Ether for Authors: Is Amazon-Bashing Productive for Publishing?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

30 July 2013 iStock_000014274142XSmall photog trekandshoot texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Crazy from the Heat: When Anti-Amazon Posts Are ‘Stupid’
  2. Rejec­tion: Equal Oppor­tu­nity Stuff
  3. Crit­i­cism and Calvino: Classy and Contextual
  4. Conferences
  5. Last Gas: Book Cov­ers in Cahoots

Crazy from the Heat: When Anti-Amazon Posts Are ‘Stupid’

The words we constantly use and the narratives we write reinforce a drama of selfhood that we in the West complacently celebrate.

Tim Parks

Tim Parks

It’s thanks to our good colleague Sheila Bounford in the UK that I have that interesting observation from novelist Tim Parks to share with you. His essay, at Aeon Magazine, Inner peace (remember that stuff?) is a meditation on meditation.

And while my own monkey mind has never made me a very good candidate for meditation (just ask the long-suffering Bodhipaksa, who has tried everything but strangling me with a saffron sash to tame my chatter), Parks’ description of how we use our daily narratives seems to have special pertinence this week to the industry! the industry!

Parks puts it this way:

There is…much consolation taken in the way in which writing and narrative can transform emotional pain into a form of entertainment, wise and poignant in its vision of our passage through the world, intense and thrilled by its own intensity.

“Thrilled by its own intensity.” Ah, yes.

How ironic that so many who wrote around and about the new and deep discounts on some print books at Amazon picked up this term “quietly.”

Rich Smith

Rich Smith

Rich Smith at The Motley Fool had made it clear that Overstock.com’s foray into lowballing Amazon prices wasn’t quiet. In Overstock Undercuts Amazon.com, he writes:

Overstock declared yesterday that for at least “a limited time,” it intends to sell books to its online customers at prices “at least 10-percent below” what Amazon charges. As Overstock explains, it’s chopping the prices on literally hundreds of thousands of titles.

John Mutter

John Mutter

The “quiet” that wasn’t seems to have shown up first in John Mutter’s write at Shelf Awareness (they have, ahem, a Buddha in the logo), In Price War, Amazon Discounts Go Deeper Than Ever:

Yesterday Amazon.com quietly began discounting many bestselling hardcover titles between 50% and 65%, levels we’ve never seen in the history of Amazon or in the bricks-and-mortar price wars of the past.

Laura Hazard Owen

Laura Hazard Owen

Laura Hazard Owen got the “quietly” memo for her GigaOm piece, Amazon quietly slashes book prices to new lows in apparent competition with Overstock.com. As usual, Owen gives us more nuance than some.

Publishers Marketplace, however, notes that Amazon has offered similar discounts in the past when matching promotions from retailers like Walmart.

And:

In some cases, Amazon’s hardcover prices are below the prices it’s charging for Kindle books. Overstock does not sell ebooks.

Lisa Campbell

Lisa Campbell

Lisa Campbell at The Bookseller sweetly shot up a flare in London, smiling at us with her headline, Disquiet at heavy discounts from Amazon and Overstock:

Amazon has been accused of “quietly discounting” the prices of hardback books by up to 65% in the US. Amazon’s move comes in response to the launch of a competitive online retailer’s promotion offering 10% off the price of Amazon book prices.

And Owen’s reference to Publishers Marketplace is to Michael Cader’s typically adroit write, Amazon Matches Overstock Discounts; Adds Thousands of Warehouse Jobs, in which that institutional memory comes handily into play:

The hardcover discounts ranging between “50 percent and 65 percent” were reported as “levels we’ve never seen in the history of Amazon or in the bricks-and-mortar price wars of the past.” Except for, say, the last major hardcover price war, back in fall 2009, when Walmart.com challenged Amazon by selling the biggest releases of the holiday season at $9.99 and then $8.99 pre-order pricing (including such titles as Stephen King’s $35 hardcover UNDER THE DOME). Amazon and Target.com both joined that price battle — and independent booksellers followed the logical course of ordering stock from the discounters instead of publishers, saving money over standard wholesale and building up their rivals’ losses.

Having his own wry way with the noisy “quiet” about this, Cader goes on:

Making things worse, Amazon was not quiet at all in issuing a press release Monday morning with the terrible news that it is “creating more than 5,000 new full-time jobs” at their expanding network of US distribution centers, expanding their current warehouse workforce of over 20,000 people. (They are also recruiting for 2,000 customer service positions.)

Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson

Of course, that’s not the kind of news Dennis Johnson at Melville House ever wants to hear. Amazonian job creation? No, no, no. This is the Bezosian Beelzebub we’re talking about and Johnson and his cohorts—while selling Melville House books on Amazon, as Tweet Maestro Don Linn loves to remind us—don’t seem to feel that a day is complete without slagging Seattle in a blog post. In (caps his) BREAKING NEWS: Amazon “declares war” on book industry, Johnson helps demonstrate how he’s become a near parody of himself, speculating on “a government-sanctioned Amazon.com (that) makes its move to cement its position as the most colossal monopoly in publishing history, and to savor the rewards.” More:

If this is indeed a sign that Amazon is playing out its end game, it’s happening much more rapidly than even we speculated, and with a dramatic dose of Amazon’s famous, always-surprising (in that it’s so unnecessary) thuggish chutzpah.

Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason

It’s all too much for Baldur Bjarnason, who dives into The FutureBook bloggeria to give us Amazon wages war against everybody, not just publishing. His opening assessment of Johnson’s Melville Housing:

The tl;dr version of my response is very very simple: Dennis’s blog post is stupid, pay it no heed.

 

Baldur dashes each of Johnson’s assertions in turn, including:

If Amazon has declared war against the publishing industry, then it has declared war against the film and music industry as well. Just browse through Amazon’s list of most popular TV series DVD collections and you’ll find discounts in the range of 30–69%. Amazon discounts popular goods aggressively. That’s what it does.

And:

Aggressive pricing (i.e. discounting away your own margins) is not only legal, it’s standard practice for big retailers of all stripes (Amazon, Walmart, Tesco, etc.).

And:

Amazon is both discounting more heavily and discounting less. Both at the same time. As publisher settlements unfold and agency agreements fade away, Amazon is slowly applying its standard pricing tactics, the ones it uses in every other product category, to ebooks.

Judith Rosen

Judith Rosen

But meanwhile, over at Publishers Weekly, Judith Rosen blesses us all with the sober headline Does President Obama Hate Indie Bookstores? Who needs tabloids? Rosen is riffing on Obama’s scheduled speech at Amazon’s Chattanooga fulfillment warehouse. She writes in her article, which goes down much more “quietly” than that headline, of course:

Obama is scheduled to speak about boosting U.S. manufacturing and high-wage jobs at the Amazon plant, which employs roughly 1,700 workers, but indies feel the visit is a slap in the face to an industry still reeling from a federal court’s ruling less than three weeks ago on e-book pricing. That Obama’s Amazon warehouse visit dovetails with news of the discount war between Overstock and Amazon, is not helping the administration’s image with the independent bookselling community.

 

The idea of the Obama appearance at an Amazon site may have Johnson at Melville House soaking the torches in whale oil. He writes:

Does the president really want to promote his jobs program by aligning himself with a company famous for stationing ambulances at the back doors of its warehouses instead of improving working conditions, or that hires neo-Nazis to provide security at those warehouses, or that has a class-action lawsuits pending against it here and abroad for other unseemly labor practices?

AmazonBut it’s Cader at Publishers Lunch whose write gently sets aside idea that the presidential convoy may go bombing past corner bookshops on its demonic rendezvous at the Cauldron in Chattanooga:

We should remember that Obama has also visited independent bookstores the last two Small Business Saturdays, and for years has been photographed on multiple shopping trips to local bookstores.

That level-headed Cader just takes the fun right out of the hyperbole and fearmongering, doesn’t he?

Chris McVeigh

Chris McVeigh

Don’t worry, here’s Chris McVeigh now at FutureBook to follow Bjarnason, with Jeff Bezos Ate My Hamster, ready to get ’em all squealing again about “Bezos the Bogeyman”:

Sometimes you’re damned if you do, sometimes you’re damned if you don’t but if you’re Amazon it turns out you’re just damn well damned. Look at these two headlines from the widely referenced Melville House blog.  7th July 2013 – ‘Monopoly achieved: An invincible Amazon begins raising prices’ 27th July 2013 – ‘BREAKING NEWS: Amazon “declares war” on book industry’ Two headlines, twenty days apart – the first slamming Amazon for raising prices, the second slamming Amazon for lowering prices – each article trumpeting these facts as immutable proof that Amazon is an evil behemoth determined to bring the publishing industry to its’ knees (again).

