Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Thoughts on the Amazon Debate

My last blog was about the debate I was about to engage in for Intelligence Squared, on the topic of Amazon is the Reader's Friend.

If you haven't watched it, here's the video:

Yes, I'm wearing a Three Wolf One Moon tee shirt.

If you're adverse to watching it but interested in what was said, here's the link to the transcript and the radio broadcasts (edited and unedited).

According to those voting in the audience, my side (Amazon is for readers) lost 43% to 50%. According to the online poll, we won by an overwhelming majority, 72% to 28%.

Winning or losing didn't matter to me. I knew I would lose before I even accepted the invitation. More on that later.

And for those who are wondering, I found Scott Turow to be smart, personable, charming, and a nice guy. If he disliked me he hid it well, and I certainly didn't dislike him. Considering all the shit I've been giving him on this blog for years, it was a surprisingly jovial meeting.

That said, he's still wrong about a lot.

I'm very tempted to go through the transcript and fisk the points he made during the debate that I didn't get to respond to, but I'm going to limit myself to Turow's closing statement.

Scott Turow: I do not judge things on the basis of what's good for me. In point of fact, I spent 20 years trying to get my first novel published. I was Joe Konrath and that experience never leaves me. And I am concerned about what is good for authors in general, not what's good for best-selling authors.

Joe sez: Scott may not judge on the basis of what's good for him. But I do it all the time. I believe what's good for me is good for writers in general. However, I was never the head of a huge writing organization, and when I make a statement it isn't picked up by the media and touted as fact to millions of people.

Turow spent 20 years trying to get published. I spent 10. I was rejected more times than Scott, and wrote a lot than he did before finding any sort of monetary success, but I can believe that he knows what it is like to labor in obscurity and that experience is still with him.

Here's the thing, though: he may have been Joe Konrath, but I have never been Scott Turow.

There are lots of authors who have been Joe Konrath, trying to sell a book. And by "lots" I mean "the majority". But a very minuscule, teeny-tiny percentage ever had the success Scott did. While the legacy publishing industry is capable of producing a huge hit like Turow, it's as rare as winning the lottery. But you aren't even allowed to by that particular lottery ticket unless the gatekeepers allow it.

Anyone can self-publish. Though the majority won't ever have the success that I've had, at least there aren't any barriers to entry. When presenting an argument for the masses, you shouldn't for a side using the ideals as examples. You should argue using the mean (or median) data. Most writers won't attain my success. Fewer will attain Turow's. But, as has repeatedly shown, more writers have a chance to make more money via self-pubbing than attempting the legacy route.

That is what is good for authors in general.

Scott: Amazon wins. We all have to become entrepreneurs. The best-selling authors are the people who will prosper most in that situation, because it's an undifferentiated mass. People whose names are already known would be the winners. But I know -- I know that the system we have now -- yes, great, Joe, good. I really and truly am happy that you have found an audience.

Joe: Thanks, Scott. And I truly am happy for your success. Why wouldn't I be? This isn't zero-sum, and envy is senseless and petty.

But even when I did land a legacy contract (in fact I landed 4 of them) I still had to be an entrepreneur in order to keep my head above water. I signed at 1200 bookstores and did blog tours and visited 42 states and dozens of conferences, book fairs, and libraries. I did all of this because I wasn't picked to be Scott Turow with millions in coop and advertising.

Except for a few handfuls of mega-bestselling authors, we all have to run our careers like a small business, no matter how we publish. We all use social media and the Internet. Many of us make personal appearances. Many of us advertise. It's part of being an author. Amazon's market dominance hasn't effected that.

Scott: I want every author to find an audience who deserves one. But the system that has perpetuated that is that of traditional publishers. And remember that these gentlemen do not deny that Amazon's ultimate goal is to describe -- is to destroy traditional publishing, to force every author to become an entrepreneur, his own marketer, his own editor, and we will lose good writers in the process.

Joe: On the surface, a good closing with a rousing emotional appeal.

But it's easy to pick apart.

Just because the old way of reaching an audience involved legacy publishers doesn't mean it is the best way. It was the only way, so the point is redundant. For the majority of human history, the only way to make fire was with sticks and stones. Millions of successful, life-saving fires were started that way. That doesn't mean I reach for two chunks of flint when I want to light up my bong.

And equally poor point is conflating those companies who publish--either Amazon or the legacy industry--with writers. Writers are the ones who actually write the books, not editors or publishes or distributors. And as I've pointed out ad nauseum on this blog, it makes little sense for middlemen of any kind to get the lion's share of the profits.

Amazon's goal may be to destroy legacy publishing, but legacy publishing has been rendered a value-added service. They were once essential, now they are middlemen who command a hefty price.

