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The Year of the Unlimited Free Ebooks Brought to You By Amazon.com
c is for cat

So let me get this straight.

Amazon would like to offer a Netflix-like subscription to unlimited ebooks for its Prime members. Business sites are all over the publishing companies to comply–after all, what’s a little monopoly between friends?

But as an author this stinks to high heaven. You know, that place where Borders is chilling on a cloud and crying into its celestial beer.

See, there’s no mention of author benefit–everyone is talking about the publishers and how they need to get with the times. But how, exactly, would we be compensated for this? Since it’s for their Prime members, who as Netflix has seen, would howl over a price hike, it’s possible this will just be lumped in, wrecking ebook sales and contributing further to the idea that the ideal cost for a book is $0.00. Not to mention the number this does on libraries.

Now, I get that ebooks are happening whether anyone likes it or not. And I get that subscriptions have worked for other media–I use my Netflix like anyone. But there’s a reason Netflix has a quite limited streaming selection, and it’s losing, not gaining, content. This is not because Netflix hates you and wants you to suffer. It’s very hard to get those licenses because it’s not a very good deal for the content creators and distributors. And it costs a lot of money to manufacture the level of quality content people expect. Now, it’s axiomatic that the middleman sucks and should be shot (except The Middleman, who is awesome) but to be quite frank, they serve a purpose, and while I’d like to see their tactics changed, I would not like to see them vanish entirely. They are also human, and in publishing they do the great good work of sifting wheat from chaff, editing and packaging the wheat and making sure the wheat can spell, while getting shit on from every side. (I would also like to see real competition for Netflix, who is a middleman, too, don’t be fooled. They’re just a very hands-off middleman. But until you can write a check to Matt Weiner for Mad Men, you are still using a middleman. However, as I’m going to say a lot, no one company should be the single portal for information of any type.)

So, let’s hear how this is anything but a grab for more rights for less money? Will Amazon be paying lump sums for licenses? Will authors see even one cent of that? Will we be paid per download? If they aren’t charging much more than Prime services already cost, who will be paying us? Anyone? Bueller? What about books already in print? Will we be paid for joining the service or just told our major problem is obscurity and we should be grateful?

But the business rags don’t care about that stuff. They’re too busy bizarrely cheerleading Amazon’s attempt to become an almost total media monopoly. And in a stroke of PR genius, Amazon has indie authors on their side, convinced Amazon is their friend, a champion of the little people, and a stand-up guy, willing to stick it to the mean old publishers. (Who sinned in not publishing literally everyone and deserve to be skewered, I guess?)

Hoggle is Hoggle’s friend. Amazon is no one’s friend. They want to control the ebook market. They’re pissed they don’t control the music and movie market to the extent they’d like to. They are nearly there with books, and having destroyed bookstores, they’re now after libraries and quite possibly just really interested in becoming the only publisher there is. Don’t think no one over there has thought of simply replacing the whole publishing apparatus with Amazon.com. And a lot of people would wave their pom-poms for that.

The fact that a company that tried to punish Macmillan simply for not kowtowing to them immediately is considered worthy of trust is laughable. These guys are thugs. It’s an awfully nice industry you got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.

I don’t actually feel like helping them to my own detriment, and don’t see why I or anyone else should be jumping at what looks like a shitty, shitty deal for content creators, libraries (I do not want libraries to die, you guys. And they let you borrow unlimited books FOR FREE. And pay for their copies. In fact, library sales are a huge part of a book’s life, particularly in the YA and children’s market. Oh and BY THE WAY. Poor people can use libraries. Not just us geekelites who can afford ereaders and subscriptions.) If I see people actually discussing what authors get out of this beyond that age-old gold standard EXPOSURE ZOMG! I’ll listen. For awhile. But here’s the rub.

To some extent this is already a thing. Libraries, yes, but also Baen Webscriptions and other services. Why not let Amazon in on that game?

It’s different because it’s Amazon. This is a company that has shown itself to be unscrupulous in its dealings with publishers time and time again. It’s being friendly to authors now, but it was friendly to publishers and bookstores for awhile too. Amazon is way more than an 800 pound gorilla. They want to be the only way you access books. That is good for no one. No one source should have that much power, or else you end up in a situation where if, say, Amazon doesn’t like queers, they can kill all their books and no one can say anything. They don’t think erotica should get ranked with “normal” books? They don’t. Amazon wants to remotely delete something you paid for? It’s deleted. This has already happened. More power to those people? I don’t think so. No single company should have the influence they want. You think it’s bad that there’s so few publishing companies? At least there are six.

