Novelist

Barry Eisler: Attacks on Amazon Don’t Stand Up to Facts, Logic

By Jim Thomsen

Amazon has become the piñata of the publishing world. Or, at least, of those who believe the opposite — that publishing has become the piñata of the world’s biggest online bookseller.

The New York Times and its top media writer, David Carr, went on the offensive just a few weeks ago, as did august authors like Richard Russo and Scott Turow. In Seattle, the backlash has been particularly bombastic. The Seattle Times recently took some whacks in a series of news stories that specifically zeroed in on Amazon’s perceived bad corporate citizenship: a lack of brand-name philanthropic activity, sweatshop conditions in book-packaging warehouses, bullying book distributors and publishers into terms that erase their margins. Paul Constant, book editor for The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, has weighed in (“It’s never been this popular to be this critical about Amazon,” he wrote last week), and a recent column by Seattle bookseller and publisher Chad Haight tied together many of the critics’ concerns. And J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has made it clear that Amazon-published books won’t darken his Pioneer Square doorstep.

The simplest way to describe their distaste: these folks feel that Amazon’s heavy-handed discounting and distribution strategies put brick-and-mortar booksellers — and the “rich literary culture” they say these places foster — at a risk that many of us are not emotionally prepared to accept.

Amazon and its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, haven’t directly addressed the latest controversies over its perceived power-grabbing. The most recent: a Department of Justice finding that several top New York publishing houses colluded with Apple to fix prices on e-books — a finding that some suspect bears Amazon’s fingerprints.

Barry Eisler

But one person who is talking is an author who, a year before, fired what became known as “the shot heard ‘round the publishing world.” His message: There’s another side to the Amazon story. A side, he says, that benefits authors and readers — the people that he says matter most in the literary ecosystem.

Until March 2011, Barry Eisler was just another midlist genre author, publishing a well-selling, well-regarded series of international political thrillers based loosely on his years as a covert CIA operative in Tokyo. Then he catapulted to book-industry fame — or, more accurately, notoriety — when he turned down a half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press, electing to continue his John Rain series through self-publishing. Said respected industry analyst Mike Shatzkin at the time: “This is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk assessment.”

Eisler’s reasoning: he thought he could make more money and reach more readers on his own. It was a sentiment that many found unthinkable. How, they said, could Eisler spit on the system that put him on the New York Times bestseller list?

And scarcely had the echo of the reverberation from that announcement completed its global revolution than Eisler made another move that surprised many: he signed with Amazon’s mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer (one of five Amazon publishing imprints, it’s named for the streets that flank the company’s headquarters). Some accused Eisler of hypocrisy, but as he has made clear in numerous interviews and guest blogs, he’s a publishing agnostic, not an atheist or an apostate. He simply wanted the best deal as he defined it.

Last fall, Eisler published The Detachment, his first Thomas & Mercer novel. He’s also self-published a couple of Kindle singles and nonfiction books, and plans to keep a hand in self-pubbing. And he’s maintained his higher profile with dozens of interviews and guest blogs over the past year, sometimes lacing his commentary with incendiary language that sends the debates off the rails (some authors suffer from “Stockholm Syndrome” when it comes to their publishers, he’s said; and in one misstep for which he apologized, he used another writer’s words to say that some authors are “house slaves” for their publishing plantations).

Married to literary agent and author Laura Rennert, Eisler splits his time between homes in Menlo Park, Calif., and Japan. He’s also a regular on the writers’ conference circuit, and will be the keynote speaker this Saturday at the annual Field’s End Conference on Bainbridge Island, Washington (appearing alongside local literary luminaries Bruce Barcott, Jonathan Evison, David Guterson and Susan Wingate). The topic of his Field’s End talk: “The New World of Publishing: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t, and What It All Means for Us Writers.”

Eisler agreed to field some questions on that topic in advance:

You, along with your friend, author Joe Konrath, seem to have become the de facto spokesmen for independent-minded book publishing, if not independent publishing itself. Why you, and not any of a zillion other (often struggling) genre midlist authors out there?

