909 Authors Waste a Hundred Thousand Dollars on Ad Castigating Amazon
Authors United, the new advocacy group which is formed around an open letter written by Doug Preston, will be taking out an advert in the Sunday edition of the NY Times to publish that open letter. (It’s nice to see vanity press coming back in to favor.)
The letter, which reportedly costs $104,000, criticizes Amazon for its role in the contract dispute with Hachette Book Group.
You can read the letter in its entirety over on Publishers Weekly, so I won’t be quoting it below, but after much Internal debate I have decided I will comment upon the letter. I’ve actually been thinking about it ever since I covered that letter a couple weeks ago, and for the past 16 days I have been trying to decide how to criticize it best:
Should I focus on its inherent absurdity, the falseness of its logic, or perhaps the fact that a vastly larger number of authors are taking Amazon’s side in this fight?
After some thought, I have decided to go for all three. Let’s take them in reverse order.
After getting burned for suggesting that authors take a side, I have maintained that authors and readers should not get involved at all. But since we are talking about authors who already have chosen a side, I think it’s worth putting the membership rolls of Authors United into perspective.
A total of 909 authors signed the open letter to be published Sunday. While that might sound like a lot, about 8 times as many authors have signed a similar but opposing letter/petition on Change.org.
That petition has reached 7,650 signatures, dwarfing the the number of authors who signed the Authors United letter. That would suggest that far more people are on one side of the fight than the other, looking into the details tends to let the air out of that argument.
One detail which Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath both neglect to mention (even David Streitfeld of the NYTimes glossed over it) was that the change.org petition was signed by far more than just authors; it was also signed by readers, and some of the comments make that clear.
The diversity of the signers in some ways strengthens the petition but in other ways it weakens it and makes it the least of the my complaints against the open letter.
The statements, on the other hand, are so absurd that I could have written a post on that alone.
According to PW, the text of the letter complains that Amazon:
But in this case, Amazon has done something unusual. It has directly targeted Hachette’s authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms.
For the past several months, Amazon has been:
—Boycotting Hachette authors, by refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors' books and eBooks, claiming they are "unavailable."
— Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette authors' books.
—Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors' books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.
–Suggesting on some Hachette authors' pages that readers might prefer a book from a non-Hachette author instead.
One could argue that Amazon is targeting its business partner, and not authors, but I think some would consider that to be nitpicking. One could also argue that Amazon isn’t delaying shipments; they’re simply running out of stock. But again, nitpicking.
Instead, let me make a more classic argument.
In claiming that Amazon is directly targeting Hachette’s authors, the open letter is attributing a motive to Amazon which it does not go on to prove.
This is a type of straw man argument. Admittedly, it’s not an ideal example, but it falls in such a closely related category that I think one can reasonably apply the label. This letter puts thoughts in Jeff Bezos’s head and then criticizes him for acting on those thoughts. I have a problem with that.
This is a mistake that many people make, including me, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay. I was recently called on this point by a reader (which I really appreciate now, because it led me to better express my objections to this letter). Sadly, I don’t see that anyone besides me has pointed out the flaw in the open letter.
What is even more frustrating is that the 909 authors missed the flaw, don’t see it as a flaw, or simply did not care. In any case, I think there’s a chance that the authors also missed the inherent contradiction of the letter, one which rises to the level of absurdity.
While I was working on this post, I took some pauses in order to discuss this letter with one of the authors who signed it. I won’t mention his name (I decline to set him up for attacks), but I do want to share with you one of his tweets:
I am against the continued placement of writers (for PR reasons) in the middle of a dispute they have no control over.
I find that position particularly interesting because, from my vantage point as an outsider, I can see that Preston’s open letter is doing just that.
The 909 authors who signed this letter, including many who are not published by Hachette, are castigating Amazon for supposedly doing exactly what the letter is intended to accomplish.
I have no other word for it besides absurd.
To be fair, these authors are choosing to put themselves in the middle, but that doesn’t change the fact that the letter, as written, is guilty of the same crimes for which it accuses Amazon.
Or am I wrong? The comments are open.
image by Gastev