May 10, 2012

Living in a city run by crime families. Self #publishing in 2012.

Warning: Don't read this. It's far too long and doesn't contain even one single kitten*.

My second job out of college was with a software startup trying to compete with Microsoft. So I know a little about trying to beat an evil empire. (If only we had ewoks, I'm sure we'd have prevailed.) What I don't know is how to live in a city run by crime families.

Today, the internet is gnashing its teeth over Amazon and the Department of Justice. I have read dozens of lengthy articles and hundreds of comments, and I'm no less baffled now than I was when I first started looking into self-publishing Semper almost a year ago.

The history seems to be something like this:

  • Big publishers sold books through regular bookstores.
  • Big evil bookstores started killing regular bookstores.
  • Amazon (the evil empire) started killing big evil bookstores.
  • Kindle became. Ebooks occurred.
  • Amazon priced ebooks very low, killing publishers.
  • Publishers forced Amazon to switch from "wholesale" pricing (where the retailer sets the price) to "agency" pricing (where the publisher sets the price) for ebooks.
  • This made everyone happy except for Amazon, and everyone who is not Amazon.
  • Somehow Apple got involved.
  • Somehow the Department of Justice got involved.
  • Pretty much everyone flipped out and started writing letters.
If you want links to all the relevant material, go visit Writer Beware. They rock.

So about six months ago I started forming some incredibly vague but undeniably strong opinions about the whole publishing industry. All my life I'd dreamed of having a novel published. I started writing when I was 9 years old, and today I still have some stories I wrote before I went through puberty. (Writing fell off a bit after puberty. I got distracted.)

But the more I learned about the publishing industry--the roulette wheel of the slush pile, the unnecessarily grueling editing process, the ittybitty advances, the self-promotion and enormous pressure to earn out within months of publication--it all seemed so pointless at my stage in life. (My stage being two kids, mortgage, highly successful non-writing career.) Way too much pain, labor, and anguish for the reward.

In short, the dream of "getting published" was no longer worth it. I reached this conclusion after I'd penned five complete manuscripts, published several short stories and poems, and worked at a major writers conference for four years. I've put in my 10,000 hours. I know good writing. I make good writing. I do not lack for confidence in my skill, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I've earned that confidence.

About this time, the awful stigmas associated with self publishing began to lessen. A few self-published authors were making bank. Some were getting critical acclaim.

An abbreviated survey of self-publishing options led me to Amazon. Easy. Free. Wide reach. Both print and ebook. Easy. Like, really really easy. Two weeks later I had the ebook for sale at Amazon. Another week and it was available in print with its own ISBN. My dream was realized, sort of. Not in the way I originally envisioned. But people bought my book. People I had never met downloaded it. And liked it.

That was 100 days ago.

Last week I heard about a local independent bookstore planning a YA night. I've been to this bookstore, bought books there, even attended a book launch there. But I'd heard that independent booksellers were unhappy with Amazon, so I inquired and was told that while I was welcome, my book was not. The person was quite friendly about it. But the phrase used was, "Amazon is against everything we stand for."

Which baffles me because I have a YA book. Some people think it's quite good. It's available for that bookseller to sell. They are having a YA night. If they are refusing to offer my book to their patrons, what is it they stand for, exactly?

I respect their right to make their own business decisions, and I won't fight them on it. I will probably even attend the event without my book because it is a great bookstore and my family and I love YA literature that doesn't involve sparkly vampires. But their behavior baffles me.

I've heard it called a turf war. Been told that independent authors are just caught in the middle. It definitely feels that way. Like I'm living in a city under the control of two feuding crime families.

Personally, I hate to have to choose sides. But if I'm being forced to choose as an author, as much as I love independent bookstores, I'll stick with Amazon. In the end, it comes down to what my personal dream looks like. It used to look like this: My name on the spine of a book on a bookshelf in a bookstore. Now it looks like this: Someone I've never met from Puerto Rico posting a five-star review of my book, saying "Semper is excellent for any age. Their characters are perfectly developed and the story as well. I'm asking for more. I really want to have a hard copy of it."

