Chain Mail is a telephone tag by email round-robin interview session with authors from the Book View Cafe writers collective. Images are links, connecting to biographical information about an author or more information on their current work. Additional information can be found on the contributors page.
Amazing Stories: Amazon has made moves that seem to indicate that it wants to become the ‘Wal*Mart’ of publishing (they dominate the distribution channels and are now starting to offer their own imprints; [I believe that they will eventually squeeze everything down to treating authors as hourly wage earners and works as ‘works for hire’: if you want the kind of distributionAmazon can offer, this is the contract you have to sign.] Do you believe that efforts like BVC can successfully retain enough market share to remain viable in the face of efforts like Amazon’s? Is the small boutique publisher going to thrive?
Umm, “the tighter your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”?
Right now Amazon offers a decent deal to indie authors. How long that good deal will last is a subject of great debate and anxiety. As a writer, I’m firmly of the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” school, as well as the “keep control of your own work” school, but every writer has to decide what works best for them.
I don’t worry that we’ll all eventually be reduced to creating work for hire, because why would we do that? The authors I’m aware of who do work-for-hire go into it with eyes open, knowing what they’re going to get out of it. Sometimes that’s just a paycheck. Sometimes it’s publicity that will help to push their other books. It’s a business decision. But if there was no choice, if we were required to give up copyright or to agree to onerous publishing terms, we can walk away, just the same as if a traditional publisher offers an unacceptable contract. Yes, most of us make the majority of our income at Amazon, but if the terms change, so will our income and there will be little reason to stay.
I can certainly see tribes of readers and writers: those within the corporate fold, and those without, but there will be options. A monopoly is very hard to maintain, especially in the age of the Internet, and especially among a branch of the information/entertainment economy. Even if we have to live on the margins of that economy for a while, it’s a big world. So yes, I can’t see a world in which there is only one publisher. There will continue to be small presses and boutique publishers like BVC.
But BVC is more than a publisher. It’s a bookseller too, a place where people worldwide can buy their ebooks as an alternative to the giants. It’s up to us to give them reasons to do that, which is one reason we’re currently in the process of upgrading and streamlining the book buying experience at our website.
For genre readers, a small site like BVC can make it easier to find the kind of quality books you’d really like to read. It can offer a closer connection to the writer, and the knowledge that you’re supporting your favored writers’ next books by purchasing from a cooperative, where the writer gets a better deal. But one of my favorite aspects of BVC is that our books can be purchased worldwide at a fair price. By contrast, if Amazon sells one of my books to someone outside the “Amazon countries” my royalty gets cut in half and the buyer has to pay fees that are not negligible. I once had a book on special at $2.99; a buyer in Europe told me he paid $5.74 for it.
In the end though, the shape of the bookselling world will be determined by the readers. Do readers want to be able to buy only from Amazon? Will most readers be okay with whatever 99-cent or $2.99 books make up the current bestseller lists? Or will a meaningful number of readers be willing to pay a little more and go a little deeper to find the books they really want to read and to support the authors of those books?
I think small booksellers and distributors will become more important and more visible as the book economy evolves.
MAYA KAATHRYN BOHNHOFF
I’m positive there will always be room in the marketplace for BVC and other “boutique” publishers, just as there’s room in the marketplace for other types of boutique operations. I mean, just think of all the boutiqueries that exist outside the literary world—bath and body shops, clothiers, shoe boutiques, jewelry stores, perfumeries. They exist online and in brick and board stores. And they exist because of the type of shopping experience the user wants.
At Book View Café, we’ve st riven to create a warm, cozy atmosphere for our visitors, plus we’ve tried to make ourselves accessible to them so they feel as if they are part of what we’re trying to do. Wal-Mart style businesses have to shoot for a one-size-fits-all paradigm. We don’t.
I think what will happen more and more, too, is that BVC and other boutiques will network and support each other. We’ve made a point of building relationships with like-minded organizations. I think that will only grow.
The future never turns out the way you expect. At the moment the advance of Amazon appears unstoppable but the more it grows, the more it’s going to be noticed by politicians and interest groups. And no one likes a monopoly.
Also the business world is far more volatile these days. There was a time when brand was everything, companies would defend their brand name to the death and, often, when a company folded, its most valuable asset was its brand name. Now I see companies that have spent decades building up a brand, change their name to whizzbang.com because it’s new and dynamic and they’re seeking out a younger customer base. And you see organisations become household names who, two years ago, no one had ever heard of. This is why I wouldn’t bet on Amazon becoming the only player on the block. New names will spring up to challenge them.
As for BVC’s future, the huge advantage we have is we’re quick, flexible and willing to experiment. Plus we have no offices to rent or staff to pay. And we’re determined. If one of us sees an opportunity we have the people and imagination to analyse that opportunity and do something about it. Quickly. Not many publishers can say that.
At this moment (checks watch) Amazon is the big dog. I can’t see this lasting forever, or even more than several more years. Chris is quite right – things are moving too fast. It wasn’t so very long ago – five years? When Amazon’s profitability was still an open question. And the market is steadily fragmenting, right before our very eyes. No, we writers will be okay – as long as we’re flexible.
