Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Amazon versus Apple, Guns to the Indians, and the Viewpoint of the Fish

In the Justice Department's antitrust suit against Apple and five publishers (three of them have settled as of this writing, so it's now Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin), there's been a fairly quiet split in the writing community, with many writers simply keeping their heads down and not choosing sides.  So far as I've noticed, the pressures are mostly what you'd expect: editors at Macmillan and Penguin are issuing statements supporting Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin, which we can assume were probably not exactly coerced but not exactly optional either, and the writers closely connected with those editors are generally either blogging and writing that they agree, or quietly going along.  Independents and some small presses, plus the occasional consumer advocate, are generally supporting Amazon and the Justice Department, some publicly and some by the same sort of head-down acquiescence. 

It's not exactly a symmetrical situation because the editors are, after all, employees of the defendants, and their public positions are not entirely their own. Traditional publishers have always been willing to cut freelancers loose for "being too much trouble," so there's a much more top-down and uniform tone, and a lot more "I agree with the CEO's letter" kind of expressions.  In general the content, such as it is, is "We ain't done nothin', they can't prove nothin', and everybody needs to be a responsible citizen and leave this to be settled by lawyers and business people because these are difficult matters that the barbarians mustn't mix in."  This is also an absolutely typical and expected approach from a computer company in general and from Apple in particular, as that whole industry (with Apple at the forefront) has always been dedicated to the proposition that they will tell the consumer what the consumer ought to want, and the most important thing is to retain control of, by, and for a small population of slick-talking self-impressed douchebags who know what's best for us technopeasants.

The decentralized and sometimes positively bizarre indie community, with its strange and wonderful mixture of uncontrolled loons, self-deluded not-quite-literates, mad geniuses, grumpy pragmatic small business people, enabled workshop junkies, self-promoting hustlers, brainy hermits, exuberant free spirits, and god alone knows what else, predictably issues a much greater diversity of statements.  This is partly because they have something to say besides "Not guilty and we want to keep everything we got while we didn't do what we're accused of," partly because there's no one to tell them to stay on message or what the message is, and probably most because of the sheer rambunctiousness of that whole market/culture/community.

I honestly don't know whether I have any bridges left to burn, so I don't know whether I'm burning any here. Coincidentally Macmillan, mostly via Tor, has published more of my books than anyone else; Penguin, via Ace and Viking imprints, is the publisher of the last four commercial novels, and there's one more in the chute there.  For that matter I've been a Mac user for decades and have an iPhone.  On the other hand I do have a recent self-published, thoroughly indie book, and a few years ago I self-pubbeda book on which traditional publishers had absolutely hosed me.  So the following may or may not constitute biting the hand that feeds me, or fed me till recently, or is about to stop feeding me, or was going to feed me till I acted up.  Given the diversity of the anti-Apple forces, I'll probably lose a friend or two on that side of the line as well. 

To which my general response is so the fuck what? If my favorite restaurant gets righteously busted by the health department, this is a good thing whether or not they've poisoned me personally.

And it is a righteous bust, at least of Apple.  I think this particular memo from Steve Jobs is about as damning a piece of evidence as you can find, and that a fair minded person would have to say that since the charge is having colluded, and attempted to organize collusion, to keep ebook prices high, the reasonable verdict is Guilty As All Shit And Hang'em High.

The comments on that page, by the way, reveal many Apple fanboy types making the usual defenses of criminal behavior (familiar to anyone who remembers Watergate or Iran-Contra)–
"Just because there's evidence doesn't mean they're guilty" (and one CEO writing to another to say "you can go with us and raise prices or go with the other side and go broke" is not collusion to fix prices);
"It shouldn't be a crime anyway" (Right.  The nation structures its laws so you can form a corporation to pay less in taxes and refuse all personal responsibility for what you do as long as you can attribute it to the corporation, and it grants you this whopping load of privileges supposedly in order to obtain the public benefit of a better supply of economic goods, and you accepted all those privileges from the day you entered the market.  In exchange, the best way you can deliver the good is to raise prices and prevent competition so that others won't lower them).
"Apple was just offering publishers a better deal." (And the "better deal" was Apple's assistance and coordination in ganging up to hose the consumers).
"But Apple is cool and I really love Steve Jobs."  (Aw. It filled me with nostalgia.  What a pity Chuck Colson isn't still alive to walk over his grandmother for Jobs.  Maybe Ollie North is available to do the big sad puppy dog eyes?). 

Really, it's not that surprising that so many writers and their organizations are singing backup behind Apple And the Colluders.  Freelancers who make a living typically live advance-to-advance, and publishers cultivate the unreliability of the timing and amounts of advance payments, rescuing, stonewalling, or abandoning writers as it suits them.  In commercial writing we all get used to the feel of the collar, however gilded.