But don't worry, independent booksellers. I don't think that you're against everything I stand for. I will still patronize you as much as I have in the past. Maybe even more. Because I am not taking sides in someone else's turf war. I am simply using the service that gives me the best chance of fulfilling my modest dream. I wish you could play a part in helping fulfill my modest dream as well, but you must do what you feel is right. And if that shuts me out, so be it. Don't cry for me; I'm doing okay.

I just don't understand it.

* Oh, OKAY. Here are some kittens for you.


Stephen Parrish said...

If they are refusing to offer my book to their patrons, what is it they stand for, exactly?


This post should be required reading for book retailers. Consider tooling it for a wider audience. Kittens and all.

McKoala said...

I also struggle to see Amazon as the bad guy, while at the same time understanding how some people can see it that way. Which is kind of weird, but from a personal perspective, what Amazon is doing is working for me - and for you. Maybe that makes me selfish.

Of course, the kittens totally made the story for me.

Robin B. said...

This whole situation has me so frustrated and torn. I love independent bookstores and I love the ease of Amazon. I want brick and mortar bookstores to remain an integral part of the lit landscape, and I see why THEY see Amazon as the enemy - because Amazon is trying to (and often succeeding) mow over the competition in book sales. On the other hand, as an author who is not happy with the present gatekeeping system (to put it mildly), I am happy to have Amazon and other self-pub places avaialable as an option.

But I do think, if we WEREN'T authors ourselves and someone in a bookstore we loved told us a story about how they were barely managing to stay alive, and they saw some type of exclusionary rules essential in their survival plan, I wouldn't disagree. Don't you think Amazon's policies have a lot to do with why their physical products (and thus, the authors who use their site and services) are being treated in this way?

I may end up going that route, too, Peter. If I could figure out how to stand out amid the vast swath of utter crap that is self-pubbed every day, I would JUMP at this option. Obviously, as you mentioned from your review - people are finding your book! But boy, I bet they've had to wade through some crap to get there...

On the other hand, I've waded through crap at bookstores - especially lately, in the States before we moved, when overnight, literally, the dumbed-down sections were hugely enlarged and given center stage.

Hell, I don't know. It's all such a mess!

PJD said...

Thanks, Steve. I may just do that. After I get back from a weekend with the boy scouts. (The first campout of the year always seems the most chaotic.)

PJD said...

McKoala, I'm right there with you. I see a similar sort of strangeness in my position as a corporate citizenship exec at one of the big US national banks. So many people hate big banks, but they use big banks all the time and are basing their thoughts on a series of truths, half-truths, misconceptions, and flat-out lies. I get the feeling it's a little like the Amazon situation. But different. Of course.

Kittens, fortunately, are loved by all. (Except maybe Amazon because I understand they are designing an automobile that is powered not by gasoline but by the screams of tortured kittens.)

PJD said...

I feel your pain, Robin. You and I have disagreed on some of the particulars (I personally think the "wading through a ton of crap" thing is overblown a bit) but generally agree on the big picture. And yes, certainly Amazon's policies have earned them some legitimate detractors. Same with Microsoft back in the day, and Apple and Google today, and (as I mention above in re McK's comment) big banks among many others.

I just think the "we won't carry any books that Amazon produces" mentality is a "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" mentality that won't accomplish what they hope but at the same time creates collateral damage and ill will among some.

Really the only market they're fighting over is the celebrity and best sellar books anyway. I can't believe that the midlist or independent or small press books account for that much revenue. (I read some unverified stat online this week that said 80% of the publishing revenue is controlled by 20 publishers worldwide.)

So really, is this a decision of economics or of emotion/principles/religious beliefs/whatever you want to call it?

Wendy said...

I can see your puzzlement, because usually an "indie" is very gung-ho to support another "indie" even across genres. Indie musicians love supporting indie bookstores, local shops, local foods, etc.

More power to you, Pete!

PJD said...

Wendy: I know, right? I guess I accidentally aligned myself with one side of the battle, without actually realizing there was a war going on. Naive of me, I suppose. Ah well.