lines drawn in the sand. All I’ll say is I’m with the folks who believe everyone should have the chance to let their voices be heard. Let us not ever be silenced.

I don’t think there is cause for thinking that “the power is in the hands of our opponents” or that “a lot of readers…see us as ditherers and cranks.” I see no evidence of massive reader interest in the competing letters. Among authors, certainly. But not among the folks who buy our books, from whatever source.

The power of media in this instance is not going to sway reader opinion. Readers are smart and they like to….read. This infighting among authors might register to some as an interesting blip….but then they are going to continue to shop for books the way they shop for books. They are not going to boycott a retailer nor will they write angry letters to a publisher.

So I hope your optimism remains, Hugh, and is not diluted too much by the events of this past week.

Thanks for this, James. I hope you’re right.

No, dammit, I KNOW you’re right!

Heh. Feeling better already.

James Scott Bell: I couldn’t agree more. The best writing advice I’ve ever heard was to “write stories that people want to read” and to keep writing. I solidly believe that if you do that readers will find you, whether you’re a trad or an indie. Like any other “business” let the market decide.

Hugh: as always, thank you for your continued dedication to pushing all of us toward a better future, for ourselves and for our audiences.

Technically, self-publishers can qualify for the Freelancers Union. (From the FAQ page: “Our membership is open to independent workers—freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, contingent employees and the self-employed.The eligibility requirements we have are only for the insurance products we offer.”)

But I think chances for a “win” are actually not that bad, since Amazon has repeatedly demonstrated that they’re willing to suffer short-term press for long-term benefit, and the publishers frequently flop when they try to make something viral, and the vast majority of people don’t care about what’s going on between Hachette and Amazon, right now. (And an even higher % will have forgotten all about it in 3 mo. to a year.)

My best friend works at the local library, and even she hadn’t heard enough about the dispute to be aware of it. When I asked her, she said she’d heard Amazon was being a bully, but she didn’t remember that until I started talking about it.

The situation can easily seem so huge and wide-reaching and widely known because it’s loud in our particular echo chamber of Internet-savvy authors and folks who work in publishing, but it’s really not a huge deal.

Remember the Simon & Schuster fiasco? Who remembers (or cares) about that, anymore?

Preston’s letter mimicked Scot Turow’s actions as president of the mis-named Authors Guild. It really should be called the Publishers Guild. Bestselling trad authors are desperate to protect a system that has treated them well. Not once have these people ever gotten together to do a thing for midlist authors who are also members. It’s natural they want to serve the system that pays them quite well and grants them better terms than the average author.

But to cloak their self-serving in terms of serving readers is ridiculous. They never complained when their employers colluded and cheated their readers out of millions of dollars.

They still cash their advances and royalty checks even though a good percentage (at least 30%, more in many cases) comes from sales via the outlet they rail against. Hypocrisy? Lack of ethics?

Having interacted with many bestselling authors, while many are really nice people, after some years being treated a certain way, most have completely lost touch with the reality of the majority of authors.

Also, the underlying fact is this: They’re getting scared. Publishing has undergone a fundamental shift in business model. Far more than any are willing to admit or are even consciously aware of. But they can look at their royalty statements, see the growing percentage of eBook sales overtaking their print sales. They see bookstore after bookstore (where their publisher pays coop money to get them racked more favorably than other authors) close. In essence, they are seeing their comfortable way of life going away.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re going to have to compete with everyone else for readers? And, frankly, some of them aren’t going to do very well.

I wouldn’t say they haven’t done anything for midlist authors. Douglas Preston took a chance on my first Molly Fyde novel and wrote an amazing blurb. He’s been kind and generous in every interaction I’ve had with him. But I do think your point is generally true. I also think it’s natural, so I tend to be understanding about it. Often, just by pointing it out politely, we can change minds and behavior.

That’s nice that Mr. Preston wrote you a blurb. I don’t think many people doubt the capability of those who align with the Authors Guild to be personally gracious and generous. I certainly don’t. That’s separate from an ability/inclination to recognize where their interests and stake in the status quo arrangement acts against the interests of many others. (I’m sure you understand this and just don’t want things to get more personal than they already have.)

Well said, Hugh.

Don’t lose your optimism. There’s thousands who hear you and think about this stuff for every person who calls you names. Hugs!

As for SFWA… well, I guess my 90 a year can go to something else now. Like buying books! Or maybe editing or cover art. Stuff I’ll see actual use out of.

I like this post, but a few points.

You list a bunch of ways middlemen have gotten between authors and readers, then laud Amazon at the end of your paragraph. Isn’t Amazon getting between writers and readers by delaying shipping on some Hachette and Bonnier titles, and making some not available at all? How is that any different than bookstores not stocking Amazon imprint titles or B&N not stocking S&S?

I love your “maximum requirements for representation” idea. Is not the job of a union to represent those who don’t have the power to represent themselves individually? The big names have the power to take care of their own affairs, but for the growing number of authors at the bottom, they have no way to make themselves heard in a meaningful way. If Amazon changes their terms or a trad pub tries to give authors shittier deals, without a union representing the collective interest, there’s no way to combat those negative developments, the attacks on the earning potential of authors.

However, with that said, I don’t think you can choose to be in the 99% or 1%. You can choose on which side you stand, where you lend your voice and influence, but you’re still on one side or the other. Is Warren Buffet part of the 99% because he stood up for higher taxes and other progressive policies? No, he’s still part of the 1%, but he’s not a burden on the 99%.

In answer to your point about Amazon, I have a friend who’s offspring works at Amazon corporate HQ. This person, under the influence of perhaps too many glasses of wine, railed about how Amazon should just come out and state that the problem isn’t Amazon delaying shipments but Hachette’s dinosaur of a fulfillment system that can’t get the books to Amazon quickly.

That points out one aspect of big publishing that gets too little mention, the inability to move quickly on either end of the book cycle. Not only does it usually take a year or more for a book to be published after acquisition, big publishers simply don’t have efficient or timely distribution. Until the big publishers figure this out they will be at the mercy of the people who do handle that well for them, such as Amazon.

Small technical publishing houses such as O’Reilly often get books to market and distributed within weeks of the release of new operating systems or software update. Honestly, in this age of instant communication and distribution, the slow speed of the big publishers smacks of arrogance or gross inefficiency, possibly both.

A couple questions, because I don’t know the answers. When the Authors’ Guild was first formed, was it to benefit all author members? Did it do that back then and then policies or at least management changed so it seems to not do that now, maybe protect just a few of the members, maybe those in control of the organization?

Same for the SWFA. Did the SWFA form to protect all members and then later change so that it seems to not protect all, possibly just a few, again, those at the top?

