One of the kerfuffles that has rolled around lately has to do with a post that Barry Eisler did on J.A. Konrath’s blog, where Barry referenced Michael Stackpole’s consistent rhetoric that writers for NY publishing are like “house slaves” and pointed to another consistent theme in much of the indie-publishing meme which is that those who write for NY publishers are suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
I want to note that Barry was clear enough that these were analogies–he wasn’t making an actual psychological diagnosis of Stockholm Syndrome, and was referencing other people’s rhetoric. He also apologized for the analogy later on, and admitted it wasn’t helpful, and I appreciate that.
But the language of abuse and slavery and Stockholm Syndrome is rampant among self-publishing proponents. Konrath and Eisler are by no means the worst offenders. It drives me absolutely bonkers. The “abuse” I had to put up with from my publisher was two six-figure deals and inclusion in an anthology with a New York Times bestseller. Weep for me.
I haven’t given up self-pubbing at this point, and I won’t. But I do think that traditional New York publishing has value. I believe in diversification, and I wouldn’t have a problem signing a New York contract for a limited number of books under a limited set of circumstances. After all, book sales multiply with the number of books out. Having more books out–and having paper copies of books on more shelves–would grow my audience so that even if I make less on those books, I could actually make more money in total. So I am perfectly open to the possibility of a NY contract as a method of diversifying myself. That’s a business decision. You might disagree with my reasoning, but I’m surely not oppressed.
I have friends who have worked with utterly magical editors, who would sell books to those editors any chance they get. It’s a business decision to get a smaller percentage for the chance to work with someone who will help you produce books at the height of your capacity. I have friends who do not have the time, inclination, or patience to self-publish–and self-publishing requires a very distinct skillset. It’s a business decision on their part to focus on writing.
I recognize that a critique of tone isn’t always valuable. But I think what this incident demonstrates is that egregious tone can lead to substantive problems and a lack of discussion on the salient issues altogether. Excessive rhetoric strips away nuance. It’s very hard to say, “Publishing is like slavery! But, you know, to each their own individualized circumstances! Sometimes, for some people, maybe it’s a decent business decision. Just not for me, you know, and maybe not for lots of other people.”
The result of the tone issue was that people got pissed off and screamed and yelled about rhetoric. Some people said, “YES! GO! SLAY THE INFIDELS!” and some responded by arguing the analogy instead of talking about Amazon and the future of the publishing industry. Some really interesting and important points that Barry made in that post have basically been ignored because of the rhetoric employed on a side-issue.
There are times when there is no nuance to be had, and so I’m fine with shrill tones under those circumstances. Actual slavery should be opposed. Genocide, ditto. Egregious violations of human rights? Very, very bad. But a decision about how to get your book in the hands of readers? That does not rise to the level of “crimes against humanity.” And using that rhetoric to discuss it means that instead of having a discussion about substance, you end up with accusations flying. And that’s a shame.
One final point: in Eisler’s piece, the question of whether authors are abused (if only by analogy) is ancillary to the point of what we think of Amazon’s power. But Barry claims that NY publishing’s cartel would be equivalent to an Amazon monopoly. There are, of course, a few salient differences between an Amazon monopoly and the NY publishing “cartel” (which I put in quotes since I have no direct evidence that it’s a cartel).
- Economically speaking, cartels are preferable to a monopoly because there is economic pressure to defect from a cartel. There is no way to defect from a monopoly.
- Economically speaking, what Amazon is doing right now is seeking not only horizontal domination over book selling but vertical integration, whereas traditional publishing is only concerned with horizontal domination, at least insofar as it touches the book supply chain. (I’m aware that most publishing houses are part of a vertical integration of media corporations generally–and that in fact does have real consequences, and ones I’m not happy with. But they are not as of yet integrated with retail sales.) Vertical integration raises a different set of economic risks.
These are interesting questions, and I’m sorry they haven’t been explored.
As a personal matter, I like Amazon–how could I not?–but I’m very aware that the reason that Amazon gave authors 70% was not because they were feeling generous, but because Apple entered the market at 70% and Amazon felt pressure to match them.
I’m wary of any large concentration of power. And I’m exceedingly wary of a large concentration of power that doesn’t have a large concentration of power elsewhere to match it. At this point, I think that Amazon is providing healthy competition. But I also believe that the competition would stop being healthy if we stopped pitting Amazon’s near-monopoly market power in the e-book market against the NY publishers.
And that’s the nuance that’s getting stripped from this conversation by the tone: We can’t talk rationally about relative concentrations of power and the future of the market if we persist in labeling one side as an abuser and the other a rescuer. It’s not an abuser-rescuer dynamic.
So there. Those are my two cents. I respect both Konrath and Eisler immensely (which is not something I will say for all the indie prophets out there)–they’re both clever and thoughtful and successful. I’ve talked to Barry several times in the past, and I really value his insight and intelligence. But I don’t think that the rhetoric employed is actually aiding discussion–which is a darned shame, because I think they have a lot to add to a rational discussion. I wish that they were using rhetoric that would facilitate that discussion instead of hindering it.