Amazon knows they have the market share and presence to make competition basically a grassroots joke. They do not care. They do not care about you and they do not care about your (or my) indie cred and to be quite frank they could give a shit about books. That’s your dream. They’re happy to sell anything, it doesn’t matter what it is. (Clearly. I just bought a chicken nesting box from them. They just want to be where you shop, and by and large they are succeeding. Awesome?) This is about control of information and money. And I may have to knuckle under when my contracts come due but I do not have to be their cheerleader in the meantime.

I’m not saying they’re evil–well, maybe a little, but no more than any company. They simply want to grow. You know, like any organism. Without heed for the survival of any other organism. They will probably get this because no one, not least our rusty-ass anti-trust laws, stands up to them with any conviction. But to be honest, I am puzzled at people’s desire to be fish flakes for the Sarlaac. I am continually horrified at the rush to love and defend Amazon because of their current stance on self-publishing. Emphasis on the current. Yay! My book is on Amazon and I get 70%! Fuck everyone else! No, literally fuck them. Let us take to our blogs and cheer, just squeal with delight, for every job lost in a library or publishing company, large or small, every janitor at Random House and editor at Harper Collins, every librarian who gets kids to read, because Amazon loves us with its big fuzzy heart and will always, always treat us with dignity and fairness. Just show me where to sign that exclusive contract. And if I need an agent, why, Amazon can be my agent! They’re sure to give themselves a good deal. (Again, already happened.)

And the publishers had better just sign where they’re told to. After all, those dinosaurs had better get with the times. And the times, it seems, are called by Amazon. It’s the Year of the Unlimited Free Ebooks Brought to you by Amazon.com, as our late great David Foster Wallace would say. Enjoy it.

And as far as self-publishing, which can be and is laudable and valuable, well, give it time. It’s early yet on that beachhead, kids. If the last 15 years of the internet taught you anything, it should be that nothing open and good lasts forever, and corporations trend ugly over time. (I’m looking at you, Google.)  It has not been enough to consume bookstores, libraries, publishing companies, and any author not selling direct to Amazon are next. Amazon was a friend to all of these once. Trust me, you don’t want to live in the world Amazon wants to build.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

Ugh. This is awful. I hate the devaluing of writing that is going on.

Not very eloquent but oh, this makes me sad.

Now, I get that ebooks are happening whether anyone likes it or not.

I get it too, but I will continue to buy actual books before I buy ebooks until the day I'm forced to do otherwise.

But yeah, I don't see how Aazon's subscription plan for ebooks will benefit the authors in anyway. Are they expecting the publishers to pass on a cut of their proceeds from the subscription plans? Really?

What is this...I don't even... A year of free ebooks?! That is horrifying. Authors deserve to be paid well for their work.

Well-written entry, Cat. It's given me things to think upon.

I didn't literally mean it's a year--it would be perpetual, like Netflix. The year thing is a David Foster Wallace reference.

In this, the age of Groupon and all that, the benefits are being given to the consumer not the content producers. When content becomes either total shit then maybe people will pick up and notice that the distribution needs to be fairly between content creators and providers.

You note Groupon is losing money fast.

IMO they ARE in fact being evil. They want a monopoly on EVERYTHING. Their plan to fork off a proprietary branch of Android for their Kindle tablets, which they plan to sell at a loss so more people will buy them and get locked into them, is Evil.

Say what you will about Apple, it doesn't want to own the material you use on its devices; it "only" wants, in the words of the immortal Trek episode, "A Piece of the Action." Amazon's out to assimilate the entire infosphere. When you buy Apple, you *know* you're locking yourself into them to a certain degree; however, you do have a choice as to that degree. Amazon is stealthily trying to infiltrate everything from the ground up so folks don't notice until one day they wake up and realize that they're trapped in Bezos's Black Iron Prison.

And then there's Google, who wants a monopoly over a different set of the infosphere. Sigh.

I wish I had answers to any of these complaints. However, we're reliving the Robber-Baron days, and the contemporary Oligarchy consists largely of IT companies, not of industrialists.

(Deleted comment)
This is not democratizing. It is centralizing. There is a huge difference.

And yes, easy for people with money to get knowledge and education. What you're going to get is lost jobs AND lost knowledge. You always see the sunniest side, but a lot of the stuff i'm talking about has already happened.

