Amazon, Hachette, And Giant Stompy Corporations

People keep wanting me to have thoughts on Amazon versus Hachette.

And I do! I do have thoughts. They careen drunkenly about like bumper cars.

I feel like this Slate piece by Evan Hughes kinda tells it fairly true.

I like a lot about Amazon. Amazon is one of my publishers. They’ve treated me well and treated my books well and — whaddya want me to say? They’re cool, I’m happy. (And expect me to be promoting my newest with them soon enough.) I also like that Amazon was one of the only companies that saw the Internet as an opportunity rather than a storm that would one day pass. The Kindle is great. They gave life to indie publishing — life it hasn’t had in a hundred fucking years. They put books in hands, man. They get books to people who don’t have bookstores nearby.

But, Amazon also scares me. They have a lot of power. They’re erratic. Some of the company’s behavior could easily be called “bullying,” and who likes bullies? Uh, yeah, nobody likes bullies. And right now they’re going nose-to-nose in the prison-yard with Hachette which means authors — some of whom I’m friends with — are getting shanked in the kidneys and left bleeding on the shower floor with delayed shipping times or lost pre-orders or whatever.

I like Hachette, too. I love a lot of their books and authors. I mean, shit, I love publishers. We can bag on Big Publishing all we want, but at the end of the day you still have to look back and say, okay, all those books that I loved growing up — the ones that made me want to be a writer — they were published by, in most cases, big publishers. I know a lot of people inside publishing. They are frequently awesome people. They are frequently book-loving humans.

I also know that Hachette, along with other Big Publishers, sometimes do scary things. Sometimes they write scary contracts with creepy provisions. Sometimes they’re not forward-thinking. Some of them still treat the Internet like it’s a rash that needs medication.

So, while it’s really, really easy to fall prey to the narrative of Good versus Evil (with various Side-Takers and Zealots claiming different sides as good and different sides as evil), I think it’s vital to resist such lazy categorization. I’ve seen what indie authors call Amazon Derangement Syndrome, which is when folks in the traditional system decry anything Amazon does as being some kind of Lovecraftian Evil — any change in the way they do business is just them building a throne out of the bones of innocent children. But I’ve seen the opposite, too — where indie authors cannot abide criticism of Amazon, as if Amazon is like, a pal they hang out with at a bar somewhere. “Amazon will never betray me,” the indie author says, even as Amazon breaks a bar glass and quietly cuts off the indie writer’s fingers because it hungers for fingers.

(Tip for indie writers: giving all your eggs to the Amazon basket means Amazon gains a lot of power over you. And you may say, “Well, then I’ll just jump ship if they change the deal,” which is all well and good until you realize your investment in them also helped create market dominance for the Kindle device. That exit strategy from Amazon doesn’t look so awesome now, eh?)

Again, good, evil: both of these ways are lazy thinking. Amazon isn’t apocalyptic evil. It isn’t your religious savior, either. It’s just a big company whose goal is, y’know, to get bigger.

And the same goes for Big Publishing.

Let’s try this.

Think of big companies as:

a) giant monsters

and

b) bacterial colonies.

Two creatures of wildly different size, but each with notable behaviors.

The giant monster — a kaiju, let’s say — does what a giant monster does. It stomps around. It doesn’t stomp people because it hates people. It stomps people on the way to find its breeding ground or on the way to mate with a particularly saucy skyscraper. People end up stomped like grapes because the giant monster couldn’t see them. The bigger it gets, the more it loses sight of people. The more it loses sight of all the little things underneath it. (Like, say, book culture.)

The bacterial colony wants to grow. It wants to replicate. It is programmed to fill space, to colonize — in a way, like humanity has itself done. Given no competition, bacterial colonies bloat exponentially. Seeing competition, some bacteria cheat to become resistant to that competition. Being resistant to antibiotics, for instance, allows bacteria to enter a period of unfettered growth. An epidemic. A pandemic. A holy-fuck-a-demic.

Big companies — Amazon and publishers alike — are big monsters and little bacteria.

They want to grow.

They want to stomp.

It’s their nature.

Now, generally, big companies push against other big companies to create competition. And our own government, in theory, regulates big companies so that they don’t stomp everybody or infect everything or completely destroy all their competition. That’s in a perfect world, of course, because that certainly doesn’t seem to happen very much anymore. (Mini side rant: the American public is cast further and further apart from the political system. Meaning, companies are allowed to give money to government in order to influence government to give companies more freedom. As companies get more freedom, they can spend more money to influence government. It’s a circuitry loop that We The People are no longer a part of, and you can see it with food, medicine, health care, insurance, and even here in publishing. If you are totally averse to forms of governmental regulation, then you at least need to try to regulate how money gets into politics. Regulate that and a lot of other things will take care of themselves. End mini-rant.)