McVeigh is working to get everybody closer to something with a little umbrella in it (on the rocks, please, Chris), and if there’s a very cool pool nearby, that would be good, too:

Here’s a simple truth at the heart of all arguments about Amazon’s ultra-efficient pricing tactics – once a publisher sets a book price and agrees a discount with Amazon – the publisher will receive that price regardless of the profit or loss that Amazon makes on that product.

Let me spell that out, just to be clear.

If a publisher prices a book at £10 and agrees to sell that book to Amazon for £5 (50% discount) the publisher will receive £5 whether Amazon sells that book for £8 or £4 (or indeed £0.20).

And as the blood pressure dips for a moment there—”Amazon’s ultra-efficient pricing tactics are not targeting publishers, they’re targeting other retailers”—imagine how much energy has gone into these several days’ commentary and concern (anew) about Amazon.

What else might have been done with that time and creativity? A few book sales? A bit of progress on this manuscript or on that book-marketing plan?

The novelist Parks is waiting for us.

Narrative is so often the narrative of misery and of the passage through misery…So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

From Chris McVeigh's post at The FutureBook: the Satan of Seattle.

From Chris McVeigh’s post at The FutureBook: the Satan of Seattle.

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Rejec­tion: Equal Oppor­tu­nity Stuff

I have never, not in 20 years, sold a book that didn’t receive multiple rejections in addition to the offer or offers of publication that it received.   Even when I sell a book at auction, and there are multiple bidders, there are always also multiple passes.   Sometimes it takes two or three rounds of submissions to sell a book, in fact, and I can get up to 20 or 30 passes before I sell something.  So even the “success” stories are full of rejection.

Jenny Bent

Jenny Bent

Agent Jenny Bent in New York picks up where a lot of authors believe they got left off: At the point of rejection, the big “no” that everyone in creative endeavors encounters and wrestles with in one form or another.

This is what I want you to know about this:  we don’t like rejecting manuscripts!  Nothing makes me happier than requesting a manuscript, loving it, offering representation and then selling it.  It’s not a happy process to turn people down all the time and I don’t know a single agent who does like it. And here’s what I also want you to know about this: we understand rejection and we know how hard it is and how much it can hurt because we also get rejected all the time.

In fact, there’s such a thing as authors rejecting agents, Bent reminds us:

In the past few months, I have offered representation to two authors who I thought were absolutely terrific. Both of them had multiple offers of representation and both of them went with other agents. So not only I got rejected, but a bunch of other agents got rejected. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time for any of them and it won’t be the last time for any of us.

Bent’s piece, charmingly headlined Further thoughts on rejection, isn’t an effort to cry on your shoulder. It sounds almost as if she’s giving herself the same pep talk she wants authors to hear. And it might help a few writers to stop by the agency site and read the whole post.

As Bent puts it:

The very most successful authors and agents I know do not get fazed by rejection. Yes, it hurts.  Yes, it sucks. But if you don’t personalize it (it’s your book that got rejected, not YOU, is one helpful way to look at it), and you keep up the good fight, every single day, and you just keep trying as hard as you can, you are going to succeed.  I truly believe that.  I have certainly been laid low by rejection.  It’s battered at my confidence, I’m not going to lie.  But I have never, ever let it defeat me.

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Crit­i­cism and Calvino: Classy and Contextual

 

Calvino is something of an acquired taste. His novels are complex, puzzling and demanding: He came from a generation of writers who assumed among his readers a level of cultural, scientific, philosophical and historical literacy that isn’t nearly as prevalent today. That is not to say that Calvino can’t be appreciated by a contemporary reader. Quite the contrary.

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka

Amid the success of consumer reviewing, particularly as it pertains to books—and the rise of reader recommendation in such settings as Goodreads — there have been several conversations rolling along recently about the place and purview of the original: literary criticism. In Writing on the Ether: Let’s Review Criticism, for example, a robust comment-chat took up some of the issues around questions of how we’re to think of criticism, reviewing, and recommendation going forward—how are they alike, how are the not? In Calvino’s Letters and Why Real Writing Defies Deletion, Publishing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Edward Nawotka reminds us of one of the best elements of true criticism: the context with which it can carry forward and even finely cushion the value of material with which a reader may not be familiar:

When the Italian writer Italo Calvino suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1985, the national newspapers ran daily updates on his condition. When he died two weeks later at a hospital in Siena, he was 61 years old and among the most admired post-World War II Italian intellectuals and revered around the world.