I think turning down that half-million-dollar St. Martin’s Press two-book offer made for a powerful sound bite — “Author turns down $500,000 to self-publish instead!” — and the right sound bite can powerfully propagate a message.  Also, I think the news felt like some sort of milestone on the road to the digital publishing future (publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin said as much).  And I’ve been pretty vocal online and at conferences in sharing my thoughts about how the book world is changing and how those changes will affect readers, authors, bookstores, agents, and publishers—starting with a long dialogue with Joe announcing my decision to eschew the big advance in favor of self-publishing, instead.  No one has been more vocal (or, in my opinion, more insightful) than Joe about the new world of publishing, and he and I have done enough joint posts on his extremely popular blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing that I think some of his “spokesperson” status has rubbed off onto me.

I should add that although the flack is not insubstantial, the positive feedback I get from authors who’ve found my commentary useful far outweighs it, quantitatively and qualitatively.  It’s gratifying to know that along with authors like Bella Andre, Blake Crouch, Lee Goldberg, J.A. Konrath, M.J.  Rose, and many others, I’m helping to blaze a trail I believe will ultimately be a big boon to all authors.

 

Why was Amazon and its Thomas & Mercer imprint the right choice for you over self-publishing or a Big Six publisher?

When Amazon heard about my decision to self-publish, they got in touch and said they thought there was something interesting we could do together that would represent the best of both worlds, indie and legacy.  For more on that decision, I recommend a free, downloadable book I wrote with Joe Konrath called Be The Monkey: A Conversation About The New World Of Publishing. It’s based on that initial long online conversation Joe and I did announcing my self-publishing decision, incorporates two other long dialogues we did about publishing generally, and has chapter headings and links to make it a little easier to use as a reference. (Whatever you do, don’t click on the links to the monkey/frog videos, which many people find offensive!)

When I announced I was turning down the SMP offer, I gave three general reasons: 1) a better digital split than the 17.5 percent all legacy publishers currently offer in lockstep, with resulting increased long-term profits; 2) control over business decisions, including packaging and pricing; and 3) faster time to market for digital (that is, no more slaving the timing of the digital release to the timing of the paper). Those were my objectives, and I believed self-publishing was a better way to achieve them. But then Amazon approached me with what I judged to be an even better way to achieve those objectives, so I went with Amazon (and I have to say, my experience with Amazon has been overwhelmingly positive, both the process and the results; it hit #1 in the Kindle Store and #6 on both the Wall Street Journal digital list and combined list).

As a pragmatic businessperson, I thought the switch in tactics made perfect sense. As I’ve said many times, publishing for me is a business, not an ideology, and when I find better ways to achieve my objectives, I’ll use them. I should add that I now have four self-published works that are doing very well for me, so despite having published The Detachment with Amazon, I’m still self-published — just as I’m Amazon-published and legacy-published. Authors are not living in an either/or world, nor, in my opinion, should we be.

There’s also a more general reason Amazon made sense for me, and one I think it’s important that all authors understand — especially authors like me whose sales are booming in digital and shrinking in paper.

Unlike in paper, where an author needs a distribution partner to cost-effectively reach a mass market of readers, in digital a lone author has exactly the same ability to distribute as any New York-based, multi-million-dollar multinational conglomerate. This is a huge, foundational change in the publishing business, and, surprisingly, one I think is not yet adequately understood. For digital distribution, legacy publishers offer zero value (I’m not talking about editing, marketing, and other value-add services, only about distribution, which is the core value-add of legacy publishing). In digital, an author can distribute 100 percent as effectively alone as she can with a legacy publisher.

What all this means to me is that, in a digital world, the primary value a publisher can offer an author is direct-to-consumer marketing. And this is why Amazon is so strongly positioned to succeed in digital publishing: its book business is built on its ability to reach tens or even hundreds of millions of readers directly by e-mail. Amazon marketing is both exceptionally focused (book buyers) and exceptionally broad (tens or even hundreds of millions of customers).  Entities that can offer authors compelling direct-to-consumer marketing value will be in a good position to take a cut of the profits.

