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.