Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Douglas Preston's Blood Money

Let's recap the recent actions of bestselling Hachette author Douglas Preston.

Six days ago, he releases a letter he'd been reportedly working on for two weeks.

Here are some things Preston said:

"If I were Jeff Bezos, the one thing I would fear most is if authors organized themselves and took broad, concerted, sustained, and dignified public action."

"Amazon has done something unusual. It has directly targeted Hachette’s authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms."

Preston then claims Amazon is "boycotting Hachette authors" and "refusing to discount the prices of Hachette's authors' books" and "refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors' books" and "slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors' books".

Preston goes on to say, "It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation." and "we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business."

He posted this letter online with 69 author signatures last Thursday.

Okay, from these statements, it seems pretty clear that Mr. Preston cares about Hachette authors. That's the majority of his letter. He believes authors are being harmed, and Amazon is to blame.

I disagree with this position, and helped write a letter (now signed by over 6800 people) which counters all of Preston's claims. I believe Hachette is the one harming authors in this negotiation, not Amazon. Amazon had already offered to monetarily compensate authors during this negotiation period, if Hachette put in 50%. Hachette rejected that.

Preston neglected to mention that in his letter.

But let's pretend I'm wrong. Let's follow the mindset that Amazon really is harming authors, not Hachette. Preston is rich, but maybe he wrote that letter because he truly cares about the midlist and newbie authors who are being harmed by this situation.

Hugh Howey (who had the idea to write a counter-letter to Preston's, led that charge, and posted it on Change.org) is without a doubt one of the nicest authors I've ever encountered. He's so polite, cares so much, and is such a terrific spokesperson for the self-publishing movement that I've questioned if I even need to blog anymore. Hugh says a lot of things similar to what I say, but he says it in such a level-headed, even-mannered way that he doesn't irritate people like I do. His ability to empathize with even his strongest detractors is a strength I could never have.

Hugh reached out to Preston after both letters were posted, and then wrote the blog post Douglas Preston and I Agree. According to Hugh, "Douglas and I agree on far more than we disagree. We both want what’s best for writers. The confusion is on how to achieve that."

I have no doubt that Hugh believes that, and that Preston gave him that impression. Howey may be a nice guy, but he calls it as he sees it. Hugh Howey is not a sycophant. He's a freethinker, very smart, and brave as hell.

But where Hugh never criticizes or belittles those who disagree with him (on the contrary, he's one of the most empathetic people I've ever spoken with, and always has something nice to say even to those who treat him terribly), I have no problem publicly chastising pinheads. In a rare case of me disagreeing with Hugh, I posted this comment on his blog:

"I’m looking forward to Preston retracting some of the ridiculous things in his letter, and signing our petition.

Good, well-intentioned people can say stupid things in public. I have. And when I do, I take it back, and apologize. If Preston did that, I’d sing his high praises.

But his letter spread misinformation and potentially caused harm. It’s one thing to have a differing opinion. It’s another to Tweet it, or blog about it. And it is still another to get 400 people to sign it and then release it to media outlets.

It’s not a confusing issue, Hugh. Preston asked readers, in the most public way possible, to support Hachette–a company that wants to raise ebook prices while keeping author royalties low, and to express their displeasure directly at Amazon, a company that wants to keep ebook prices low while giving authors higher royalties.

Hopefully, our letter opened up his eyes. In which case, he can change his public position on this.

Or he can wait until more information is revealed about this dispute, and look even sillier when it is shown how wrong he is.

I met Doug at a convention a while ago, and found him to be quite personable. I really like his books. And I’m sure you had a nice, friendly chat with him. If I had to guess, he’s probably a great guy, gives to a lot of charitable organizations, and cares a lot of about writers and this business.

None of that has anything to do with his letter. A letter calculated to manipulate public opinion in a disingenuous way."

Preston had ample time to reconsider his position. But he didn't, even though Hugh no doubt gave him a lot of new data to consider. Preston could have sought out more information. He could have changed his mind.

Instead, Preston continued to collect signatures for his petition. He's up to 563. Which is rather embarrassing, considering we've gotten more than 12x that amount to sign our letter.

Then, yesterday, Amazon made an offer. It said it would reinstate all of the things Preston complained about; pre-order buttons, discounting, stocking paper. It also said it would give 100% of the price of all Hachette ebooks it sold to Hachette authors. An ebook sells for $12.99? All $12.99 goes to the author. Amazon could implement this within 72 hours.

