Why I parted ways with Authors United

As with so many blog posts, it begins thus:

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Storify: accomplished. Pissy blog post: engaged.

I haven’t made a big deal out of the Amazon v Hachette thing mostly because I do not have a LOOK HOW HUGE MY SALES ARE WHY ARE YOU NOT IMPRESSED BY THE SIZE OF MY SALES FIGURES BOW DOWN BEFORE ME dong to wave around, but back when the Authors United thing got started, I signed on to the first letter. Because I’m a slave to a corrupt and terrible system spineless sheeple teetotaler when it comes to Amazon kool-aide fucking human being who can make my own decisions, thanks. My reasoning is not the point of this blog post. (Really, just go read this thing Scalzi wrote or this thing Chuck Wendig wrote and basically yeah, what they said.)

The point of this post is why I ended up asking to have my name taken off the most recent Authors United letter. The letter you now see there is actually not the letter as originally conceived, which is what I read when I said no, thanks, I don’t want to be on this any more. However, after reading this new version, I still don’t agree, and I don’t put my name on letters with which I have disagreements.

The original point of contention was this line here:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on that book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.

Which has been replaced with:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. But books are not mere consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to another country. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon endangers when it uses its tremendous power to separate authors from their readership.

Courtney Milan wrote an excellent blog post about the yick factor of the original paragraph.  And basically: word, sister. Her post was actually what prompted me to go and read the letter carefully in time and ask to have my name removed.

Though I do want to be clear here, that while Douglas Preston and I obviously have some disagreements (upon which I will expound shortly) he is operating very much on the up and up on this thing. He sent everyone involved an e-mail with a link to the proposed letter in it so we could give feedback and ask to have our names taken off if we wished, and when I responded negatively to him he was very polite and didn’t fight me. I’m just such a lazy piece of shit I wouldn’t have gotten around to reading the letter if I hadn’t seen someone else set their trousers on fire first and gone huh, I should probably look in to this.

Shame on me.

Anyway, while I think the new draft of the letter is better, I still don’t agree with it, and I’m glad I asked to have my name taken off. My problem stems from the entire argument that books are not mere consumer goods because of the artistic struggle of the writer. (I’m also not a fan of that outsourcing writing to another country comment for reasons mentioned in Courtney’s post, even if we’re no longer specifically throwing shade at China.)

Now, trust me. I don’t for a second buy bullshit arguments that posit forcing book prices lower will cause people to buy more books. You know what’s stopping me from buying new books? Not having the time to read the ones I already own. I’m not going to consider two $9.99 ebooks interchangeable because they both have unicorns on the cover; they won’t be the same book. And let’s not forget that authors have followings; I’ll run out and buy something by Naomi Novik because I’ve read and liked her other books; I’m not going to pick up something with a dragon in the description just because it’s cheaper.

So books are arguably consumer goods that might resist quite the same models as toasters and candy bars, but they are still consumer goods. Writers, editors, and manufacturers produce the books so that consumers can buy them and read them. And we sure want to market them like they’re consumer goods, don’t we? It’s capitalism, man. Charge what the market will bear.

Arguing to a retail company that books should get some kind of free pass from their shitty, strong-arm tactics because books are special, artistic butterflies? You’re kidding me, right? Courtney Milan made this point in her post already, and better than I could, I think. I’ll just say in short that I think making a non-economic argument at a company that is acting purely out of economic self-interest (no matter what it claims) is a weak position that we’re ill-served by. And kind of makes us sound like assholes, besides. While I think art holds a unique and important place in culture, I’m really not comfortable trying to justify special treatment for books on the backs of the toaster makers. We all deserve to make a fair wage for our labor, whether we’re slapping “hamburgers” together behind the counter at McD’s or writing the Most Important And Transformative Novel Of This Century, and I will not support tacitly abandoning other workers under the suspiciously ego-wanky notion that my skill is way more special.

Anyway if you signed on to the original letter, make sure you read this one and see if you agree with it. It’s important, man. That’s your name on it. (And hey, if you read it and agree with Douglas where I disagree and are a published writer who hasn’t signed on to it, I’m sure he’d like to hear from you.)

I actually want to step past the entire Amazon/Authors United thing and address a much bigger issue, because this is really just another episode in the ongoing adventures of oh hey look we’re getting fucked by corporations again.

Being an artist in a capitalism-obsessed society like America kind of blows. Or really, no kind of about it. It blows. Even producing commercially viable art isn’t any guarantee of being able to make a steady living without a side job, and that makes it a hell of a lot harder to practice one’s craft. But frankly, appealing to the better natures of companies is not the way to fix this. Companies, with rare exception, don’t have better natures.

Now, I’m fond of pointing out that companies are composed of people, and run by people, and excusing corporate malfeasance by shrugging it off as “hey it’s a corporation, what do you expect?” is accepting the most banal sort of evil as part of life. We should expect more from our fellow humans. And hey, we know that it’s possible to have a successful company that doesn’t act like it’s run by total shitlords. (Hello, Ben & Jerry’s.)

Shrugging off corporate evil indicates a profound lack of responsibility and vision for society. It indicates either a conviction of helplessness or an unwillingness to expect better out of ourselves. But you know what? So does expecting corporations to fix our problems our of the goodness of their non-existent hearts. I don’t want to live in a world where corporations are our social conscience.

Capitalism is arguably one of the motors that run our society. But it’s not some kind of miraculous fix-all, and every time a politician (or anyone else) talks about how the magic of the free market is going to swoop in and save us (presumably while riding pillion on a unicorn with Jesus) I just really want to scream. And flip tables. And bite things. We’re not here to serve capitalism. It’s supposed to serve us, and we managed to lose sight of that somewhere along the way.

The real problem here is that we as a society treat artists like shit, and art like it’s widgets, and scorn what is ultimately skilled and important labor. Then those values get reflected back to us by the economy we supposedly own and we go wow that’s ugly could you please not?

Artists aren’t the only profession that gets offered either the shitty end of the stick or no end at all. We don’t even value what we claim to value, or else teachers, soldiers, and artists wouldn’t need government and community assistance in order to survive. Somewhere along the way we allowed ourselves to be convinced that there is such a thing as a person who does not deserve to make a living wage, no matter what their profession.

Companies are not going to value us or our work as long as we treat it as a thing without value. This is our problem to solve, because we let this happen. When corporations shit on people, that’s not because they’re corporations and that’s just what they do. It’s because we’re too fucking cowardly and blind as a society to smack them with a rolled up newspaper and say NO. And asking a corporation nicely to please just stop shitting on people is like asking the doberman with diarrhea to kindly not poop on your rug.

We claim that science is important, creativity is important, that teachers are important, that soldiers are important, and they are. Art is important too. Art is the heart of our society. It’s time we started acting like it instead of effectively praying to Zeus for help and hoping he kisses us before he fucks us and ruins our lives.

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