Sunday, July 06, 2014

Fisking Hugh Howey

Didn't expect that blog title, did you?

Today, Hugh did what he does on a regular basis; he wrote a well-reasoned piece explaining an important issue, providing ample examples and an easy-to-follow chain of logic, to support a largely unrepresented group or writers.

His topic was Do Writers Need A Union? It's a topic I've given a lot of thought to over the years. Not only since I became involved in self-publishing in 2009, but since I signed my first contract in 2002.

In 2005 I started this blog. I wasn't the first writer to do so. But I was new in this biz and I'd already spent a lot of hours trying to figure out how this industry worked. Which is why I wanted my blog to be about publishing, and the newbie writer's place in it.

In those early years I was hopeful, almost to the point of naivety, and determined to succeed and share with other writers tips they could use to further their own careers, whether it was giving pointers on how to find an agent and a publisher (back when they were the only game in town) or how to self-promote.

Two things happened that overlapped. First, I became increasingly disenchanted with the publishing industry. It chewed up the vast majority of writers and spat them out. To say I busted my ass trying to promote my books is like saying Ahab had a slight preoccupation with a certain white cetacean. I worked harder than perhaps any author in the recent history of this biz to self-promote. And for my efforts I was dropped by one publisher, mistreated by another, and watched the small income I had--along with a fanbase that was strong enough to help me earn out all of my advances and force my titles into multiple printings--begin to whither.

Around that time, when I was making up pen names to put food on the table, Amazon invented the Kindle.

I'd had free ebook pdfs on my website for years, and while they'd gotten downloaded and read, no one before Amazon had been able to truly monetize this new way of looking at books. Who could have guessed what it would become? I knew ebooks would be a thing before the first Kindle came out, but I didn't think it would be the thing that saved my career, and the careers of thousands of authors.

So I began to talk about ebooks. I shared my numbers, sales data, and experiences. (at this point I'm going to stop linking to old blog posts--just start in June 2009 and read until now to see how big ebooks have gotten, and how legacy publishers' behavior has gotten worse even as some misguided authors continue to support them).

Which brings us to the present. J.A. Konrath, staunch supporter of legacy publishing and self-promotion, has become Joe Konrath, loud-mouthed cheerleader for indie authors, despised by many of the peers he used to break bread with at conferences.

There has always been a writer schism in publishing. Publishers have always been unconscionable, but writers fell into axiomatic pecking orders. Bestsellers were deities. Hardcover authors had more status than paperback authors. If you had foreign deals, you were the subject of envy. Newbies were dismissed as not worthy, and self-publishing authors--well, they went to vanity presses because their writing was so bad they'd never be able to get an agent, let alone a deal.

How quaint it was that while being subjugated and marginalized by agents and publishers, we also chose to subjugate and marginalize each other.

Then, with the Kindle, I took it upon myself to evangelize this alternative to the status quo. I was looked upon as an outlier, until hundreds, and then thousands, and then tens of thousands, of authors began self-publishing just like I was. Some we able to pay bills for the first time. Some were able to quit their day jobs. Some make more money than I do.

This is a boon. A gift. A better choice. And I've been blowing my little horn for five years to inform writers that there is a robust, preferable alternative to what had been drilled into our heads by a previous generation: The only way to get published is to find an agent to submit it to a Big NY House.

Many of that previous generation fear the future. The past was good to them, and they want to cling to it. This includes publishers, agents, and writers.

I can't fault them for wanting the status quo to persevere. Had I been luckier, with a bigger push from my legacy publishers, I might still be among their ranks.

Instead, I find myself taking them to task, and it has become a full time job. Because it grates at my very core that some entitled minority of haves seem intent on eliminating opportunities for the have nots.

But let's get to fisking. Here's what Hugh Howey has to say, along with my point-by-point commentary.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: Most old-school writing organizations are still mired in the old class system. The Authors Guild is a joke. MWA, SFWA, HWA--they thrive on being separatists, distancing themselves from self-pubbed authors because they weren't annotated by the Holy Appointed Order of Legacy Publishers.

These organizations have made themselves outdated and obsolete. 

Strangely, the RWA is an exception. They allow indies. Maybe because the years of exploitation by Harlequin makes them appreciate the value of self-publishing more than other genre writers.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: Legacy Publishers supported an entire food chain, and everyone wanted to be a part of it. With so many parties desperate to be part of system, the system can make any demands it wants. They were an oligopoly that controlled the market. So we've accepted being mistreated as par for the course. We signed the unconscionable, one-sided contracts. We crossed our fingers and pleaded with the universe that we might some day become one of the Annointed Bestsellers.

And we let publishers get away with murder.

Of course there were no labor disputes. Any dispute could lead to banishment. Or course there were no trade organizations. Legacy Publishing had the power to blacklist anyone who didn't tow the company line.

We have never had anyone to fight for our rights, because according to publishers we had no rights. They took them the moment we signed on the dotted line.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: Passive Guy can only represent you if you hire him. If you are in a dispute with your publisher over anything at all, perhaps you should. (But I am not a lawyer, and in no way offer legal advice on this blog.)