But in the long run, writers cannot prosper under the agency model that Apple fosters, in which the publisher, not the retailer, sets the price; as if Farmer Bob could tell Safeway to only sell his tomatoes at a fixed rate.  First and foremost, it's a way for publishers to trap and keep most of the revenues from the nascent e-book industry, even though if you strip away all their bibbidy-bobbidy-boo about how they "professionalize" things, all they do is convert a file that they had to prepare anyway.  Further, they then price the ebook high to protect hardcover sales – a revenue stream in which publishers claim a very large share (for example, when you buy a copy of the hardcover of my traditionally published Losers in Space, for which discount prices are currently running $10-12, I'm getting something less than two dollars of that (some of which goes to my agent); the rest goes to the publishers, distributors, and retailers.  When you buy a copy of my independent novel Raise the Gipper!, I pick up 3 or 4 dollars on a $4.99 purchase (so I get twice the money on less than half the cost to you). 

Ultimately the agency model means the writer has greatly reduced availability (since most of you aren't stupid enough to buy a copy of a formatted file (with which they can fuck in a wide variety of ways even after you have paid for it) for more than you'd pay for a physical object (which is yours forever)).  It also means you, the consumer, pay twice as much, so that I, the producer, can get half as much.  That's a lot to pay for "protecting" you from bad books and "helping" you find the ones you really want to read (which bears a remarkable resemblance to preventing your having access to books that you, you benighted Philistine, might actually like better).

Amazon's wholesale model is the way much more of business normally works.  Farmer Bob analogy: Safeway buys tomatoes outright from Bob and sells them at whatever price it likes, even less than what it paid Bob if it wants to lure in shoppers or clear tomatoes from the warehouse before they spoil.

So far, under Amazon's wholesale model, prices are lower for readers, and much more goes to the writers.  Naturally this means Amazon has been chewing up market share and growing rapidly in market clout against the traditional publishers, which is why Apple offered its services as a hired gun in the first place.  But there's much less to fear from an Amazon ascendancy in the market than there is from an Apple-led cartel.  If Amazon should later jack prices or reduce royalties, there will be rapid entrance by other wholesale-model vendors (to some extent that is underway now, and notably Barnes and Noble is beginning to find traction as they commit to the wholesale model). The wholesale mode of distribution is inherently cheap and doesn't rely on ebooks to subsidize hardcovers, so there are fewer barriers to competitors entering the market; if necessary, we can all go to direct sales (that's what my e-junkie store that mainly handles my short stories does), which has almost no overhead. 

Apple and the traditional publishers are trying to keep hold of the leash that publishers held from the 1870s forward; Amazon is offering a great big leash-free park to run around in, and furthermore, should they get unpleasant about it later, it has an intrinsically low fence to jump.

Since analogies seem to work for people, I'm going to try another one here.  I think the current situation of writers is analogous to that of the Ohio Valley Nations around the time of Tecumseh.

One of those carefully not-talked-about aspects of American history is what happened between there being a narrow strip of white settlement along the East Coast and the genocidal mopping-up operation after about 1840.  I'd say it gets surprisingly little coverage in the history books except that I'm not surprised; it's embarrassing and it doesn't square with our self-image, and every nation that's been around for a while has some big things swept under the national rug and—that lump is nothing, you don't need to look there. 

Currently, most school curricula teach the history of white settlement in the USA by concentrating on the early and late periods, when the native population didn't have a chance, and ignore the big middle when things might actually have gone differently.  I think we do that because the alternate world where they did go differently stands in such marked contrast to our own—and not in our favor.

The East Coast settlements in what was to become the United States arrived in the immediate wake of the smallpox/measles/mumps/rubella epidemic that killed practically all the indigenous people there. Settlers in most areas, most of the time, got most of the way to the Appalachians before encountering serious resistance (with certain large exceptions like King Philip's War).

Similarly, after the American Civil War, there was a big industrial nation on one side of the sparsely populated remaining Indian territory, with a rapidly developing West Coast on the other side, and swarms of land-hungry immigrants to slaughter the buffalo and roll the ecology over into something that had no room for the Plains and Mountain tribes; the nations from the upper Missouri Valley over to the coastal ranges and down to the Rio Grande and Gulf of California were brave and tough and received the less-than-comforting compliment of becoming part of the mythology of their conquerors (the way Arthur was for the Saxons, perhaps) but their case was absolutely hopeless; Chief Joseph's surrender speech is a notably eloquent summary of what happened when the  tribes tried to stand up for themselves in the last decades of conquest.

But in between .... that period we don't talk about as much ...

Consider Tecumseh, possibly the greatest leader the native peoples ever produced in fighting off the white invasion, and I would argue the last real chance they ever had.  When he was just old enough to claim his place as a Shawnee warrior, the newly-independent USA barely reached to the Appalachians; thirty years later, he died in one of the last battles of the War of 1812, after pressuring his British/Canadian allies to try to make a stand rather than write off the Ohio Country. 

Look through the history books of the 19th century when they remembered him, and you find a surprising number of white men who were named after him, along with dozens of towns.* Until 1900 or later, in the mythic/identity part of white American consciousness, he occupied a position something like that of Hannibal or Vercingetorix to the Romans (or maybe the Duke of Parma or Joan of Arc to the British). 

Here, I think, is what Tecumseh saw, clearly, apparently through his whole life, and if things didn't work out it wasn't for fault of vision, determination, intelligence, or effort; ultimately he just wasn't lucky enough for the resources he had.

