Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

There is no war between Amazon and Traditional Publishing

There will never be peace in the war between Amazon and traditional publishing because there is no war.

One of the defining qualities of the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette is just how softly softly it is. These kind of disputes between a mega-retailer and a major supplier happen every day in other industries and are notably brutal. The retailers promote the supplier’s competitors heavily and with eye-bleeding discounts; they remove the supplier’s goods from sale completely; they pressure other companies to stop dealing with the misbehaving supplier. Most large retailers have clout and wield it. Amazon just lost ten times more on the Fire phone alone than they were ever likely to lose from properly blacklisting Hachette. In turn, Hachette isn’t playing hardball either. They aren’t making sweetheart deals with Amazon’s competitors. They aren’t organising eye-watering sales or promotions with B&N. They don’t have a competent direct sales platform they can use to leverage the publicity the dispute has generated. Both parties are just continuing with business as usual, just with a little bit less effort. The predominant characteristic of the argument is its sheer lack of inspiration. It’s pedestrian and mundane.

All of the major retailers are horrible, ruthless companies. They treat their employees like crap, pay them as little as is legally possible (or less if they find loopholes), and bust unions with the glee and enthusiasm of a scouser wolfing down a full English breakfast. Amazon is just another typical example of the mega-retailer species. And if your only reason for being against Amazon is its fight with a multi-industry conglomerate with holdings in anything from retail to defence contractors then you’re either incredibly self-centred or a genuinely bad human being.

The contractual dispute between Amazon and Hachette is not a war, even in the business sense. It’s only important to those directly involved and doesn’t warrant the response it has inspired in the publishing industry at large. That’s because the tension and arguments in the industry aren’t caused by the Amazon-Hachette dispute at all, or even the so-called ‘war’ between Amazon and traditional publishing. These arguments are a symptom of a deeper malaise.

We need to make a distinction here between the trigger and the ultimate cause.

When a patient with an immune deficiency gets a cold, their symptoms are severe to the point of being life-threatening. While the symptoms are technically caused by the cold virus, the severity of the symptoms has a deeper underlying cause in the patient’s compromised immune system.

What we’re witnessing aren’t battle-lines drawn in a war between Amazon and traditional publishers but the death throes of authorship as a viable profession—even as a part time one. After decades of slow decline, as advances grow smaller, as sales concentrate more in the head, and as the midlist disappears, what was once somewhat possible—writing as a profession—is now unlikely, and is fast becoming impossible. What we’re witnessing is the panic of a deathbed patient. Authorship is being de-professionalised and deskilled; the professions that hang off the professional authorship tree—editors and agents mostly—are following suit.

That’s why authors have been aligning themselves in a variety of factions, each more hyperbolic and extreme than the other. That’s why authors freak out and respond irrationally to bad or even merely lukewarm reviews. That’s why they take to social media to promote their books with a shrill, manufactured exuberance. That’s why a lot of the bestselling self-published books are guides on how to market, write, promote, and sell self-published books. That’s why you see authors track reviewers down in real life and harassing them at work. That’s why an author travelled all the way from London to Scotland to hit a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle. A desperate profession attracts and breeds desperate people.

Of course there are plenty of people in publishing who have resisted the urge to despair and don’t engage in the fridge-logic that starts to permeate your brain when your livelihood is threatened.

These are the people who realise that the only path to stability is diversification, not picking sides. They both self-publish and are traditionally published. They both write articles and they blog. They are open to the new ideas that new media enables but they resist the urge to throw out what is already working. They are rational, sensible, and professional.

But even they are worried. At least a little bit.

Nobody can broker a peace in this war because the war ended years ago. It ended when we let multinationals take over publishing. It ended when we let big retail chains take over bookselling. It ended when the business classes realised that books are, from an economic and business perspective, a commodity and that their cultural role has no effect on the bottom line. Blockbusters are an emergent phenomenon completely disconnected from what members of the public consider to be culturally worthwhile or how they define literary quality. Publishing as an industry is just as well served by a class of chattering, attention-seeking amateurs as it was by the professional author. If you think that publishers learned something constructive about fan communities from 50 Shades or Cassandra Clare you’d be wrong. The lesson they took from that—building on the trend of celebrity books, blogger books, cutesy titles on the latest meme—was something else entirely:

Authors, as a professional class, have ceased to be a necessary part of the publishing industry.

ETA: I wrote a follow-up to this post clarifying what I meant by the de-professionalisation of authorship.

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