Amazon may kill all the legacy publishers, but there is no direct correlation between that happening and authors no longer writing books. That isn't the argument we debated (Amazon is the reader's friend) and it isn't the argument I've made on this blog (legacy publishers are bloodsuckers and Amazon's goals are currently aligned with the goals of authors). It's a straw man to represent the debate as "Amazon will destroy legacy publishing, and then good writers will stop writing", and beyond being an informal fallacy it's just plain wrong. I'm not with a legacy publisher, and I didn't stop writing. I did more self-promo and spent more time and money on marketing when I was with legacy publishers than I have self-publishing. And I make 20x the amount of money self-pubbing than I did legacy publishing, and reach many more readers.

I can't stress that enough. I was one of the lucky sods who landed publishing contracts, and made about $40k a year writing professionally. That's better than the majority of legacy authors. But that pales next to what I'm doing now.

Turow, however, would likely never reach his current income and readership without legacy publishing. But he's the uber-rare minority.

Even though he stated the contrary, I believe Turow is judging on the basis of what's good for him. I can understand that. You dance the with person you brought to the party, and stick up for them when they're being attacked. Fair enough, but when you say alarmist stuff like this you can bet some people are going to buy it (like the audience did). And when writers hear it, they can make career decisions based on what a respected and famous author says, and in doing so they are playing a carny game instead of possibly paying some bills.

Though he didn't close with a straw man, Turow's debate partner, Franklin Foer, ended on this note when prompting the audience to vote against the topic "Amazon is the Reader's Friend":

Franklin Foer: Your stand is cost-free in one regard. It's not going to bring in any government regulation. You're not going to put anybody out of business. But you have a chance to send the message to Amazon and say, "Look, be careful, guys. You're dealing with precious cargo. We're watching you. You have a lot of power right now. Your power is probably going to keep increasing. Don't abuse it."

Joe sez: Those among you who know your religious philosophy will recognize a variation of Pascal's Wager. What is the possible gain vs. the possible loss yada yada. It was a clever way to end, but fallacious. The topic wasn't "Use your vote to make sure Amazon plays fair", and that emotional appeal is likely the reason they won the in-house debate. Or maybe it had something to do with the debate being in New York, home of the legacy publishing industry, but that sounds like sour grapes.

Only you philosophy majors will give a whit about what I say next, but I'll posit that Pascal's wager is a form of emotional extortion. Coercing people to believe in a deity by claiming they have everything to gain and nothing to lose is a veiled threat to get others to agree with you. But I've always preferred the honey approach to the vinegar approach (praising employees gets them to work harder than threatening to fire them) so I don't truck with appeals to paranoia. Tell your spouse you want a divorce unless they try harder? If you're happy and just bluffing, it's nonsense. I'd wager the only people in that NY audience who were unhappy with Amazon were those in the legacy publishing industry. The readers were happy. How couldn't they be with lower prices, instant delivery, and more choice than ever in history? But to tell them that they'd better not let Amazon become complacent, because one day Amazon may do something that won't make readers happy, is nonsense. That's worrying about the asteroid some day hitting the earth and destroying all life. That's worrying about the tiger who may eat you next year, which is irrelevant because right now that tiger is giving you 2 days shipping and the lion is the one gnawing on you at this very moment.

But it was effective nonsense, apparently. Saying "trick or treat" gets you candy without you every having to make good on your threat of a trick, just like sending an anonymous threat to Amazon in the form of a vote doesn't mean you'll actually have to stop being a Prime member. And, after all, it'll keep Amazon in line. If you can try to get something at no risk to yourself, why not? Logic and altruism be damned.

But I expected it. Earlier I said I knew I was going to lose this debate. I said this to the IQ2 folks when they called. I said it to my debate partner beforehand. I said it to several close friends I discussed the debate with in the weeks leading up to it. So why did I agree to do it?

Just as my sidetrack on Pascal was only interesting to philosophy buffs, the following might only have interest to psych majors, so feel free to stop reading here because it is less about publishing and more about my motivation for being an activist.

I accepted the invitation to this debate for the same reason I've been blogging for ten years. (It has been a full decade, and I've done about 1000 posts.) This blog was originally started by me to inform other writers about what has and hasn't worked for me. It was my way of giving back after attaining a small degree of success. My road to publication was difficult, and nobody helped me. There weren't any publishing blogs. There wasn't anyone I could correspond with to get advice. So I began to blog to pass along what I've learned. Sharing my views in a forum that allowed comments meant I could also learn from others.

When I began to self-publish in 2009, my goal shifted. Information by itself is interesting, and potentially useful. But informing with the intent to persuade is different than teaching and the resulting discourse. An open exchange of ideas can be meaningful. Proving your ideas are useful ultimately leads to debate.

My blog went from trying to inform, to trying to persuade.


