(Reuters)

The great Amazon debate: A leading Amazon critic and a self-publishing rock star try to find common ground

Amazon fans and foes often talk past each other without engaging. Here, two fierce writers make their best case


Rob SpillmanJoe Konrath
October 21, 2014 2:59AM (UTC)

After I wrote a piece calling self-published authors who defend Amazon “no better than Ayn Rand libertarians,” I received a flood of social media high-fives from those within publishing, their frustration with the giant palpable. I also received fierce blowback from the self-published community. The most thorough and entertaining came from Joe Konrath, who has self-published 24 novels (three of them No. 1 Amazon sellers), hundreds of stories, and has sold over 3 million copies of his books.

He, in turn, received a flood of digital high-fives from the self-publishing community for his zingers, the pent-up frustration at what they believe is one-sided media coverage palpable.

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I could have left the name-calling to the social media ether, but we rarely ever really engage with those with wildly differing opinions. I reached out to Konrath and we had the following exchange of ideas.

* * *

Hi Joe,

Your "Fisking Salon and Rob Spillman" was the most entertaining thing I've read in a long time. If only some of my authors and students had the same bite, humor and energy.

I wanted to engage in a conversation. I realize this may be impossible, but as you have already established that I am a 100 percent Idiot, I thought there would be nothing to lose. You are obviously an intelligent, passionate and successful writer, so I thought we could have an actual exchange of ideas. Too often these days people with opposing opinions don't get to actually engage each other and I am genuinely interested in your thoughts.

I believe that we do have some overlap: We both love books, reading and writers.

I did, indeed, work for Random House, when I was 22, my first job in publishing, from 1987-1988, an entry-level job where I stuffed envelopes, and which helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Which was not to work in corporate publishing, but to be an advocate for independent voices. Since then I have worked in indie publishing.

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As an indie publisher, I have been on the receiving end of Amazon's tactics.

I don't want to split hairs, go through each other's posts line-by-line. I do, however, want to apologize if it seemed like I was dismissing self-published authors or genre writers. That was not my intention, nor is it what I believe. My intention was to point out that Amazon has been a very good platform for a large number of self-published writers, which tend to be genre writers.

One thing I want to make clear: I believe that Jeff Bezos is a genius. He has single-handedly changed the way the world shops.

His hero, Sam Walton, was also a genius. Bezos's bible is "Sam Walton: Made in America," Walton's autobiography. Walton's legacy is the big box store where very cheap products, many made in China, are readily available. His other legacy is the destruction of small town America and family-owned businesses. When I drove back roads across the U.S. last summer, small town after small town had boarded-up downtowns with a Wal-Mart and perhaps a Costco on the periphery. Those people lucky enough to have jobs were working for half the wages they used to under dehumanizing conditions (you have to purchase a uniform, at your own cost, to begin with). According to your argument, this is just the free market at work. Efficiency. The Walton heirs are now worth more than $100 billion. The U.S. now ranks 93rd in the world in income inequality. The middle class has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, with average salaries stuck at 1994 levels while the S&P has more than doubled in value adjusted for inflation over the same time.

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Driving across the country it was hard not to also notice the death of the family farm and the triumph of corporate agribusiness. Factory farms employ one-tenth as many people as family farms, pay one-third less, and because of the concentration of livestock and chickens, as well as the overuse of antibiotics to counter the cramped conditions, are now one of the major rural polluters.

I believe that Amazon is trying to do Walton one better. With traditional publishing, $10 million in sales required 47 employees. With Amazon, the same amount requires 1 employee. Was the old way inefficient? Perhaps. Maybe I work in an obsolete world of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism. In my world, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, book reviewers and bookstores are necessary and vital. Book advances are what fund many book-length nonfiction projects. I am also concerned about local economies being squeezed out by massive, unchecked corporations that do everything legally possible to avoid paying local and national taxes. Again, they are doing nothing legally wrong, but I would argue that there is a greater moral issue at play here.

Perhaps capitalism will come up with competition for Amazon. Adapt or die, right? That's the free market way. But from my POV, it is hard to see how anyone can face off against a company willing to lose $100 million per year just to gain market share.

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For you, Amazon is ideal. You can go direct to consumer and receive a much higher percent royalty than with traditional publishing. For me and most of my colleagues, we are being squeezed, and Amazon has massive power and endless resources.