DEBORAH J. ROSS
is deeply suspicious of big business, so will throw reason and caution to the winds and offer the opinion that unless and until Amazon owns the whole darned intarwebs, authors will find alternate ways of marketing their books and will stay with Amazon only as a long as Amazon plays nicely.
KATHARINE ELISKA KIMBRIEL
“The most flexible element in any system has the most influence on that system.” I have discovered in the past couple of years that I am astoundingly flexible. I think a large percentage of writers are the same way.
Bluntly put, if Apple comes up with a simple, highly refined way to upload books to their store, and the store becomes very searchable and supportive, then every writer is going to want to have a version of their books at Apple. I’ve just watched Barnes & Noble come up with a new marketing ploy for re-releases and new ebooks in older, midlist series. The new idea is selling ebooks like hotcakes and making scads of money for the authors profiled. And it’s only 30 days of exclusivity.
Amazon is not unbeatable. That’s part of why they keep pushing the envelope. They know that someone, somewhere, is building a better mousetrap — and building that mousetrap without the weight of old technology and ten-years-ago thinking to haul along. I’m waiting for a new Internet site that is totally ebooks, offering a great interface and great terms. We’ll all be there!
It’s like the publishing gurus say – writers are the creators. We’re ground zero. For the really good stuff, we’re needed. Everything else will change, but we’ll still be in there creating.
PHYLLIS IRENE RADFORD
In decades past we’ve seen traditional publishers grow and gobble up the competition until they are so bloated they can’t survive their own bureaucracy. Small presses absorb the cast offs and rise to the top to replace Senior Bloat. This makes room for new small presses, innovative, reader and author friendly to chip away at the big monster. Amazon is approaching the point of bloat. BVC and others are ready and waiting.
It’s a cycle. It repeats itself.
VONDA N. MCINTYRE
I’ve done work for hire and a good bit of it, especially the Star Trek novels, was good fun. The Star Trek novels subsidized several of my original novels. I took some heat from colleagues who thought I ought to get a morally acceptable (to them) job. Under most circumstances I doubt I would find a work-for-hire contract acceptable for original fiction.
As amazon.com gets more influential, publishers get more panicky. Even small presses have increasingly grabby and non-writer-friendly contracts. Why they think abusing writers is going to do them any good is beyond me. For the moment, I’d rather hang out at Book View Café where I have some control over how my work is presented. I could be persuaded to go with a commercial publisher for the work in progress, but at this point it would take some persuading.
One thing that has kept the wheels of publishing rolling right over authors and their rights is the huge mass of would-be writers who are desperate to get published and will take any terms, any terms at all, to achieve that dream. If one author declines to take the lousy terms, there are hundreds or thousands of others who are willing, even eager just to see their work in print (whether that be on paper or in electronic form).
And yet, ironically, Amazon’s attempts to trump “traditional” publishers by offering authors (however temporarily or cynically) much more attractive terms have contributed a great deal to the transformation of self-publishing from despised stepchild and last resort of the untalented and the unmarketable, to a respectable and in many cases preferable alternative. This is a profound change in the way it all works, and it puts the author more in control of her work than she’s been in at least the past couple of centuries.
I don’t believe that’s going to change. I still see authors who suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, who will not or cannot let go of their dreams of being published under the twentieth-century model, and who will accept awful contracts because they are publishers’ contracts–and I include the publishing arm of Amazon (versus the self-publishing arm, which is basically an upload service and a storefront) in that category. But more and more, bigger and bigger names in traditional publishing are testing the waters, and they’re not lying down and taking it. They’re making their own terms, or founding their own entities, like Pottermore–or like Book View Café.
That genie’s not going back in the bottle. Enough authors have had a taste of what’s possible, and they’ll find ways to keep making it happen, regardless of who’s currently trying to grab all the marbles.
They’ve said it all. It’s an exciting time in publishing. Will Amazon be the big dog? Who knows, but in the meantime they’re helping us, the authors. If they stop helping us, we’ll always have BVC.
I expect many “boutique publishers” to thrive. Amazon is reaching for both monopoly and monopsony status, which makes them everyone’s target. But in the process, they’re opening up new ecological niches. I don’t think they can occupy them all. Small cooperative ventures like Book View Café hold their books and their readers close to heart. They can be highly adaptive, especially if they manage to stay non-hierarchical and consensus-oriented.
This makes “swarming” a natural tactic for them. Expect to see more and more co-marketing efforts among boutique publishers; social media has greatly reduced the effort involved to launch such initiatives.
One great thing about Amazon is that it teaches people to be accepting of ebooks. Before the Kindle, the ebook world was growing at a slow pace. Because of Amazon’s marketing machine ebook sales rocketed. Entities like BVC could never have such an impact. Because Amazon is there, much of our evangelical work has been done. The only reason Amazon did all that was because it sees itself as a monopolist. So be it. I don’t think empire building is as easy as it once was. Amazon’s first battle was against brick and mortar bookstores. They pretty much won that war, but there are still bookstores in existence. Just like Mickey D’s won the food wars, but you and I still go to our favorite non-franchise restaurant whenever we eat out.
Jennifer Stevenson chose to pass on this question.