On Books Being “Special”

As the Hachette-Amazon dispute continues, there are literally thousands of words being written in articles, “letters” to this party or that, and blog sites of authors and industry insiders. It’s hard to keep up with all, but one recent post really got my attention.  It was part of an open letter written by Richard Russo, novelist and co-Vice President of the Authors Guild. In his concluding paragraph Richard wrote:

“If we sometimes appear to take their [publishers] side against Amazon, it’s because we’re in the same business: the book business. It may be true that some of our publishers are owned by corporations that, like Amazon, sell a lot more than books, but those larger corporations seem to understand that books are special, indeed integral to the culture in a way that garden tools and diapers and flat-screen TVs are not. To our knowledge, Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell.”

As an author, my rebuttal may seem somewhat controversial, but when has that ever stopped me 😉

Every parent thinks their child is the cutest and brightest, and as Garrison Keillor likes to proclaim all children in Lake Wobegon are “above average.”

It is not surprising that authors and publishers would believe their product is somehow fundamentally better than others; it’s their product after all. I suspect the makers of other products might disagree. I’m not certain how anyone can compare the social impact of the latest James Patterson novel to the iPhone. There certainly have been books that changed the world, but very few in comparison to other products like say, the lightbulb, or dwarf wheat that saved millions from starving to death. And if you have a child, a pack of diapers is far more important to have than the entire Twilight series.

So sure, books are very special…to those who make them, or make their living off them, but let’s not get all pretentious about this.

The real problem isn’t that Amazon treats books like products, but that authors don’t. Authors see books as works of art, and as everyone knows artists are expected to starve. If an artist is so successful that he/she can afford a new car, they are labeled sell-outs and create nothing but populous crap, not art. Publishers are all too eager to perpetuate this ideal as it keeps authors from seeking a fair portion of the income they generate.

Authors need to wake up and realize that both Amazon and publishers exist to make money…off them. Neither are naturally good or evil; they are businesses. They certainly are individuals at both organizations that work for more than a paycheck, but taken as a whole, Amazon and publishers must make as much money as they can, and they do this by exploiting the weak, and no one is weaker in the publishing eco-system them authors.

When authors recognized that the advent of Amazon they now have the power to reduce publishers (including Amazon) to the role they should be filling, that of a “service,” authors started shifting some of the power back to themselves. Just like the pizza place that will deliver your dinner, or the taxi you pay to take you somewhere, publishers are a convenience that authors can hire (for a share of the profits) to help bring their books to readers.

What both Amazon and publishers should fear is the day when an organization makes real inroads into it’s own one-stop sales portal direct to readers and cut both out of the ecosystem.

Books are products. Publishers and distributors are services. And everyone is far too willing to manipulate authors for their own ends. I for one am one child who doesn’t appreciate my fighting parents asking me to pick sides. Maybe it’s time to tell mom and dad to screw themselves and just move out.

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  1. Great article, Michael, as usual. Except I think I would fear any organization that would have the power to eliminate both publishers and Amazon. I kind of like the way things are. If I want to self-publish I can and do. If I want a publisher I can try to find one. It’s a weird “ecosystem” to be sure, but at least there are options you can pick and choose from. But I wonder how long before something like what you’re predicting will eventually happen. Everything in publishing used to move at a glacial pace. Now its moving with the speed of a comet.

    1. I like being hybrid and being able to go self or traditional as the need requires. But what I was really advocating for is a site where readers can buy direct from writers so that 100% (or darn close to it) of their money flows into the author’s pockets.

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