legacy publishers

More on Writers, Novels, Amazon-Hachette

Amazon Hachette

Amazon Hachette

I wrote earlier about the underlying issues in the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute.

The New York Times has a good story by David Streitfeld on one author who has done well with Amazon’s relatively new publishing arm:

Vincent Zandri hails from the future. He is a novelist from the day after tomorrow, when Amazon has remade the worlds of writing, printing, selling and reading books so thoroughly that there is hardly anything left besides Amazon.

Mr. Zandri, an author of mystery and suspense tales, is published by Thomas & Mercer, one of Amazon Publishing’s many book imprints. He is edited by Amazon editors and promoted by Amazon publicists to Amazon customers, nearly all of whom read his books in electronic form on Amazon’s e-readers, Amazon’s tablets and, soon, Amazon’s phones.

His novels are not sold in bookstores, and rarely found in public libraries. His reviews are written by Amazon readers on the Amazon website. “Has a little bit of something for everyone,” one enthusiast exclaimed. “Heavy machinery, love, humor and mystery.” And his latest prize was an award from Amazon.

A few years ago he was reduced to returning bottles and cans for grocery money. Now his Amazon earnings pay for lengthy stays in Italy and Paris, as well as expeditions to the real Amazon. “I go wherever I want, do whatever I want and live however I want,” he said recently at a bar in Mill Valley, Calif., a San Francisco suburb where he was relaxing after a jaunt to Nepal.

Mr. Zandri, who 15 years ago had a $235,000 contract with a big New York house that went sour, has an answer.

“Everything Amazon has promised me, it has fulfilled — and more,” he said. “They ask: ‘Are you happy, Vince? We just want to see you writing books.’ That’s the major difference between corporate-driven Big Five publishers, where the writer is not the most important ingredient in the soup, and Amazon Publishing, which places its writers on a pedestal.”

Amazon believes that publishers take too much of the money in producing a book and add too little value. In traditional publishing, the highest royalty a writer could get was 15 percent of the book’s price. With e-books, the royalty is 25 percent of net revenue, but Amazon feels that is still not enough. Mr. Zandri gets 35 percent, and self-published writers who use Amazon’s platform get more.

In interviews, for the first time, executives from Amazon and Hachette explicitly described their positions.

“If you charge high e-book prices, ultimately what you’re doing is making a slow, painful slide to irrelevancy,” said Russell Grandinetti, Amazon’s senior vice president for Kindle. “You have to draw the box big. Books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against Candy Crush, Twitter, Facebook, streaming movies, newspapers you can read for free. It’s a new world. It’s so important not to simply build a moat around the industry the way it is now.”

Amazon favors a price of $9.99 for many e-book titles, while Hachette and other publishers want to charge more. Sixty percent of Hachette’s e-book sales in the United States occur on Amazon.

“For most books, $9.99 creates more total revenue than $14.99,” Mr. Grandinetti said. “That means $9.99 creates more total dollars to share with authors.”

From the point of view of legacy publishers, they have bought their oligopoly fair and square, and anything they can do to slow change which threatens to take control away from them is good. The 4-5 big publishing conglomerates control most print sales and distribution, which for blockbusters is still wildly profitable, and the complex legacy system with its agents, publishers, distributors, and bookstores is being eroded by lower-cost ebooks and authors-as-publishers. So while they lose some revenue by overpricing ebooks and stiff the authors of royalties, they delay the transition to the much lower cost structure of ebooks.

The gatekeeping function of legacy publishers will have to arise in some sort of online reviewing and quality screening function. Amazon reviews are now used for this for both Amazon and other sites (which don’t do enough volume to have any depth of reviews except for the biggest-selling books.) Amazon recently purchased Goodreads, which was an attempt at an independent user review site, so it still controls most online customer reviews.

Also amusing: The Many Good Reasons Not to Write a Novel.

Another good read: Mad Genius Club on declining author income vs. publisher profits.

The Hawking Index of Unread Blockbusters

Hawking Index of recent Political Bestsellers

Hawking Index of recent Political Bestsellers

Until now we only had anecdotal evidence that many “blockbuster” books pushed by media and reviewers went largely unread (the most famous past example was Gravity’s Rainbow, critically acclaimed literature that was so dense and bereft of compelling narrative that few purchasers actually finished it.)