I can see how you would cheer Amazon's treatment of yourself and your fellow self-published authors. What I can't understand is why you would cheer for Amazon in its fight against traditional publishers. Here comes one of my analogies that you love to pull apart -- it seems like rooting for the lions against the Roman prisoners in the Coliseum. My central argument is that if Amazon crushes us all, it will be able to dictate whatever terms to anyone using its massive platform. What if it suddenly decided to flip terms and only offer you 30 percent, or decide that your books really should be sold for 50 cents? Perhaps then competition will organically form to counter this. But this new competition will be formed out of the rubble of publishing, and whatever emerges will be up against a massive, and massively funded, giant that couldn't care less about us.

I look forward to your thoughts.

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Sincerely,

Rob Spillman

* * *

Hi Rob --

Thanks for the kind, levelheaded email. I'm impressed by your tone, your willingness to engage, and the integrity it took to email a loudmouth jerk like me. Remember, I didn't say you were a 100 percent idiot. Only that you were getting close to 100 percent in that Salon piece. :)

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I read your email with an open mind, and agree with much of what you said, along with the sentiment behind it. I believe you're sincere.

I also drove across country, signing at more than 1,200 bookstores in 42 states. This was only a few years ago, but I'd guess at least one-third, and possibly one-half, of those bookstores no longer exist. That saddens me. I love bookstores, and booksellers. In my novel "Dirty Martini" I thanked over 3,000 booksellers by name in the back matter.

So I understand your feelings about your cross country trip, and your feelings about Wal-Mart putting stores out of business. I don't begrudge your feelings and opinions. They are legitimate, and defendable. But the points you make are emotional, not logical. Allow me to elucidate.

"I am also concerned about local economies being squeezed out by massive, unchecked corporations that do everything legally possible to avoid paying local and national taxes."

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This is where you begin to lose me. I know it isn't your intent to dismiss self-published writers, but I think there's a very good argument that Amazon has been a boon to tens (hundreds?) of thousands of authors that weren't ever given a chance in your world, which you reference above.

We're not talking about the Lorax saving truffula trees and brown barbaloots; I believe the innocent should be protected. But Amazon isn't preying on the helpless. It's dog eat dog capitalism. Whoever finds the most customers, wins. There are no laws against being a fierce competitor. Amazon is not a monopoly or a monopsony, and even if it were, that by itself isn't illegal.

As for taxes, can you name any company, or person, that pays more taxes than it is legally obligated to pay? Don't blame corporations for tax loopholes; blame the politicos for giving them those loopholes.

"But from my POV, it is hard to see how anyone can face off against a company willing to lose $100 million per year just to gain market share."

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A company doesn't have to compete with Amazon. A company can instead innovate in sectors Amazon doesn't presently care about. Have large publishers innovated anything? Did they create an online bookstore where people want to shop? Did they invent the e-reading device and app everyone wants to use?

"For me and most of my colleagues, we are being squeezed, and Amazon has massive power and endless resources."

I actually do understand. But that doesn't forgive all of the glaring errors and bad logic in your Salon piece. Being squeezed hurts. It's human to want to lash out, fight back. The trick is to analyze what the best response is.

Sometimes the best response is to move on.

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What you're feeling is no doubt akin to what buggy whip manufacturers felt when Henry Ford came along. When a new tech replaces an old one, people are disintermediated. It sucks, but it's life.

"What I can't understand is why you would cheer for Amazon in its fight against traditional publishers. Here comes one of my analogies that you love to pull apart - -it seems like rooting for the lions against the Roman prisoners in the Coliseum."

I was a Roman prisoner in the Coliseum, being feasted on by lions. Those lions were big publishers. After 20 years, a million written words, and nine rejected novels, I finally landed a book contract. And I worked my ass off and published eight novels with legacy publishers, dozens of short stories with respected magazines, and went above and beyond everything that was required of me, in order to succeed.

And I got eaten. One-sided contracts, broken promises, lousy money. But it was the only game in town. If I wanted to make a living as a writer, I had no choice.

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Then Amazon invented the Kindle.

I first self-pubbed in May of 2009. That first month I made $1,500, publishing books that New York rejected.

Those same rejected books have earned me hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I cheer for Amazon because it saved me, and thousands of other authors, from the Coliseum. And I try to show others there is a way to make money from publishing where the terms are better, and the writer stays in control.

"My central argument is that if Amazon crushes us all, it will be able to dictate whatever terms to anyone using its massive platform. What if it suddenly decides to flip terms and only offer you 30 percent, or decide that your books really should be sold for 50 cents?"

Rob, that's what the Big 5 already do. Except for an elite, tiny group of upper-tier authors, the Big 5 treat 99.9 percent of us badly. Keeping rights for term of copyright? Non-compete clauses? Twenty-five percent e-book royalty on net? I've had chapters cut by editors that I wanted to keep. I've had terrible cover art. I've had my titles forcibly changed. And my experience isn't unique. I'm friends with hundreds of authors. A few were treated like kings. Most were screwed.

