An Open Letter To Authors United

September 15, 2014 Opinion 10

Hi, I know Open Letters are completely obnoxious. But it seems to be the preferred method of negotiation in this latest dispute between Amazon and Publishing. Out of the dozens of authors I’ve read on the Authors United signature sheet two of you really shocked me. We’ve lived on message boards together. We’ve shared food or snacks and conversations. Although time has changed my location and dwindled our interaction down to nil, I still think fondly of you as people first, and authors second. So seriously, what the fuck? I mean, I know you as more than a picture on the back of the book. I know you to be clever and insightful and humorous and savvy and essentially decent, so why are you attached to this document? Are you being slandered? Did you not read it? Do you agree with it? I don’t understand. If you can sign your name to it, you can explain it.  This letter is fine. Amazon went public and you, a group of authors, went public. This letter is not fine. It is strongly implied that this letter will have the same signatories as the Reader Letter.  Is this true? Because I have questions.

We’d like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest.

See, that’s what gets me. This is positioned as your belief. As the principle you must stand up for, despite your stake in the specific game.

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.

That. That right there. (The bolding is mine.) Do you see everything wrong with this? Let’s start with why books can’t be outsourced to China. Is the work in China inferior? There are English speaking educated people in China. (People with more education than many American authors.) Why can’t publishers send their guidelines to China and, in effect, outsource the job? What makes you, non-Chinese author, inherently superior to the Chinese author? Spoiler alert: Nothing. China, like America, is filled with artists. Some of our artists, some of you signing this letter, are uniquely loved by your audience. Some are not. It is the ones who are not that are vulnerable to the very market swings you’re justifiably concerned about. They can be replaced by authors from India, from China, from anywhere, really. I know that you don’t believe China lacks your counterpart.

Each book is unique. This is absolutely true. And popularity is not an indicator of value, worth or any other word we use for merit. It’s an indicator of popularity. Wonderful, original books will fail to be discovered. Terrible and derivative works will make millions. This is the nature of the market. There are more books than readers. Always. Every day. The path of a writer, especially a writer who is not tailoring his or her book to a specific market niche, is a lonely and difficult one. I mean, you don’t die as often as roofers. You’re not as likely to be electrocuted as linesmen, but still. It has it’s hardships. Sometimes you run out of coffee. Sometimes your book doesn’t earn back it’s advance. Sometimes your book doesn’t get purchased at all. Sometimes your book never gets finished because you work multiple minimum wage jobs to survive. And that feels awful. It’s financially devastating. It affects your families.

You know who else has that problem? Your readers. Your readers who have seen the collective love for cheaper shoes and discounted razor blades result in their jobs being outsourced. Hey, who doesn’t love that? If the economy has tanked and they have less disposable income to spend on your books, maybe you do. Maybe, complaining that YOUR jobs are somehow more socially significant than theirs, that YOUR income is more deserving of protection than theirs is not the tone you want to strike? I know you don’t personally believe that to be true. I am completely certain that is not a principle you hold. Why is someone saying it in your name?

Either Amazon has a right to refuse to sell consumer goods or it does not. A book is a consumer good. You sell it to us and we consume it. There is nothing that inherently elevates it above that title. It will not provide shelter. It will not ward off starvation. It does not heal the sick. It is a few hours of entertainment, of emotional solace, of knowledge, of inspiration.  Just like a film. Just like music. Just like the pretty sweater you admired in the window of the boutique downtown. It is something made through the art of one human for the joy of another. Once mass produced and distributed, it is indeed a consumer product. It is worth what we will pay. It is worth what we can pay. Both matter in this conversation.

Maybe, reading this, you think I am Team Amazon. I was not. In fact, I was leaning toward the publishers, despite their tone deaf and business foolish positions of the last few years.  However, upon reading the most recent Authors United missive, I sent a letter to Amazon in support of their right to conduct their business as they see fit. I would not have done that before Authors United moved me to object to the principle in their letters and uphold one of my own. No class of people has the right to be held above another class of people. We are all entitled to living wages. We are all entitled to fair labor laws. All of our jobs could be outsourced to China because the Chinese people are just as industrious and talented and diverse as we are.

I could move beyond this point to talk about how publishing favors certain classes and colors of people but that’s not a principle anyone was moved to form a coalition around, was it? No. That’s a different day. Today is about what it means when you ask people to protect your job while tacitly sanctioning the loss of theirs. Today is about using a nation, China, as an implicit pejorative. So in addition to you, whom I like and respect on a personal level, I ask other authors whom I have only read to also step forward and say if they agree with the words put forth in their name. “Of course not” is the wrong response. Because if “of course not” was the truth none of us would be discussing this.

This is my list of disappointment. Other readers will have their own. Perhaps, if we are being asked to write letters, we should all write our authors and ask them to clarify their intentions.

