Dear Authors United: Stop being gross.

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.

12 thoughts on “Dear Authors United: Stop being gross.

  1. Won’t someone make a lovely t-shirt with “Artiste” printed on the front of it? I need one.

    In the meantime, I agree with you.

  2. I agree with your thoughts Courtney except I don’t think merely deleting the letter is good enough. I’d like to know if all of the “signatories” approved the letter. If they did not, I’d like to hear from them about whether they agree this letter is okay. Because if they do, then I think my money might be going elsewhere regardless of what Amazon and Hachette do. And I’d like to see the person who actually wrote the letter take responsibility for his/her stupidity and apologise unreservedly.

  3. I’m just going to lay it out there:

    I don’t appreciate cheaper shoes. They always, always hurt my feet in the end. But then I’m a cranky-pants too.

    So not only does the AU letter not work for me for exactly the reasons Courtney lays out – the grave insult to traditional concepts of labor and work as less worthy of concern and protection than the sweat of the latte-swilling writer’s brow turned my stomach – but cheap razors often don’t work as well and cheap shoes sometimes hurt, so no, they’re not exchangeable.

    I regret that the AU folks sound so stuck on themselves, because that hurts the worthy arguments that they might have based on the actual situation, and makes it easy to dismiss them as elitists. Most writers are just like most working people – trying hard to juggle their jobs and lives and trying to figure out when this business is break even, when it’s profitable, when to reinvest, when to celebrate, and when to hyperventilate and cross-your-fingers.

    There’s no future in us vs them.

  4. I think the authors were TRYING to make a point about substitutability…but they ended up writing something else. Plus, their arguments around substitutability are weak. I mean, people write books for free all the time, so yes, they can be written cheaply. And while a particular author’s work can’t generally be outsourced if you want the book written by that particular author, it doesn’t mean that Chinese authors can’t write perfectly good books as the letter implies.

    That said, I don’t have a problem with authors advocating for their industry. But as purveyors of words and ideas, they can’t expect to publicise letters steeped in privilege and problematic implications without some backlash.

    Your point about fiduciary duty is interesting. At some point, surely medium/long-term strategy must also be taken into account. I THINK that’s the point the authors were trying to make, but again, they ended up writing something else. Again, I would have expected writers to come up with a clearer and more persuasive way to get their point across.

  5. Boy, they sure lost me at the part about outsourcing to China. Try living in a country, like Canada, where big American corporations (including those who publish American authors) try to muscle out the local (i.e. Canadian) culture. You are fine with that, but when your livelihood is threatened, that is when you worry?

  6. You are a better person than I am. If I were you, I would not have been able to resist mentioning that I’m of Chinese descent and the signatories had just insulted me personally. The ugly racism involved here is unbelievable. So are the names of some of the signatories who should know better.

    BTW, according to a report I heard on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, the letter was written by a Hachette author named Douglas Preston.

    At any rate, there are ways this letter could have been written that would have made sense and wouldn’t be insulting, like by arguing that by unfairly using Hachette’s authors, who have no control over Hachette’s ebook prices, as pawns, Amazon is creating bad PR for itself. (Not a position I’m entirely convinced of personally, but it’s at least defensible on the merits.) But it would probably take someone trained in expository writing designed to persuade (and less worked up about the effect of Amazon’s actions on his career) to do it.

  7. @Kaetrin: Susanna Kearsley posted a link to another version of that letter (in the Dear Author post), which leads me to believe that some of the people who signed it may have been victims of a classic switcheroo.

  8. I think the ‘China’ part meant to speak to the fact that goods are outsourced because they can be manufactured at cheaper rates and can thus be sold at cheaper prices. I don’t think the letter meant to say that products that are made in China are of poor quality or that China can’t produce good writers.

    “Books cannot be written more cheaply” – I think the writer(s) of that letter meant that you can’t improve the technology that creates books, nor can you (usually) expect a good quality finished product without putting in a good amount of time into your craft and the book you’re currently writing.

    Otherwise, I agree that the letter can use an overhaul. It does sound stuck up and entitled.

  9. Thank you so much for saying this. I’m not commenting much on this stuff either, but the classism and racism in this latest letter really bothered me. I agree that they probably meant it in relation to those particular author’s voices (meaning someone “in China” couldn’t write a Douglas Preston novel…which, itself, is somewhat debatable, since ghost writers do that kind of thing all the time, but is at least significantly less offensive than how it was worded)…but yeah, I also agree that pretending this letter wasn’t written might not be enough for me as a reader, either. I can’t bring myself to buy books by people who strike me as reprehensible human beings, and being so dismissive of the horrible working conditions in China and how that’s impacted workers and the middle class in the United States is beyond clueless and goes into “colonialistic asshat” territory for me. Further, I agree with your assessment on the impact of a diminishing middle class on the fortunes of ALL writers. It’s incredibly short-sighted that they don’t see the connections there.

  10. @Kaetrin:

    Frankly, I blacklisted them all when this started, before holidays. Sad, because I was a reader of some 40+ of them. Some years ago, that would have been hard on my reading habits. These days? Indie. As a reader, I’m up to here of being insulted, held as a hostage, dictated and stripped of money, in the name of pure driven snow-flakes.


    Hm… I disagree. That’s the idea behind some political maneuvering here (Spain) apropos local culture. It never questions that a) People are going to the movies/buying books free of compulsion. b) The local publishers/producers are a mess managed by old money, in the business for the show, and would plummet if their protections were lifted. Meanwhile, small producers and publishers can’t access the market, precisely because of those protections.

    The rest…

    Mrs. Milan,

    First, for whatever that’s worth from a guy who mostly avoids Romance (but who’s an AR customer): great covers! Possibly, specially the ones with color matching fonts.

    That said, a couple of tiny details from your post:

    There’s a Spanish duo of brothers who came to prominence in early 2000s. They worked in the equivalent of Detroit, and also at their parents’ snack. Two sentences that endeared them to me: “If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back to the factory.” “They say the music biz. is exhausting. I invite them to work shifts. _This_? This is not exhausting.”

    Also, what if that minimum wage worker _isn’t_ interested in writing? Or oral storytelling? Does that in any way demean her? NO! The creative spark is important, but it does not make a person any ore worthy. And there can be sparks that manifest in weird ways: massage, mechanics, flower arrangements… I do not care. But that “she could be writing if she wasn’t exhausted” has some implications I dislike. Yes, she could be writing. Or flirting. Or doing zazen. Or boxing. And, in fact, _any_ of those can be creative.

    The rest of my feelings on the letter (which no longer mentions China, just the rest of the world; I’m a Spaniard…) are here. Well, that paragraph, mostly. It was already long enough.

    And about your last paragraphs… Good luck.

    Take care.

  11. Nothing excessively erudite or philosophical to say except I’m so glad I read this post. I’ve always loved your books, but you are truly awesome. I don’t say that lightly to people.

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