Exploding book sculpture by Alicia Martín

Exploding book sculpture by Alicia Martín

I was going to begin this blog post talking about how the Amazon / Hachette issue is ultimately bad for authors, and in the long run, bad for readers, but Charlie Stross says it better than I can, and probably more succinctly. So go read that article, if you haven’t, and consider this post commentary.

The long and short of it, if you haven’t heard, is that Amazon, being the Major Player now in the bookselling world, is squeezing more out of the very thin margins Hachette makes on each book (and hence each author), and Hachette is refusing to budge, and so Amazon is delaying shipments of Hachette’s books, removing buy buttons from said books, or delisting them altogether.

People have compared Hachette and other publishers to the music industry, essentially saying, “Fuck them! They screw over authors just as the record industry screwed over musicians!” Having spent more than a decade both as an author and a publisher, I can tell you that this simply isn’t true. As Charlie Stross says in the post above:

“Hachette is a value-added wholesale distributor: they supply editorial, production, packaging, marketing, accounting, and sales services and pay me a percentage of the revenue. (I could do this myself, and self-publish, but I don’t want to be a publisher, I want to be a writer: we have this thing called “the division of labour”, and it suits me quite well to out-source that side of the job to specialists at Hachette, or Penguin, or Macmillan.)”

In other words, authors need publishers and publishers need authors. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not a predatory one. And when Amazon decides to pay the publisher less, authors get paid less. Many authors won’t be able to make enough on their books and stop writing altogether. Smaller publishers will not be able to survive on such slim margins and go out of business. The larger publishers still alive, worried about slimmer margins and a shrinking industry, won’t take risks on new works, but instead will go with safer (i.e. more commercial) works, and thus new voices and ideas won’t see the light of day.

If this doesn’t scare you, go read Gawker. I have nothing more to say to you. Otherwise, dear reader, read on.

In the global capitalist world, market forces (read: greed & fear) push companies toward ever more growth: more profit, less waste. Lather, rinse, repeat. And this in turn forces companies to streamline their production process. During the rise of industrialization, this resulted in things like assembly lines and punch cards: quantifiable ways of increasing production by ever more refinement. Now, in the era of the internet, where Amazon has reduced purchasing to the click of a mouse, this streamlining has become easier to manipulate. The human labor of the assembly line has been replaced with algorithms and server farms. The entire process can be refined to the byte, squeezed for every micro-penny. Amazon wants to sell books that have taken authors years to write for 99 cents*.

Think about this for a minute. An entire universe of ideas, the novel, is slowly being reduced to something with less value than a pack of gum or a bottle of water.

This is the direct result of a culture that only values things we can quantify. It’s very hard for the average person to quantify the effort it takes to produce a novel, which includes things like a year or more of the author grinding away at his keyboard, her editor revising and correcting the work, the copy-editor seeking out mistakes, the layout designer putting the text into book form, the cover artist creating the book cover, the graphic artist putting all this together, the publisher promoting and selling the book, the author going out on book tours, conferences and readings. I could go on.

Notice that I did not mention printing costs. The simple reason is that printing costs are only a small fraction of the labor required to produce a book. With an actual physical book it is much easier for an individual to imagine the labor required to produce the book. With an ebook, this ephemeral thing made of up of static magnetic fields and taking up less space on a hard drive than a single high-def photo you took on vacation, the value is less substantial. It’s 350 kilobytes, which is nothing, a flash of electrons in the pan of data. It doesn’t have value because the disc space it uses is so small.

And it’s true: an ebook file is typically less than 500 Kb in my experience, and usually on the order of 250 Kb. Once the file is uploaded to the web, where it can be copied perfectly and indefinitely essentially for free, its value appears small. But this completely misses the point. It is not the bytes that are valuable, but the ideas within that hold value.

But how do we quantify ideas? It’s very hard to do in capitalism. Capitalism likes numbers and doesn’t like uncertainties**. But that’s exactly what a novel is: a great uncertainty. It’s the same uncertainty you have when meeting a person for the first time. She is an unknown, her behavior is unpredictable. And this is a good thing. This is good because this is what keeps us fresh as a society, the introduction of new ideas, personalities, opinions. Predictability is not just boring, it’s dangerous. It leads to stagnation and decay.

New ideas are good for society.

But what Amazon is doing is squeezing the market such that (a) they are devaluing books to something cheaper than a pack of gum and (b) in the long run reducing the number of new ideas that reach new audiences.

I’m not going to change the market forces driving Amazon’s decision via a single blog post. But perhaps authors like Charlie Stross and others, myself hopefully included, can convince a few people, notably other authors, that their work is worth more not only to themselves but to society as a whole, that we should not accept such grotesque behavior from the world’s most massive bookseller, and that together we can demand more for our work, and collectively refuse to patronize Amazon until they change their terms.

In other words, authors, Know Your Value.

* I’m aware that few ebooks are actually now priced this low, but the fact that some have been sold for this price shows that, in the long game, Amazon wants to reduce book buying to the same kind of impulse that drives us to buy a pack of gum: cheap and disposable.

** There’s a certain type of capitalism that feeds off of market uncertainties, but in general capitalism deals with those things we can quantify and ascribe value to, and doesn’t deal well with those things we can’t. For the latter, we often commodify the item (e.g. the packaging of Yoga, a spiritual practice, into something to be exchanged: yoga mats, DVDs, blocks, straps, GroupOn deals at studios, etc.)