Writers are whispering. Writers are grumbling. Writers are raising their voices in glee.
Writers are losing money. Writers are making pots of money.
Writers are angry, or jubilant or depressed or happy at last.
At the center of this tidal pool of growing irritation, or worse, is Amazon.
In July of 2014, the giant retailer launched Kindle Unlimited, and the troubled whispers have been turning into public outrage, because it looks to some writers as though Amazon is trying, during its ongoing battle with Hachette Books, to win the war and give Amazon a monopoly greater than its near-monopoly over books but also over all of culture. (Witness Amazon’s Golden Globe victories. Witness Amazon’s contract with Woody Allen to produce television shows.)
Writers (outside of WGA) have no unifying force to bring their concerns – either for or against Amazon – to be resolved by rational minds and unbiased hearts. Yet, among the growing whispers is a word that might just turn this controversy into something big and frightening and truly interesting, yet maybe even a useful engine for sorting out the villains and heroes — that word is “union.”
On January 5, 2015, The New York Times printed in its business section
a story headlined “For the Indie Writers of Amazon, It’s Publish or Perish.” The story features Kathryn Le Veque, a California writer who has self-published 44 works of fiction since 2012. According to the Times, her audience is mostly on Amazon, along with its subscription platforms for music, video, and book services. The fear of such services, probably most eloquently expressed by Taylor Swift, is that art produced by traditional, non-Amazon outlets is being devalued. Those who recoil at the idea of so-called “indie writers” are worried that, when some writers can dump 44 books into the market by partnering with Amazon and self-publishing on vast scales, readers will be buying their reading material by the pound, rather than according to any standard of merit.
Before Amazon came up with the notion of author partnerships (minor unions?) that seem to emphasize quantity over quality, Ms. Le Veque had the infamous 44 books stuffed away around her house. Almost all of these books had been rejected by traditional publishing houses. Since she joined “Amazon’s writers” (the retailer’s phrasing, not mine), Ms. Le Veque, according to the Times, “is growing more popular by becoming less expensive [she has more than once dropped her prices to lure more buyers], which is making her more popular.”
The natural question becomes whether the output of traditional publishers is better than the torrent of works presented on Kindle Unlimited. Is there a difference between Amazon’s writers and “real” writers? Is Amazon promoting mediocrity, establishing itself and its writers by setting up as a publisher? Do they have editors on their staff?
The old saying is that “everyone has at least one book in him.” Is that true? Can anyone write? Is Amazon actually benefiting all readers through the enabling of new writers by removing some obstacles to publication? Why should a writer sit around until a publisher deigns to come calling?
Some established writers, with Taylor Swift the leading voice, want somehow to put a leash on Amazon and its practice of selling writers from its own stable – and neglecting established writers. This is where the word “union” is coming from, from writers published by analog houses. I don’t know how that would work – can you imagine a union of artists that included Michelangelo and Monet and Picasso? What standard would such a union use to induct its members? Would Amazon’s writers have a chance at membership? How would the new bylaws read? Who’d lead the union? What city would house it headquarters? Would it have a mascot? Or would a union, with high seriousness of purpose, identify qualified writers and somehow give them a voice regarding what they see as discrimination against talented writers – themselves? Will they punish Amazon? How? Or, is it the Amazon writers who should form a union? I can see how they could really hurt Amazon. It seems to me that such a group could be effective in collective bargaining with the Big A. The “traditionally published” writers – well – it’s much more difficult for me to imagine them unionizing. If they followed the model set by Taylor Swift – she took her music off Spotify, the music subscription service that is paying musical artists a fraction of one penny per play of a song. Swift believes that the non-digital album is not dead, that her rejection of Spotify can demonstrate that music can still be sold in stores, without subscription services.
This is my greatest worry about what’s around the bend: the increasing stratification of writers cannot be healthy.
In an incredibly stupid op-ed column (“I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” The New York Times, January 9, 2015), David Brooks wrote about writers, “Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people.”
To me that’s as good a definition for bigotry as anyone interested in the practice will ever need. But Brooks wasn’t done. He went on to set up his brand new taxonomy for the relative worth of writers:
“Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect.”
What strikes me first is how easily Brooks can be proven wrong: Satirists should NOT be relegated to some sort of secondary slot. Think Voltaire, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Ambrose Bierce – all exemplars of high canonical work. How many among us think, like Brooks, that snobbery will elevate their work? Brooks’ even HAVING the idea of sorting out writers by category is repulsive and wrong. I hope we don’t follow his example in stratifying writers – good, better, best? It seems to me that these are the days when writers and other artists need to stand together, rather than participate in a fruitless display of bad manners, counter-productivity, and bigotry.