Interestingly, there’s one particular group of companies that lacks any meaningful direct-to-consumer marketing ability. That group is New York publishing. Draw your own conclusions.

 

Can you give an example or two of how dealing with your Amazon team has been a markedly different experience than dealing with a Big Six team?

Well, Amazon was comfortable with letting me decide on all packaging decisions—cover, title, jacket copy, everything. Not that we didn’t confer on all of it, and when we did, that was different, too, because the Amazon people added a lot of value to those conversations. And though price and format were up to Amazon, they consulted carefully with me on these, too, and their philosophy was refreshing. They wanted to go with the format (hardback, trade paper, whatever) and the price that would produce the greatest revenues overall, and there was no concern about “devaluing books” or protecting the primacy of paper by overpricing and holding back the digital release.

 

In a recent interview with novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde, you shared an anecdote about a high-powered literary agent approaching you at a writers’ conference and telling you that she and her fellow agents “hated” you. Being annoyed with you is one thing, but what do you think accounts for such a personal, visceral response?

Not just her fellow agents—the word she repeatedly used was “everyone!”

I think it’s just a classic “shoot the messenger” reflex. A lot of people in the industry react to my take on what’s happening in the industry the way a patient reacts to a doctor who’s just made a cancer diagnosis. That’s never welcome news, but here, it’s even worse, because many people feel on some level that my diagnosis is actually causing the cancer—as in, “If this guy would just shut up, everything would be fine!” If that’s how you feel, then of course my speaking out is going to feel intensely personal. It’s not logical, but it’s a human reaction and I get it.

 

Many of your biggest critics have been authors. It seems surprising that they would defend a business model that caps their earnings at 17.5% of every digital book sale, when you’ve labored hard to make clear that there are alternatives that allow them the opportunity to earn a lot more money. What is the psychology behind this reflexive protectionism?

It’s a great question and I talked about it in the interview with Catherine, too. For me, more choice is an inherently good thing.  It’s just intrinsic and axiomatic to my personality—I want choice because it gives me greater flexibility, increased power, and a better likelihood of achieving the outcomes I want. And my fundamental message to authors has been pretty simple:

“Hey, for the first time, we authors have real choices. We can stay with the legacy model, we can self-publish, and we can go with the Amazon hybrid or ‘new’ publishing paradigm, which is based more on direct-to-consumer marketing than it is on distribution.  We can publish some of our works via one route, and other works via another. We have more choice, and that’s giving us more power. Isn’t that awesome?”

But obviously not all authors share my take. Primarily I think this is because with choice comes responsibility, and many people are comfortable with a lack of choice precisely because that lack confers the luxury of avoiding the responsibility that comes with choice.  So when I say, “You have a choice!”, many authors hear, “Now you are going to be responsible for the outcome!” And they don’t like that.

Other authors who think they disagree with me might not understand what I’ve been saying.  Sometimes I get called a “cheerleader for Amazon” and things like that, but as I note above, I think it’s more accurate to say I’m a cheerleader for more author choice.  But passions run pretty high about these topics, and I think for some people it’s just easier and more comforting to dismiss me as an Amazon or self-publishing shill than it is to listen to and respond to what I’m actually saying.

 

One point that Authors Guild President Scott Turow and other defenders of traditional book publishing and bookselling keep coming back to is the idea that the status quo fiercely supports “rich literary culture.” What is “rich literary culture”?

What’s really going on is just a dodge. People like Turow and Richard Russo can’t deny that by offering lower prices, unmatched selection, and unparalleled convenience, Amazon is serving readers. And they can’t argue that by offering Amazon-published and self-published authors anywhere from a 35% to 70% digital split—meaning twice or even four times the 17.5% legacy publishers offer—Amazon is serving authors. They can’t argue these things, and so they try to change the subject. One way of changing the subject is to make bizarre claims such as “Amazon is destroying bookselling!” Another is to refer to amorphous but important-sounding concepts like Rich Literary Culture (because, come on, who could be against that, whatever it is) and to suggest that Amazon is destroying that, too.

As George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” When people avoid real argument in favor of bloviatation about Rich Literary Culture and the like, I always see a spurting cuttlefish.

