Several things came together this week—the continuing uproar over the Authors United letters and/or the Amazon-Hachette issues along with Ellora’s Cave suing Dear Author—to create this post. I have many, many things to say about this, so the post is apt to be rambling and a little harsh, so I’ve illustrated it to make it a little more entertaining. And I won’t blame you if you abandon it in the middle going:
OK, got your coffee?
First, the Ellora’s Cave issue since it’s the one that got me started thinking of this post. A week or so ago, publisher Ellora’s Cave filed suit against blogger Jane Litte and her blog, Dear Author. Most of the reactions I saw were along the lines of “OMGWTFBBQ”, but several self-published authors also came out and said, if not in so many words, about the suffering Ellora’s Cave authors, “nah nah, now I bet you’re sorry you didn’t self-publish.”
This seems incredibly, unbelievably short-sighted to me. And it seems short-sighted in the same way as it did when these same authors went “Who gives a damn if Amazon bullies one or all the major publishers out of existence? They deserve it for offering their authors such crappy terms, etc.” And I say this as a self-published author.
Because here’s the thing: unless you’re selling your copies of your self-published book out of the back of your van, you’ve signed contracts with distributors. If you’re smart, you’ve signed contracts with multiple distributors. And I damn sure hope you read all of those contracts. Every last word.
I’m not talking about hitting the highlights of your contract with Kobo or iTunes or B&N or Amazon. Not just “this is how much I make per copy sold” but “this is what I am allowed to do and when I am allowed to do it.” Being self-published doesn’t mean being independent. In fact, unless you’re selling all your books directly off your own website, you’re highly dependent and you need to know what you’ve agreed to do or not do. Your contract with your book’s distributor is not like the latest upgrade agreement to Microsoft Word. (Does anyone actually read those?)
The Ellora’s Cave lawsuit is about stopping a blogger from discussing news important to the publishing industry. Whether you happen to like that blogger, like that blog, like the authors or the publisher involved, it is vitally important that conversations on topic like this not be stifled. Because as an author, as a producer who creates the content, you’re at the mercy of your distributors. (Yeah, some people can make enough selling direct off their websites or out of the back of their vans. But I’m betting the vast majority of us can’t.) So if you don’t know whether your distributors are fiscally healthy, or sane, or if they give contract terms that are standard in the industry, you don’t know what you should sign. And that matters whether you’re traditionally published, self-published, or anything in between.
And your distributor contracts may change during the course of your career, so you can’t just sign and forget about them, either. You may not be interested in Ellora’s Cave, but if EC should win that lawsuit (highly unlikely, IMHO), other sites will be less interested in exposing failures of other distributors. Since you read your contract with your distributor, you saw the part where it says that they can change the terms when they like, right? Well, when those changes happen, you read the information they send you about it, but what if you don’t understand it exactly? If publisher-agnostic sites are frightened to speak up because of lawsuits, where do you go for help?
Now, of course, you have the right to pull your books out of distribution if you don’t like what what your distributor wants to do, but that’s about the only card you hold. Which is basically what’s going on with Hachette and Amazon right now. Amazon wants something and Hachette wants something else. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that. Stop for a minute and consider this: Hachette has thousands of authors, millions of dollars tied up in Amazon and they can’t get any traction in a negotiation. Do you think you will be able to if you decide you’d like to alter your deal?
I’m not a big fan of the Authors United approach. Their letter to Amazon’s board smacks of egoism and “special snowflake syndrome.” But I am even less a fan of monopsonies. I have said before that it is my absolute belief that if Amazon controls the book market, everyone—including self-publishers—will suffer. Why? Because it is not in the nature of corporations to offer favorable terms unless they absolutely have to.
This is essentially what happened with Audible—once Amazon/Audible controlled the audiobook market, they cut the royalties they gave producers/authors in half. Once they have the market, why should they pay more? And if they cut royalties, chances are authors will raise their book prices to make up some of what they lose. Which means consumer prices go up.
A competitive marketplace, with multiple distributors and lots of clarity and openness, where people are allowed to speak their mind and discuss the details of their contracts and sales, benefits everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer or a reader. Anything that stifles discussion or creates monopolies or monopsonies should be fought tooth and nail, no matter what your publishing path may be.