Writers: Unions and Disunions

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.

Polly Whitney

6 Responses to “Writers: Unions and Disunions”

  1. Oh, me, too. I’m horrified that Amazon might come to determine all the rules for what we read. At a minimum, I wish Amazon would stop throwing up roadblocks to the traditional ways of seeing a good book into print, into our libraries and homes.

  2. davidsmith

    I’m inclined to think of writing with the goal of being accepted by a reputable publisher as a perfectly fine exercise that is, nevertheless, almost bound to fail. Amazon is, under these conditions, probably a godsend for most good writers. It’s no doubt a godsend from a minor and stingy and legally grasping god, but if one simply wants one’s work to appear in public, why not? And, arguably, half the goal of being published by a reputable publisher is simply being published. Get known; go from there.

    We’ve been weeding out our paper library. We have plenty of shelves, but far from enough to bear the weight of all the books we’ve read and want to read. My Kindle library, though, has no limits, and, with no thought of passing my Kindle books on to Half-Price Books, I can annotate and highlight with abandon. As a reader, I like it a lot.

  3. David, I have no problem whatsoever with Amazon giving good writers a chance. I do, however, know that I’ve been burned by Amazon, an entity that may not have the tools to discern the difference between “good” and “existing.” Of course, that’s also happened with traditional publishers, too. Where I do feel mulish is the fact that Amazon does actively impede authors who have been published by traditional houses. Here’s an example: I waited, and then waited, and then waited some more, for titles by Kate Atkinson. I kept getting messages from Amazon saying that the books would be delayed. Meanwhile, they suggested, here are some books you might enjoy, and then a pile of ads fell out of my computer onto my lap — and they all turned out to be for books published by Amazon. That’s not playing fair, and it’s also not a way for culture to develop under its own steam. In this instance, Amazon has taken on the characteristics of a censor, a stifler of culture.

  4. davidsmith

    Books, I imagine, to Amazon are just products. They saw an opening and they took it. The also saw openings in breath mints and folding beds and personal computers and vacuum cleaners. They’re a money-making machine. For them, a few good books are probably profitless. Books in quantity, quality be damned, are what feed the bottom line.

    I’m sure the days of the great editor at the distinguished publishing house are long gone. We’ve traded that kind of discrimination for endless flood of popular publishing. And I suppose that’s OK, overall. Today, I have far more access to far more information – and books – than ever before. But I’m just a consumer, not a writer. Not to be flippant, I feel your pain. Really.

    • David, I could just cry. Your most recent comment is completely apt. Are you writing now? I ask because your posts are distinguished by good sense and the ability to communicate it. Writing can completely be a raging beast, but one we often and often take on, willing to put up a fight. But some of us got lucky. So, I should not complain. (But I HAVE fired two agents during my career.)

Leave a Reply