Because back when I was started, I was sharing information that writers needed, like how to find an agent and self-promote, because there was only one path to success: legacy publishing.

Amazon's invention of the Kindle, and invitation for authors to self-publish, changed the game. When I began to inform writers of this change, many of the status-quo didn't want to hear it, or believe it, because they wanted things to remain the same.

My viewpoint was ignored for a while, by the publishing industry, its veterans, and those who sought the key to the executive washroom. When ignoring the elephant in the room was no longer possible, writers who found some success in self-publishing were called outliers and anomalies by the media and the spokesmen of Big Publishing.

As anyone might have predicted (but few did, even though there was ample precedent in the history of disruptive technologies, including the closely-related music industry) self-pubbing began to gobble up market share. Many writers converted. But some dug in and continued to spout harmful nonsense.

So discourse became debate, and debate lead to a sort of evangelizing. I had no dog in this fight, no horse in this race. What other writers did with their careers didn't harm me or help me. But the impetus that made me want to blog is the same impetus that made me want to share this new way for writers to succeed. When contrary viewpoints arose, I felt the need to analyze them. When proponents of legacy publishing spread misinformation that I found to be harmful, I fisked.

Now, in 2015, self-pubbing has shed much of its negative stigma and has become de rigeur for many authors, back when I started with Amazon it was risky. I was committing career suicide, ensuring no legacy publisher would ever offer me a deal again (and none have, even though I've sold a million books on my own). So much has changed in six years. And it will continue to change, for the betterment of writers everywhere. But the word still needs to be spread.

I'm relating all of this to give the newbie reader a sense of how much has changed. In early 2009 I was 100% for legacy publishing, and 100% against self-pubbing. When the Kindle started gaining traction, I remained a skeptic until I saw the potential with my own career. The more I shouted (and by this point I wasn't the only one shouting) the more the mainstream media had to start paying attention. We weren't preaching to the self-pub converted; we were preaching to those who were entrenched in legacythought and legacyspeak in order to save their souls form eternal damnation.

Okay, not really. Unlike dogmatic beliefs that relied on convincing others because the preacher was unsure of his own faith and wanted safety in numbers, I had actual proof that self-publishing was not just a viable alternative to legacy, but a preferable one. I didn't need others to sing in the choir with me to convince me of my faith; I had facts and numbers.

But the desire to help and educate and--when needed--debate and fisk, remained strong.

This led to my having the opportunity to debate the former president of the Authors Guild, whom I've been critical of for quite a while.

Those who read this blog regularly know I haven't done any public appearances in the past few years. This debate lured me out of my self-imposed seclusion, even though I knew we were going to lose. I said so when IQ2 first made contact with me, repeated it when I spoke with my debate partner for the first time, and said it to all of my close friends.

I wasn't in this to win. I was in this to show I was right. Whether the voters agreed with me or not didn't matter. What mattered was having a public debate that could inform writers who haven't heard the message yet.

Something else also mattered to me, something that viewers at home probably weren't privy to. We greeted some of the audience during pre-debate walk-through, and there were about thirty high school students there on a field trip. I sat and talked with them, before and after, and it drove home the point that I wasn't there to be a soulless PowerPoint presentation. I had teachers like that in school, and hated them. The ones I liked were the ones who made an effort to keep me awake.

Public speaking isn't a monologue in an empty room. It's a dialog with an audience where you do most of the talking. I've always believed that an essential part of that give and take is to be amusing if possible. I took the debate seriously, but that didn't mean it couldn't be fun.

Now some may say that my main motive and Turow's are interchangeable; ultimately, we're both defending the companies that helped us make a lot of money. But the company I'm defending has no barrier to entry. The company I'm defending has the potential to make more writers more money, rather than make a few writers super-rich while the majority eek out a poverty-level existence. The company I'm defending allows authors to keep their rights, set their own prices, and publish at their own speed.

I can leave the company I'm defending at any time, and take my books with me.

It comes down to having freedom and control in your career, or allowing someone else to run your career. It's obvious to me which is preferable. But so many writers have been indoctrinated and brainwashed by the legacy system. Decades of beating beaten over the head with how to write query letters and find agents and land a publisher, along with decades of stigma about the worthlessness of self-publishing, amplified by industry professionals and the media, means some people still reject self-pubbing and pursue the legacy option.

That's fine if you want to make that choice. But make sure it's an informed choice. And be aware that is is, indeed, a choice we didn't have until very recently.

So why haven't I blogged for a month?

Been busy doing something cool. I'll make an announcement very soon.

And it involves Amazon. You can probably guess that from the new link on my sidebar above.

That link doesn't work yet. But it will. And it won't be what you're expecting. I love trying new things, experimenting, being a beta tester for new ideas. And this new idea has been in the works for six months.

Read about it here: