Alternate views of the evil empire

Here is another take on the Amazon / Hachette controversy by Barry Eisler, a former CIA operative and best-selling author of thrillers. Eisler made headlines in 2011 when he turned his back on traditional publishing (which he calls “legacy publishing”) to publish his work independently on Amazon.

In this June 4 article in The Guardian, Eisler ticks off these pluses for Amazon: it “singlehandedly created a market for digital books, [is] now the greatest source of the legacy publishing industry’s profitability (though of course legacy publishers are sharing little of that newfound wealth with their authors)…built the world’s first viable mass-market self-publishing platform, a platform that has enabled thousands of new authors to make a living from their writing for the first time in their lives. And [it] pays self-published authors something like five times as much in digital royalties as legacy publishers do.”

Eisler makes some interesting arguments while waving a red flag (Amazon-hating authors are the literary “one-percent”). I recommend the article to anyone interested in this current publishing brouhaha. My biggest takeaway was Eisler’s simple observation, in an otherwise complex debate, that individual attitudes are probably based more on personal interest than selfless concern for the future of literature. To blame Jeff Bezos for the loss of bookstores, he says, is like buggy makers blaming Henry Ford for the development of internal combustion. Though some of his analogies may be questionable, they point toward two facts that are not: (1) new technologies never go back into the box, and (2) their ramifications are never known at the outset.

I was halfway through the paragraphs above when the postman brought the June 16 issue of Time, with an essay on the back page by Joel Stein, Hachette author of Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity.

Stein ventured, “with trepidation,” to Amazon “to see what barbarism it had committed on my book’s page – changing my author photo go one of my high school mullet shots, perhaps, or allowing yet more people to start their one-star reviews with ‘No, I haven’t read this book.'”

When he found nothing amiss, Stein sadly reflected that Amazon, with its cutting edge algorithms, had to know how much it would hurt his ego and confidence to be left out of the feud. “I have no idea who will publish my next book,” he says, “though I do know they’ll be sorry they did.”

Diversity and variety are central to the richness of life. I’m old enough to remember and miss various mom and pop stores of all kinds, not just bookstores. A local nursery used to employ master gardeners, who could look at a sick leaf and tell you exactly what to do. Through no fault of their own, the people who work in the Lowe’s garden section can only tell you, “Fertilizers are down aisle one.” As a kid, I learned to make flying airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper at a local hobby shop; it was a far more interesting place than any Toys ‘R Us.

Right now, perhaps all we can do in the publishing battle is watch and wait, and opt for diversity and richness in whatever way we can.

I’m not dead yet

My title, a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, came to mind during recent reflections on independent bookstores.

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

I used to go to bookstores to make discoveries. The best were quirky, and I loved to be surprised and find something new to read. My all time favorite was a sci-fi/fantasy specialty store in a low rent strip mall. The store was a labor of love for the owner, who made most of his income trading collectables – signed Robert Heinlein first editions and vintage comic books.

I could walk in and say, “I’m looking for urban fantasy that centers on spirit guides,” or, “I’m in the mood for a quest – got anything that’s not a dumb Tolkien ripoff?” Most of the time, I’d find what I was looking for and have an interesting chat on trends in the genre with someone who was steeped in that world. You never know what you’re going to find in a place like that. Sadly, independents are on the ropes, but as the Pythons put it, they’re not dead yet. Here is a link to, which has a tab at the top right to locate independent booksellers.

We don’t even have to abandon ebooks to shop at indies! In February, 2012, I wrote about The Book Seller, a great independent shop in Grass Valley, that encourages ebook fans to order through their website; that way they get a commission on each sale (the format is .epub, the standard all-but-Amazon format, which can be read on a Nook or any laptop, smartphone, or tablet using the free Nook app).

I’m pretty sure that for just about everyone reading this blog, books are a huge and treasured part of our lives. If anything good has come out of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, it’s information like this which can help me rethink the way I buy books.

As Mark Coker put it, the ideal is “a vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing retailers.” It’s good to know what I can do to help secure such a future.



Footnote, June 3:  Calmgrove, a blogging buddy, noted in a comment that the initials of my title, I’m Not Dead Yet, form a nice acronym, INDY. In addition to independent bookstores, he says it has something to do with fruit fly genetics – feel free to pursue that with him if you wish…

To the barricades! No, the other barricades.

Printing, ca. 1568.  Public domain.

Printing, ca. 1568. Public domain.

“Right now, bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the cross fire of an economic war. If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed — by law, if necessary — immediately, if not sooner.” – James Patterson

I haven’t blogged about ebooks and independent publishing lately. Over the last few years, it’s become clear they are here to stay. Success breeds acceptance, and the “vanity press” stigma is gone. In olden days (ca. 2011), I found a kind of “blows against the empire” satisfaction in promoting ebooks, writing reviews, and encouraging Indie authors. The evil empire was big publishing. This was the time of the little guy.

I still like Indie authors, though the “righteous cause” fantasy is gone. Now suddenly, at least to a casual observer like me, the situation appears reversed, with Amazon in the role of bully-boy, and those same publishers (perhaps) fighting for their existence, and with them (maybe) hangs the fate of a lot of remaining brick and mortar stores.

I first learned of the Amazon-Hachette duel from Michael Koryta, a favorite action-adventure writer I follow on Facebook. On May 19, Koryta reported serious problems pre-ordering his new book, due out June 3, from Amazon. He said the situation goes far beyond the interests of one author, and provided some of the links posted below.

On May 29, USA Today quoted James Patterson as saying “the future of our literature is in danger.” Patterson says that “Amazon wants to control book buying, book selling and even book publishing,” and laments that federal anti-trust laws no longer have teeth.

Here are several editorials on the situation:

Amazon vs. Hachette: When Does Discouragement Become Misrepresentation? From the NY Times Blog

Amazon said to play hardball in book contract talks with publishing house Hachette The Washington Post

AAR Calls Out Amazon in Hachette Dispute, From a statement sent by Association of Authors Representatives to Amazon.

And if I was only going to read one account of this dispute, I’d chose this one by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords and early champion of ebooks, who believes in the vitality of a diverse writing and publishing world: Amazon’s Hachette Dispute Foreshadows What’s Next for Indie Authors

I’ve heard Coker speak on several occasions, and he’s a keen observer of a complicated landscape and future. His predictions on publishing tend to be right. In this post, he explains that the conflict centers on “agency pricing,” and who gets what profit margin for ebooks. Amazon is demanding a greater share. Here is what is at stake, says Coker:

“Books represent only one of hundreds of layers of icing on the cake of Amazon. Amazon can lose money on books while still operating a profitable business. Pure-play book retailers – Kobo and Barnes & Noble for example, must earn money from book sales. Unlike Amazon, they don’t have the financial resources to sell books at a loss forever…If Amazon can abolish agency pricing it will have the power to put its largest pure-play book retailing competitors out of business. This will make the publishers even more dependent upon Amazon, which further weakens their power.”

That’s the bad news. The really bad news, according to Coker, is that next they’ll come after Indie authors, just as they have in their audio book division, Audible. Gone are the 70% margins for authors that the agency model protects. Instead, exclusive Audible authors get 40% while the non-exclusive rate is 25%.

Coker winds up with with advice for independent authors, who, he says, are “the future of publishing.” It’s well worth reading the details in his article, but here are his main suggestions:

  1. Choose your partners carefully.
  2. Favor retail partners that support the agency model.
  3. Avoid exclusivity.
  4. Support a vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing retailers.

Remember the vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing book retailers? Though it is on the ropes, it’s not yet extinct. That’s worth thinking about and will be the subject of my next post.

“Self-publishing Boot Camp” in Sacramento, November 2

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club has put on some fine day-long seminars, including the one that got me started blogging (presumably, most people reading this think that’s a good thing).

The Club just announced a seminar in self-publishing to be held November 2.  I invite every one with the interest and geographical proximity to check out the flier: Boot Camp two-pager

I was planning to wait before recommending this event, but today I spotted these statistics on Kristin Lamb’s Blog.  In her August 30 post, “Digital Age Authors & The Ugly Truth About ‘The Good Old Days’ of Publishing,” Lamb says:

“As of 2004, only one out of NINE traditionally published authors ever saw a second book in print and 93% of all books published (traditional and non-traditional) sold less than a thousand copies (per Book Expo of America statistics).”

In other words, no path into print is easy, but now there’s a greater menu of choices than just a few years ago.  The CWC workshops I’ve attended have been excellent, and I’m planning on going to this one.

Mark Coker ebook workshop, Sept. 29

Mark Coker

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club hosted Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for a presentation in January that I wrote about here:

Now we’re having him back to present a nuts and bolds workshop on ebook publishing and marketing. The date is September 29, time is 9:30-3:00, and the location is convenient, just off a major freeway.  Price is $45 for CWC members and $55 for non-members.

Here is the description:

“How To Produce, Distribute & Sell Your Work In The Evolving Eworld” is a September 29thworkshop being offered by the California Writers Club, Sacramento branch.  Presenter Mark Coker, Founder and CEO of “Smashwords, ” is a leading expert in the field of creating and marketing ebooks in the evolving digital age.

Here is the brochure:

Unfortunately, I have another commitment that day.  Isn’t that always the way?  I’m sorry to miss the event, for I have a lot of respect for Coker and the clarity of his explanations and suggestions.  If you aren’t too far away and have every considered indie publishing, I’m sure this will be worthwhile.  The brochure says space is limited and suggests early registration.  I’d take that advice.

Sales of “Imagine” halted after author admits inventing quotations

In May, I reviewed Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works  I ended by saying, “This is a wonderful study for anyone interested in imagination, creativity, and the conditions which favor it.”

Today I was saddened to read that Lehrer admitted fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine and lying about them when questioned by another journalist.  He resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Houghton Mifflin halted sales of the book, which had sold 200,000 copies since March and spent 16 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

In a statement Monday, Lehrer said:  “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

The incident raised a number of questions.  It is striking in part because strict enforcement of ethical standards has become so rare in public life.  We don’t even blink when we read of fresh bank scandals, or athletes on steroids, or the California Parks department with a hidden stash of millions of dollars even as it was moving to shutter some of our finest parks.  We’re running a presidential campaign on attack adds, where truth is merely an option, rather than statements of principle from either candidate.  These days I look to PBS and the Comedy Channel for responsible TV journalism.

With standards so lax in so many areas of public life, how many aspiring writers can be certain they would resist the urge to tweak a sentence or two for a shot at the best seller list?  I am not, by any means, excusing Lehrer’s actions – I am saying I think I understand them.

I also understand failure.  It’s a fire that can consume a person or temper what they are made of.  I hope Mr. Lehrer can rise from his ashes with the kind of deeper and darker wisdom that comes from enduring the dark night of the soul.

An Author’s Guide to Publishing in 2012, by Amy Rogers.

Those who have followed thefirstgates for a while will be familiar with Dr. Amy Rogers.

Amy Rogers

I reviewed her excellent first novel, Petroplague, in September, 2011  In March of this year, she contributed a two part guest post detailing some of the rapid changes in today’s publishing landscape, an issue she follows in depth  Last Friday, Amy gave an updated presentation on  publishing options to the Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club during our monthly breakfast meeting.

Not long ago, there were only two publishing choices:  traditional publishing and the so called vanity press.  Now we have a spectrum of possibilities which keep getting harder to navigate.  Hybrid arrangements are multiplying:  traditional agencies offering ebook options, and agented independent publishing companies.

Rogers began her presentation by stressing the importance of every writer evaluating their individual goals.  Why do we want to publish this particular book?  How will we measure success?

Do we seek the implied approval that selection by a traditional publisher confers?  If so, do we have the time to invest in the process, knowing there is no guarantee of ultimate success?

If we choose to go the independent route, are we ready and willing to spend the time and/or money on five key tasks required for any book to be successful:  editing, cover design, layout, getting an isbn number, and marketing/distribution?

With a sense of our goals, Amy Rogers presentation, posted in full on her blog, will prove especially valuable.  A downloadable pdf version, is available too

After reviewing the presentation, take the time to explore Ms Rogers’ website,  With a Ph.D in immunology, teaching experience in microbiology, and a writing career that began in grade school, Amy is uniquely qualified to write and review thrillers involving the depredations of “wee beasties.”  ScienceThrillers has grown to include reviews of books in multiple genres, publishing news, book giveaways, notices of writing contests, and her own quarterly newsletter.  It’s a site I’m very happy to recommend.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Files for Chapter 11

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after reaching a deal with creditors to wipe out more than $3 billion in debt.  This will be the second major restructuring for Houghton in two years.

The Journal calls Houghton a major textbook publisher, and the company says it’s been hurt by state and local budget cuts to K-12 education programs.

Fans of Tolkien know Houghton as the American publisher of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Several books I treasure are Tolkien  editions illustrated by Alan Lee, artistic director for Peter Jackson’s movies, whose drawing and paintings shaped the films, and in some cases, served as the the actual backgrounds for outdoor scenes.

These are kind of books I treasure as print editions.  At the same time, it’s easy to imagine a transition to ebooks could be a business saving move for the textbook division.  Industry watchers knew Houghton was in trouble as early as 2008, when it temporarily suspended new book acquisitions.  It’s hard to believe they are the only traditional publisher that is struggling for survival.