We've disagreed on this before--I think you're being naive about what's being angled for here. And though I'm reasonably sure I will be able to make a living, it doesn't mean I shouldn't call shenanigans--and this is shenanigans by any measure.

(Deleted comment)
It’s the Year of the Unlimited Free Ebooks Brought to you by Amazon.com, as our late great David Foster Wallace would say.

This gave me chills. I was nodding along with the entire essay but this was a punch to the gut. Nothing gets me quite like a well-employed DFW reference because when it's on point, it's terrifying. And this was on point.


With regards to libraries you've missed the real problem. The REAL problem is our bullshit DRM laws. Libraries WILL have to come into the digital age, it's a question of "when" not "if". But, current DRM laws make combined with publishers greed / fear make it so that a library simply can't buy a an ebook that it can legally share, because few are available without DRM and you can't break it without breaking the law (even for personal use). So, they can't buy something they can share with library members.

Amazon is not the problem here. Libraries could exist just fine in the digital age if the DRM issue could be eliminated, and those are not Amazon's fault. Media companies just haven't grasped that selling items at a reasonable price without DRM removes the need to worry about serious amounts of piracy.

If you wanna bitch, bitch at the publishers, bitch at the politicians. Amazon offering unlimited books for a fee won't kill libraries. The legal inability to share media in the digital age will.

Want proof? Neither Spotify, Pandora, Napster, nor any of the others has even remotely begun to kill sales of mp3s, which means that Amazon Prime won't kill the sale of books.... but DRM laws have already killed the ability of libraries to do their job with digital media.

I think you forget how draconian Amazon's DRM was--it's where a lot of publishers got the idea.

This is also more complicated than you think--there must be some DRM or else it's not lending, it's a sale, and a sale for no money, because the file must go away at some point. That's necessary. I do agree that a revamp of the rules here is needed though.

Amazon, however, is still a problem.

I generally love you and your writing but I have a pretty strong personal rule that nobody who is not literally being tortured and murdered by the government should lift from Martin Niemoeller like that. Just strikes me as trivialisation.

I felt wonky about it, but it is what's happening, each layer of books and literature--that very thing that let MN say such words--being stripped away while everyone cheers. I beg his forgiveness.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
I’m not saying they’re evil–well, maybe a little

well I do.. and I do not buy from them. If actions speak louder than words, and Amazon's actions are to control all the words as it were, its becoming a Literary Reich. And they are the ones who want to be in charge.

You ended this entry about Amazon wanting to lend e-books with a modification of a poem about the rise of the Nazi party to power and the rounding up of Jews to take to the concentration camps.

It's been removed with apologies.

Where did you find out about this? I've googled and the only hit I get about this specific thing is your blog posts.


ETA: Ah. The "year of" was what confused google. I found the link: at PCWorld

Edited at 2011-09-13 04:46 pm (UTC)

Incidentally, if I had to guess, I'd forecast that the publishers still maintain control over digital distribution rights.

Amazon has e-lending NOW -- you can lend a book you own on Kindle to someone else with a Kindle, as long as the publisher has okayed it. Check your own books to see if they are "lending enabled."

This is not really person to person lending. It's a massive rights-grab. I want to see what's on offer--and I'll bet dollars to donuts it's not much for the author.

I'm aware of this, and quite frankly opposed to what Amazon is doing on many levels.

I also believe that the publishers have helped bring this on themselves. The over pricing of Ebooks the last few years, sometimes as expensive as buying it on paper or even more expensive in the case of back catalog, has made a lot of folks angry with them.

And authors are definitely going to be the ones who suffer for it.

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" - Yeats

Is there actually an announced plan? I've seen rumors galore, but nothing announcing what Amazon actually plans to do (or that the publishers have agreed to anything).

I doubt it, not from what John Scalzi said on his blog either which in the short bit he wrote he seemed to think it was a trial balloon sort of thing to see what the opinion was and he also said he didn't like it and he doubted that publishers actually owned any of the rental rights which puts this back in the authors' courts and as it didn't look like he had anything to earn from it, then he wouldn't be agreeing to it.

I really hope more authors go the route J.K Rowling did, and keep their ebook rights. I think selling their ebooks themselves would lead to that 'democratization' mentioned earlier.

JKR can do it because she sold the series before anyone cared about erights. Most of us cannot sell a book unless erights are bundled. I don't know the way out of this, but I wish there was one.