Nawotka needs only a few strokes to capture for you the value of the artist at hand:

“Italy went into mourning, as if a beloved prince had died,” Gore Vidal wrote of the funeral.

 


And with equally economical touches, Nawotka frames for you several of Calvino’s most compelling works:

Calvino’s famous work Invisible Cities comprises a series of 55 portraits of mysterious cities as told to the Tatar emperor Kublai Khan by the Venetian explorer Marco Polo. The city of Zoe, for example, is described as place of “indivisible existence, where every activity that is possible is happening at all times, but creates such a cacophony that all the voices and people become indistinct.”

Could you think of a better description of our media-saturated world?

Italo Calvino LettersIn his critique of Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, Nawotka points out that there may be fewer such events as Princeton University Press’ publication of this collection.

Today, everything is quickly lost to the ether of the electronic domain. Letters, when they were written by literary masters, were essays in and of themselves. Email is a pragmatic form and highly disposable (just hit delete); social media, be it Facebook, Twitter or a blog post, merely masquerade as intimate or personal, but how can they be when they are intended for an audience of many (your friends or followers) or even millions?

Letters, on the other hand, have an audience of one; they represent one mind speaking to another. This very notion was not lost on Calvino.

Indeed, Nawotka gets swiftly to the core of the debate raised by several of us this weekend at Writer Unboxed: are we losing track of what we’re writing about as our obsession with our markets and our strategies take over?

Nawotka:

Writing is a medium for more than mere commerce, self-promotion or letting our spouse know we’ll be picking up the kids at the pool at 5.

I commend his critique to you. Unlike the haphazard slapdash of email, “Real writing,” Nawotka tells us, “defies deletion.”

So does authentic criticism.

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Conferences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.  Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

Willamette Writers ConferenceAugust 1-4 Portland Oregon: Willamette Writers Conference: “You cope all year with the creative isolation that’s part of the writer’s journey. Our annual conference is an opportunity for you to meet and exchange ideas with hundreds of other writers, to hone your craft, find expert advice, sell your work and get your creative juices flowing, and to pitch your ideas to literary agents, film managers, and editors. Inspiration is what it’s all about.” Faculty includes Larry Brooks, Ray Rhamey, Cynthia Whitcomb.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. The Publishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West: “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions.  (Hashtag: #SWCW13) Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013

October 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2

October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial  and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time this year by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by Hypothes.is and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and Craig Mod.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”
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Last Gas: Book Cov­ers in Cahoots

These crop up all the time.

Luke Lewis

Luke Lewis

Except for some brief captions, that’s all the text it takes Luke Lewis, UK Editor for BuzzFeed, to roll out 19 Book Cover Clichés well worth any time you can spare from bashing Amazon.

I’ll offer you just a few of the triptychs Lewis gives us.

Check them all when you have a chance—and consider how many red-faced cover designers must be scowling at these smart takes.

I’ve mentioned in earlier gassings of the Ether how much more I like the UK cover (left) than the lingerie-and-X-Files US cover for J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling:

Cuckoo Comparison CoversBut now, I have to confess that the UK cover I prefer falls right into Lewis’ category of “Scary Silhouette Man” covers:

From: BuzzFeed

From: BuzzFeed

In fact, that UK cover also gets going with some of what Lewis calls the “Man Lurking by Fence” covers:

From: BuzzFeed

From: BuzzFeed

And, oh, shoot, he got it with his “Add Fog for Period Effect” covers, too:

BuzzFeed Add Fog for Period Effect covers

From: BuzzFeed

Then there are the “Woman Looking Out Over Water” covers:

From: BuzzFeed

From: BuzzFeed

And those “Woman With Luggage” covers:

From: BuzzFeed

From: BuzzFeed

You know, we’re always saying how creative we are in this business. Good thing we deal in text. Because our pictures may not be worth quite as many thousands of words as we like to think.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com.

Main image / iStockphoto: TrekAndShoot

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.