Writing in the Digital Age: Open Your Umbrellas, The Giants are Crying

On the heels of the 2012 Digital Book World conference, we’ve had a slew of publishers trying to regain their immeasurable clout by dissing libraries, innovation, and Amazon.

The Author’s Guild came out squarely on the side of the traditional publishers and bookstores:

While Amazon directly threatens traditional publishers with its new imprint, it continues to undermine the ecosystem on which book publishers, and most new authors, depend.

Joe Konrath spoke up eloquently and bluntly for AmazonIf you don’t like apex predators, get the hell out of the food chain.

I’ve linked to the full text of each argument. Go read, if you haven’t, then come back here. The digital sphere is rife with writers taking sides. Many feel pity for the weeping and wailing publishers and booksellers. Poor babies, they can’t fight big bad Amazon, so Author’s Guild is right to say that Amazon is changing the game to try to control the world.

I call BS. Right here. Right now.

First, I’m not a spring chicken. I remember when indie bookstores were crying foul on Borders and Barnes & Noble for doing the exact same thing that everyone is accusing Amazon of doing (undercutting the competition to drive them out of business). Anyone see the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks classic “You’ve Got Mail?” Look past the outdated clothes and clunky computers and — hello — the big box bookstore completely swallowed the tiny, full-of-heart bookstore. I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer whose eyes narrowed at the supposedly happy ending (the big box store made a tiny corner for bookselling with heart). Hah.  I watched Borders come into my town and decimate my favorite full-of-heart bookstore (Meg Ryan would have been proud of this very customer-centered, book-loving business model; I felt at home the minute I stepped through he door). This one-floor bookstore could not compete with Borders buying and stocking clout (hint: publishers and distributors gave these stores better deals than the indie stores got). It was out of business in less than a year.

I watched my local Borders go from a store that welcomed local writers for signings with an employee dedicated to working to bring in talent to the store for signings and talks and workshops, to a store where the manager didn’t even want to order local books (apparently, it became a hassle when the ordering went from local stores to the national buyer level for increased efficiency).

I live in a town that has a lot of indie bookstores. I remember vowing to patronize them. Yeah. Didn’t happen. Borders was convenient, and it had lots of my beloved books for 25% – 50% off. Plus it had a good coffee shop, with comfy chairs where I could hang out and write. Until it got rid of the comfy chairs, and then the coffee shop shrank down to nothing. And then Borders, finally, went buh-bye.

My town still has more indie bookstores than most, but it certainly isn’t thanks to my shopping habits. If I were a dedicated one-genre kind of person, I could have been happy patronizing indies. But I like to read everything, and I want to find it all in one place. Borders did that for a while. Amazon does it now — better than Borders ever could.

But this diatribe is about writing in the digital age, not reading in the digital age, so how does all this look from my writer’s perspective? Pretty darned good — but that’s only because I was lucky enough to be left high and dry by my publisher. Lucky? Yeah, three years ago I would not have used that word. Three years ago I was still trying to find an agent, still trying to sell a new idea to my publisher. This year? I’m making money bringing my out-of-print backlist out in ebook form. I’m experimenting with promotion and social media. I’m writing new material — finishing some books that got killed by my publisher at proposal stage; revising some that need work according to my demanding new publisher (aka me); combing through my drawerful of ideas in various stages of development for the ones I feel are marketable and that *I* want to write (after decades in the traditional publishing grind, I had forgotten that was why I started writing in the first place).

I don’t see writers sitting back and thinking Amazon is our savior. Instead, I see writers who have escaped the tyranny of big publishing (you know, the big corporations that own all the publishing houses because they bought up all the little full-of-heart publishers?). Every writer I know realizes that Amazon could turn into a tyrant if they eat the world and all their competition. But some of us don’t see traditional publishing as the way to stop Amazon any more than they stopped the big box bookstores from gobbling up the full-of-heart indie bookstores).

