“Readers and writers are the ends of the value chain in publishing. Everybody else is just a middleman. Including booksellers.”
Barry Eisler, pacing the floor and chewing the scenery like a motivational speaker on methamphetamine, paused for a moment. And in that moment, you could feel the air cool about 10 degrees. You could hear a low bass note of vocal disapproval from several dozen people.
For Eisler was speaking at the Field’s End Conference. And the conference (which also featured local literary heavyweights Bruce Barcott, Jonathan Evison and David Guterson) took place on Bainbridge Island. And by an earlier show of hands, at least half of the 175 people who came to the April 28 event were Bainbridge Islanders. And if there’s one thing true about Bainbridge Island, it’s that it’s a fiercely literate, fiercely literary community of people who fiercely rally around two longstanding community institutions — Bainbridge Public Library and Eagle Harbor Book Company. (Full disclosure: The author of this article is a Bainbridge native who, at the age of nine, bought his first book, The Three Investigators and The Mystery of The Coughing Dragon, with his lawn-mowing money at Eagle Harbor Books.)
As Victoria Irwin, the bookstore’s events coordinator, put it after listening to Eisler speak: “We do not see ourselves as mere middlemen.”
But as quickly as Eisler’s grip slipped on the audience, he grabbed it back and then some with an appeal to minds and wallets as well as hearts. Because at its heart, his message about the state of book publishing hits on a few simple themes: One, “we have choices now that we didn’t have before,” now that industry gatekeepers no longer control the sole means of distributing books in the digital-forward era. Two, “publishing is a business, not an ideology,” and as such, innovation shouldn’t be frozen in place to keep brick-and-mortar booksellers afloat. And three, Amazon is not the great Satan.
“Amazon is injecting competition into what has been a moribund industry,” he said. “And that’s all they’re doing.”
These days, that’s not a popular opinion around Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, let alone everywhere else. The Seattle Times this spring took a series of whacks at the world’s biggest online bookseller and its perceived poor corporate citizenship; it even went so far as to give validating voice to so-far-groundless grumblings that Amazon’s fingerprints were all over a Department of Justice decision on price-fixing among Apple and five of New York’s “Big Six” publishers. In recent weeks, The New York Times and its top media writer, David Carr, have aggressively portrayed Amazon as the schoolyard bully of the book industry, and in its pages, prominent authors Richard Russo and Scott Turow have assailed Amazon as a threat to “rich literary culture.” In Crosscut, longtime Seattle publisher and bookseller Chad Haight recently tied together many of the critics’ concerns about Amazon’s growing primacy in the publishing ecosystem.
As Paul Constant, the books editor at The Stranger, wrote last month: “It’s never been this popular to be this critical about Amazon.”
Amazon has largely greeted the slings and arrows with silence. And while a lot of self-publishing authors and resuscitated midlisters have rushed to the defense of Starship Bezos, few have the profile and platform of the 48-year-old Eisler.
For most of his eight years as a published author, Eisler was just another midlister laboring in the geopolitical thriller genre, somewhere on the publishing food chain between Steve Berry and, say, William Dietrich. But in March 2011, the Bay Area author catapulted to book-industry fame — or, more accurately, notoriety — by firing what became known as “the shot heard ‘round the publishing world.” That’s when he turned down a half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press, electing to continue his John Rain series through self-publishing.
Said respected industry analyst Mike Shatzkin at the time: “This is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk assessment.”
Eisler’s reasoning: He thought he could make more money and reach more readers on his own. It was a sentiment that many found unthinkable. How, they said, could Eisler spit on the same system that put him on The New York Times bestseller list? Scarcely had those howls died down when Eisler made another move that surprised many: he signed with Amazon’s mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer (one of five Amazon publishing imprints, it’s named for the streets that flank the company’s South Lake Union headquarters). Some accused him of hypocrisy, but as Eisler has made clear in numerous interviews and guest blogs, he’s a publishing agnostic, not an atheist or an apostate. He simply wanted the best deal as he defined it.
Last fall, Eisler published The Detachment, his first Thomas & Mercer novel, and it’s done well. He’s also self-published some Kindle singles and nonfiction books, and plans to keep a hand in self-pubbing. And he’s maintained his higher profile with dozens of interviews and guest blogs over the past year, sometimes lacing his commentary with incendiary language that sends the debates off the rails (some authors suffer from Stockholm syndrome when dealing with their publishers, he’s said; and in one misstep for which he apologized, he used another writer’s words to say that some authors are “house slaves” for their publishing plantations).
Despite that — or maybe because of it — Eisler, along with friend and fellow thriller author Joe Konrath, has become a de facto spokesman for independent-minded publishing (their co-written book, Be The Monkey, is the manifesto for the movement). He’s grown in demand as a guest blogger and commentator, penning pieces for the The Guardian, The Huffington Post and other prominent opinion outlets, and as a speaker on the writers’ conference circuit.
It’s not hard to see why. Prefacing many of his bullet points with “I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am,” he energetically laid out his vision of “The New World of Publishing: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t, and What It All Means for Us Writers” for a full house at the Field’s End event.
Why did he go from the Big Six to the Big Alone to the Biggest One? Eisler said that it stemmed from three beliefs. One, authors deserve royalties of more than 17.5 percent from e-book sales. In fact, he adds, negotiations between authors, agents, and publishers should start at 50 percent. At least. Two, authors can and should have more control over the final product, including packaging and pricing. (“I’ve been screwed over by more legacy publishers than I can count,” he said.) And three, authors should be able to put books out into the market more often than once or twice a year, with faster finished-manuscript-to-finished product turnarounds than traditional publishers can usually accommodate.
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