Author vs author

If we are learning anything from the Amazon/Hachette spat, it is about how divided the global community of authors (inasmuch as there is such a thing) has become. The schism is between the comparatively tiny percentage of successful, published “legacy” authors (Authors United) and the great, largely submerged rump of  “self-published” authors.

Like any civil war, it is a bitter fight. One thinks of the visceral satisfaction some of the key cheerleaders on the indie side (J A Konrath, Hugh Howey et al) have in pointing out the troubles of publishers. They don’t just want to win; they want to gloat—as if there is some kind of particular moral virtue in their position.

On the “legacy” side, some publishers have been heard muttering words like “Vichy” and “Quisling” in relation to indie authors. Their moral indignation would carry more force if their own authors’ earnings hadn’t dropped so much in recent years, and they hadn’t imposed such iniquitous e-book royalties across the trade.

I am a literary agent. I had my moral high horse boiled down for glue some time ago, and I have written extensively on the bad decisions of publishers. I do not think I have seen anyone really explore the fact that that behind all the excited noises coming from the indie side of the business, there is an uncomfortable suspicion forming that the whole idea of an “indie author” is increasingly suspect. Maybe there isn’t really any such thing as an “indie author”—or at least, not a successful one.

A few years ago, all that talk about disintermediation and ideas wanting to be free still made powerful (if largely rhetorical) sense. The big trouble is the internet is not a wonderful pluralist organic primal soup where suppliers can meet consumers directly in an orgy of unfettered capitalism. People might have thought it was going to be, but it definitely is not. It is a highly, and ever more highly, mediated and controlled space.
In particular, Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) are in such a dominant market position (both here and in the US) that it makes little sense to talk of KDP as a neutral self-publishing “platform” any longer. It has become (and really, always was) an Amazon publishing imprint. That perception has only been amplified by its Kindle Unlimited announcement last month. It is not just that Amazon is virtually the only route to market (65%+ in the US, 80%+ in the UK) but, more significantly, even though it does not pay advances, Amazon subsidises every author published through KDP: the more successful the author, the larger the subsidy.

No commercial sense

Amazon has some of the world’s most valuable virtual real estate but is still to turn a meaningful profit and it will not do so as long as it continues to fill that real estate with cut-price goods. The Amazon top 10 is an incredibly valuable marketing niche. Loading it with cheap goods (as it does) may make strategic sense, but it makes no commercial sense. It is a bit like filling the windows of Harrods with plastic lighters and multipacks of soap.

Amazon is no big rock-candy mountain of authorial freedom. It has locked in the consumer and it seems, for now, largely immune to bad PR—its tax status in the UK, for instance, has barely registered with consumers who remain depressingly bribeable with cheap goods. All that talk about how if the big companies don’t do what people want, then the market will migrate . . . it seems laughably old fashioned now. The world has moved on.

The indie cheerleaders of the new world order of self-publishing need to ask themselves what happens when (if) Amazon succeeds in destroying the “legacy” publishing industry? Do they really think that Amazon will continue to be their friend once it has no threat from publishers and deems them to be of little use? What happens when its investors start demanding serious returns, and Amazon stops subsidising indie authors?

The rise of self-publishing has been a real revolution in publishing in the past few years. There is a huge amount in it to applaud, not least the way it has been a kick up the arse to the traditional business. But it is important to remember it is not an ideology; it does not need a manifesto.

The interests of the self-publishing cheerleaders have been well served by their subsidy from Amazon over the past few years but, from where I’m sitting, it looks to me like they are cheering the creation of a world where Amazon will turn the world’s authors into piece workers, endlessly feeding the content monster for a few pennies.

Just as Facebook is a friendship system invented by someone who does not seem to understand the concept of friendship, so Amazon and KDP increasingly appear to be a publishing system invented by people who don’t like, or understand, authors.

Agent Orange is a UK-based agent. They can be contacted at agorange01@gmail.com