Hugh: 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.

Joe: Calling this a tipping point is optimistic--something Hugh is known for.

I don't believe we're at a tipping point yet, because I don't think anyone actually believes there are any issues to debate.

The entitled still control the lion's share of the publishing industry, and they still feel entitled. Most of them don't believe the shadow industry of self-publishing is much of a threat.

The media are so wedded to "Amazon is Bad" that the coverage indies get amount to fluff pieces, not coverage of the revolution. AuthorEarnings.com should have been a Time Magazine cover story. A billion dollar shadow industry that doesn't need Big NY Publishing. Instead, indies are treated as a curious, quaint fringe that no one knows about because no one cares to learn.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: This particular Hachette/Amazon protest will pass without many remembering it. Maybe Amazon will hold out and retain control over book pricing on its site. Maybe Hachette will gain the upper hand and shoot themselves, their readers, and their authors in the foot by trying to keep prices high.

Ultimately, all but the richest authors will make their way over to the indie side. That will result in bookstores closing and the end of the midlist. It will result in more publishing mergers, then layoffs and bankruptcies. The system will implode, and a lot of people will be left scratching their heads, wondering what happened, when we've known it all along.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: I'll opine. Here's what we stand for:

When in the Course of publishing events, it becomes necessary for writers to sever their ties with the industry that is supposed to have "nurtured" them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we should declare the causes which impel those writers to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all writers should have an equal chance to find readers. That their successes or failures should be dependent upon their own actions and their own choices. That they should be paid fairly for their work. That they should have control over the works they produce. That they should have immediate and accurate access to their sales data. That they should be paid promptly. That they should not be restricted from reaching those who may enjoy their work. That whenever a publisher or retailer becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of Authors to abolish all connections with the offending parties.

The history of the legacy publishing industry is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over writers. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

They have given us take-it-or-leave-it, one-sided, unconscionable contracts.
They have failed to adequately market works they have acquired.
They have artificially inflated the price of ebooks.
They have refused to negotiate better ebook royalties for authors.
They have forced unnecessary editing changes on authors.
They have forced unnecessary title changes on authors.
They have forced crappy covers on authors.
They have refused to exploit rights they own.
They have refused to return rights they aren't properly exploiting.
They take far too long to bring acquired works to market.
They take far too long to pay writers advances and royalties.
Their royalty statements are opaque, out-of-date, and inaccurate.
They orphan authors.
They orphan books.
They refuse to treat authors as equals, let alone with a reasonable measure of fairness.
They make mistakes and take no responsibility for those mistakes.
For every hope they nurture, they unnecessarily neglect and destroy countless others.
They have made accessories of the authors' ostensible representative organization, the quisling Authors Guild, and are served, too, by the misleadingly named Association of Authors' Representatives.
They have failed to honor promises made.
They have failed to honor their own onerous contract terms.
They've failed the vast majority of authors, period.

This blog has documented nearly every stage of these Oppressions, and in many cases offered solutions to publishers, and has been answered with only silence and derision.

But that's okay. Because now authors have a choice.

We shall never be taken advantage of again. We shall not support any publisher or retailer that continues the abuses listed above. And we demand to share in the rewards we've busted our asses for.

I don't know if that unites all disparate interests, but I think it's a start.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: I said it years ago: the only two groups required in a reader and writer relationship is the reader and the writer. Everyone else is a middleman that needs to prove his value.

Hugh could not be more correct. Those who help readers and writers find each other in the most mutually beneficial way are those who deserve our support. 

Those who don't deserve our derision.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: At this very moment, and for the last several years, the goals of writers and Amazon have been aligned. Even in the midst of this Hachette dispute, Amazon has been staunchly pro-writer.  

I don't suffer fools well, and the world is lucky I'm not Jeff Bezos. If Hachette didn't want to reach a suitable negotiation, I'd stop selling Hachette titles. If authors wrongly demonized me, I'd remove their buy buttons. I certainly wouldn't offer to monetarily compensate a bunch of whiners who bitch about me publicly.

But I am not Mr. Bezos, and that's no doubt a good thing. 

Some may worry about The Day When Amazon Eats Their Faces. And they want to fight that imaginary day by allowing legacy publishers to... well... eat their faces today.

Nonsense logic. You don't worry about the wolf that might eat you someday when there is a lion currently feasting on your leg.

You don't live your life thinking the asteroid may hit and destroy the planet, when there is no evidence the asteroid even exists.

You don't demand control over book pricing and keep those prices high because you're worried some day that Amazon will raise ebook prices.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: I've been a megaphone for years. During those years, I've seen more and more authors try self-publishing, more and more authors leave legacy publishing, more and more authors not even bother submitting to agents or legacy publishing.

I'd like to think that, in my own small way, I contributed to this movement.

I didn't do it out of self-interest. I've gained nothing from the thousands of hours I've blogged about this topic. But I've been thrilled to see others taking up this cause. 

I've called this a revolution before. According to Wikipedia: 

A revolution (from the Latin revolutio, "a turn around") is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.

The balance of power has changed.

"Of course it has!" you may say. "That monopolistic bully called Amazon is now in control!"