All “official” unions I have been a dues-paying member of have been more protective of the union itself and the management of it than it ever was of the members like me who footed the bill. In every union job I had, I lost that job because of union activities. Granted, I might have lost them all anyway if there’d been no union in place there and then, but it was the union that directly caused those losses for me every time. They were nice about it, both the unions and the companies I worked for, but the jobs were still gone no matter how you look at it. Twice the job I had then was nonunion and the workers voted to go union for more pay. Working conditions were already fine, but the pay wasn’t anything great, I do admit. But you can seldom have everything you want. Both times the management got the visit from the union representative and the company closed that warehouse because that was the only legal way to do it. Job gone. I was young and foolish back then and went along with it the first time, though I resisted mightily the second time, but “that couldn’t happen” in this facility; it’ll never close. Guess again guys. Other union jobs I’ve had (again only two), it was the typical layoff after the Christmas season rush that got me. That might have happened anyway if the place had been nonunion, but maybe not. It is more likely to happen if the pay scale is higher. Of course I’ve lost jobs at nonunion companies, too. Many people have.

What I’m trying to show here is that unions are NOT always all for the good for everyone concerned, especially the peons in the trenches paying the bills, who those unions were originally set up to help (at least theoretically). I simply see them as probably slowly devolving to perpetuate themselves, the organization and its management, and no longer doing much if any good for the general membership, or at least seemingly so little good except for a very few. I’ve learned my lesson and would never join an organization that seemed to act as a union as I know them, even if they seemed okay now.

Hugh, you’re talking like setting such a thing up here. If it does happen, can it be worded in the charter so that it’s not another SFWA or AG all over again? I doubt it, but worth trying for. Not that I’d qualify as a member any case as I’m not a writer, just a part-time editor and proofer.

Think about it, and thanks for listening.

JEH

I’m not going to set up something; I’m just curious about whether we need something. And it might be nothing more than an awkward petition. It could be a sleep-in slumber party! I’m more fascinated in the lack of action and progress by the institutions we do have. Perhaps existing ships might turn about. The wind sure seems to be clocking around.

Well said. I’m one of those who signed the letter (your letter, Hugh; not the other one).

Hugh,

Just a small point of clarification for the conversation, if I may. SFWA isn’t a union, nor can it behave like one. SFWA is a non-profit trade association. A union can negotiate agreements with employers on things like pay, benefits, and working conditions. If SFWA tried to do that, not only would the IRS turn the screws, but I imagine many members would, too.

Without looking at SFWA specifically, I will say that getting any type of union together for writers is going to be a very steep uphill battle on a variety of fronts, and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the interests and needs of one writer may vary greatly from the interests and needs of another.

While I can and do wish that SFWA hadn’t signed on to that particular letter, I think people are reading a bit more into it than what was intended. This is a natural consequence of reader bias, which I’m sure you understand.

The change.org letter is already a success, because it has clued some news outlets (Booklist and NPR at least) into recognizing that there EXIST two sides to this story. Prior to this letter, that was not the case: I’d seen every major news outlet cover the story without ever even questioning the axiomatic assumption that Amazon is Wrong.

And as long as journalists continued to couch the news under the implicit assumption that Amazon is unquestionably in the wrong, no meaningful discussion could be had. (As often happens in political debates: Once we already “know” which side is evil, what’s to discuss?)

So just getting that foot in the door — making it known that there IS an “other side” to this issue — means that questions that could previously go unnoticed must now be asked. Really basic questions like: What are Hachette and Amazon negotiating over, anyway? What are their interests? How does this ultimately affect authors and readers?

If coverage of the Amazon/Hachette dispute becomes a true discussion of competing merits, then we’ve won — or at least we’ve de-fanged the PR war (and then Amazon and Hachette can go back to negotiating behind closed doors, like normal companies). I think this letter has already pushed things in that direction, and in that, it’s a huge success.

I don’t think a union is the answer. Union’s are required to follow some pretty restrictive Federal laws which were designed to limit their power. Moreover, big corporations have a lot of experience in managing unions and know how to manipulate them. Finally, large modern unions are basically political organizations, and political organizations are all about influence peddling and compromise. That doesn’t mean they can’t do good, but I don’t think it’s the answer for self-publishing interests. In fact, much better to stay away from them.

What is powerful are ideas. They don’t always move quickly, but great ideas are unstoppable. The idea that any writer should be able to publish their own book and control it’s destiny without middlemen telling them what to do is pretty much an unstoppable idea. The opposing view, that big corporations need to manage this stuff, can’t compete.

Sometimes ideas (flight, space travel, gluten free pizza) are ahead of technology, but once technology catches up, look out.

You did exactly the right thing by getting out that Change.org response so quickly, and you’re doing exactly the right thing with Author Earnings, and with this blog. Resist the impulse to try to organize this movement into a political or union group. There are plenty of those already and they will jump to your side anyway as the ideas spread. As much as we can complain about middle people, they are really what makes an large organization function. The last thing you need to do is waste your time becoming a middle person or managing middle people. Rather than creating a new organization, independently lobbying congressmen, senators, political parties and existing organizations, even corrupt ones like SFWA, will be more effective in the long run. If you want to know the next step, it would be having those four thousand plus people write letters and call their congressmen in support of Amazon and self-publishing. That would send some shivers down the big 5.

But more importantly, keep doing what you do best. Writing. Thanks to your success, you will have more power as an individual than I think you will have if you get tied into managing a large organization. Spread your work and your ideas and encourage others to do the same. Long term, that will make the biggest difference.

Oh, I won’t be organizing anything. You should see my sock drawer!

Sorry, brother. It’s a revolution.

You’re a leader in this fight, and the one most qualified to lead. Remeber our forefathers? Being President was a public service no one wanted, but was necessary.

If something gets rolling, watch yourself get elected.

:)

This sounds like a good plot line for a nove.

It’s more important to have a person with the right intentions than a person with great organizational skills heading such an organization. No leader works alone. They always have those that help and support them. Someone with the right intentions can pinpoint what needs to be done, while those with the organisational skills can implement it.

Brilliant. I sign on to every word!

“Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”

That’s probably not the exact quote, but the meaning is relevant. Like Bob said above, the Authors’ Guild has morphed over time to protect the very thing it should be fighting against. I also agree with James above that unions often times become self serving and exist more to perpetuate themselves rather than support their constituents.

However, I believe there will come a time (if not immediately) when self published authors could really use the clarity and weight of an organization that would ostensibly speak for the majority of us. So, the question is: how do we create something like that while bearing history in mind?

My first thought was to look at the Screenwriters’ Guild since they seem to have had success in the past in going against the big boys of the movie and television industries. I just did a search on them and. lo and behold, they are affiliated with the Authors’ Guild! “Oh, joy,” I said, heavy with sarcasm. Undaunted, I looked up their membership requirements. Ugh. Even more restrictive than the Authors’ Guild! Sorry, but I’m not spending up to three years and $2,500 to join anything that doesn’t involve saying, “I do,” and people pelting me and a pretty lady with rice afterward.

I think we need to start looking at it as a service organization, rather than a union, with education as its primary focus. Maybe from there it could evolve into an entity that could have influence in garnering better contract terms, conditions, etc.

