Thursday, September 25, 2014

Authors United Next Tries DOJ

After deciding Amazon’s Board of Directors might not understand Amazon’s business practices, [see my previous blog] Authors United now thinks they can educate the United States Department of Justice on antitrust issues as reported by The Bookseller in this article .

According to Douglas Preston, the leader and spokesperson for Authors United, “They (DOJ) are expecting this letter and they have told me that they welcome any information we can provide.”
Well, sure. The DOJ is always interested in information about any company’s anticompetitive actions. However, unless Authors United can provide specific actions Amazon has taken and document their competitive consequences, Authors United has nothing. And, given the lack of details in anything they have so far produced, I am so far past skeptical as to be disbelieving.

Here’s a suggestion for Authors United: Work with your publishers to provide consumers alternatives to Amazon. Have your publishers offer your books at significant discounts. Offer free shipping on all hardcover purchases or orders of paperbacks that exceed, say $35. Figure out a way to sign those books. Encourage your publishers to offer larger discounts to independent bookstores so they can provide lower prices to their customers.

While the Amazon/Hachette dispute continues each of the A-listers (regardless of publisher) could schedule joint bookstore appearances with Hachette debut authors garnering them more than sufficient publicity to offset Amazon’s antics and make positive news in the bargain.

Be creative in ways that have a real chance for making a difference in the future of publishing and in the lives of your fellow authors. Put on your grown-up clothes and act as adults, rather than continue your recent antics, which remind us of spoiled children asking any and everyone else to make a “bully” play fair.

~ Jim

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Latest Authors United Letter Misfires

The group Authors United spearheaded by Douglas Preston intends to send (or has sent, depending on when you read this) a letter to the Amazon Board of Directors regarding the Amazon/Hachette dispute. Given the dispute has been going on for months, it seems unlikely any director is unaware of the situation, so what is the purpose of the letter? Perhaps the group is trying to put pressure on the directors in their other working capacities? It will be interesting to see what (if any) reaction this letter brings from the directors.

My concerns are not with writing a letter to the Directors, but with the content of the letter. If the drafters would stick to facts, they could make a more powerful argument. But they stray from facts into justification, and that negates the power of the facts.

Potent charges:

“About six months ago, to enhance its bargaining position, Amazon began sanctioning Hachette authors' books. These sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors' pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books.

These sanctions have driven down Hachette authors' sales at by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent. These sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books. Because of Amazon's immense market share and its proprietary Kindle platform, other retailers have not made up the difference. Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership.”

Had the authors next provided specific data to back up their statements—for example, screen shots of pop-ups, a case study of a debut author whose debut was ruined, and perhaps made pre-dispute post-dispute comparisons—they could have cemented in their readers’ minds how Amazon was harming specific authors. Putting faces on the problem would invoke wider sympathy. Authors who have “sold more than a billion books” should know about proper characterization.

Where the wheels fall off their arguments

The wheels fall off their battering ram in their attempt to storm Amazon’s gates when they stray from facts and wander into attempts at wider justification. The collapse starts with the patently false conclusion of this sentence, “We'd like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest.”

These authors make their living (multiple millions of dollars a year for some of them) based on a traditional publishing model. Threats to that model, including Amazon’s tactics and marketplace power, are threats to their individual welfare. Amazon is negotiating with Hachette today, but soon it with be negotiating with the other four of the big five publishers. Those signing authors with contracts with the other big publishers want Amazon to back off now before their publisher suffers similar negotiating tactics.

“Efforts to impede or block the sale of books have a long and ugly history.” Reading this sentence, I conjured piles of burning books in the streets and school boards banning books because their content was “anti-religious,” or “smut” or “Devil-worshiping.” Is this what they would have us believe Amazon is doing? Where is their angst about independent bookstores refusing to carry books published by their competitor, Amazon? Perhaps I missed it or it’s coming soon. I’m not holding my breath. This dispute is more akin to Walmart deciding to not stock any P&G products, but carry those of Unilever instead, than banning the sale of toothpaste.

But these authors disagree, and state, “Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. 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. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.”

How wrong can they be?

Their analysis is wrong on several accounts: Books are indeed consumer goods—who do they think buys their books if not consumers? Books can and are written more cheaply than those accepted by major publishers. Most fiction authors (based on numbers of authors, not sales revenue) write on speculation. They put their heart, soul and countless hours into creating their manuscript. Many will give their work away or sell it for $0.99 just to have others read it. That each book is unique is immaterial.

No person has a right to demand society pay in order for the individual to follow his dream, nor to specify how that dream should be funded. “Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books.” Is the implication here that, if Amazon is successful, publishers will no longer use advances as a selling tool to entice authors to sign with them?

