Sometimes the other side does have a point

We’ve seen the fun and games between Amazon and the Big 5 publishers, most notably Hachette.  The ‘old guard’ of the publishing world derides Amazon as a ‘monopolistic’ enterprise (which is clearly not true, as anyone with a dictionary can tell you after looking up the definition of the word ‘monopoly’).  The pro-Amazon lobby (of which I count myself a member) derides the Big 5 and their hangers-on (agents, ancillary businesses and all those who are on the ‘other side’) as dinosaurs opposed to progress.

Unfortunately, it’s not that  simple.  There really are serious concerns over where our current technological revolution is taking us, particularly as regards entertainment.  Books are only one part – and a relatively small part – of the entertainment spectrum.  Movies, games, music, theater, etc. also fall under the ‘entertainment’ umbrella.  We have to accept that in this day and age, where digital access to any and all of these elements is a mouse click away, we’re competing for the same audience and the same dollar.

What’s more, we have to understand that technology companies (including Amazon) are out to monetize their customers.  If we offer a means for them to do that, they’ll help us because we’re helping them.  If we don’t, they’ll drop us like hot potatoes, because we’re less of an economic asset than other forms of entertainment.  Think about that for a moment.  As authors, as writers, we are dispensable.  The only thing that matters is the product we sell through Amazon and other companies.  If that product can be produced more cheaply by other means – the classic ‘roomful of monkeys with typewriters’, for example – you may be sure Amazon and others will stand in line to get it from them, rather than from us.  Amazon uses our product, our output, not just to make money from selling it, but to make more money off other products as well.  Its recent launch of the Kindle Unlimited subscription lending library is a classic example.  KU makes money for Amazon, not so much by selling subscriptions to it, but by keeping customers coming back to the Amazon.com Web site, where they can be persuaded to buy other things as well.  I know some authors are afraid they’ll make less money by participating in KU.  I agree – they will – but so what?  Amazon isn’t in business to keep authors happy.  It’s in business to keep its customers happy.  If we help it do that, we’ll share in the benefits, even if at a lower level.  If we don’t, we’ll be eased out in favor of others who will.  It’s as simple as that.

The same applies to social media such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.  They all offer purported ‘benefits’ to their members, but in fact their members are the product for sale.  They ‘monetize’ each and every one of them, and invade their privacy to an extraordinary degree in order to do so.  (That’s why I don’t belong to any of them, and have no intention of joining them.)  An article in Salon recently examined this from a liberal/progressive perspective.  Here’s an extract.

These corporations are monopolists – and much more. They’ve quickly assumed extraordinary influence over our lives. They control what we know, what we see and how we spend our time. They decide who knows our most intimate secrets. They are acquiring the kind of power totalitarian governments of the past could only dream about.

Why have we been so quick to idolize the tech economy? Why have we accepted their claims so uncritically and paid so little attention to what they were actually doing? There’s the excitement of the new, and the cachet that comes with great wealth. There may also be an element of the phenomenon South American educator Paulo Freire called “the internalization of the oppressor consciousness,” where it becomes more comfortable to accept the values of the powerful than to confront the fear and sense of responsibility that arise when you challenge them.

Whatever its causes, our credulous embrace of the tech culture has left us vulnerable to its seemingly endless appetites and ambitions. Those ambitions, as expressed by everyone from its pundit and economist supporters to its own leading executives, add up to nothing less than the remaking of our economy and culture in their own neolibertarian image.

If that pink dolphin city is anything like the society the tech corporations are creating, then things we take for granted – things like privacy, competition and a thriving middle class – may not exist there. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” and by its own lights these tech entrepreneurs probably aren’t.

Still, Silicon Valley represents a set of values that is amoral by commonly held standards. It’s rapidly taking control of the distribution systems for music, literature and arts. And it’s increasingly manipulating our access to information, even as it absorbs an ever-increasing share of our economy.

Scoff at the word “monopoly” if you like. But if these developments don’t concern you, you’re not paying attention.

We tend to scoff at such fears when they’re expressed by progressive moonbats . . . but there’s at least an element of truth to them.  We’d be blind not to admit that.  The question is, what can be done about it?  I freely confess that I don’t know.