 

J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has been outspoken in his insistence that his store won’t stock titles from Amazon imprints like Thomas & Mercer. His position can be summarized as “Why should I stock books from a company that is hell-bent on destroying my business?” What would you say to him?

The first thing I’d say is, J.B., I miss you guys! The Seattle Mystery Bookshop is a great store and enjoyed all the signings I’ve done there. After that:

“J.B., I think the ‘hell-bent on destroying my business/bookselling generally/all bookstores/all publishers/all merchants/Rich Literary Culture/etc’ is a hyperbolic straw man that obscures what’s really going on. Which is actually pretty simple: the legacy publishing world of which you are a part is about preserving the position of paper through high prices and an inefficient system of heavily controlled distribution. The Amazon model is about lower prices and greater efficiency. Of course I have my opinions about which system better serves readers and authors overall, but that’s not the point. The point is, no one’s waging a vendetta. It’s just different players trying to implement different business strategies.

“Now, I get that you don’t like the Amazon model any more than a record store owner liked the advent of digitally delivered music. And while I don’t think it’s generally a good business move to boycott items your customers might otherwise want to buy from you, I also appreciate that not all decisions have to be financially sound. I get that you feel what’s going on in the book world has ethical and other dimensions that go beyond business, and I respect that you might be boycotting Amazon-published books in spite of the impact on your business because you feel ethically bound (however misguidedly, in my view) to do so.

“If you’re boycotting Amazon-published books knowing that doing so is bad for your business but believing doing so is correct ethically, I respect your decision even though I don’t agree with the basis for it. But if you think the boycott is a sensible business move, I wish you would reconsider. I like your store a lot and would like to see you roll with the changes.”

 

You’ve talked a lot about what traditional publishers need to do to survive this paradigm shift in their industry. Any thoughts as to what brick-and-mortar booksellers can and should do?

Almost a year ago, Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch wrote a five-point business plan for indie booksellers. They offered to sell their books direct to indies at low wholesale prices.  No one contacted them. It was an excellent plan and I wish someone had taken them up on it.

 

Also locally, Northwest “Book Lust” icon Nancy Pearl has been castigated by Seattle book-industry folk for making a deal with Amazon to revive out-of-print titles she touts as essential reading—even though every other publisher turned down her idea when she shopped it to them. The attitude seems to be: “It’s better to keep readers from seeing these books at all than to deliver those books to them through Amazon.” What do you think fuels that mindset?

Have you ever seen the cartoon of the mouse flipping off the swooping hawk in one last gesture of futile defiance?  I think there’s some of that going on.

But it’s also a consequence of the “Amazon is the devil” arguments people use in place of actual thought. Once you demonize an opponent, whether in business or in politics, you’re then bound by the human desire for consistency to never admit anything positive about the demon you’ve insisted on. Amazon’s low prices? Not a boon to readers but an insidious assault on other booksellers! Amazon’s higher royalties?  Empowering authors today only to set them up for emasculation tomorrow! Publishing books that everyone else had turned down and that therefore without Amazon never would have been as widely received? Perfidy!

Or something. Some of these arguments get a little hard to follow.

 

You’ve read The Seattle Times’ recent series of stories about Amazon. What did you make of those stories?

I found them incredibly tendentious and biased to the point of parody. To use just two examples—and there are many, many more — rather than praising Amazon for its support of Washington’s gay-marriage legislation, the reporters criticized the company because it wasn’t the very first to do so. I mean, everyone knows that corporate support for critical progressive legislation is rendered irrelevant if another company supported it before you. And without doubt, had Amazon failed to support this legislation at all or indeed had the company come out against it, the reporters would have praised Amazon for doing so (insert sarcasm emoticon here).  Also, weirdly (weirdly because, what’s the relevance?), she criticized Amazon for not placing its corporate name and logo on the buildings of its new downtown campus.  But does anyone doubt that had Amazon put up such signage, the reporters would have written an article chastising the company for arrogantly plastering its name around as though it owned Seattle, or something to that effect?