Getting hundreds or thousands of authors to agree on anything will be a lot like herding that many cats ;-)

Thanks Hugh,
I signed the petition and sent it on to several people and notified our writer’s group. In addition to being a writer I am an avid reader and even though I still buy a few of my favorite traditionally published books, I am buying them less and less because of the expense. The invention of ebooks helps so many of us nearly blind people out there to be able to continue to read. And, I’m loving all of the new authors and buy as many as I can. There have been at least 5 members in our writer’s group that I know of who have published through Amazon and others are looking into it. They are wonderful first books and I look forward to reading more. Amazon made that possible for me. Again, thanks for all of your continued efforts.

Hugh–
I signed the petition and I did so gladly. You’ve done a great job with your crusade against the Big 5. But please, NO UNIONS.

NO UNIONS!

The minute you form a union, there will be a large number of writers who will not want to pay money to belong to a distant organization whose leaders they have never met. Once you have the gung-ho pro-union types forming and strategizing and getting together, these writers on the “outs” will feel even more alienated. Then the union will of course take an aggressively adversary stance against anyone who stands in its way, EVEN THE WRITERS WHO DON’T WANT TO JOIN. Then, as always occurs during union formations, those who don’t want to join are eventually regarded as the enemy, right up there with the evil fat-cat corporate chieftains.

Since the 1960s, unions have brought only friction and hard feelings into every negotiation they enter. Your own essay stated that once a small group of people attain power, their focus turns to maintaining power, not empowering others. And therein lies the complete history of the union movement. I know, I know, look at the benefits members of other unions receive: health insurance, health insurance, health insurance, and … is there another one? Oh, yes. Pensions. Now there’s something that’ll be sure to bring smiles to everyone. The independent writers don’t need health insurance as a group, nor do they need pensions. They need readers. Unions can’t deliver readers. They can only promise plenty of distrust, sniping, and ill will at all times.

Hugh, please rethink this ill-considered move. NO UNIONS!

It’s sad to see how propaganda by America’s government and biggest corporations have turned the American people against unions, and by extension their own interests. If you want to see good unions, look at Scandinavia. They do it right because the people understand their role, and companies and government respect them as partners.

There are others who are much sharper observers of this business than I am. I just do not see how traditional publishing can survive, as is. (Which is not the same thing as saying all of the Big 5 will go bankrupt.) I don’t see how self-publishing does anything but continue to grow and, eventually, eventually, that puts pressure on the big guys where they pay attention to it.

I’m not a Marxist, but the “means of production” (and distribution) are firmly in the hands of the writers. We can write. We can edit (or find editors). We can publish and distribute. POD will get easier, cheaper, better. Enterprising, independent booksellers will figure out how to fulfill local print needs better.

Maybe Amazon gets greedy, but Kobo and Smashwords (or someone else we haven’t heard of yet – I’m old enough to remember when no one had heard of Amazon) may figure out how to take advantage of that. The trend to writers having more control over what they need to chart their own course as published authors is going to continue, no matter who organizes what. I think the outcome is all already baked in the technology/commerce cake.

I do not see any turning back. Who, exactly, is going to take self-publishing away from us? Who’s going to put that genie back in the bottle? And, how? Nobody, which I think accounts for much of the vitriol against self-publishing. They’re like octopi, spewing ink to distract and confuse.

Maybe the next couple of years are “messy,” as you say. Hachette and the other publishers can slow things down, make things more confusing and stressful and some people will buy into this. But, this river is going to keep flowing.

Phyllis humphrey

Judith: I agree completely. The tide has already turned and the flood will just get larger. No one can stop the Indie revolution. Amazon didn’t start it: technology did. You can’t stop people from finding new ways to do things.

I was going to start with the herding cats metaphor, but Alan Tucker beat me to it. Voluntary membership in non-profit trade associations is probably the best way to go and it may already be happening. I just Googled and found a few focused on indie authors. I have no idea if they’re any good, but more will follow. It’s inevitable. Our industry is in the middle of a vast technological and cultural shift that’s not going to be slowed down by legacy publishing’s efforts to turn back the clock. We can continue to be the squirrelly, solitary, independent cusses that we are and the Big 5 will still eventually morph into the Smaller 5 (or Smaller 2 or 3). The ground is still shifting. The earth is still quaking. Once upon a time, the people in charge were freaking out about how the printing press was going to destroy the world by letting the unwashed masses read things that more properly belonged on carefully curated vellum scrolls available only to a few. Sound familiar?

You did a very good thing here. The media loves a good conflict. It sells papers/on-line content/advertising. They’ll have no qualms going after Hachette if they smell potentially lucrative blood on the water. You’ve saved them all that pesky research they’d need to do to find out the whole story. Thank you. Now relax, take a day off, go do something fun. You’ve earned it.

I agree with much of this post, Hugh, but I do have a few points to make.

You chide middlemen who go between authors and readers, pointing out how some bookstores won’t stock Amazon imprint books and how B&N wouldn’t stock S&S books during a dispute, then end off that paragraph by lauding Amazon. Isn’t Amazon doing the same thing with Hachette and Bonnier titles right now by making some unavailable, delaying shipment on others, and removing preorders on certain books? Where do you make the distinction?

I agree wholeheartedly on your idea for “maximum requirements for representation.” Those authors who have a lot of money, power, and sell a lot of books have the ability to have their voice heard in negotiations, but the growing number of authors at the bottom do not. That’s supposed to be the point of a union, to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves, be it in a dispute with a traditional publisher, or to stop changes in the sales split on books or how they’re merchandised on Amazon.

However, you would be one of the former authors. You are part of the 1% whether you like it or not. Does Warren Buffet get to chose to be 99% or 1%? No, he’s firmly part of the 1%, even when he does advocate for higher taxes and other progressive policies. You may advocate for readers and writers of all levels, but you’re still part of publishing’s 1%, you simply chose to advocate for everyone instead of just yourself (and that’s a good thing).

You’re equivocating pre-orders with actual books not being available? We are blacklisted. Their customers have to wait until the book is released. If you are equivocating these things, Paris, it’ll be hard to take any of your usually excellent opinions seriously.

The delays are Hachette’s fault, not Amazon’s. Ignoring that, you are also equivocating a delay with 100% blacklist? I’m supposed to be equally concerned about these things? Fix the blacklist problems, and then I’ll complain about a little delay and a pre-order.

I know you are extremely biased against Amazon; I read all your opinions. But if you really believe the above, I’ll have to start skipping your posts, and that will be a loss for me to balance my views. So I would love it if you considered what I’m saying here and see that you are being completely unreasonable and maybe post a retraction or a modification of your view. Because I don’t think it’s defensible. It’s worrying about a man being slapped down one alley while another man is being murdered across the street.

I love how you picked selectively from my comment. I equated a number of things with books not being available, preorders simply being one example. It was my understanding that certain Hachette and Bonnier titles were made completely unavailable for a period of time, that’s current books, not preorders, and I admit I could be wrong on that point. But I’ll also remind you they removed Macmillan titles during a dispute in 2010, but that’s probably convenient to forget because those are the tactics of B&N and other retailers you’re trying to set Amazon apart from.

