Sunday, January 31, 2010

Let There Be (E-book) War: A Few Thoughts and Points of Information on the Amazon-Macmillan Dustup

I write this with the notion that you, Dear Reader, know what I am referring to in the title of this post. If you don't, here is the AP article that lays out what is the opening round in the new Literary Range War. And, there has already been a resolution of sorts to this battle: Amazon just announced a short time ago that they are capitulating to Macmillan's position. This after a day of copious discussion of this in a number of circles, but most intensely, perhaps, in the SF world (as evidenced by the fact that the AP article quotes John Scalzi and CoryDoctorow), as many authors took up their keyboards to respond to this situation and analyze it.

I have a few thoughts on this matter, but they come from an odd perspective. I am an aspiring author, an avid reader, an observer of SF's social milieu, and a fan. So what I offer here are reflections on how this has been received and what significance it might have for the producers and buyers of SF literature, beyond the harsh business details. Several authors who know a lot more about the business have already responded, and for sometimes mind-bending amounts of detail about book pricing, distribution, etc., I urge you to check them out: Tobias Buckell, Charles Stross, and Scott Westerfeld have all expounded on this hullabaloo at length, with industry insights that illuminate the larger issues quite well. As for me, well:

1) The hegemons at Amazon are being dicks. Yes, I think that is the proper cultural term for them. Having read a lot of the responses to this from authors, publishers, readers, and clueless business reporters who know nothing about how publishing works, I believe that I can safely use this characterization. Macmillan wanted to talk price restructuring, and before John Sargent got back home from the negotiation Amazon pulled physical and e-book titles, dropped the titles off of wishlists, and reportedly even removed sample chapters from Kindles. As Jay Lake put it, "[i]t's bullying, pure and simple..." as Amazon tries to flex its rippling market musculature to intimidate a publisher into doing what it wants (as it has done in the past). Personally, I don't care if they have the right to do it, or if it is some tactical maneuver to gain position for more negotiations, or even if it is just Jeff Bezos being crazy. It is purely a dick move, an attempt by an entity with a lot of market power to force other players in the bookselling game to let them write the rules. It disrespects the market, it disrespects their suppliers, and even disrespects their readers, although many of the latter seem to not realize this.

I know that using the word "disrespect" in relation to the American business-scape may be cause for a chuckle, as businesses routinely undercut, deceive, and strongarm each other and everyone around them to turn a profit, or at least appear to try to turn a profit. But I mean it; Amazon has demonstrated that in this instance it: cares nothing for how the market works; thinks its suppliers are chattel who must bow to their feudal overlord, and; trusts that its customers are loyal and blinkered and easy to sway with promises of low prices that are artificially kept low to lure them into buying an expensive contraption for reading their books. That is a mountain of churlish disdain that should tell all involved that Amazon is at the higher levels no longer in the business of selling books, but of gathering influence and control to deepen its dominance in the online world. It is both a business move, and a grab for symbolic capital.

2) This situation has created a lot of frustration, anger, and pre-emptive bitterness, particularly from the most vulnerable quarter of the bookselling world: the authors, but it has also spurred many authors to examine the issues surrounding Amazon's tactics. SF authors such as Jay Lake were the first to bring attention to this situation, and have written at length and with great passion about it. Most of them have approached it from a business perspective (as seen in the blogs cited above), but in reading these pieces there is a sense of not just defending one's livelihood, but of defending one's position as a creator, as a dynamic part of the book industry. SF authors, moreso than many others I think, are not just keenly aware of their structural position in the book business, but have a strong sense of identity as the engine of that business.

The fact that even those who do not move a fraction of a percentage as many books as James Patterson, Inc. feel that they can and should defend the publisher and their own stake in this skirmish says a lot about the social position that SF authors occupy, one bolstered by fans and often by adherents in the publishers themselves. SF authors also have a strong sense of their creative abilities that is heightened by the challenges of the genre itself, I believe, and often have a more critical perspective on the world. While partisans of the publisher, they try to take the wide and the long views of this situation and have provided some solid analyses of Amazon's actions. I think that the citations of John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow in the AP article are not just a matter of the reporter's preference, but stem from the strong, thoughtful stances that they publicly took as soon as the situation unfolded, stances that reify their positions even as they shed some insight on this battle.