You worry that Amazon might someday offer 30 percent when publishers right now offer 17.5 percent? You must see how odd that is.

"Perhaps then competition will organically form to counter this. But this new competition will be formed out of the rubble of publishing, and whatever emerges will be up against a massive, and massively funded, giant that couldn't care less about us."

A few things. First, do you remember when Wal-Mart destroyed every mom and pop shop in America, and once they were gone, it tripled its prices on everything? No? That's because Wal-mart didn't do that. And its low prices benefit many low-income families, as do the many thousands of jobs it has created. I'm not saying Wal-Mart, or Amazon, is perfect. But they aren't Satan.

Second, publishing had its shot. Nothing will rise from its rubble, because it's bloated and lazy and can't innovate or compete. Instead, it illegally colludes in order to fix prices to protect its oligopoly on paper distribution.

Competition will come from the shadows, and focus on something Amazon isn't focusing on. Amazon isn't immune to the Innovator's Dilemma. But even if competition doesn't come right away, I think it's silly to worry about getting eaten by a tiger (Amazon) next year when a lion (legacy publishing) is feasting on your leg right now. Especially when, right now, the tiger is also handing out loads of cash.

I fisked you, and was rude about it, for two major reasons.

1. For years, the media has been anti-Amazon. New authors, looking to reach readers, are searching for ways to get published. If they find your article, and believe it, they might very well not pursue self-publishing on Amazon as one of their choices. That would be a shame. So I pointed out the many things wrong with it, in the interest of giving authors a much-needed alternative viewpoint.

2. I'm glad you were amused, as I meant to be funny. But you brought up so many zombie memes that it frustrated me. A zombie meme is a meme about publishing, or Amazon, that refuses to die even though it has been repeatedly debunked. You brought up several zombie memes in this email -- Amazon avoiding taxes, Amazon becoming all powerful and eating babies, Amazon taking away jobs, Amazon being morally bankrupt, Amazon screwing authors once it drives publishers out of business ... these are all easily refuted, and to see them popping up again and again in the media is evidence that journalists aren't even doing the most rudimentary research. I tend to lash out when I see misinformation being regurgitated. And I tend to lash out in a particularly snarky way because that's one way revolutionaries diminish the importance of the ruling class. Satire, burning effigies and direct disrespect are ways to negate the powerful. You reach more readers in a high-profile zine like Salon than I do on my blog, and your argument established you as a member of the status quo ruling class. So when fisking you, all bets were off.

However, as I've said before, this isn't personal for me. Tone is just an effective way to drive a point home. If you'd posted that same article on your blog, I'd have likely ignored it. I tend to focus on targets that are high-profile, and Salon qualifies.

My goal is to inform authors so they can make good choices about their careers. That's a public service I provide, as a way of giving back. I'm only pro-Amazon in that right now, Amazon's objectives align with mine. I've been critical of Amazon when I felt it deserved it, and I don't believe any corporation is above scrutiny. My stance is firmly pro-author.

When new data presents itself, I change my mind accordingly. Can you say the same?

Thanks for writing.

Best,

Joe

* * *

Hi Joe,

My turn to thank you for your thorough and smart reply.

I was really struck by the line "I tend to lash out in a particularly snarky way because that's one way revolutionaries diminish the importance of the ruling class. Satire, burning effigies and direct disrespect are ways to negate the powerful." I was shocked because I'm usually the one taking that tone. As an indie publisher, I feel like I'm always the one tilting at windmills. Just a few days ago I went on a rant about the National Magazine Awards, about how they are rigged ($295 per entry, and you can only enter one story) for the big guys like the New Yorker.

I appreciate the points you make here. I think we fundamentally disagree on a couple of things. I think that Wal-Mart is evil, that it kills jobs and outsources production overseas. You are right -- it keeps prices low, but it also squeezes its producers/suppliers, which I think is relevant to our discussion.

The second is that traditional publishing has had its time. I agree that the Big 5 are in deep trouble. However, I am holding out for the indies. We are more nimble, have much less overhead, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to get our authors to readers. We're more co-partners than publishers. Of course, I might just be in denial. We might be boutique horse and buggy makers, quaint artisanal leftovers. My hope is that we are more like the revolutionaries inside the Matrix. (How's that for an insane leap of metaphors?)

Best,

Rob


Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

MORE FROM Rob Spillman

Joe Konrath

MORE FROM Joe Konrath

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amazon Editor's Picks Jeff Bezos Joe Konrath Rob Spillman Self-publishing Wal-mart Walmart




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