It’s interesting how you blame the delays on Hachette, something neither side has confirmed. When leaks come out that are favourable to Hachette, you’re quick to beat them down as misleading against Amazon, but when they come out in Amazon’s favour you hold them up as truth.

And you know well I don’t support blacklisting indie authors, but I do ask you this.

Is it right for Amazon to demand 50% of Bonnier’s ebook revenue, as they’re demanding in Germany and the head of Amazon Germany has confirmed? It’s true publishers aren’t passing much of that on to their authors, and I don’t defend them for it, but is it right for Amazon to then try to take that money for themselves? Is it right they want to demand a book can’t be priced lower on any other retailer? That seems anti-competitive to me, an oligarchic tactic.

I’m not biased against Amazon, as you’ve labelled me. I’m cautious toward big corporations, that includes Amazon, the Big 5, all groups that try to engage in monopolistic and oligarchic tactics, which I see Amazon doing in these negotiations. Does that mean I’m on the side of Big Publishing? Not at all, I couldn’t much care for them, but I don’t want Amazon to absorb the lion’s share of the book market, because while they love to act friendly, I don’t trust them long-term.

Indies love to talk about the end of gatekeepers, eschewing publishers to put out whatever stories they want, and I love that! But are we truly free when we need to rely on a few massive corporations to get those stories to readers? What happens when some of those stories disturb conservative sensibilities? Well, we’ve already seen how the reaction has affected erotica authors and put slight limitations on how they merchandise what they publish.

Why does Amazon offer low prices and make razor-thin profits, if any? They want to grab as big a market share as possible. They’re holding out until the time comes when they have that market share, then they’ll start demanding higher rates from suppliers to increase their profit margins, exactly as it’s been confirmed they’re doing with Bonnier in Germany, and presumably doing to Hachette on this side of the pond, though we don’t know for sure. When they control a big enough share of those markets, suppliers can’t say no or they’ll lose such a large portion of sales they risk going out of business.

I’m not on Amazon’s side or on Hachette’s side. I’m on the side of readers and writers, and I don’t think we should be putting our faith in any big corporation to save us from another one, no matter how friendly they try to act.

“It’s interesting how you blame the delays on Hachette, something neither side has confirmed.”

The same could be said for those who blame Amazon,

Could it be simply that Amazon is not warehousing large numbers of Hachette books? That they are selling out their in stock copies and ordering from Hachette as orders are placed?

It’s all speculation of course. None of us knows for sure. But it has not stopped the big name authors from yelling boycott and telling the media an their readers that Amazon is fully to blame.

Amazon has outright said in press releases (like I think the one about the Bonnier issue) that it’s simply reducing the number of inventory items it carries from a given publisher. From that, it stands to reason that if Amazon doesn’t have it in its inventory, it has to order it from the supplier. It also stands to reason Amazon would ship that item out to the consumer the moment it hits Amazon’s inventory. Therefore, it must be taking two weeks from the time Amazon places the order, to the time the book hits Amazon’s inventory. Therefore, Hachette must be taking two weeks to ship it.

(And there’s also the case of Hachette author Michael Sullivan who outright said that when he checked with Amazon as to why his books were being delayed, the Amazon rep said they had orders in to Hachette and Hachette just wasn’t shipping them. When the author followed up with Hachette, Hachette declined to provide any information.)

Isn’t Amazon doing the same thing with Hachette and Bonnier titles right now by making some unavailable, delaying shipment on others, and removing preorders on certain books?

Amazon continues to include Hachette books on its website and continues to sell them.

It’s likely that Amazon is no longer warehousing books for Hachette. When orders for Hachette books come in, the orders must be relayed to Hachette. Unfortunately, Hachette does not ship as speedily as does Amazon. But why would Amazon warehouse thousands of Hachette books that it may need to ship back to Hachette’s warehouses, if Hachette and Amazon cannot agree on terms before their current terms expire?

And why would Amazon include pre-order buttons for books that it may not have the right to sell in future?

Instead of unions, you should call for every SF/F writer to drop their membership to the SFWA. By backing Hachette, they’ve shown their true colors, and any writer that continues to support that organization is part of the problem.

Yes, I think we need it. And we need voices like yours.

If you build it, I’ll be there. I’ll even help you build it, if there’s something I can do.

But I’ll also remind you they removed Macmillan titles during a dispute in 2010

Do you understand why they did that, Paris?

Amazon was being forced by a colluding, price fixing cartel to accept the Agency model. This was illegal.

Amazon removed the buy buttons, and what did that show the DOJ? That Amazon accepted the agency model willingly? That they were a complicit partner?

Or did it show that for, however briefly, Amazon fought against it?

How smart was that for Amazon to do, considering the end result?

It’s interesting how you blame the delays on Hachette, something neither side has confirmed

Give it a little more time. If you’d like, we can wager on it. How about all I made last year vs. all you made last year?

Hint: Don’t take the bet. The truth is going to come out sooner than you might expect.

Is it right for Amazon to demand 50% of Bonnier’s ebook revenue, as they’re demanding in Germany and the head of Amazon Germany has confirmed?

You mean is it right for a retailer to ask for a better cut form a wholesaler?

Do you realize most paper books are sold at 50% off to retailers? Why should ebooks be only 30% off? Especially when Amazon invented the ebook platform Bonnier is using?

But are we truly free when we need to rely on a few massive corporations to get those stories to readers?

You mean like we had to rely on the Big 6 for the last fifty years? :)

They took our rights for our lives plus 70 years. Amazon does not. We’re free to leave Amazon whenever we want to. Try breaking a contract with Hachette and see how easy it is (I know how hard it is. I did it.)

Amazon isn’t stifling competition. It’s allowing competition, for the first time in decades. No price fixing. No barrier to entry.

Well, we’ve already seen how the reaction has affected erotica authors and put slight limitations on how they merchandise what they publish.

Agreed. But this opens up the market for more competition. It is in no company’s best interest to restrict what customers want, and they want erotica. The vacuum will be filled.

Why does Amazon offer low prices and make razor-thin profits, if any?

Why do Hugh and I champion indie authors? Is it because we have some Machiavellian ulterior motive? The whole “Amazon will soon slaughter indies to the Goat God” meme is getting tired. If it happens, we’ll object and raise hell.

I’m on the side of readers and writers, and I don’t think we should be putting our faith in any big corporation to save us from another one, no matter how friendly they try to act.

We’re also on the side of readers and writers. And, currently, so is Amazon. Not Hachette.

If Hachette becomes author and reader friendly, and Amazon tries to squeeze authors, we can revisit this discussion.

Amazon was being forced by a colluding, price fixing cartel to accept the Agency model. This was illegal.

