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Books: What’s good for Amazon is good for writers, readers

Amazon's logo on a company building Credit: Flickr user simone.brunozzi

“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 Strangerwrote 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.

“Those were my objectives, and I believed self-publishing was a better way to achieve them,” Eisler said in an interview. “But then Amazon approached me with what I judged to be an even better way to achieve those objectives.”

In a digital-first world, Eisler said, “the primary value a publisher can offer an author is direct-to-consumer marketing. And this is why Amazon is so strongly positioned to succeed in digital publishing: its book business is built on its ability to reach tens or even hundreds of millions of readers directly by e-mail. Amazon marketing is both exceptionally focused — book buyers — and exceptionally broad, with tens or even hundreds of millions of customers. Entities that can offer authors compelling direct-to-consumer marketing value will be in a good position to take a cut of the profits.”

“Interestingly,” he added, “there’s one particular group of companies that lacks any meaningful direct-to-consumer marketing ability. That group is New York publishing. Draw your own conclusions.”

Eisler shares the story of a literary agent who approached him at another conference and told him that she and her colleagues “hated” him. What drives the criticism from agents and authors? “I think this is because with choice comes responsibility, and many people are comfortable with a lack of choice precisely because that lack confers the luxury of avoiding the responsibility that comes with choice,” said Eisler, who is married to a literary agent. “So when I say, ‘You have a choice!’, many authors hear, ‘Now you are going to be responsible for the outcome!’ And they don’t like that.”

And what about booksellers? I asked Eisler about Seattle Mystery Bookshop and its owner, J.B. Dickey, who has made it clear that Amazon-published books will never darken his store’s Pioneer Square doorstep. Dickey’s views can be summarized as “Why should I stock books from someone who’s hell-bent on destroying my business?” Eisler, who’s done many signings at SMB as a Big Six author, is sympathetic but sees Dickey’s stance as a “hyperbolic straw man.”

“The legacy publishing world of which you are a part is about preserving the position of paper through high prices and an inefficient system of heavily controlled distribution,” Eisler said, as if speaking directly to Dickey. “The Amazon model is about lower prices and greater efficiency. Of course I have my opinions about which system better serves readers and authors overall, but that’s not the point. The point is, no one’s waging a vendetta. It’s just different players trying to implement different business strategies.”

(The irony, Eisler says later at the conference, is that he personally prefers reading printed books. But: “Despite my personal preference for paper, I recognize that digital has all the everyday advantages and is quickly becoming the dominant form of book distribution,” he said. “The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with is the way the electric light displaced candlelight. Both still exist; it’s just that the former displaced the latter to become the mass market, while the latter became a niche.”)

Based on the better-than-warm applause that followed Eisler’s talk at the Field’s End conference, many saw wisdom in his words. “I felt more hopeful after his talk because he highlighted the options authors have now, like they’ve never had before,” said Wendy Wallace, an island blogger and a member of Field End’s core team. “Whenever a writers’ conference got to the ‘How to Sell to New York Publishers’ session, I always ended up depressed. Barry had a different angle.”

Trish Bittman, an islander at the conference, said: “As I’m sure musicians dream of turning on the radio and hearing their song for the first time, I would love to see my book in a bookstore. But, things are changing and I need to go with the flow. I also like that it sounds so much easier to self-publish and get some marketing than being able to be published by a New York legacy publisher.”

Others, like Eagle Harbor Book Company's Irwin, were more ambivalent: “We are happy that Barry Eisler has found a formula that works for him, and we’re happy to sell his books in our store,” she said. “We agree that the very fluid field of publishing right now is not a black-or-white, either/or business. Both readers and writers have all sorts of options, and that is good. E-book first and print second is good model in some cases.”

But, she added, “we do not agree with all his advice and conclusions. As an institution that has connected readers with writers — and writers with readers — for over 40 years, our connection with our community is way more complex than delivery of paper goods.”

Like many of those who disagree with at least some of Eisler’s message, Irwin does agree that it’s time to tone down the rhetoric and work on solutions.

“There are so many outrageous statements made in this internecine conflict: Amazon is evil. Bricks and mortar stores are anachronisms. E-books will replace paper books except for a few niche markets. All of these are way too simplistic judgments,” Irwin said. “If ‘legacy’ publishers and bookstores are being dropped on their heads, as Eisler seems to insist, we will do what a good friend told us to do recently: We’ll get ready to land with a roll, and get right back up again.”

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