Big companies acting without mitigation is how you end up with tons of money spent on war but no money spent toward the health-care of its citizens. (If only we classified illness as a foreign combatant!) It’s how getting antibiotics out of our food is a glacially slow process, and it’s why the FDA has far less regulatory power than you prefer (or think).

Again, this isn’t because companies are evil.

It’s just because companies have the motivation to grow.

Which means, somewhere down the line, making money.

Amazon wants to make money.

Publishers want to make money.

You want things more cheaply.

And there, a digression:

Recently, with food, I’ve come to understand that sometimes, food shouldn’t be cheap. This is a very privileged perspective, I recognize, but here’s the thing: food is something vital you’re putting in your body and cheap food isn’t often good food — at least, not cheap processed food. The cheaper it is, the more corners have been cut to get it to you. And the less people have been paid and the more people have been removed from the equation, which means more people have less money which means those people need cheap food and once again the goddamn carousel goes ’round and ’round. But there’s been some pushback there and you have the rise of farmer’s markets. Some markets are small stands and farmer-driven and offer good real food at competitive prices and some are big affairs where rich people go to buy purple broccoli because, I dunno, it’s fucking purple. All of that is good. It’s good we can shop at Wal-Mart, or a grocery store, or a farmer’s market, or a farm stand. The spectrum is necessary. The problem is when that spectrum is weighted too heavily — and that’s what’s starting to happen with book culture.

Books are food for our mind. A strained, mawkish metaphor, but true (for me) just the same.

Food is bad when it’s too expensive, but problematic when it gets too cheap.

We need that spectrum.

And books are like that, too.

When advocating for indie bookstores, it’s tricky because you can’t just say, “You should pay more for books.” “Why?” “Because indie bookstores.” “But why?” “Uhhh. Something-something freedom?” How do you convince people to spend more money just because?

Here’s why.

You pay more sometimes because you’re supporting an indie bookstore you love. (And if you do not love it, if you don’t feel that the bookstore is good to you or is worth supporting, don’t do it. Indie bookstores aren’t awesome just because they’re indie.) Good indie stores support a community. They bring authors and readers together. They foster book clubs. They create a curated environment for people and full of people that love books. IT’S LIKE MAXIMUM BOOKAWESOME UP IN THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS. And so, we support them.

We also pay more sometimes because it contributes to the health of the whole. It’s worth realizing that you can price yourself out of existence. You can make books so cheap that it’s very hard for the entire industry to survive. You can also salt the earth for everybody else so that only one provider exists — and that one content funnel can then set the rules for how everything is done. Books and book culture are threatened by carelessness and monoculture. Just as it is with antibiotics or food production or global warming, sometimes we need to think beyond our own margins and to the health of the thing outside of us.

This isn’t to say you should eschew Amazon entirely. (I still buy there. I still publish there.) Or that publishers are somehow charity organizations who have only your best interests at heart. Publishers, as with Amazon, are filled with people who are awesome. But they are companies who fill spaces like floodwater, who do what they must not only to survive but to excel. And it’s also not to say that Barnes & Noble is the best thing ever because hey, they’ve done this same shitty thing to authors and publishers — just recently with Simon & Schuster. It’s not even to say that indie bookstores are unilaterally beneficent creatures — because I publish with Skyscape/Amazon, I’ve actually received some overtly shitty treatment from a handful of bookstores by dint of being associated with Amazon. (One store outright banned me with great anger and vehemence.)

Listen. Amazon has seized on opportunities that have sometimes been rejected by book publishers — and book culture is the stakes on the table to be won or lost. Amazon cares about content and low prices. Big Publishing cares about preserving its own culture and relevance. Readers and authors are left in the middle.

So, what the fuck do you do?

I will scream this until my throat collapses, but:

Diversify.

I think that as readers and authors our best bet is to continue to diversify how we write books, how we publish books, how we buy books, and how we read books. We should get shut of the idea of MORE CHEAPER BIGGER FASTER and reject the idea that stories are just “content.” We should then ask how to foster competition both by voting with our dollar and by voting with our actual goddamn votes. We should think about books less as personal entertainment devices or as content blobs and think of them as parts of a whole — as parts of a culture beyond just self-satisfaction. Thus we support stories and storytellers all around the world. Books: vital for our mind as food is vital for our bodies. An old, outmoded idea, maybe. But one I believe in just the same.

We should shop at multiple locations. Buy all kinds of books from all kinds of authors. Buy traditional. Buy indie. Publish that way, too. Go everywhere. Try it all.

Do not be married to a single ecosystem.

Fuck the monoculture.

And, while we’re talking about Hachette authors —

Hachette books now have their own dedicated digital storefront at Books-A-Million.

B&N is doing a Buy 2 get one free deal on Hachette books.

Hell, Wal-Mart smells blood, too, and are offering many Hachette books at 40% off.

Or, you could always go to your friendly neighborhood indie bookstore.

You have seen Indiebound, right?