At the moment I’m in a sole-outlet relationship with Amazon, due to the economic benefits of their Kindle Select and KU programs.  I’m therefore collaborating in Amazon’s efforts to become the primary one-stop entertainment outlet (among other things) for consumers.  In that sense, I’m part of the problem – but can I also be part of the solution?  Can I help to find a way forward that allows us all to earn a living as writers, allows our readers to enjoy our work without becoming economically dominated by hi-tech resellers and retailers, but also respects individual privacy and related issues?  Consider, for example, Facebook’s deliberate manipulation of its customers’ emotions by selectively controlling their news feeds.  Is this even remotely ethical or moral?  From my perspective, it certainly isn’t:  but Facebook will doubtless argue that it’s not a matter of ethics or morality at all – it’s just business.  What if Amazon were to try to do something similar by manipulating its reading and viewing recommendations to customers?  Would that not be just as unethical or immoral?  And if I’m selling through Amazon, doesn’t that make me at least an accessory to the (moral) offense?

Over to you, readers.  Do I have a point, or am I merely waffling fitfully in the breeze?  Let’s hear from you.

 

23 Comments

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23 responses to “Sometimes the other side does have a point

  1. None of these companies can control what we see or think or how we spend our time. They can control what information is available on the machines that they own. They can control what goods and services they offer. They can charge whatever prices they wish, but they cannot compel anyone to buy their products.

    It is perfectly possible to live one’s entire life without ever accessing the internet or using a computer at all. Living that way means forgoing some options and many things in life are far easier with the use of a computer. I choose to use the internet and the companies that operate on it myself for those reasons.

    However, that’s my choice. I could cancel my internet and turn off my computer and I wouldn’t die. Convenience is not the same thing as survival.

  2. Pat Patterson

    Access. Yhat’s the key for me, as an avid reader with the great good fortune to be disabled. If Facebook RESTRICTS my access, they aren’t doing it very effectively. Amazon doesn’t restrict my access at all, as far as I can tell. And they have certainly improved my access, by their Kindle Unlimited program. They are not the only ones to do so. First (in order of my discovery), was the Baen Free Library. Baen also enhanced access under the old ‘buy one, refer one ‘ program, which allowed me to give an ebook I had just purchased to someone else. Then, I discovered Project Gutenberg, then Open Library, and now my local public library lets me use overdrive to get ebooks from other sources.
    Now, IF I were to limit my search to just ONE of the sources mentioned above, I would have a smaller field to choose from, BUT that’s not a monopoly, is it? None of those other sources show signs of going away, which is a good thing for all of us who are readers.
    And, as a reader, I have taken up the task of reading all the mad genius club’s KU books and reviewing them. Which brings me to the next question: To be pure in my pursuit, is it permissible to read and review the works of those who post on this blog, or only those designated in the sidebar? Warning: I’m gonna do that anyway….
    I’m in my sinful third day of reading Cedar Sanderson’s Pixie Noir. Medical appointments and parenting and grandparenting took up most of my copious reading time, but I CONFESS that I took some time off reading to watch ‘The Book of Eli’ again (and THERE;S a publishing approach we hope to avoid) and then Netflix dumped Django Unchained in my lap (WATCH IT NOW!), and I had to watch part of the elections/ Coffee break now over, I return to my role as galley slave (the Asimovian type).

    • tkanthonyauthor

      I’ve been enjoying my similar effort to read through the authors here (although in fits and starts) to feed my blog. As an occasional commenter…If you read/review “Forge”…let me know! (I enjoyed Pixie Noir, too!)

    • Yeah, I’m not a Poster on this blog, just a regular Commenter. I have a short on Amazon/KU. Not entirely sure if it would be your cup of tea, apparently it isn’t anyone else’s either judging by the sales.

  3. I think you nailed it with the ‘it’s not that simple’. Authors are wholesalers. Amazon’s a retailer. They’re the middle man. They’re good at so they’re getting business. So are Baen and Apple and Smashwords (Other online retailers of books that I know of seem to be holding their own we’ll see.). The thing about Amazon and Baen (not so sure about Apple, but that’s a side issue) is their goals and ours, as Authors are compatible. Authors want to keep readers happy so readers will give them money. Retailers want to keep customers happy so they get a cut of that money. While Amazon is the biggest, it’s not the only outlet as time progresses there will likely be more, not less, competition which means Authors are as free to drop Amazon as amazon is to drop them. Now, it’s a less savory option, but it didn’t used to be an option at all. What’s a good option for authors now, may not be 5 years from now… what’s a good option for Amazon now may not be 5 years from now.