  • William Alexander
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Kelley Armstrong
  • Paul Auster
  • Avi
  • Jo Baker
  • Nevada Barr
  • John M. Barry
  • Greg Bear
  • Holly Black
  • Roy Blount Jr.
  • Pseudonymous Bosch
  • Sandra Brown
  • Suzanne Collins
  • Edwidge Danticat
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Junot Díaz
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • Elizabeth George
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Stephen King
  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Jon Krakauer
  • Erik Larson
  • Lois Lowry
  • Jay McInerney
  • Terry McMillan
  • Seth Mnookin
  • Peggy Orenstein
  • Mary Pope Osborne
  • James Patterson
  • Jayne Anne Phillips
  • Philip Pullman
  • Anna Quindlen
  • Julia Quinn
  • Nora Roberts
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Richard Russo
  • Dan Simmons
  • Rebecca Wells
  • Terri Windling
  • Jane Yolen

UPDATE: Apparently the authors of the first letter have not signed on to the second, despite it being released in such a way that implies they have. According to this article, they have until tomorrow to decide. I hope many of them come out and reject it. Author Susanna Kearsley, who provided an excellent comment at Dear Author (and the article linked above) has provided a second article, saying the same.

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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10 Responses to “An Open Letter To Authors United”

  1. Kelly

    And let’s not overlook:

    …on the part of A SINGLE INDIVIDUAL, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers.

    Wow. What a big, glaring “FUCK YOU” to the dozens of other people involved in (to continue in the spirit of vomit-worthy privilege) birthing all those book babies – editors, publicists, cover artists, marketing/advertising coordinators, web managers, royalty administrators, personal assistants….

  2. Merrian

    Wonderfully plain and clear about the problems with this author open letter. I am so disappointed at the names I see involved. I am also in wild agreement with Kelly about the wilful misrepresentation of the book production process. This reads as so much middle class/white collar angst about the way the world is changing and their horror at finding themselves part of the toiling masses not the elite.

  3. jmc

    Given how James Patterson has already “outsourced” his work, I find the comparison to outsourcing to China ironic. And also the single person emphasis since he’s pretty openly not the only person “writing” his books.

    I’m really disappointed by other authors on that list.

  4. Meoskop

    There are many more authors than I listed here. A full detailing is at the first link. Since I wrote this one author has indicated they have not read the second letter. I believe that will be the case for several, but which ones? And will they reject it or lay low?

  5. SonomaLass

    Your personal list overlaps mine quite a bit. I’m hoping that many (most) of these folks did not read the text of the letter, but just said, “Go ahead and put my name on a letter the Amazon board.” But if they don’t repudiate it, then there’s no real difference, is there?

  6. Bona

    I agree with you, and I’m sorry to see familiar names in that list.
    In good faith, I think they don’t realise how elitist their words sound. Specially as I don’t see any Nobel prize among those names -correct me if I’m wrong.
    I know there’s more about a book than the writer and the paper and ink. There are publicists, editors, cover artists and so on. They don’t work for free. It’s clearly about the money they spend, the money they want to win with that product. The profits Amazon wants to obtain but paying less for the books they sell.
    I understand that, anybody can understand that.
    So, why don’t they say that plainly, instead of pretending they are special and their readers are not so they don’t care if we common people lose our jobs.
    Couldn’t they say it without disdaining an ancient country as China?
    Each time one of those authors buy cheaply, they are taking one Western worker out of his job. They sound as if they don’t care. Not a good way of winning anybody’s sympathies.
    So, it’s neither about quality books nor about the readers. I wouldn’t miss Amazon or Hachette if they disappear tomorrow. Believe me. We have thousands of years of good Literature to read, and only one life to read books. Literature has existed w/o them. We can live w/o them. But they cannot survive and keep high profits w/o us. They should think about it before implying that’s OK for us to lose our jobs but not for them to win less money.

  7. lawless

    The excerpts I’ve read from the second letter are so awful that I haven’t brought myself to read the entire thing. I expressed my opinion at Courtney Milan’s blog, which is where I first learned about this whole thing.

    As for the signatories: How will people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr. retain any moral authority to criticize racism in the future when they’ve signed something as racist as this?

    BTW, for whatever it’s worth, it appears that both letters are the work of Hachette author (and thriller writer) Douglas Preston.

  8. Becki

    This blog post brought the poem, “First they came for the Socialists” to mind, and not in a good way. I’ve been following this whole A. v. H. thing for months, usually seeing red for a variety of reasons, but the arrogance of the latest AU letter is just over the top. The idea that ‘we all appreciate cheap shoes made by underpaid workers in Third World countries but don’t you dare try to sell MY BOOK that way’ is just the height of elitism.

    And when the letter (or letters) say that Amazon had a choice to not put authors in the middle, I’d argue that the authors also had a choice: they chose to sign a contract with that publisher, and honestly? I’m not sure that publisher is doing you any favors right now. The authors also have another choice: either complain about Amazon not promoting your book (and why should Amazon promote your book more than my husband’s book?), or start working on your reader network and suggest they buy your books from another store. In this country, your readers have choices, too: they can choose to read a book written by an author who whines about their books not selling enough copies, or reading a book written by someone else.

    And, unless you handcrafted each book yourself, and each book you handcraft is unique, then, yeah, your book is a consumer good that most consumers will consume and then either discard or pass off to a friend or sell to a used book store.

    (*grump over*)