More and more I seen amazon referenced as the walmart of the internet with every level of pejorative meant. Like walmart they think life would be wonderful if they didn't have to pay those pesky employees and suppliers. They solved a big chunk of the employee side of the equation by not having a storefront. Now they are working on the supplier side of the equation. Considering that this is still in the rumor stage it is entirely possible that arrangements will be made that get the authors and publishers paid, however raising the hue and cry at this point makes it more likely.

Watching even reasonably successful writers scrape by has led me to the inescapable conclusion that writers should be paid more, not less, for their work. (While at the same time providing free access a la libraries to people who can't afford to pay for everything, because dude, culture.) What form that's going to take in this brave new digital world, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't look like this. People who wander on and on about how information wants to be free but never address how to continue to eat in such a society can go hang.

So trend ugly back.

Be ruthless in pursuit of your rights, because no one's going to be ruthless for you. Be like the RIAA. Be like the MPAA. Never give away a right. Never even sell it. Always rent. Always get an expiration date. Not a renegotiation clause. Not a "rights revert back when out of print" clause.

See, the problem isn't the particular deal that Amazon is offering publishers. The problem is that publishers are able to sign on the dotted line in the first place. Because as long as authors sign e-book right contracts that don't expire, they're going to get screwed. The market will change and they won't be able to take advantage. Their works will continue to generate income for the publisher without added cost to the publisher and they won't see any added benefit. The fact that corporations trend ugly and businesses are organisms that must grow means the author will be screwed in this situation. It's just a matter of how and when.

And the standard e-book contract really is forever. I'm told the big new trick is re-negotiation clauses which says that every x years if the publisher and author can't agree on new terms the book just gets pulled until they come to an agreement, but that benefits the publisher. Your baby is out of circulation. You're out a bigger chunk of your profitable portfolio than they are. E-book publishing is a number's game on the publishers' side. Every book they add to their portfolio is another chance for them to capture a buck or two, some fraction thereof going back to the author.

They get the majority of the proceeds, even long after the value they added to the book would have been paid off had it been work for hire. (Of course, even with an eternal library of e-books, not every book would pay off. But with the cost of printing and distributing that much closer to 0, more would.)

E-book deals like this tell the world that your work... the actual creative work you do as an author, the act of writing... is worth so little that the entity that agrees to act as a shopping cart deserves 90 or 70 or 60 percent of the money it generates.

This isn't "oooh, publishers are evil"... like you say, it's all organisms. Money's what it takes to get along. But you're wagging your finger at us indie authors for doing what it takes to get along while you're feeding yourself to organisms that directly profit from your continued focus on the "value" of your work in terms of the end price they sell it for rather than its actual worth to them and/or you as a money-generating property.

We're not assuming that Amazon's got our back or that the market's always going to be what it is right now. But it is what it is now, and we're in a position to take advantage of it. You're not. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself how you can be in the future when it changes again. No one's going to be ruthless on your behalf.

(Though those guilds and associations that "real" authors have might be able to stand in for a multitude authors being ruthless on their own behalves. You want to change this? You need to change the industry status quo so that authors own their works, forever... so that any e-book contract that doesn't let authors opt-out at will or have annual expiration is regarded as a scam and a fraud on the order of calls for submissions that ask you for a check up front to prove you're serious. That's what it's going to take.)

I think you have a strange idea of what a guild can do. Sure, SFWA could delist every publisher that doesn't administer eright seperately--that would be all of them, and SFWA would cease to exist.

I want the world where erights are administered like audiorights, I can sell them for more money if I like or keep them. But I don't really know how to make that happen. I try to keep rights on every book, never works.

And though you are very savvy, plenty of people assume Amazon is the second coming, and cheer for it to crush traditional publishing and authors alike, never considering what those contracts they sign with Amazon lock them into.

What kind of alternatives to Amazon would you recommend for authors currently looking into self-publishing?

I'd recommend reading Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blogs about self-publishing. They go into the numbers and how and where to e-publish your writing.

This may be a naive question, but does anything prevent authors from refusing to participate and instead following the direct-marketing sale of their content via their own web page, like JK Rowling (admittedly an 800 lb gorilla in her own right, so she's got powers most authors likely do not) is doing? It seems like the best solution to avoid being ripped off is simply not to offer your e-book on Amazon at all. But I admit I know next to nothing about modern publishing contracts and how all that works.

Absolutely nothing. It's more work--you either have to learn how to set up a website and payment system yourself, or hire someone to do it for you. But in the end it means you can capture 100% of the value of the book yourself. And if you don't want to go to all that trouble, I don't doubt that if/when Amazon gets greedy and wants to reduce the 70% cut that ebook writers get, other middlemen will leap to offer them better terms on new shopping sites. Or authors could band together to create joint sites of their own.