So what are we doing? First, as Joe Konrath says bluntly — we’re talking to Amazon. Right now we’re a customer Amazon wants to please. If history doesn’t repeat itself for the first time ever, that could last forever. But, I’m a history buff, so I’m not putting my eggs in one basket if I don’t have to (btw, going through the traditional publishing process is exactly that: putting your eggs in one basket…and then having that basket lock the eggs away from your control for a minimum of 35 years). This is the best time to create a writer-centric culture on Amazon (i.e. the best international marketplace for writers EVER).

But I’ve got eggs in other baskets, too. I’ve joined forces with other writers to share information, support, and promotional efforts. Take Book View Cafe. Book View Cafe is run on a co-op model. We sell our own books on a non-exclusive basis (recognizing multiple baskets are a good thing). I am beyond thrilled to finally have my first book up for sale here (the downside of co-op models is that it takes time to learn the ropes and get into the flow, but in contrast my first traditional published book contract offer was made in May of 1999, and the book — already written and not much revised when it came out — was not published until October of 2000). It is worth it to take the time to do the job right, after all.

I distribute my books to as many venues as I can reach. I have experimented with Kindle Select and next week I will experiment with NookFirst. But, most of all, I’m writing the books I want to write, and doing what I need to do to make sure they are books my readers will enjoy reading. And, because of Amazon–directly, and by the scramble of competition and innovation it has spurred– I am able to get a several monthly checks and two payments each quarter. Money from writing! Traditional publishing had almost convinced me I didn’t deserve it. Amazon gave me a chance to see traditional publishers were wrong about that. And, ummm, that’s what scares the weeping publishers and booksellers. Not only has Amazon captured the customer base who likes ordering goods for home delivery from the comfort of their computer — it has captured the base of writers who have a drawerful of manuscripts that were not quite good enough for NY, but do have a readership out there for the writer to discover.

It may be hard-hearted of me, but when the publishers and booksellers start crying, I open my umbrella. I have books to write. And — thanks to Amazon, B&N PubIt, Apple, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and Book View Cafe — to sell to my readers. I’ll do the same if Amazon stops listening to customers (consumers, writers, and providers) and starts to cry when it loses marketshare to an upstart who dares to listen to the customers. Because, frankly, that’s all we really care about — someone to listen to us as customers/writers/merchants/readers and make our transactions easier, more profitable, and more efficient. Traditional publishers did that for writers for a very long time (for 50% of the profit). Booksellers have done that for much longer (the big box bookstores for only a small part of that time). Amazon is nailing it on both sides of the equation — and scrambling the competition to try to do the same (at least, the ones who aren’t too busy crying into their dirty martinis). For now.

Kelly McClymer is an opinionated new member of Book View Cafe, and a secret geek. You can read more than you ever want to know about her by Googling her name (opinions on everything from reading to writing to ‘rithmetic). You can visit her on her desperately-in-need-of-update website; Follow her on Twitter, hang with her on Google+, Like her on FaceBook, and share Pinterests with her. Oh, and she’s on Goodreads, too (once a reader, always a reader).

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Writing in the Digital Age: Open Your Umbrellas, The Giants are Crying — 15 Comments

  1. Thanks for the very informative article, Kelly. It is exciting to see the new paths that publishing is taking that benefit the writer. It is time for writers to have more control, and now we do. I hope Amazon continues to listen to writers who are trying to help them make this all work to the benefit of writers, readers, and the company. And I agree that there should also be alternatives to selling via Amazon. A monopoly is only good for the company that has it.

  2. Monopolies get that way one of two ways– one, because everyone likes them best (the Amazon way, so far); two, because they tie up the distribution chain (like Microsoft did with its products). DH has been a big PC proponent, and looked at me askance when I got my first Mac. The iPad seduced him, though. And now he just got a MacBookAir (I told him I wish he had warned me, so I could go on vacation for the week he was adjusting to the difference…I am very familiar with his “Mac does everything wrong” whining 🙂

    For the Air, it only lasted two days. A record. Monopolies don’t stand against good competition — so, publishers and B&N, give Amazon some competition!

