Note: this is a cranky-pants ranting that I probably shouldn’t post, but here we are.
I promise, I’m not going to be that person who fisks every last thing that a certain group posts. And I’m not going to do a line-by-line on the latest letter to come from Authors United. Nor am I the person who constantly defends Amazon (how could I? I have no idea what the heck is going on in negotiations, so I can’t even pretend to know who I should take to task or what they shouldn’t be doing).
But honestly, this latest letter by Authors United is abysmal. Here are the three sentences that stuck with me throughout the day, and in the worst possible way:
“We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China.”
The amount of cluelessness packed into those statements baffles and horrifies me. In one horrifically fell swoop, the authors of that piece imply that it’s okay for people who create consumer goods to be deeply underpaid. They imply that books, and therefore by extension, authors, are special and better than everyone else around us. And they imply that authors don’t (and shouldn’t) come from China.
Me personally, I understand that I create entertainment. When it comes down to it, I think the single largest threat to my income does not come from the future or ebooks or Amazon–it comes from the possibility of a dwindling middle class, where fewer and fewer people have disposable income to spend on books. So I’m not going to say “Yes, I’m all for cheap consumer goods if it means other people suffer, but not when my livelihood is at stake!” That’s some grade-A bull right there. The best thing for me as an author is the thing that is best for my readers. My economic interests are tied very, very closely with theirs. And so I’m not going to assume that we “all” appreciate the fact that middle class jobs are disappearing in order to fuel my rapacity for the latest and greatest phone. I’m pretty sure we “all” don’t appreciate that.
Second, these words assume that the author is distinct from the person creating those consumer goods. I can pretty much guarantee you that somewhere in America, there is someone working minimum wage who ends every shift too damned tired to create. She has it in her–I know it–to write an amazing book. I want to read it. But being on your feet that many hours a day, constantly dealing with customers, doing the absolute worst that there is to do for minimum wage…that takes it out of you. I think it’s a bigger threat to our literary society that that person isn’t going to have a chance to write. Personally, I wouldn’t dismiss her like that. I wouldn’t act like somehow I’m better than her, and my income should be protected while I’m nonchalant about hers. The only thing that separates me from her is luck. I hope she gets a piece of my luck, because I’m grateful for it every day.
If you think she’s not lonely, that her feelings are less intense, that her struggle to make a living is unworthy and irrelevant…well, I don’t know what to say to you. I have worked crappy jobs. I have worked as an author. There are times it is hard to be an author. But despite those hard times, I never, ever tell myself I would be better off working at any other job in the world. The letter acts like authors don hazmat suits and risk our lives in the trenches. We don’t. We really don’t.
And then we get to outsourcing authors to China? Okay. I understand that the US tends to export entertainment by and large, but it might be useful to remember that the rest of the world exists once in a while. Proportionally, around 20% of the world’s population is from China, so if things were fair and the economy was global there would be 5 times more authors from China than from the US. (There would be as many authors from India as from China, too.) I can’t really understand why it would be bad if someone in China wrote a good book and readers here got to read it. That sounds awesome to me, and I don’t understand how more good books could possibly pose a threat to literature.
Oh, wait. That’s not what you meant to imply, was it? You weren’t trying to say that the Chinese could write good books. What exactly was it you were trying to say about Chinese people? They only produce cheap, shoddy knock-offs? They can copy Western literature, but they have no creativity of their own?
Yeah. I think that’s what you were saying.
My books are consumer goods. I believe this because they behave like consumer goods. When they have better packaging, they sell better. When there is increased word of mouth, they sell better. Sales are elastic with price. I don’t think it cheapens me or devalues my books to admit to basic reality: Books are consumer goods. I can complain about it, and say they shouldn’t be consumer goods, but we are not living in that reality. It would behoove us to stop pretending otherwise.
My livelihood as an author is best protected when the companies that distribute and sell my books understand that my books are in fact products, and try to maximize the amount of money made on those products. I do not feel devalued in the slightest by having someone understand economics and use that understanding to try and maximize my income. Nope; I am delighted that my current publisher takes the side of crass commercialism in the sale of my books, and I suspect that the Authors United folks who have a publisher doing the same feel the same way.
Nor do I think it devalues me or my work to say that my books are consumer goods. They are lots of other things, too: entertainment, insight, a way for a person in a hard place to get through an impossible day. Consumer goods can enrich and educate our lives, and they often do. But they are also still consumer goods. (My current publisher, despite being a hard-headed crass commercialist, also feels about my books much the same way I do. She does not insist I write the trendiest thing. She knows I am an artiste as well as a business woman, and sighs and accommodates me anyway.) (Heh.)
If I were to write a letter to the board of directors of a publicly-held U.S. company, I wouldn’t do something as stupid as telling them to avoid thinking about economic reality. I would hope that among the 900-something signatories, at least one person would have a basic understanding of corporate law–enough to know that the board of directors of Amazon owes the company and shareholders a fiduciary duty to maximize profit. They emphatically are not supposed to indulge in their own views about the feelings of art, nor are they supposed to see themselves as upholding a culture of elitism with a side-serving of thinly-veiled racism. They owe a fiduciary duty to the company. That means they are obligated to think about the economic reality first and second and third and all the way up through the last. You may not like that about corporate America, but it is what we have.
So why don’t we pretend this letter never existed? Quietly delete it. And then go and write a letter about good business practices and the fiduciary duty that the directors owe to the company. That, I suspect, will get read.
You’re authors. I’m sure you can think of something to say.