If you said that, you'd be wrong.

The power hasn't gone to Amazon.

The power has gone to the writers.

Because we can keep our rights. We can decide how and where to reach readers. We're no longer at the mercy of the Big Five.

That's the story no one is talking about. 

Choice. 

And not just for writers.

In its zeal to demonize Amazon, the media, the publishing industry, and the Stockholm Syndrome authors, all blame a corporation for the changes currently happening.

They should be blaming writers like me for giving the establishment the finger and leaving it behind.

They should also be looking at readers, who are the ones voting with their dollars.

Readers want low prices. Readers want wide selections. Readers want convenience and good customer service. And readers want to be allowed to read what they want to, not something sifted by some multinational conglomerate.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: When the entitled 1% feels the need to tap into the media to spread nonsense in order to influence public opinion, there's fear in the air, motivated by intense self-interest.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: When some populist authors get together who have nothing to gain from this debate other than the desire to help others and make the world a better place, that's a much nobler motivation, IMHO.

Also, we all joined hands and danced in a meadow of dandelions and sang Kumbaya.

Actually, we didn't. Well, maybe Hugh did. But my motive was altruistic, as it has always been.

Urging readers to email Jeff Bezos and tell him Amazon is hurting authors isn't altruistic. It's self-interest, and it's base on falsehoods. I have no doubt these authors are concerned. But they are either ill-informed about the situation, afraid to confront the real problem (their publishers), or evil, greedy monsters who are willfully deceiving the public in order to maintain their place in the pecking order.

In an email, David Gaughran (who just blogged about this topic) made some wonderful points about the Douglas Preston letter, some that Hugh also touched on earlier:

(a) Where was the Open Letter criticising B&N for actually boycotting S&S new releases last year (as opposed to just taking away pre-order facilities)? 

(b) Where was the Open Letter criticising indie booksellers and B&N for refusing to stock Amazon-published books? 

(c) Where was the Open Letter criticising WH Smith (2nd biggest book chain in the UK) for kicking out all self-published titles from their e-bookstore in October last year, and still refusing to stock any titles seven months later? 

(d) Where was the Open Letter criticising Penguin for purchasing the world's biggest vanity press: Author Solutions?

I'll add:

(e) Where was the Open Letter criticizing all major publishers for their lockstep 25% ebook royalty rates?

(f) Where was the Open Letter criticizing five of the six (at the time) major publishers for colluding to raise ebook prices?

(g) Where was the Open Letter criticizing the Agency Model that Amazon was forced to adopt, which resulted in smaller profits for authors?

Now, I don't know why Preston et al haven't written any of these open letters. Maybe, just maybe, they really don't care about readers or the majority of writers. Whereas Gaughran and I have touched on all of these topics, many times, as have other indie bloggers. 

Hugh: 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.

Joe: A shadow industry, previously known only by the companies supporting it (Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Nook, iBooks) and those who bought and sold within it (readers and writers) is finally being revealed to the public as whole.

Preston doesn't speak for us. Hachette doesn't speak for us.

And "us" is pretty damn big.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: I understand your fear, Hugh. It's been an uphill battle from the get-go, and it remains one.

Revolutions aren't easy. Those with power tend to fight to keep it. 

But change is coming. Remember your Schopenhauer.

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

I'd say we're at the violent opposition stage. 

Hugh: 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.

Joe: I second the motion for a union that truly represents writers. And I nominate Hugh Howey as President.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: I was that other writer. But Hugh is right. It is easy to see why Patterson puts ads in papers asking for the government to intervene to save bookstores, and Turow demands we fear Amazon, and Preston and his cronies sign a letter to get readers to support their publisher (and by extension all Big 5 publishers). 

Self-interest is a powerful motivator, and it can also make otherwise smart people extremely myopic.

What's Hugh's motivation? What's mine? 

To protect Amazon?

Amazon doesn't need our help. They're doing fine without our support. And both of us would turn on Amazon if they began treating authors as badly as, say, Hachette does. All the major indie bloggers I know would turn on Amazon if that happened.

To protect our income?

Amazon has helped me make a lot of money. But I've fought with Amazon, publicly and privately (privately more than any but a select few will ever know). 

Nope, I'm motivated by something different than self-interest.

I was kicked around for more than twenty years by the legacy system. And if I can prevent that from happening to any other writer, then the thousands of hours I've spent being a megaphone have been worth it.

Hugh: 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.

Joe: Our letter/petition is on Change.org.


That's a fitting place to host it, as this is what the whole issue is ultimately about. Change.

People need to know that self-publishing has offered the majority an unprecedented opportunity. We writers keep our rights. We control our careers and our fates. The playing field has been leveled. And readers get a wider variety of books at lower prices than ever before. 

Maybe some day, writers will have a union.

Maybe some day, the government will step in, to look at the history of the publishing industry and see how the publishing cartel has harmed so many authors and readers.

Maybe some day, big name authors will stop trying to use the media to take away choice; the first real choice readers and writers have ever had.

Until that day, we have this petition.

Add your name. Add your comments.

Show the media, and the world, the change you want to happen.