  3. Sorry, but you lost me when you used ‘tyranny’ to describe the traditional publishing industry. When I hear a term of obvious resentment, I’m immediately suspect of what the speaker is saying about someone/something. There was never any tyranny in traditional publishing—there was a business model that worked for many years. If you can sell books that the publisher wasn’t able to sell/wasn’t interested in selling for you, more power to you. But don’t blame them if they didn’t make enough money or see enough of an opportunity to make money off your work. Blame the audience.

    Sure, e-publishing is good for writers who are established or willing to hire editors to better their work. But for every one of those there will be 500,000 angry wannabes w/ a diatribe against ‘the man’ who just wasn’t smart enough to see how brilliant the wannabes were, and whose work needs no betterment in the eyes of their distorted egos. Maybe _you_ want to plow through Amazon separating the wheat from the chaff, but I don’t.

  4. Jeff — there is definitely tyranny in traditional publishing. I do resent it (but who doesn’t resent tyranny?). It has nothing to do with whether my publishers sold my books well, or not (I think they did just fine under their short tail pre-ebook model).

    The tyranny comes in with the increasingly egregious contractual terms that are binding writers’ books to 35 years of indentured servitude (while the writer has no say in sales/distribution/promotion).

    Publishers are angry and scared, and have begun taking advantage of their power position (some of them extra legal and outside the contract terms) — How many authors can afford to sue a publisher who is ignoring a request for rights reversion compliant with contract terms? See Harper Collins v Open Road for a truly egregious example of publishing tyranny.

    E-publishing is good for writers who want to produce good work, and want to control how/where/how long it gets sold/promoted. And, clearly, it is good for readers, who seem to be appreciate the wider choice of books (I’m sure there’s even a market for the angry screed-writer…but I’m with you on avoiding those).

    I’ve signed my share of bad contract terms (which is on my head and I take full responsibility for it). What publishers are asking for these days seems like an overreach that can’t possibly be good for writers. And yet very few writers (or agents) are able to negotiate these terms away (according to what I’m hearing from writers who are trying).

    Insisting on everything and the kitchen sink to make a deal is tyranny. Except, maybe it really isn’t. Maybe you’re right. Publishers can’t force you to sell your book their way, or exploit only the rights they feel like exploiting, if you don’t sign with them. They can only do that if you sign with them. And only for 35 years. So I’ll give you that publishers aren’t being tyrants. Just bullies.

  5. <<>
    If you sign with a publisher it is with the expectation that they will reach the audience/sell books. That is the main part of their job. Why else would you sign with them?

  6. Hmmm. That deleted my quote. It was in reference to Jeff’s suggestion that the audience and not the publisher was at fault for lack of sales.

  7. As a traditionally published author, I (like many of my peers) can’t seem to rouse much sympathy for the big publishers. Poor, poor giant corporations. So sad. They treat their “content providers” like crap and then cry because their content providers are heading to Amazon which (for the moment) does NOT treat them like crap.

    I’m sure others have had the same experience I had: after four series novels with St. Martin’s, they dropped the series, wouldn’t be offering a new contract, blah blah blah. Why? Because the sales numbers weren’t good enough on the last two novels. Why weren’t they good enough? Well, aside from the minor fact that the last two novels came out in 2009 and 2010, in the middle of what just happened to be the worst economy since the 1930s (did they think my sales of a $25 hardcover were going to double, maybe?), they gave my last novel the _coup de grace_ themselves by doing the most incompetent, indifferent job of promotion I’ve ever seen. Not only did they get the book description wrong in the trade catalogue, they also managed to NOT mention the fact that the previous book in the series had received two starred reviews (PW & LJ). That, I think everyone would agree, is just an inexcusable example of somebody, and somebody’s whole department, not giving a flying f*ck about attention to anything but that month’s huge guaranteed bestseller by Famous Author X.

    Can we really blame midlist authors for dancing on the graves of the giant publishing companies?

    I, for one, am never going back. I’ll be indie publishing, in partnership with my agent (who I rely on to keep me out of any future bad contracts if or when Amazon starts screwing authors, too)–unless a giant publishing company offers me one hell of a lot more money for a future book than they’ve ever done before. Because the crappy little advance, in exchange for what the publishers want from, and what they deliver to, authors like me, just isn’t worth it any more.