The question was about pulling books, the answer was that Amazon did it. Yes, I do understand why they did it, and as I’ve said before I don’t understand why we don’t let the publishers have agency pricing on ebooks. Wouldn’t you like that, Joe? Let the publishers increase their prices and push readers to indies? Karl Marx liked free trade for one reason: it would put more pressure on the working class, and he believed it would lead to quicker revolution.

Give it a little more time. If you’d like, we can wager on it. How about all I made last year vs. all you made last year?

I’m not a betting man, but this is what I’m talking about. You seem to think Amazon can do no wrong in these negotiations, that anything bad is coming from Hachette. I don’t deny Hachette’s definitely no saint and they have a role in all this craziness, but I highly doubt Amazon is a victim.

Do you realize most paper books are sold at 50% off to retailers? Why should ebooks be only 30% off? Especially when Amazon invented the ebook platform Bonnier is using?

I do realize this, but again I bring us back to part of my argument on allowing agency pricing. Just because it’s done with print, doesn’t mean it should automatically be the standard for ebooks. With print there are shipping and warehousing costs to consider, which Amazon has to absorb, that’s not the case with ebooks. It’s less of a burden on Amazon to sell a digital product than a physical product, that’s why I don’t see why it should automatically have to be the same.

Amazon isn’t stifling competition. It’s allowing competition, for the first time in decades. No price fixing. No barrier to entry.

I’m not a supporter of big publishing’s stranglehold on publishing. I will definitely admit Amazon’s allowing competition on their platform, but you have to admit they’re not big fans of competition with other platforms, hence their insistence that a book can’t be sold at a cheaper price than their own, and only allowing their proprietary file format to be used on the Kindle. If I want to buy books from elsewhere, it’s gonna be a pain to read them on a Kindle.

Agreed. But this opens up the market for more competition. It is in no company’s best interest to restrict what customers want, and they want erotica. The vacuum will be filled.

I think on this we’re actually in complete agreement. I was really surprised a dedicated marketplace for erotica didn’t spring up in the turbulent time when everything was taken down and the rules hadn’t been set for reuploading. I feel erotica’s one of those genres where a dedicated marketplace would do really well, and the authors could probably keep a bigger share of the revenue.

The whole “Amazon will soon slaughter indies to the Goat God” meme is getting tired. If it happens, we’ll object and raise hell.

Which is why we need a union? :)

I’m not completely convinced that this will happen, but it’s definitely a possibility we shouldn’t be blind to. They raised their cut on ACX, certain new markets are 35% across the board unless the author is enrolled in Select, etc. Before they do try to go after indies though, and if they do, they’ll go after other suppliers first: publishers, movie studios, etc., which is why I believe we’re seeing issues with Hachette, Bonnier, Warner, and I’m sure more will come.

We’re also on the side of readers and writers. And, currently, so is Amazon. Not Hachette.

Don’t take me the wrong way. I know you and Hugh stand up for readers and writers, I just feel you’re trying too hard to link the the best outcome for them to Amazon. Hachette’s not the solution either, but I think we should be trying to stay independent of any big players.

Also, I have to ask for clarification: Have I been fisked? :p

Phyllis humphrey

Hugh:
Thanks for this wonderful post. I would join an association of writers (like RWA which seems to make romance writers happy) but, as I said earlier in the thread, it might not be necessary because the river of indie writers is flowing widely.

Do author’s need a union? Do fish need bicycles?

My fear, however, is that nothing will change. Nothing will come of this. I think the power is in the hands of our opponents, because they own the media (actually, the media owns them.

Nothing will change? That power in the opponents’ hands isn’t doing much to stop change.

Several of the big outlets published direct links to your letter. That’s change. Think it would have happened a few years back?

You noted a third of best selling eBooks on the largest platform are independents. A few years ago it was zero. Anyone think that market share was freely given? Market share continues to increase.

The media companies have produced lots of articles critical of independents. Market share continues to increase.

Traditional authors wrote lots of articles critical of independents. Market share continues to increase.

Publishers, bloggers, and publishing consultants all attacked independents. Market share continues to increase.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Does anyone think some organization or association could have managed this?

There should be a writers’ union. Seriously, how did publishers get such a great deal for ebooks? I’m assuming Writers Guild didn’t challenge them. Now everyone just sits around and goes “Wah, wah, wah, we can’t get a better deal from traditional publishers” or they self-publish. Self-publishing is great, but the groups professing to represent traditionally published writers have done a terrible job.

So, Hugh, are you the Norma Rae of publishing?

Publishers got such a great deal because the supply of books was far larger than that the market could absorb at prevailing prices. Lower prices would increase demand, but would also eliminate profit for publishers.

The result was authors competed against each other for the limited number of slots in the publishing schedule. This drove the price the author receives down, where price is the net of advances, royalties paid, and contract concessions made.

This huge supply is an incredibly importrant factor that is routinely ignored in the analysis and comment we read. It is not going away.

Karen Engelsen

What the extended trad v. indie conversation reminds me of is feminist consciousness raising in the 60’s & 70’s. Small groups of people finally talking to each other, telling truths, naming and claiming their experiences. Taking control of their own narrative.

This churn of discussion, revelation of economic truths and abuses by NY ‘authority’ is a necessary first step. IMHO, the second step is not a union, but *more* sharing of data, *more* education of the Young Newbie, *more* work by movement leaders to facilitate understanding that Another Way Is Possible.

Grow the Base.

At some point, this thing will ignite on its own, and shape something you can’t imagine. Unions are just another top down solution, and ultimately any such will fail to produce the desired result.

Hugh, Konrath & PG have provided us the grounds the discussion takes place on. May the ferment continue!

The question was about pulling books, the answer was that Amazon did it. Yes, I do understand why they did it, and as I’ve said before I don’t understand why we don’t let the publishers have agency pricing on ebooks. Wouldn’t you like that, Joe? Let the publishers increase their prices and push readers to indies? Karl Marx liked free trade for one reason: it would put more pressure on the working class, and he believed it would lead to quicker revolution.

Ebooks aren’t a zero sum game. Readers tend to read more than a single author, and the more money they have to spend on ebooks, the better off it is for everyone. Higher prices limit spending. Plus, it isn’t my goal to outsell Hachette writers. It’s my goal for Hachette writers, and all writers, to have a chance at making a living.

I’m not a betting man, but this is what I’m talking about. You seem to think Amazon can do no wrong in these negotiations, that anything bad is coming from Hachette. I don’t deny Hachette’s definitely no saint and they have a role in all this craziness, but I highly doubt Amazon is a victim.

I don’t want to be cagey, but the truth will come out.

I do realize this, but again I bring us back to part of my argument on allowing agency pricing. Just because it’s done with print, doesn’t mean it should automatically be the standard for ebooks. With print there are shipping and warehousing costs to consider, which Amazon has to absorb, that’s not the case with ebooks. It’s less of a burden on Amazon to sell a digital product than a physical product, that’s why I don’t see why it should automatically have to be the same.