The Ohio Country (at the time, not just the present-day State of Ohio, but pretty much everything south of the lakes, north of the Ohio, and east of the Mississippi) wasn't going to be left wild, and Neolithic hunting-farming wasn't going to continue there. The archeologists nowadays squabble a lot about how wild it was or wasn't, which is basically a fight about how much of it was being Neolithic-farmed by extremely sophisticated techniques versus Neolithic-hunted less efficiently.** The distinction doesn't need to concern us here; the native nations, in any case, were more than capable of developing the Ohio Country themselves, especially as they acquired technology from whites (which they were doing pretty fast, even if Tecumseh's brother, a religious leader, didn't approve). 

So circa 1780-90, three things could happen in the Ohio Country in the next generation:
1)    Native nations could unite in a confederacy (probably initially under Shawnee hegemony) and develop it themselves,
2)    White American settlers could drive the native population out and develop it,
3)    White British/Canadian settlers could move slowly into the area, in cooperation with the indigenous nations, and develop it.

Essentially the Ohio Country was going to be planted and cultivated, populated with towns and dissected by roads, remade into a settled region; the question was, on the maps, would it be the Shawnee Confederacy, the Northwest Territory, or South Ontario?

I still haven't digressed as much as I'd like to here, so let me point you at a famous American literary anecdote, one that, unlike many of them, seems to have happened:

When taking his senior exam in Government 4 (International Law) at Harvard, Robert Benchley was asked to discuss a fishing treaty from the viewpoint of either the American or the British negotiators.  Not actually knowing anything of either, he discussed it from the viewpoint of the fish.  (He got an F and had to take additional coursework to graduate, for anyone whose sense of justice might be troubled, or sense of curiosity piqued).

Welcome to the viewpoint of the fish.

You, dear readers—and you are dear, you are the people who stand between me and honest work—are to some extent the analog to the Ohio Country in Tecumseh's day, or the fishing grounds of Benchley's.  You have resources we would all like, i.e. money and a desire to read.  You will be "developed"—"exploited" might be a better analogy, actually—by writers, who will be working in some arrangement for someone.

So the question is: will you be developed by the writers themselves, i.e. in a dialogue between them and you?  There is a good chance that the writers will want to take good care of you (since you are vital to our welfare), and there's plenty to go around for you and us, just as the wild things of the Ohio Country were apt to be better cared for by the reverent Shawnee than by the aggressive Americans or the somewhat-less-aggressive Britons.

Or are you going to be developed in a tightly locked up and controlled fashion, by Apple and the publishers it colludes with?  Or in a semi-wild fashion, by Amazon (allied with independent writers?)

Traditional/legacy publishing is about control, channeling, focusing, etc.—that's the deal they cut you, very limited offerings but supposedly all very professional.  If the industry goes their way, the streets will be swept, the gates will be kept, and the trains will run on time, between a sharply limited list of destinations. 

I do not think that the indie writers can take over the whole thing; that's pretty much what Tecumseh was forced to recognize, after the Battle of Tippecanoe, that he simply didn't have the force to win by himself.  So he chose the lesser of two evils.  The British might eventually intend to settle the area themselves, but not for a good long while; they were more interested in keeping it up for grabs, and out of the hands of the Americans.  So they supplied Tecumseh with arms and advisors, supplies of all kinds and field intelligence, and though he had to worry about what they might do eventually, they weren't doing it right now, as the Americans were.

So let's consider a few things Amazon is doing. 
•The 70% royalty rate on many self-published books.
•Instant sales reports and royalties paid monthly (on a 60-day delay, which beats hell out of traditional publishing's paid semi-annually on unconfirmable reports and an effective 1-year delay).
•Enabling Book Scan access so that all writers can see how their sales are actually going (something publishers have tried to prevent for many years), not just at Amazon, but across many sales channels. 
•Pioneering  affiliate marketing (which allows book sales from an author website to generate retail commissions for the author directly, instead of very slowly trickling back through publisher royalties). 
•Publishing tools. I haven't used CreateSpace to make physical books, but I've now used Kindle Direct on several projects, and it's an easy, powerful set of tools for self-publication.

In short, there are two giants struggling over this rich commercial territory, and we unorganized writers can't hold it all by ourselves, so one of them is going to be our ally. 

One possible ally wants to lock it all up right now (with reduced diversity for readers and frankly reduced opportunity for most writers, even if a small number of favorites come out ahead).  The other ... has truth and I think the law as well on its side, and it's handing out guns, steel knives, and well-woven blankets.  Beats the hell out of this wood-and-gut bow and flint knife, now doesn't it?

Yeah, we may have to fight against them later.  But for right now, the side that lets you have some weapons and a say in the war is the side to be on.


*Also for his birthplace/capital, Chillicothe – a misunderstanding there, "Chillicothe" in Shawnee apparently means something like "capital city," "main town," or "headquarters," as if aliens settling Earth had renamed Columbus "Statecapital," Manhattan "Thecity," or Colorado Springs "Norad" under the impression that that was the Native Earthman name.

**Neolithic in this case means "with the tools of the later stone age," even though many of those tools were increasingly made of copper, brass, or iron.