They would have us believe that because of the additional risk caused by Amazon’s negotiating tactics, publishers cannot afford advances? In 2013 the big five publishers had record earnings (over $1 billion), according to Publishers Lunch with gross profit margins of almost 11% on sales of almost $9.3 billion. The letter’s authors need to document any decline in advances that has occurred after (and therefore perhaps because of) disputes with Amazon.

At best, it is too early to tell the effect this dispute will have on advances, and ignores the change in large publishers’ practices regarding advances for midlist authors—a topic too large to address here.

Amazon’s purported responsibilities to the current system

The letter goes on to ask, “What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors, copy editors, and other publishing staff who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?”

The publishing arm of Amazon pays advances to some of its authors; but more to the point, why is it Amazon the retailer’s responsibility to devise a solution to a postulated problem of declining advances? And what does the role of editors, copy editors, etc. have to do with anything relating to Amazon’s tactics in negotiating with Hachette?

Amazon (the retailer) is a middleman, selling content—in this case books. If the quality is high (however consumers define quality), people will buy it. If they don’t like the product they don’t buy it unless they have to, and books are not (for most people) a required purchase. Consumers don’t much care how the product is made; they only care about the overall level of satisfaction the product provides.

Furthermore, if venture capital is so important to authors (especially nonfiction per the letter), are publishers the only source? Today crowdsourcing funds a variety of businesses and some authors are selling pieces of their future revenues. In times past, individual patrons sponsored artists; perhaps aspiring authors need to find angel investors for the 21st century. My point is that even if advances are important for authors, publishers, while the current source, are not the only source, and it is unlikely Amazon is the only cause of their demise, should that happen.

My advice to the authors of these letters intending to get public support for publishers in their disputes with Amazon: use your talents to paint rich pictures of how regular folks have been devastated by Amazon’s practices. Give us a debut author whose books gathered terrific advanced reviews, whose sales at Barnes and Noble and Independent Bookstores are gangbusters, but because they are not listed on Amazon, the publishers will consider the book a flop. Find a single parent author whose spouse died fighting in Iraq and who is the sole support for three small children. Imply Amazon has ruined this family’s lives, even if it’s not strictly true. Stick a petition on and get a hundred-thousand signatures. Have Michal Moore make a documentary. Then, maybe you can put some pressure on Amazon.

This letter? An embarrassing misfire.

~ Jim

Monday, September 1, 2014

Update on My 2015 Goals

I have periodically posted on Facebook my progress or lack thereof on two of my current goals: Losing 12 pounds and keeping that weight off and exercising sufficiently each month to earn 250 “Cooper Aerobic Points.” Commentary and graphs follow.

 Commentary on Weight:

As of today’s weigh-in, I have lost 9.5 of the 12-pound goal. I’ve discovered two main factors determine the daily variations: (1) salt—eating something salty at dinner or for a later snack retains a ton (well, 1-2 pounds, actually) of water. That’s great if I don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to pee, but I feel bloated the next morning. I can even see the difference in how fat my fingers look (although I can’t scientifically prove that last observation). (2) How full my large intestine is. A couple of days of cheese dishes and Mr. Regular clogs up. Both phenomena are temporary, but evident in the one to two pound weight changes on a daily basis.

The long flat stretch in the graph illustrates when we were on vacation and I did not have access to a scale. I did, however, have access to too much food, especially desserts, and too little willpower, with the result that I gained five pounds during the month of vacation. I’ve removed that weight again and so as September appears, I am back to where I was in early June.

Commentary on Exercise

I find it very difficult to exercise when traveling. I know this is also a matter of willpower and better planning. I need to recognize that while in hotels I must use the treadmill (I much prefer being outside) or settle for a short walk outside at a reasonable clip. I can’t run on cement (shin splints) and in many places running on the streets is too dangerous. And, I will have to do that exercising in the early morning before we start our day’s journey. Waiting until after dinner, which often occurs later than normal, is a recipe for diminished will.

In August I pulled my left hamstring while jogging, which created an awesome bruise at the back of my thigh. For a change I worked hard at treatment and even with a lost week and a half I was able to still reach the 250-point monthly goal with some to spare. I’ve discovered the usefulness of compression shorts and tights to encourage my muscles to behave themselves.


September in the U.P. is generally cooler (good) but wetter (bad) than the summer months. Cooler temperatures makes it more enjoyable to exercise. The rain makes it less attractive, and so I have set my bicycle on the cabin porch to act as an exercise cycle for rainy days. I tried it out once rainy day in August and it worked fine.

Everything is in place for success. Now, as the old Nike commercial says, I have to JUST DO IT.

~ Jim