Hachette rejected this offer.

But surely Preston embraced it, right? Hasn't he repeatedly voiced concern about Hachette authors being harmed? Amazon's solution would not only correct all of that perceived harm, it would be a boon to them.

Preston's response?

"There's something wrong with this. My publisher gave me a very large advance for the book they are about to publish. Morally, I would have to turn over that (Amazon) money to them."

So... this isn't about helping other authors, is it, Doug? You know, the Hachette authors your letter purportedly was concerned about? The ones who didn't get a very large advance from Hachette? You know the ones? They're the 99% Hachette publishes who don't earn millions.

The letter said Preston and its signatories weren't taking sides. Am I the only one who sees this comment as "taking sides"? Instead of caring about authors, Preston cares about... Hachette.

But when in a hole, why stop digging? Preston recently said to Mashable:

"To take that money would really violate my moral and ethical principle. I'm not saying it's a bribe, but it would feel to me personally like I was taking blood money."

Blood money.

Let's look at the Wikipedia definition:

"Blood money is money or some sort of compensation paid by an offender (usually a murderer) or his/her family group to the family or kin group of the victim."

Well, murder is a pretty hefty offense. Whether it is comparable with removing pre-order buttons is a subjective call, but I'd call the terminology on the extreme side. As is the "I'm not saying it's a bribe" comment, which is akin to, "the jury must disregard that last remark". Does the jury ever disregard that last remark? Doesn't Preston saying it isn't a bribe immediately conjurer up images of bribery?

In Christianity, the thirty pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Jesus is considered blood money.

So what Preston is basically saying is that Amazon, by offering to help the very authors Preston demanded that Amazon should help, is actually responsible for crucifying Christ.

Yes, that was sarcasm. Of course it was. Because if Preston really thought Amazon was a murderer and a betrayer, his moral compass would make him demand they remove all of his books from Amazon.com. After all, who would want to have business dealings with some despicable company offering blood money (not saying it's a bribe)?

Okay, let's present the facts one more time.

Hachette wants to control ebook prices so they can keep them high and protect their paper oligopoly.

Amazon wants to keep ebook prices low, and reserve its right as a retailer to discount the things they sell.

Hachette was ordered to pay millions in damages for colluding to keep ebook prices high.

Amazon has a history of lowering prices, even as they are incorrectly and unjustly painted in the media as a monopoly.

Hachette treats its authors poorly, with low royalties and unconscionable contract terms, including keeping the copyright for life plus 70 years.

Amazon treats its authors well, with high royalties and fair contract terms. Authors either keep their rights, or can limit how long Amazon has them. I have even heard of authors who didn't want to be published by Amazon anymore, and Amazon returned their rights immediately. No lawyers involved.

Some uber rich bestselling authors want to keep things the way they are, because it made them uber rich bestseling authors.

Most authors welcome the opportunities Amazon has given them, including eliminating the barrier to entry and leveling the playing field.

Some authors--uber rich, midlist, and newbies--have Stockholm Syndrome and are unable to do anything but side with their publisher.

Some authors, like me and Howey and Eisler and Gaughran, have no horse in this race. It shouldn't matter to us if Hachette wins, or if Amazon wins. In fact, an argument could be made that we'd be better off if Hachette won, because our books would be so much cheaper we'd sell more copies than Hachette authors would.

But we keep blogging on behalf of authors, including Hachette authors, because it's just the right thing to do.

Our livelihood isn't at stake. We're not shills for Amazon (all of us have criticized Amazon many times.) We're not trying to stick up for Jeff Bezos because he's being picked on. Bezos doesn't need our help.

So what do I get out of taking Preston to task here? Preston doesn't care what I think. He likely won't even read this. And if he does read this, it won't change his mind. I could be spending time writing something to self-publish and make money from.

Instead, here I am, again, blogging about the harmful nonsense industry pundits are spouting. Not for the fame. Not for the money. Not for the lulz. Not to hear my own voice.

I'm blogging because the one-sided media (NYT, Publisher's Lunch, Mashable, WSJ) is painting Preston as an outspoken hero, when he's really just a self-interested rich guy who obviously cares more about his corporate masters than his fellow authors.

This isn't a complicated issue, people. Don't be distracted by propaganda or smoke and mirrors. Don't let your personal bias color your judgement. Look at the facts, and draw a logical conclusion based on those.

In other words, do the opposite of what Preston is doing.