It was the standard for ebooks, as dictated by publishers. Then Amazon began to discount. Publishers loved it when Amazon discounted paper books. They hated it when they began to discount ebooks, because they wanted to preserve their paper cartel. What other business purposely denies consumers what they ask for? (search my blog for the $9.99 ebook boycott).

There’s nothign wrong with the agency model, if both parties agree to it. Amazon doesn’t want it, because it limits their ability to discount. That’s their choice.

I’m not a supporter of big publishing’s stranglehold on publishing. I will definitely admit Amazon’s allowing competition on their platform, but you have to admit they’re not big fans of competition with other platforms, hence their insistence that a book can’t be sold at a cheaper price than their own, and only allowing their proprietary file format to be used on the Kindle. If I want to buy books from elsewhere, it’s gonna be a pain to read them on a Kindle.

I agree with this. Guess what I complain to Amazon about via emails and when I speak to Zon execs? Prorpietary format, and exclusivity of KDP Select, are two things I’ve been bringing up for years.

But here’s a secret: there was no KDP Select and the benefits it has (free ebooks, countdown sales, and soon advertising) before authors like me asked Amazon, repeatedly, for them.

Amazon listens. I’ve lost count of the suggestions of mine they’ve implemented. There have been so many, it’s an in joke with me and my peers.

So far they haven’t budged on those two.

I’m not completely convinced that this will happen, but it’s definitely a possibility we shouldn’t be blind to. They raised their cut on ACX, certain new markets are 35% across the board unless the author is enrolled in Select, etc. Before they do try to go after indies though, and if they do, they’ll go after other suppliers first: publishers, movie studios, etc., which is why I believe we’re seeing issues with Hachette, Bonnier, Warner, and I’m sure more will come.

I don’t deny the fact that Amazon might someday cut author royalties, but I see no reason to worry about it now. People have been literally saying the same thing for four years.

That said, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. If Amazon becomes the enemy, I have contingencies. Two of them should be in full swing this year.

Don’t take me the wrong way. I know you and Hugh stand up for readers and writers, I just feel you’re trying too hard to link the the best outcome for them to Amazon. Hachette’s not the solution either, but I think we should be trying to stay independent of any big players.

Historically, working with big players is how any author was able to make big money. Right now, Amazon is immeasurably preferable to Hachette. Writers need to know this, because some still don’t. And, if things change, so will my advice.

Also, I have to ask for clarification: Have I been fisked?

I fisk those who make silly statements in forums they own or control (like their own blogs or websites) or in the media. Polite discourse in the comments of someone else’s blog isn’t fisking, it’s polite discourse.

If you’d like to be fisked, say something really stupid and harmful on your blog that gets a lot of attention. But I didn’t find anything you said here to be stupid or harmful. :)

I agree – as long as Amazon innovates and cherishes the relationship with its authors, there’s nothing to fear. Right now, Amazon is the best choice for authors, because of how they treat authors. They’re the closest thing to a free-market environment where everyone gets a shot and the market decides who wins and who doesn’t, not some elitist, gatekeeping entity.

The whole “Amazon is a monopoly” is also overrated.

I remember fondly Microsoft getting sued by the European Government over a decade ago for “market monopolization” because they owned over 90% of the desktop market.
Now, a decade later and a mobile-focused world, the’ve slipped to an abysmal 3% smartphone marketshare. Every mighty giant will fall if it oversleep trends and acts poorly.
As soon as Amazon makes continuous bad decisions, the competitors will jump-attack.

Well Joe, I have to say, we’re definitely not in complete agreement, but I think this has been a great discussion. I’ve learned a lot about your point of view, and while I’m still not in Amazon’s camp, I see some of your points and I’ve gained a good deal of respect for you. Thanks for the chat!

We need contrary points of view like yours, Paris. Especially when they are articulately and logically presented. Keep questioning everything.

I noticed you were interested in my start-ups.

http://www.ebooksareforver.com is already in beta. http://www.bookloco.com should start beta late summer/early fall.

My apologies if this has already been mentioned here or elsewhere. It occurred to me that I should take the advice of Preston et. al. and write a letter to Jeff Bezos. Of course, I titled it “Thank you” and thanked him for being a counterweight against the “Big 5” oligopoly. It might not be a bad idea for Bezos to get some positive email to go with the negative he’s getting.

What you say about the 1% being threatened by seeing what made them rich begin to decrease is so true. I struggle to understand how anyone, when they know the facts, can agree with the many mistakes and lack of love that the big publishers have show towards authors for centuries. The worst of it is when us authors start fighting against one another. Can’t stand that. I was pulled into a mini Twitter war with a trad-pubbed over the weekend. Very upsetting. Many of them really do believe that self-pubbed authors are just bitter because, as this author on Twitter put it, ‘our babies were too ugly to be signed up a trad-publisher.’ It really showed me that so many trad-pubbed authors get their self-esteem and self-validation from having a publisher sign them. Either way, in-fighting between authors is not the way forward.

With regards to what you said about the 1% having power, I don’t think that they have power, but influence. Often we confuse the two. I believe that real power is love. Influence is something else entirely.

BTW – The letter you guys wrote on change.org. was lovely. Well done.

Real power is market share. Follow the money.

Market share for independents is increasing.

Market share for Amazon is increasing.

Market share for publishers is decreasing.

Nope, real power can’t be taken from you. Trad publishers thought they had power, and look what’s happening to them, their market share is dwindling. This clearly shows that real power is not in market share or money, It’s in love. Amazon has shown custormers and authros more love, and that’s why their market share is growing. People follow love. That’s why love is the real power.

Hugh,

I want to tell you a cautionary tale about unions. I don’t want to tell it. It’s a true story, and I wish it wasn’t.

I was a public librarian for several years. Fresh out of library school, I got a position at what I thought was a fairly forward-thinking, progressive library. They had e-books, they had e-magazines, and I was hired to coordinate and discover new electronic resources. I thought I was on the cutting edge. As a budding writer myself, I wanted to be a voice for self-published authors in the library, a proponent of new ways of enjoying the written word.

But every time I tried to suggest something new, I found my way blocked by a superior who was afraid of technology, afraid of anything new. Those new things included J.A. Konrath’s indie e-book program for libraries, an idea which was dismissed out of hand pretty much as soon as the suggestion came out of my mouth.

But he didn’t stop at putting his foot down whenever I suggested something. After deciding I was a threat to his comfortably position because I wanted to introduce technologies that he couldn’t use – and refused to learn how – he began to sabotage my professional reputation. He started to bully me, and began to insinuate to my co-workers that I wasn’t qualified to do my job.

It took me years to gather the courage to speak to his superiors. Imagine my shock when I discovered that they believed me. In fact, they weren’t even surprised! He had done this before, to others. But he was a member of the union, one with influence. And because of the power the union had to protect his members, he couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t even be reprimanded.

The head of the library sympathized with me. “I was bullied too,” she said. “But don’t worry. It will build your character and someday you’ll be in power.”

What she meant was, “Someday, you too can bully someone.”