The same forces which have Amazon eating traditional publishing's lunch to a greater and greater degree mean that authors don't HAVE to deal with Amazon forever either. Many will, for the same reasons that many still deal with traditional publishers when indie publishing is a viable alternative. But they don't HAVE to.

Thanks for another thorough post about an important issue for readers and writers! I don't like this one bit. I've come to terms with eBooks in general but I WANT to pay for my books. I WANT to pay the authors. Your point about monopoly and censorship was probably the most disturbing. And it could happen so easily.

I already adored you, but this post makes me really want to go buy you a drink. Or five.

Especially this part: Amazon is their friend, a champion of the little people, and a stand-up guy, willing to stick it to the mean old publishers. (Who sinned in not publishing literally everyone and deserve to be skewered, I guess?)

Because, damn, people, gatekeepers really ARE your friends in many cases.

But yeah, too, too right on all points in here. Devaluing an author's work, not planning how content creators are to be compensated for all that there content to be marketed for cheap, making sure to become a media monopoly...ugh.

Because, damn, people, gatekeepers really ARE your friends in many cases.

Then authors have nothing to worry about, because those friendly publishers won't be entering into any deal with Amazon or anyone else that fails to represent their interests, right?

And if an author gave them electronic rights as part of a package deal with the print rights before Kindle was a thing, or before this was on the horizon, they can go to your friendly gatekeeper and say, "Look, we signed this deal based on a market reality that's no longer true. I'm concerned that I'm being shut out now. Can I please have the electronic rights back?", they will smile their most magnanimous smile and say "But of course!"

Any self-published indie author who gets anywhere doesn't believe the problem of publishers is that they don't let everyone in, because they know not everyone's going to succeed in self-publishing either. The market itself is always the ultimate gatekeeper and the only one that's really relevant.

I mean, literally anybody can publish a blog, but I'd hazard you have a number of blogs you follow/like to check and enjoy reading because they're well-written and/or speak on topics you want to read about. I'd wager you don't spend a major portion of your online time wading through mountains of crap any time you want to read a blog.

The logic that says we need publishers and agents and editors to act as gatekeepers tells me it's impossible that you're here reading this particular blog, that it's impossible that a person might have a whole roster of blogs they read regularly without being subjected to a ton of random crap.

The same is true of webcomics, and indie games, and anything else where there's a low/no barrier to entry and no centralized business entities.

And yet... the internet. It exists. It works. It's 99% crap but we don't care because we don't spend our time on the 99% of it that doesn't appeal to us. Nobody ever failed at webcomicking because there are too many crappy MS Paint comics on free hosts out there.

People are figuring this out. Heck, by the time the generation being born today is grown up and buying books, there won't even be anything to "figure out" because they're going to come up with the understanding that this is just how it is. Word of mouth, word of mouse, referrals from friends, searching tags, and "people who liked this also liked" links will give them a better-tailored stream of things that have been "gatekept" for them than the old way ever could.

The bottom line is that all publishing is vanity publishing. All publishing involves an author starting with 100% of their work and owning 100% of the money it generates and then buying services they can't or don't want to perform for themselves. If you're asking them to pay you the biggest cut of their work in exchange for Being Printed By A Real Publisher... well, I'd want to know who let you into the club and told you that you're A Real Publisher in the first place.

That's rude, I know, but if your business model depends on convincing people that just writing a book doesn't make them a book-writer, then I'd want to know what makes you a book publisher, because it clearly can't just be publishing books.

You're not a gatekeeper. Horrible things happen when agents and editors and publishers mistake themselves for gatekeepers. You're a provider of services. You can try to keep up the gatekeeper pose as the world changes, or you can make sure what you're offering are valuable services, make sure you're not asking more than they're worth, and make sure you're giving authors as fair a deal as you think you are.

Not only is the latter likely to be a better long-term business model (the generation of internet-using children born today are not going to grow up caring about your gatekeeping abilities), but it's a more respectable one and one that values authors more highly.

So that's what Golden Goose tastes like

As a consumer, I want my authors make a living, so they can write more books.

Amazon's plan might generate a million cheap first novels, some of which might be good, but for any author to grow as an artist they need to be able to spend time on their craft. They can't do that if they can't make a living.

Edited at 2011-09-13 06:53 pm (UTC)


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