    As a reader I buy very few e-books (thus far only 1) from Amazon. I don’t have a kindle. I like my Kobo better, so I buy through their store when possible. Prices have been similar. I can’t always get some of the indie books I want that way (though that’s a new thing, I didn’t used to be interested in Indie at all), but I CAN, as a reader, go other places to get books. As long as I can go places other than Amazon, (Or Apple or fill in the blank) I am less worried about Amazon (or apple or fill in the blank) keeping me from books. If I really want the book I’ll go through Amazon if that’s the only place it is and deal with the hoops to get it on my Kobo (or get a physical copy if that’s an option, depends on the book or my mood and DRM.)

  4. “…rapidly taking control of the distribution systems for music, literature and arts.”

    Riiight. Like musicians and writers never had gatekeepers that harvested the lions share of the income for allowing a song or book to be sold? New tech, new distribution system. The gatekeepers? Haven’t noticed them. I don’t know about artists, having little contact with that part of the creative community.

    “What if Amazon . . . ”

    What if the Sun goes nova tomorrow? I refuse to fear the future and fill it with speculations. I’ll deal with a true monopoly when it happens _and_ it gets abusive. But keep in mind that we’re nowhere near the end of the tech curve. Stay flexible and keep changing as tech changes and spreads.

  5. I have two problems with your thoughts. 1) KU costs the author money. Te sheer ignorance of that statement is appalling. Advertising (the means of telling potential readers that your books exist, and they *might* like them) *costs _money_.* Price any kind of (normal) advertising, whether PPC, PPA, Adwords,Social Media, whatever, and it *costs you money (or time). KU *pays* you for helping people to find your books, and _try_ them. I can be “slow” about some things, but even _I_ can find that helpful. (My “ad budget” is whatever candy I can find to bribe with. 🙂 )
    Second, Authors are at the “mercy” of Amazon, or anyone else. As long as I can find someone willing to pay me anything (candy, food, money, etc.), I am at *no one’s* “mercy.” Amazon, having proved that people *want* to be entertained, and will spend their money to get it (if they like it, no matter how weird it may seem), *will* have competitors. As soon as something better that costs the same, or less, they will “lose market share.” Unless the market expands. Always allowing for the stupidity of Government and those who want to control everyone.

  6. The proverbial room ful of monkeys hammering the keys on typewriters might well produce prodigeous quantities of product, but it still won’t sell.
    One bad review, and you’re toast. You can’t even give it away.

    You’ll have to change your name and leave the country.

  7. Uncle Lar

    It only makes sense to be an intelligent consumer and to accept the reality that those you do business with will place their interests above your own. The key is to evaluate and understand the relationship you have with your business partners and hopefully correctly judge their motivation. Amazon simply wants to expand their business. The major traditional publishers want to perpetuate a system of author serfdom with themselves in control. As long as they owned or otherwise controlled the sole means of production and distribution they remained in power, keeper of the keys if you will. With the advent of e-books that position of total control was taken from them. What we’re going through now is the death throes of that system.
    Is there potential for abuse under whatever new system emerges? Of course, we’re dealing with people after all. Every author starts as an independent contractor, and remains so unless submitting to voluntary servitude under some publisher’s predatory contract. In the bad old days you either signed that contract or you did not sell your work. Today you have more options and choice is always a good if sometimes upsetting thing.
    Baen is a unique but illustrative example. Jim and company looked into the future and jumped to the crest of the wave with their Webscription e-commerce store. They made an intelligent and educated assessment and ruled out DRM as unnecessary and counter productive. Eventually they meshed their operation with Amazon with relatively few and minor issues.
    Point is, Baen did nothing in secret, and nothing any other publishing house could not have duplicated themselves. Instead they have spent time and treasure trying to shove that genie back into the bottle and make this bright new scary world go away. And are failing dismally as obstructions to progress generally do.
    I think the message to take away from Peter’s concerns is to always operate cautiously and with care both as an informed consumer and as the producer of a product for sale. Good advice in any age, and especially in this our era of constant change.

    • It’s a bit like a headline I saw Wednesday “Congratulations: Now Don’t Blow it.” We, readers and writers, now have Amazon, Baen’s offerings and options, B&N’s Nook, Kobo, D2D, and other options to buy and sell and market. There are also direct payment and sale options for individual web-sites. There are all sorts of marketing options that do or don’t include Amazon et al. Thus far, the ‘Zon has done well for authors (and readers), but if they start getting to be problematic? We can and should drop them for other outlets, although it will cost us (writers money, readers convenience). It won’t be easy and marketing and sales will take time from writing, but we should keep it in mind in case [deity] forbid, the ‘Zon closes down tomorrow.