3) I am reading widely on this and taking lots of notes, because I think this is the beginning of the next stage of the publishing market's transformation. This is just the start of the Great E-Book Kerfuffle, which won't end until, like the music industry, publishers and e-sellers relinquish control over the books themselves, forced by consumers and, perhaps, creators to cede to the market's evolution. Part of Amazon's control scheme is to maintain DRM on its Kindle e-books, and while some publishers demand it, those that don't are overridden by Amazon when it sells their e-titles. The question of control is going to be the central dispute as this mercantile war unfolds. Price control, product control, format control: how the players deal with these issues will likely determine the success of the e-book market.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Master of Space and Time (Well, I'm Trying.. . .)

Busy at this end, but mostly with things not writing or SF-related, save for the following:

1) My latest Forces of Geek column! "Science Fiction Dies Infinite Deaths, and is Reborn Anew Each Time." Another one that was fun to write, and that I could write much more about.

2) I will be blogging over at Apex Book Company starting this Thursday, January 28th. It will be a monthly blog, with a more literary focus in general than my FoG column. I'm very excited to be writing over there, if only once a month.

3) There's quite a conversation going on over at Jeff Vandermeer's blog about genre, started by a post by Rachel Swirsky. I'm enjoying it, although it has begun to come down to two writers arguing a fine point. I commented, for what it's worth. I thought about saying more but my thoughts seem tangential, and I'm pretty sure no one over there is concerned with my opinion as a humble unpublished fiction writer.

But I think the point about experience is very relevant. Jeff commented that each writer has a different process, and that some may not even think in terms of genre. True, but I wonder if it isn't there embedded in some sense within our experience and how it comes out on the page. One of the points of my F0G article (which riffs off the idea of genre as creative framework) is that even those who say they reject may well have it in mind as they write, but subsumed. If your literary experience is mostly SF, it can certainly creep into your work. And given that some of the creative process works at the subconscious level, I think that for many people who write SF genre can inform what we write or even serve as a foil or something to rebel against. It depends on what you're creating.

Books are never books. They are always given some label, whether it emerges from the work itself or is overlaid on by author, publisher, or reader. And labels can be in contention (as many others have noted in terms of Margaret Atwood's later work, for example). Genre is a label and a set of conventions, and often the two do not line up. What interests me is how genre can be a factor in a writer's creativity, how it shapes what you produce.

Aetas Nex is, obviously, a zombie novel. It is sort of horror, but is actually much more of a fantasy novel, impacted by SF and by apocalyptic fiction. As I write, I rarely think of the horror angle explicitly, because it is just an element of a larger story about the world changing and people struggling to live with the changes, especially as they happen not just to the environment, but to the people themselves. I sometimes consciously, sometimes accidentally work within and push against various borders of genre. But I don't think about some distinction between genre and literary; I just write what seems evocative and interesting, using an array of creative tools that include some genre conventions and literary devices.

With short stories it varies as well. "A Fine Day to Watch the Dragons Die" is a pure fantasy, trying to wring some insight into people out of a fantasy trope stabbed in the kidney. "Skull-face, Hogtamer, and the Dead Cricket Society" is a fable that owes surrealism a few favors. And the latest one in progress, "The Last Flight of Chimeric Aetherlines" is a loose riff on urban fantasy, twisted folklore, and steampunk. It depends, in the end, on what the writer wants to create.

And with that, I think I will go off and do some creating.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ethereal Ephemera

1) My new column is up at Forces of Geek. I like it, but I think it needs more development. Reading and commenting would be fabulous.

2) I am on the cusp of announcing another regular writing gig. As soon as everything is official I will reveal all! I'm very excited about it.

3) I am working on a new short story inspired by another writer's dream. If it turns out as well as it has started, I am going to make sure that it is OK with that writer that I try to get it published. I am enjoying the writing of it, and I like what is unfolding.

4) And here's an amusing discussion about a new movie trope: the Post-Apocalyptic iPod!