Who’s the Ebook Monster?

Speaking of crimes, the US Department of Justice recently filed an anti-trust suit against Apple and five of the Big Six book publishers for allegedly colluding to fix ebook prices. I’m not going to get into the details of the case here; you can Google that. What’s got me scratching my head is the belly-aching from authors, author groups, and book lovers, decrying Amazon and weeping bitter tears for traditional (or legacy, if you prefer) publishers and big-box bricks-and-mortar stores (which is now mainly Barnes and Noble).  The loudest complainer for this group is bestselling author and Authors Guild president, Scott Turow, who sternly warns of the dangers of evil Amazon.com trampling publishers and chain bookstores.

Really? Have these people forgotten the days when Barnes and Noble, not Amazon, was the 800-pound gorilla that called the shots in book publishing? Starting in the mid-1990s, legacy publishers rejected many of my manuscripts and proposals. Why? Some editors confessed that publishers routinely consulted with Barnes and Noble, and if B&N decided they wouldn’t stock a new book by me because my past sales didn’t meet their expectations, then the publisher declined to make an offer. This was generally a sight-unseen rejection–I was judged not on the quality of the work but on past performance. A lot of writers were ghettoized thanks to the big chain stores and unfairly branded “mid-list authors” (a nice way of saying “losers”).

I don’t understand these people who pine for the good ole days of paper books and neighborhood bookstores (the ones killed off by the chains, by the way) and who blame Amazon for stomping over the publishing landscape. Can I assume that this group prefers snail mail to email? Multiplex cinemas to digital downloads? Typewriters to word-processing software? Well, if so, good for them. It’s their right to feel any way they want. But as history has shown, when the times they are a changin’, get on board or get the hell out of the way.

Some readers and writers turn up their noses and say that the proliferation of ebooks, particularly low-priced, self-published ebooks, signals the end of worthwhile culture. These low-down ebooks, they believe, litter the marketplace with badly edited crap. Not that traditional publishers have ever put out badly edited crap. Oh no, never.

Sure, there’s a lot of sub-standard material being offered online these days, but no one’s forcing you to read or buy it. Amazon has spearheaded the self-published ebook movement, which has allowed writers–both old hands and newbies–to bring their work to the marketplace without having to go through the traditional tastemakers. It’s rather democratic of Amazon. Hardly the kind of behavior you’d associate with an evil creature from Seattle.

Which is not to say that Amazon might not someday become an evil monster. But right now, at least from my point of view, it’s a pretty good monster. I make more money per sale with my ebooks than I ever made on my traditionally published books, and at prices much lower than the legacy publishers are willing to offer (hence the anti-trust suit). Also, I have access to sales information that traditional publishers have never willingly shared with authors. If you’ve ever seen a royalty statement, you know what I’m talking about. Masterpieces of obfuscation.

Bestselling authors like Turow are doing just fine, and I don’t begrudge them their success. Just don’t tell the rest of us who are benefiting from what Amazon has done that we’re helping this supposed monster destroy civilization. If anything, Amazon is promoting a freer flow of ideas and increasing the variety of voices on the book scene. Is that such a bad thing?

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