Recently a writer friend called and, with jolly sarcasm, asked me, "How does it feel to be married to the hit man?" I had to sit down on that one. Then I had to backtrack. Several months ago, Businessweek Magazine ran a lead article and photograph of Larry Kirshbaum, once powerful and well-liked Chairman and CEO of The Warner Book Group in New York City. The article was headlined "AMAZON'S HIT MAN."
Back in May, 2011, Amazon announced they had hired this same Larry Kirshbaum to run Amazon Publishing, their new New York based imprint aimed at publishing fiction and non-fiction books which would hopefully rival traditional (or legacy) publishers, i.e., the Big Six. Well. Kirshbaum was instantly reviled as a "turncoat," a man who had "sold out," who had "gone over to the dark side." The venom and rancor and name-calling will no doubt volley back and forth for several years, as we are in the midst of a major battle while the tectonic plates of publishing heave and shift, and change the industry, and perhaps our lives, forever.
Insiders are calling it the Legacy Wars, pitching Amazon – the upstart, the innovative toughie – against the century-old NewYork publishing world, so lagging behind in foresight, efficiency, in equitable author's rights. So sadly in need of CHANGE. This escalating bloodbath has left writers with the sensation of a temporal-spatial deficit disorder: Unsure of where we stand in this, we don't know who to root for, who to condemn, or where to turn. We don't know our right foot from our left. Yes, it's war. And Kirshbaum, the penultimate New York publisher, has gone over to Amazon, the "enemy. "
(In his defense, the forward-thinking Kirshbaum was predicting the advent of electronic books – even attempting to launch an electronic reader – a decade before anyone else in the industry.)
So, what I wonder is this: if he is a turncoat, a traitor, what does that say about authors like me, and Joe Konrath, and Barry Eisler, and a dozen other authors formerly published by the Big Six, who have crossed over and contracted for their next book (digital and print) with...Amazon. Eisler, a perennial bestseller, says he is now accused of "shilling" for Amazon. Joe Konrath, another bestseller, is a millionaire (or very close), thanks to his self-published books and to Amazon. He's smart and hilarious and supports Amazon, and doesn't give a damn what the world thinks.
But some of us are not yet that successful, not that well-known. Nancy Pearl, the librarian/author who had signed with Amazon talks of the outpouring of vitriol on her Facebook and Twitter. Some of my acquaintances have stopped talking to me, legacy-published diehards who see Amazon as a drooling succubus that will ultimately devour all of publishing, then all of human civilization as we know it. A former friend called me a sellout and a slut. Oh, my.
In fact, I did not exactly cross over; I was catapulted. I will not reiterate the whole sordid story of how, against their contractual obligations, Penguin Publishing terminated my book contract for my forthcoming novel, simply because I self-published two story collections, HOUSE OF SKIN and CANNIBAL NIGHTS on Amazon Kindle, their arch-enemy (the editor's words.) This, in spite of the fact that several years back Penguin had turned down these same prize-winning stories as a collection. For those of you unfamiliar with the background of this psycho-drama, please see my blog post "SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY." August 25, 2011.
I had, in fact, stopped giving interviews about this fiasco. How I ended up on the front lines of this legacy war, I still do not know. Surely, I am not the first author to be fired by a publisher. I wanted it behind me. If there was media-attention to be had, I hoped it would be focused on my forthcoming novel.
Alas. Reporters have their own agendas. They continue to write articles about my struggles with Penguin, speculating on why it happened, who was right and who was wrong, and would we go to court. Erroneous facts are reported. Wrong assumptions made. Wrong conclusions drawn. So... in answer to the hundreds of queries sent me and the amazingly supportive responses to my 8/25/11 blog (from as far away as Scotland, Sweden, Ukraine) asking how this tragi-comedy played out, did I pay back the advance? what happened to my book? here is my response, my attempt at closure. Only now am I able to discuss it publicly. And then I hope I can put it to rest. (Though I will answer any queries.)
In the end - after reviewing contracts and all correspondence – a brilliant attorney, Jan Constantine, Legal Counsel for the Author's Guild, agreed that I had fulfilled all my contractual obligations to Penguin. I had done nothing illegal. Therefore they had no grounds to terminate me. If I were rich and brave, I would have dragged them into court and sued them. (Which would have taken years, huge sums of money, and possibly left me brain-dead.) Instead, I took the high road and repaid the $20,000 partial advance Penguin demanded back, until which time they were holding my novel hostage.
As a result of that blog posting, "SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY," Amazon Publishing approached me and invited me to consider publishing my novel with them. Several other Big Six publishers also approached me, offering to publish the book. One was an editor I have corresponded with and like very much. But here is the thing: they were still offering the same old, outmoded book contract, with the same anachronistic terms and royalties that have kept authors in bondage for decades. The same old 15-page contracts written in micro-script (that even under a magnifying glass weirdly resembles Urdu) to intentionally befuddle authors and keep them ignorant and infantile. The same old twice-annual royalty statements that are often illogical, erroneous and require auditors. (After such an auditing, one friend found her publisher has shortchanged her on her royalty statement by...ten thousand books.)