  8. Luke

    To the author of the Salon piece: If you can’t stop posting your “intimate secrets” in a public venue, don’t blame the eeeeevil corporation for your lack of privacy.
    (Also, don’t move to a small town. Although I’m curious as to whom you’d blame.)

  9. tkanthonyauthor

    Any time you can go direct to the public without any middleman at all, you don’t have a monopoly. Sharon Lee & Steve Miller put out a story-teller’s bowl for “Fledgling,” promising a copy of the book when it was finished. I think the rule was, they’d post the next chapter when they got $300. The first six chapters were sold right off the bat, and they earned more than their typical advance by the time it was done. The experiment proved so successful, they did “Saltation” the same way. The privacy issues become more of an issue with me with respect to government intrusion. Corporations can use their knowledge to entice me to buy all kinds of things, but I still have the power to say no. The emotional manipulation research, now… that should just plain be illegal. Makes me wanna go to FB and be Pollyanna Positive, just to prove a point…although I suppose they’d just screen me out. Dang.

  10. robfornow

    Either I get off Facebook or write a political mystery with more victims/perpetrators than anyone can imagine. I don’t know anything that has made me lose all respect for humanity than that nonsense. Anyone with any reading comprehension would feel the same way. OK- rant over.
    Facebook and the other trashy comment posts, Amazon and all the other distributors, not just books, vitamins, motorcycle parts, ebay, etc are revolutionizing business in the world. Some parts good, some bad. The important thing is that we all remember that nothing has really changed since Ogg crawled out of his cave and looked for a meal, walking crawling, slithering, or swimming and not be a crawling, walking, slithering, or swimming’s lunch. I figure that Ogg is going to get a variety of opportunities, if he can stay off the plate. So, we are going to have to keep our eyes open.

  11. Pat Patterson

    Okay, just finished Cedar Sanderson’s ‘Pixie Noir’, gave it the deserved five stars and reviewed it. Because I took three days instead of one (4D world interfered), I’m a bit behind on trying to hit one MGC / MGC affilitate per day.
    Y’all give this ol’ boy some help here: Does it make a difference in your pocketbook whether I read and review a book which has a lot of reviews, or one that doesn’t? And I’m guessing that there is a close correlation between number of reviews and number of sales. Maybe not.
    Here’s the deal: I get the MAX benefit out of this regardless, because I’m the reader, and good reading is good reading regardless of age. However, as a reader/reviewer, is there a strategy I can take that will maximize the benefit to the writers? (P.S. You may take it as a given that all I read is going to get a 4 or a 5, with 5 most likely, and that the reviews will be positive).

    • Thanks, Pat. You just gave me a joyful giggle. I really appreciate what you said, and just so you know, I self-identify as an Alaskan Redneck, which might help you understand why you liked it. 🙂

    • A review is more valuable, the fewer a book has already. Some people won’t even look as a book that has fewer than ten reviews. Some people place the cut a whole lot higher.

    • reviews are (sadly) always relevant. Why I say sadly is the process isn’t always very effective – the reviewer might do a great job, or have an axe to grind, or just not like that kind of book… but all three of those are valued alike. The star rating too is a process which is a little flawed. I mean (for me) maybe a book, or two, every year is really outstanding, the best, 5 star… A good book is a 4 star book… An average readable book 3 and so on. ie. 90% of books should be a 3… But books have grade inflation too. So that means that my strict evaluation – say a 4 star gives the book the same value as a many more mediocre books get from from others (who are ranking what I would call a 3 either 4 or 5). This can’t be corrected by me – all I am doing is hurting the author. So I have to go along with it.

      • True, Amazon tends to put the three start reviews in the “Negative” column.

        And women below a “7” don’t get rated at all.

      • mrsizer

        Interesting. I rarely give anyone a performance review better than “meets expectations” because I expect excellence. I suppose I should go along, too, and review 1 star higher than I normally would.

        Speaking of reviews, I liked StarDogs, but I was really hoping everyone would die (to avoid spoilers I won’t mention when I got excited and thought it would happen). I do not like most of the characters, which I’m sure you intended. For me, that’s a difficult read so I didn’t leave a review.

        I’m unexpectedly travelling so I bought book one of many series.

        Wolfgang rocks! I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to him. Scary amounts of overlap with something I’m trying to write, but different enough that I’m not worried about accidentally stealing something.

        Baptism by Fire had best have a sequel in the works. Some Grandma back-story is expected.

        I liked Rachel, but I think I’m too far from the target audience to give her the credit she deserves.

        Several more to go; perhaps there will be a delayed flight… Thanks for the excellent reads!