I decided that I didn’t need any more character building, and quit a month later.

I’ve never told this story except to close friends and family. I was told that if I ever spoke out publicly, I would likely be blacklisted from the profession. More than that, though, I would likely torpedo any chance I had to get my own planned self-published novels onto library shelves.

I think indie authors should look out for each other. I think we should stick up for each other. But when you unionize, you run the serious risk that the people at the top, the ones meant to represent you, will represent their own self-interest more than that of any larger group. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

While I don’t doubt that Hugh, or Joe Konrath, or Passive Guy, or any of the other passionate bloggers who speak up for the indies would be great union leaders – specifically because they don’t want to be in charge – you have to ask what happens when they’re done? Who will lead indie authors then? And what will their motives be?

I, for one, am truly sorry this happened to you. And I agree–the type of people who seek power tend to use it for their own good once they have it. That has oftem been the problem with labor unions in the US, despite the true good they have done.

However, a union of writers should, by the nature of its membership, be at a remove from that. People at the top of the heap could certainly work only for their own interests, but because no one in the ranks is dependent on them for their jobs, there is nothing to prevent people from speaking out. And, as writers, speaking out eloquently.

Fight Apple as the article’s second paragraph suggest? Why would any sane person do that? Apple pays 70% of retail for any ebook priced between $0.99 and $199.99. It charges no download fees. If has created hardware and software not only for readers (iBooks) but for independent authors (iBooks Author). And unlike Amazon, it’s strongly supporting industry standards and Adobe’s efforts to make the ePub features of InDesign work well. They’re one of the good guys.

Contrast that to Amazon, which pays only 35% royalties outside the narrow price range of $2.99 to $9.99 and accesses a download fee inside that range that’s the equivalent of a $400 hamburger. Rather than industry-standard ePub, it uses its own proprietary ebook format. It offers only crude, geeky tools to process ebooks into that format and hasn’t updated its InDesign plug-in in some two years. In recent remarks to German officials, Amazon made clear that it thinks that author/publisher royalties should be in the 50-60%. I suspect it really intends to lower them to around 35-40%. If Amazon wins the ebook wars, rest assured you will go hungry.

And all that points out why writers should be leery of forming a union. As anyone who’s visited Detroit knows, unions end up dominated by stupid, bitter, incompetent people Equating Apple’s excellent treatment of authors with Amazon’s shoddy treatment is precisely the sort of thing union ideologues fall for. It’s all “Down the giant corporation” and other stupidities. I rather have no representation than representation that foolish.

I think authors need only three things to be successful.

1. Contrary to the thugs at the DOJ, they set the retail price (like software developers do), and retailers must pay them 70% of that price for each sale now and moving over the next few years to 80%. (Web-based businesses are getting very cheap to manage.) That’s over twice what I suspect Amazon wants to pay.

2. No ‘most favored nation’ clauses in contracts. This’ll let authors, eliminate the middleman, and sell their ebooks more cheaply on their own websites. That’ll take away the leverage of Amazon yanking “Buy” buttons. If Amazon pushes authors around, ebooks become cheaper on the iBookstores and B&N. Payback.

3. Mandated reporting to the author/publisher of each ebook sale, giving every sales detail except the customer name and street address. This’ll give authors useful marketing data and, more important, prevent retailers from selling 1,000 copies but paying for only 500. All an author would need to do to trap them is set up a few purchases through third parties. If they don’t come through in the reporting, they’re being cheated and can activate a mandatory audit.

Oh, and to illustrate my point about union stupidity, there’s this remark in the article:
——
Groups like the aforementioned SFWA have minimum requirements for membership. I think there should be maximum requirements for representation. That is, once your earnings hit a certain level, your rights are no longer the focus of the group. Those rights might align at times with the focus of the group, but it won’t be an active concern.
——
Stupid isn’t it? That highly successful SciFi writer doesn’t have special privileges, after all, his vote is only one among many. And more important, he’s likely to bring better than average talent and media influence to the group. Only a really stupid organization–i.e. a typical union–would resist that. Like I said, unions really do end up being for losers.

Besides, doesn’t every writer want to be a success? Why should they be hostile toward doing things that’d benefit the future them? It makes no sense. I don’t compete with J. K. Rowlings. None of my books are like hers.

Ah, but that brings you to the real heart of unionism. It almost invariably gets dominated by losers who want union rules, union contracts and the like to favor losers. I don’t know how they’ll manage to impose that on authoring, but they’ll certainly try.

I might add that years ago I worked on the nursing staff of a major hospital. Draw a circle that included all the nurses active in the state nurses union. Draw another that took in all the lazy and incompetent nurses. The two circles would overlap almost perfectly. That’s the typical union. It’s why public schools find it so hard to fire incompetent teachers.

That, I suspect, is what this union for writes would end up. Avoid it like the plague. Go for those three items I mentioned above.

And yes, I do believe that those who mostly write for others under contract can benefit from a union. Unions aren’t all bad, just inclined to move in a bad direction. If you write under contract, you are likely to be treated badly from time to time. I know I was when I did that for a living. In that case, you might want to look into the National Writers Union:

https://www.nwu.org

If you doing a lot of for-hire writing, you may find them helpful. But avoid like a plague those who would divide the writing world into an alleged 1% and 99%. Therein lies bigotry.

I floated this union/guild idea a month ago or so on Joe Konrath’s blog, and it’s important to realize that while we can use the word “union” as shorthand for an author’s industry group with some kind of clout, technically speaking it can’t be an actual union because authors are not employees. Which in its way is a good thing. Many of the objections above come from bad experiences with actual unions, and while I’d say that those bad experiences don’t have to be the case everywhere (and they are not), they do represent a liability to employee unions. But those same objections would not apply to an author consortium of some kind.

Authors are independent business owners who have their own employees – often just themselves. They sell a product, either directly through a retailer like Amazon, Apple, Kobo, or B&N, or by selling the rights to their books to a publisher, who then in turn sells books to distributors and retailers. The author is not an employee of either of these, they are a supplier.

That means that what authors need to protect themselves is something akin to a legal consortium that can negotiate on their behalf. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what kind of legal entity that would end up being. Maybe Passive Guy can help with that. And I don’t know what kind of laws and regulations would apply.

The way I loosely see it, is that what authors need is to sign on with some kind of legal entity, let’s just call it a consortium, that gives that consortium temporary power to negotiate on behalf of all its members. For example, if Amazon tries to drop royalties from 70% to 50% on self-published books, the consortium would tell Amazon that their members will not sell books through Amazon unless they are given a better deal. The same could hold with other issues in which we disagree with Amazon’s terms. And of course, the same consortium would negotiate deals with other distributors and retailers. It could even negotiate a deal with printers and distributors for paper distribution through bookstores.

