13 July 2014

AmazonFail 5.04 RC3

It's been a busy week, among all of the stuff I can't talk about and the heartbreak of remoras, so no sausage platter today. Instead, I want to reflect a bit on the rhetoric of the Amazon v. Hachette saga, and its context, and together what they reveal... and attempt to hide.

There is a common assumption — rhetorically, psychologically, propagandistically — shared in almost all of the rhetoric surrounding this particular dispute, even among author groups. The rhetoric is one of ownership-and-sales, and it assumes that either Amazon owns the unfettered right to do what it damned well pleases with its property, or the publisher (Hachette, in this instance, but the Wormyfruit settlement with the publishers will give the other children a turn at the top of the slide) owns the unfettered right to do what it damned well pleases with its property. Guess what? It's not their property... or at least it is not their property as to trade books.1

They're arguing about other peoples' property, and how to earn money for themselves from it while giving as little as possible to the actual owners. It's the cannibals arguing over who gets to put the authors in the boiling pot for dinner, and who gets the biggest share afterward.

Meanwhile, the authors generally have let them do so. The Authors' Guild (to name only one of the problems) has actually hurt its own position — let alone what its position should be — every time it has opened its mouth. The Authors' Guild, being based in New York and drawing its staff from locals in New York, has become at least in part coopted by the culture of its adversary: Commercial publishing, also based in New York.2 It's one thing to be cautious because the exact terms being discussed by Amazon and Hachette are not public knowledge; it's another thing entirely to refuse to give both misbehaving children a time out to calm down. And I think I'm insulting a lot of children on the playground by comparing this particular set of corporate officers to children: After all, children do learn, they're generally quite forgiving, and they're generally acting on impulse instead of as part of a long-thought-out plan for personal benefit at the expense of others. The exceptions become the centerpieces of horror novels.

Ultimately, the issue is going to be resolved without regard to long-term consequences. Like that's a surprise.

  1. Do not get me started this morning on work-for-hire in trade publishing. Most WFH agreements in trade publishing — and I'm explicitly including graphic novels/comics in that category — are not really works for hire. The Copyright Act allows only a very narrow subset of works to qualify as freelancers' works for hire... and "book-length work of fiction" cannot be shoved into any of those categories, nor can almost any trade nonfiction.
  2. That commercial publishing should be a partner and not an adversary is an issue for another time, I'm afraid — and it's an ugly descent in the actual history of commercial publishing.