  8. I will tell a story. In my day job, they are having a convention, in Las Vegas later this year. The keynote speaker has a motivational book, which he naturally wants to be sold after his presentation. Usually they get B&N in to do these things — they have an Ingrams account, and the fussy Nevada state sales tax status. They probably do not make vast huge sums on it, but it is worth while for them. However, this year they cannot do it. We searched in vain for another bookstore, an indy or a competing chain, that would do it. No. In that entire end of Nevada, there is only B&N, religious bookstores, porn, and one lonely emporium that specializes in books about gambling. The pond now has only one fish in it; all the little ones are dead and gone.

  9. It’s 35 years now? Not exaggeration? Holy…! It used to be 7.

    I was lucky enough to get dropped, too. Likewise did not feel that way at the time. I would not at all mind another contract–but the terms would have to be good enough, and the advance high enough, to make it worthwhile.

    Used to be that if you got cut off for poor sales, you were done. There was nowhere else to go. It was devastating. Now? There’s still more money in “traditional” publishing. But if the deal isn’t good or isn’t there, it’s no longer the end. That takes an incredible amount of pressure off, and is incredibly liberating.

    I had written myself into a corner labeled “What My Agent Thinks Will Sell.” It was getting narrower. And narrower. And narrower. And it was killing me from the soul outward.

    So incredibly glad to be done with that state of mind.

  10. As a reader of several of you fine people, the potential that you will be able to write and PUBLISH more is thrilling.

    the angle brackets are reserved in HTML, so you might decide to use another means of offsetting text. Or learn to “escape” the angle bracket, which is more difficult, as far as I’m concerned.

  11. Maybe Amazon is listening to some authors, but it’s not listening to the ones that are having their work stolen and plagarized.

    Amazon is good for publishers, because it gets the books out to people, now that the bookstores have been killed. Amazon is good to writers who write for the strong ebook-preferring audiences. Amazon is good for readers who don’t mind paying for OCRed old midlist books.

    I don’t feel sorry for the publishers, just like I didn’t feel sorry for the record companies. But as I have read history, I fear monopolies, and I know our anti-trust legislation is toothless. If I buy an ebook I won’t buy it from Amazon. I’ll buy it from here. Competition creates employment, and we don’t have a lot of either these days.

  12. I owe Barnes and Ignoble a lot, even if their upper-West Side store did, theoretically, put the upper-West Side Shakespeare and Company out of business, but I found S&Co. an unbearable hotbed of snark, less customer-focused than full-of-themselves (when I tried to order a couple of copies of one of my books there, figuring I would give an indie bookstore my business, “We don’t order that sort of book here…”). B&N was pleased to order me whatever I wanted. And I wrote four books in their coffee shop (until they covered the wall plugs and my laptop battery wouldn’t hold out for long enough to get much writing done, at which point I moved to a local Starbucks). These days I tend to do my online book buying from B&N, just to encourage a little competition. I’m happy to buy shoes and board games from Amazon.

    I note that with Borders (which was always less book-focused than B&N) defunct, the nearest big-box bookstore to San Francisco is a 15 minute drive away in San Bruno. The ecology of bookstores is reverting to smaller indie stores here. Who’d have thought?

  13. Wow, Mad — I had no idea Shakespeare & Co was so nose-in-the-air! I want to work with B&N, but after wasting an hour of my life trying to find out why my review of a book was pulled, and how to change it (the mythical button never appears on my screen) they are making it hard for us to do the small things that Amazon does well, like having reviews there, etc.

    But I will look for places @ B&N to put author info, and will try. Because I want competition, too. As annoying as dealing with multiple groups has been, it is much better than the alternative!

    I still have an agent, and plan to give him something to sell. But I’m not accepting chicken feed for it, and if NYC is not interested in what I want to write, I’ll go it alone. It’s the only solution I see to our narrowing options.

    It seems to me that HTML works in our forms — I have tried an italics above to see. That could be used for quotes.