The downside of this is that to benefit, you’d have to let the consortium negotiate terms for you, and you’d have to be willing to stick with them even if it means turning down unfavorable deals, and at least temporarily suffering loss of sales from some outlets. The upside is that those demands would have to be approved by a majority vote of the consortium members. Or maybe even a super-majority, depending on how it gets organized. And members could drop their membership whenever they like, but they wouldn’t be able to return to the consortium for at least one year if they did so.

These are just seat-of-my-pants scenarios and suggestions, but I think they are relatively realistic. For now they may not seem necessary, but in the future, they well might be, if Amazon does try to put the squeeze on self-published authors. I love what Amazon has done, but I don’t have complete faith in them either. In business, it’s a terrible idea to have complete faith in anyone you don’t have a long term contract with. And even then. So while I think Amazon deserves a lot of praise and even some faith, sound business practices should always include a Plan B. If Amazon was smart, they won’t do anything to necessitate that Plan B, but it should be there in any case.

Hey Hugh, we the readers don’t go looking for Hachette books or Random House books. We always look for books by our favorite authors, books recommended by friends, books that we like. There’s no cause for alarm. Because it’s the readers decide what to read no matter how hard you market a book. You know very well that those idiots running the big 5 have no clue, no idea what readers would like to read. And idiots can only hold the power for so long before it slips from between their fingers (always remember Professor Umbridge – Order of the Phoenix). And those big 5 don’t like to take risks. They lack the spirit of entrepreneurship. The future belongs to entrepreneurs and that’s exactly what indie publishing is all about. They’re the ones who are trying new stuff, new models of publishing, new stories. So I guess there’s every reason to be optimistic. Trade union or no trade union. Cheers!

It’s worth noting that not all writers (and SFWA members present and former) are either best-selling writers or wannabes hoping to make the jump. Some of us are the remains of the midlist the used to be the mainstay of SF/F. When I made my first pro sale (to Ace, in 1972), traditional publishing was more or less all that existed. The only other choice was to emulate Anais Nin and buy a printing press. If I were breaking in nowadays, I’d start as an indie, and maybe stay that way. After 40 years with various publishing houses (Ace, Doubleday, Bantam, Warner, and Avon), and publishing my stories in tradition magazines like Asimov’s. I’m making the shift to indie for no better reason than that at age 63, I will be able to write what I always wanted to write, not subject to publisher veto. Since I put my backlist up on KDP, I’ve been reading indie authors that appear in my “also bought” list, and have found that many indie authors are as good as the best of the traditionally published.

I don’t know that we need a “union,” per se, but we do need something that represents the interests of writers as a whole in the publishing environment as a whole. An organization that can not only rein in the excesses of traditional publishers, but new venues as well, however gigantic and powerful they may be.

Hugh, there’s no “u” in Val McDermid’s name. FYI. Also, SFWA isn’t a union.

That line is a little fuzzy when you look closely.

“SFWA is a professional organization for authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres. Esteemed past and present members include Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe and Andre Norton.

SFWA informs, supports, promotes, defends and advocates for its members.”

I’ve gone back to riding the fence on this one more than once. There are just so many hurdles, traps and gauntlets left in place by an industry that is as old as the first printed bible or dictionary. Seriously, if anyone is looking for a conspiracy theory, here you go. Printers and all the middle men that get in between them and writers, have been around for a long time.

And yes, I am a fan of all that the new distribution model does for creatives. I think Amazon has led this vanguard in technologies assault on old media. I am thankful that there are people willing and able to create these sorts of enablers for common Joes like myself.

SFWA can STFU if I had my way. That organization rarely represents writers and creatives and more often acts as a funnel pushing creatives toward old media.

http://feetforbrains.com/2014/06/28/missing-the-boat/

Even their recent call for opinions about independents stunk of their supposed superiority. SFWA is not an arbiter of taste, not according to its charter nor according to its own mission statement, yet it acts that way.

Hugh,

I hope you actually read this, but I would understand someone ignoring such an old post getting one more late comment.

I fully endorse the idea of a trade union or guild for self-published authors. My one concern is that any union for modern self-publishers might, either intentionally or unintentionally, exclude or ignore the needs of erotica writers. I firmly believe that any union worth joining would be one dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable of its members. In the case of self-published authors and their dealings with major retailers such as Amazon, I see erotica writers as being that most vulnerable segment.

As I write this, Amazon seems to be in the process of a third annual crackdown on self-published and small-press erotica. Individual authors and even whole companies are losing large swaths of their catalogs, and in some cases their KDP accounts are being banned permanently. These are authors and companies that have built their entire lives around the incomes they’ve made from these books. Many of them, like yourself, left good jobs and whole careers to pursue writing full-time.

These crackdowns–also known as “pornapocalypse”–are blatantly unfair. While professional erotica authors exercise great diligence in conforming to Amazon’s stated and implied policies regarding book cover images, descriptions, and titles, a quick search for common erotica keywords in the “Movies & TV” section will quickly yield pages of pornographic movies with cover images featuring erect penises, nude women, et cetera, that would get a self-publisher banned with little or no warning. These videos appear in the general product search. There is no apparent attempt to conceal these products to appease certain sensibilities or keep them out of sight of children. Conversely, erotica writers often find their books tagged as “Adult,” which means they’re removed from the general product search and can only be found through roundabout means or by searching for them very specifically. This tagging–also known as the “Adult Dungeon”–invariably kills sales. I and many others have had books tagged as “Adult” which had cover images, titles, and descriptions that would be perfectly acceptable in any other genre, but being categorized as erotica, they were ghettoized.

The standards to which erotica authors are held are not only more strict than those of just about any other wholesaler or content provider, they are also vague to the point of being farcical (although, no one is laughing). Among the Content Guidelines set out for KDP self-publishers is a short clause so vague it leaves Amazon with unlimited latitude for censorship and leaves erotica authors and publishers navigating a minefield of ever shifting and totally subjective restrictions. That clause reads as follows:

“Offensive Content
What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”

If Amazon wants to ban “offensive content” from KDP, I have no problem with that; I doubt any other erotica author would, either. The problem is the lack of definition. Every year for the last three, Amazon has cleaned house of any and all erotica that they deem offensive. For the rest of the year, however, erotica authors publish what they will while trying in vain to read the minds of dozens or hundreds of censors. Sometimes, certain things are allowed, and sometimes, they’re not. Erotica authors will often get their books denied by one KDP censor only to have it accepted by another. If a book is reverted to draft mode because it’s deemed offensive for being “about what you would expect,” there is rarely any indication given to the author as to what the offense is. In these situations, we are left to wonder if the cover image shows a bit too much thigh or if the book’s description or title contain a word some anonymous censor didn’t like.

The bottom line is that written erotica is profitable. There are many professional, self-published writers making a living off of it. That fact alone proves that readers want what we write, and Amazon is standing in the way of writers reaching readers. If there is going to be a union or guild for self-publishers based on fostering the connection between reader and writer, it must include and steadfastly protect erotica writers just as much as it would any others. It must not allow Amazon to continue toying with us like a cat with an injured mouse.

Sincerely,
A. A. Bailey

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