But now we have the “Hawking Index,” named after Stephen Hawking for his Brief History of Time, also hugely recommended and rarely finished. While we have no way of knowing how many Major Books purchased in hardcover at bookstores end up as doorstops, we now have data from Amazon Kindle books, which make available on their Amazon pages the location and number of notations users make within the book; it turns out many books have notations near the beginning but few or none near the end, indicating users did not make it that far. Since many books do have notations to the end, we know it’s not just because readers get tired of annotating; they simply stop reading.

WaPo has a good story on this, adding Hillary Clinton’s latest as another much-purchased, rarely-finished book, to go along with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as a best-selling bust with readers:

The summer’s most-read book? Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” Least-read? Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” for which the notations only get about 2.4 percent of the way in.

So, naturally, we decided to apply this methodology to “Hard Choices” and other recent or comparable political books. And we have our own ranking, which we now present in order from estimated-least- to estimated-most-read.

1. “Hard Choices,” by Hillary Clinton. Hawking Index: 2.04 percent. Well, there you have it. The deepest into Hard Choices the popular highlights get is page 33, a quote about smart power. Three of the five most-popular highlights occur within the first 10 pages. We will note the same caveat that Ellenberg applies to Piketty. “Hard Choices” is fairly new, and fairly long. Still, though, one would think more people had made it past page 33.

The most popular quote? “Do all the good you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Which, like several of the top quotes from the authors listed below, isn’t actually a quote from Hillary Clinton. Instead, it’s a mantra from her family’s Methodist faith.

I took a look at my own book and the highlights readers chose seem to indicate most readers read it all the way through — the two most popular:

Most of the trouble in relationships is about bad signaling and poor responses. (6 Highlighters)

A good partner is reliable and available to help on call, whenever possible; a good partner leaves his partner alone when help is not needed, staying quietly available behind the scenes…. (5 Highlighters)

…which I actually wrote, though some of the prettiest language highlighted by users is quoted from other books (where a thought was expressed so beautifully I could not improve upon it.)

“Pills and Starships” by Lydia Millet – Pseudo Science Fiction

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

As a reader of science fiction from age 6 (if Tom Swift books qualify, which they do), it pains me to see politicized and depressing stories for young people, promoted by a certain negative East Coast US mindset that believes technology and the future are bad things, that freedom of thought is dangerous, and that Progress is about appointing certain right-thinking types (the nomenklatura that are literate in the arts but not in the sciences) to direct everyone down the righteous path to equality and Utopia.

I also have a background in literary fiction: I have, for example, met John Updike at a Harvard writing class where he was a special guest, and experienced the joy of rejection slips with encouraging notes from the New Yorker. The New York/East Coast literary establishment — the academics, the publishers in Manhattan, the magazines that dictated tastes and high culture like the New Yorker — are in steep decline these days, and the damnable public insists on reading much more genre fiction, finding the literary novel less accessible and entertaining. Nothing makes a high-literary sort burn with resentment more than seeing self-published trash like 50 Shades of Gray and good science fiction like the Wool series route around the tasteful gatekeepers to make $millions for their authors.

Thus there is a temptation for literary authors whose sales are flagging to try to write in genres that might sell better. Unfortunately they sometimes try science fiction (which, if it is less technological but still projects a future society that runs on different principles, is sometimes called “speculative fiction.”) Being a futurist or technologist, or both, is not something most literary authors have the background for, and their lack of interest shows when they try it — generally they pick up the most hackneyed, uncreative current memes about the future and project them, mixed with their political biases, into a future world or society that is implausible to any student of technology or history.

A fine early example of this was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which could only have been written by someone ignorant of the true American character. Somehow a people who are cantankerous and barely able to tolerate gun regulation are going to acquiesce to a fundamentalist religious dictatorship that enslaves women — really? Only an academic author would believe something so preposterous. The Wikipedia entry on the novel sets the scene:

Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremist terrorists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.

This book became a bestseller and a movie, and the East Coast literati (with their paranoia about the feared Other, the fundamentalist religionists who were then getting headlines) were completely willing to believe that only one or two elections separated the US from a totalitarian religious state.

I was listening to NPR yesterday and heard an interview with author Lydia Millet about her new book, Pills and Starships. The book sounded like similar literati scare-mongering by someone of little or no scientific background, so I investigated further.