For related examples, check out Salon reporter Alexander Zaitchik and publisher Bryce Milligan, who rather than praising Amazon for its substantial underwriting of independent literary festivals and literary translations, suggest instead that Amazon is a ‘Trojan Horse” offering ‘“blood money’” intended to buy off critics.  But I don’t think there’s much doubt that if Amazon decided instead to withdraw its million-dollar annual support, Zaitchik, Milligan, et al would lambast Amazon for failing to support and in fact for attempting to destroy Rich Literary Culture. It’s so easy to imagine the lede: “Those Cheap Amazon Bastards, They Won’t Even Throw A Few Dollars to the Festivals?”

Why are these tendentious arguments worth noting?  Because they reveal a fundamentally meaningless position: in this case, Amazon is evil no matter what it does.  Anytime someone claims that opposing sets of data — indeed, all possible data — proves the same point, you know you’re dealing with someone who has reached her conclusions by other than logic, evidence, and relatively objective thought.  And it’s impossible to take someone like that seriously.

 

What’s your take on the recent finding by the Department of Justice that Big Six publishers colluded with Apple to fix the price of e-books?  If it’s a win for Amazon, does the action position Amazon to become its own monopoly in need of federal intervention, or will the free market sort itself out in a different way?

I’ve long been curious about why so many people are frightened of a potential future Amazon monopoly while simultaneously so sanguine about the real existing monopoly run by the Big Six. And it’s been interesting for me to see people try to explain away the clear evidence of blatant collusion between the CEOs of the major publishers as set forth in the Justice Department’s suit against these publishers and in the equivalent suit brought by sixteen states.  Have a look yourself, if you haven’t already, and imagine the reaction if these sorts of meetings and discussions were happening instead among, say, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, and Larry Page, or among the heads of Bank of America, CitiGroup, and Morgan Stanley. There would be a five-alarm conspiracy freak-out.

Of course, we shouldn’t rely on Justice Department allegations alone to conclude that legacy publishing is a cartel (after all, this is the same Justice Department that hasn’t prosecuted a single high-level US official for torture or a single banking executive for fraud, and that argues President Obama has the power to execute American citizens without recognizable due process).  We can also look to the results of the legacy model:  high book prices, most recently enforced via the so-called “agency” model; “windowing,” whereby consumers who want cheaper paperback or digital versions are forced to wait until long after the release of the high-margin hardback; digital rights management regimes that annoy consumers and do little to inhibit piracy; increasingly draconian rights lock-ups in publishing contracts; lockstep digital royalties of only 17.5% for authors.

If you ask legacy publishing’s defenders, “Which is the monopoly: the entity that charges high prices and pays low royalties, or the entity that charges low prices and pays high royalties?”, you’ll be told by those defenders (tortured logic to follow) that of course it’s the former.  If you’re a customer of Amazon, novelist Charlie Stross wants you to believe that in fact Amazon has you in a “death-grip.”  If you love books and like to buy them from Amazon, Authors Guild president Scott Turow argues that in doing so you and Amazon are “destroy[ing] book selling.”  Enjoy your Kindle?  More legacy insiders than I can count will accuse you of participating in the degradation of “literary culture,” an Orwellian euphemism for “current literary establishment of which I am a member and with which I identify.”

Now, will Amazon break up the current publishing cartel only to become a monopoly itself? I doubt it. The company’s DNA is all about serving customers, for one thing; for another, unlike in the analogue world, on the Internet the competitor who wants to eat your lunch is always just a mouse click away, and with competitors like Apple and Google, I expect Amazon will be forced to stay true to its customer-centric roots rather than attempting to rely on the kind of monopoly rents that have poisoned legacy publishing’s willingness and ability to compete.

In the meantime, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day charging higher book prices, the establishment has to charge you higher prices today. Or, to put it another way, “Hey, you might get robbed if you carry all that cash around, so I’ll just save you the trouble by taking your wallet right here.” This isn’t an argument; it’s a con job. Consumers ought to recognize it as such.

 

Jim Thomsen, a former newspaper reporter and editor, works as a freelance book manuscript editor. He lives in Seattle and can be reached at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

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