So this is why I chose to sign a contract with Amazon Publishing. Because the Senior Acquisitions Editor, Andy Bartlett, is extremely articulate, a lover of books, with a Ph.D. in Literature. Because he carefully read my manuscript, then spent hours (literally) discussing with me what he loved about the book, and how he envisioned marketing it in the U.S. and globally. And because...Amazon's royalty rates ( especially for ebooks) are exactly TWICE what New York publishers offer. And because they consulted me every step along the way while drawing up my contract.
Because...they discussed with me when to release my book digitally (before or simultaneously with print.) Because... of their swift production time. Because...they have consulted with me on pricing, packaging, the title, the cover. Because...their non-compete clause allows me to continue self-publishing on Kindle if I choose. Because...their contract is only six (6!) pages long, and completely comprehensible. Because...of their incredible global marketing push. And again, because of a constantly accessible, articulate, compassionate editor. In short, they made me an offer I could not refuse.
My novel, THE SPY LOVER, will be published by Amazon's Thomas & Mercer in August, 2012.
Sound too good to be true? Perhaps. In spite of all of the above, I am still holding my breath. Why? Because Amazon IS a goliath. It's exclusive, and potentially threatening to the livelihood of bookstores, to competitors, and even the publishing industry as we know it. Yes, Amazon is radically and ingeniously innovative, it's considerate of its authors, and its readers. It does not overprice its books. Still, it's in danger of becoming a monopoly and needs strong, healthy competition. Which is why, in spite of being axed by Penguin, in spite of having felt temporarily desperate and futureless, I do NOT wish to see traditional publishers, the Big Six, fail. I do not wish to see them collapse as many people, even industry insiders, predict.
When I look at New York publishing right now, it's like watching the crew repainting the deck chairs on the Titanic. What publishers need to do is wake up, save themselves! Adapt to the new demands of consumers and authors. In short, they desperately need to REFORM. Reduce their outrageously high digital and print book prices, radically edit and alter their book contracts so they no longer resemble the Dead Sea Scrolls, so incomprehensible and insulting to authors. Improve their digital royalties to authors, give authors more control over packaging, titles, book covers. Yes , I would like to see the Big Six publishers give Amazon a run for their money. We live in a democracy, we THRIVE on healthy competition.
For some things it's too late. I see bookstores across the country back-flipping into bankruptcy, and I mourn. Wherever I have lived, Hawaii, New York City, bookstores have always been my sanctuaries, my oases. And I still love the printed page, curling up with novels swollen with age and weather. I love highlighting passages, and writing in margins, arguing with the author. I cherish a first edition of JANE EYRE that still smells of my mother's perfume and transports me to the happiest year of my childhood. But - when I need a book or a reference fast, I turn to my Kindle reader. It instantly grounds me, informs me, and places me solidly in this digital time-warp state of mind we call the Present. We have all emerged from the vortex as hybrids and pragmatists. (Except for twenty year-olds who don't remember the printed page.)
What, you might ask, have I learned from my recent, daunting experience in publishing, my personal Ground Zero? Until Penguin fired me I was incredibly naive. I looked upon writing as a 'holy calling,' forgetting that it was also a business, MY business, my only source of income. Now I look upon writing with a rather jaundiced, wary eye. I look for the bottom line. I now know that writers need to be quicker, shrewder and, most importantly, contractually and technologically hip. And I know that I will never be caught on a publisher's hit-list again. In short, I suspect I've gone rogue: the dreamy writer with the 'holy calling,' has morphed into a quasi-savvy entrepreneurial techie-nerd with attitude.
Now, it is virtually a given that books as we know them are passe. Electronics rule. A very scary concept for traditional publishers unless they adapt, and soon. But (to quote Joe Konrath) books and electronics are only delivery systems. The important thing is still CONTENT. And writers are still the ones who provide the content. So it seems to me that there are two supremely important elements in publishing that have been ignored in this elitist, tragi-musical-comedy called the Legacy Wars.
1) The writers, who provide the content. And 2) Our blessed readers, who purchase the content. Publishing is NOTHING without writers and readers, and publishers seem to have forgotten that, or intentionally ignored it. Perhaps because they are the middlemen, the ones who are most dispensable. Larry Kirshbaum has said that his goal at Amazon is to innovate in ways to help everyone in the industry. "We are trying to create a tide that will float all boats."
A noble goal. I hope he succeeds. And, yes, I do support him. But let's leave boats and tides and ego-stroking battles to the middlemen, and concentrate on one cardinal, time-tested truth:
Whether we are self-published, Amazon-published, or legacy-published, the axis of the planet still shifts in our favor. Writers are not the ones caught in the crosshairs of irrelevance. Civilizations still depend on us to fire up their synapses, they still depend on our intensity, our intelligence, our personal decodings of truth and beauty and horror and hope. No matter who wins the publishing wars, or any war, THE WORLD STILL NEEDS, WILL ALWAYS NEED, WRITERS.
We are still the recording angels, the divining rods. We are still sitting in the catbird seat. God bless us all.
(And thank you all for your support!) Kiana