The PR blitzes legacy publishers can provide for a new book are still amazing. Not only is she getting a PR plug by those influence-peddlers at NPR for her crappy book, there are reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Journal of Books, as well as dozens of planted reviews at Goodreads. The book has climbed to around #2,000 on Amazon’s bestselling list but has only two reviews there so far, meaning the publisher was not able to game Amazon’s review system as effectively.

The world she proposes for the future (from the Amazon page):

Earth reached its ecological tipping point some years ago, and corporations now manage all aspects of life. No more babies are being born, the elderly must purchase contracts to die, and drugs (“pharma”) control a dwindling human population. Natalie’s parents have purchased a death contract, and they have one final week together. The 17-year-old must keep a journal, which she addresses to an unknown space traveler—the only place where starships come into the story. As the Bountiful Passing approaches, Nat and her rebellious younger brother, Sam, begin to make plans to save their parents, or, at the very least, to rescue themselves from the tyranny of the corps and their Death Math. A predictable plot and strained teen voice distract from the very beginning and with 90-plus pages of backstory, the real action doesn’t begin until well into the book. The ecological theme, clearly a passion of the author, unfortunately comes across as too heavy-handed and didactic in tone. An additional purchase only.—Katherine Koenig, The Ellis School, PA

Here’s her author bio from Amazon:

Lydia Millet is a novelist and short-story writer known for her dark humor, idiosyncratic characters and language, and strong interest in the relationship between humans and other animals. Born in Boston, she grew up in Toronto and now lives outside Tucson, Arizona with her two children, where she writes and works in wildlife conservation. Sometimes called a “novelist of ideas,” Millet won the PEN-USA award for fiction for her early novel My Happy Life (2002); in 2010, her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008, 2011, and 2012 she published three novels in a critically acclaimed series about extinction and personal loss: How the Dead Dream, Ghost Lights, and Magnificence. June 2014 will see the publication of her first book for young-adult readers, Pills and Starships — an apocalyptic tale of death contracts and climate change set in the ruins of Hawaii.

She has no background in economics, history, or hard sciences, but with “feelings” and a literary sensibility, she is willing to project a stunningly unimaginative future designed to reinforce current public school emphasis on “climate change” and the depressing fate that awaits us all if we don’t follow “feelings” as a guide to policy. The widespread promotion of this kind of propaganda to young people might have been useful when the education establishment drenched them in optimistic technocratic futures, but now it is just piling on a Conventional Wisdom that discourages any kind of planning for a brighter future. A subversive work now would be technologically optimistic and recognize how much better the future will be than the past for most people.

There’s a place for dystopias in Young Adult fiction, for example the Hunger Games series. But they should be sharp and imaginative and realistic about how real people respond to conditions.

Here are some fragments from reviews less influenced by PR quid pro quos:

I didn’t love this book. The book is told as a journal, with the audience some unknown spacefarer on a ship somewhere out in the solar system. And for me, that’s where it doesn’t work. Okay, I understand the point of a journal, but I think Millet sticks a little too strictly to the format, telling us far more than she shows us. If anything, the beginning drags as she explains and explains the world where Nat and Sam live.

I did care about the characters, but it would have been more enjoyable for me to see things as they unfolded. Millet even describes the dialog in places, rather than recounting it — or trying to recount it — which comes across as a rookie mistake. Just when the plot was getting good, the book ended, too, which left me feeling like I’d missed something. — Dean Fetzer at LitReactor.com

… When, from beneath the glossy surface, a disturbing reality begins to emerge, Nat’s emotionally flat narration makes it hard to care. Passive and without affect, she accepts her parents’ choices and later abandons her brother during a horrendous storm with elegiac regret. Despite exposition that’s rarely interrupted by dialogue, this world’s puzzlingly out of focus, real places carelessly portrayed. The novel’s narrative conceit has Nat explaining her story to a hypothetical distant reader. Summarizing the action robs it of suspense and interest: Readers do not see the story unfold and watch characters act and interact, making it difficult for them to interpret their behavior for themselves.

Detail may be the lifeblood of fiction, but storytelling is its pumping heart; without it, this all-premise effort is DOA. — Kirkus Reviews

In other words, it’s bad fiction as well as bad science fiction. Yet it will be sold and pumped up by the ideologically-biased publishing industry, which is doing a fine job of destroying itself by promoting the dull and correct while blocking the novel and subversive works of much better authors.

For an update on this topic and the ongoing war in gaming see: YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again

For more on pop culture:

The Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
“Mad Men”
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family