From the beginning, the Amazon/Hachette dispute has functioned as a kind of inkblot test. The parties’ negotiations are subject to a confidentiality agreement, so no one outside Amazon and Hachette knows for certain the details. But vagueness and ambiguity hasn’t much impeded the reflexively anti-Amazon crowd from being certain that Amazon’s tactics are “bullying,” “monopolistic,” “malignant,” “evil,” etc. Most of all, in the face of confidential negotiations about which the outside world can only speculate, how many people have been certain that it was Amazon’s position and tactics that were hurting authors, while never even considering the possibility that the other party to the negotiation might bear at least some degree of responsibility, as well?
The reflexive anti-Amazon reaction is even stranger when you consider that, based on everything we know about their business strategies, it seems likely that in general Hachette has been holding out for the ability to maintain higher ebook prices, while Amazon has been holding out for the ability to discount. Higher ebook prices aren’t just bad for readers; they tend to hurt authors, too. In the face of (1) we don’t really know what the dispute is about; and (2) it’s probably about Hachette doing things that are bad for readers and writers, a martian might be perplexed about why some authors and a lot of the media would reflexively cheer Hachette and vilify Amazon.
(In fairness, though, it seems that Amazon has over 12 times the number of supporters in this dispute as Hachette -- the petition to Hachette now has just shy of 7000 signatures, to about 550 for the one to Amazon.)
The answer, I think, has to do with establishments and how they view opposition.
Establishments are actually pretty tolerant of opposition — as long as they sense it’s opposition within the establishment. Opposition to the establishment is another matter. I think this dynamic explains, for example, the quite different establishment reactions to the journalism of Bart Gellman and Glenn Greenwald. Both have broken huge stories on the NSA’s blanket warrantless surveillance on American citizens, yet Gellman is extended various journalistic courtesies while Greenwald is attacked as an activist, advocate, blogger, enabler, porn-spy (no, I don’t know what that means, either), co-conspirator, enabler, collaborator, and traitor. I think the difference can be explained by the establishment’s sense (right or wrong) that Gellman offers opposition within the system, while Greenwald is opposed to the system itself. The first can be tolerated. The second cannot.
If my theory has any merit, it might explain why Amazon is being pilloried for a “boycott” that’s not even a boycott, while B&N largely received a pass for using similar tactics a few years back against S&S authors, and while few people even question the very real boycott B&N and indie booksellers impose on tens of thousands of Amazon-published and self-published authors. When B&N (ironically, yesterday’s villain, but today we’re at war with Eastasia) does it, it’s rough tactics but within the system. Ditto indie booksellers. But if you’re perceived as oppositional to the system rather than fundamentally supportive of and dependent on the system, then almost everything you do will be interpreted with unique suspicion and hostility.
I know all this, but even so I was astonished the other day at the hostility from some quarters that greeted Amazon’s offer to try to compensate Hachette authors for whatever damage those authors have suffered during Amazon’s and Hachette’s contentious contract negotiations. Amazon has been widely blamed (without a sound basis, as I’ve argued) for using Hachette authors as negotiating pawns and turning them into collateral damage. Amazon has repeatedly expressed regret that any authors might suffer from the Amazon/Hachette impasse, and proposed that Amazon and Hachette give all revenues from Hachette ebooks to Hachette authors until the impasse is resolved. On its face, it seems a pretty elegant solution: not only protection from collateral damage, but an outright windfall for Hachette authors; an ongoing loss for Amazon and Hachette that would incentivize the companies to come to terms more quickly. But Hachette instantly rejected the offer out of hand (as they did Amazon’s previous offer to contribute 50/50 to an author compensation pool), and the offer was dismissed by Hachette’s defenders as at best an Amazon PR stunt.
So… I have a question.
What if Hachette had proposed the very same thing — all digital revenues to Hachette authors until we resolve this thing — and Amazon had rejected it?
Of course I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure the reaction among the reflexive anti-Amazon crowd would have been, “Hachette proves how much it cares about authors, while Amazon continues to use authors as mere pawns and collateral damage!” “Hachette is trying to shield its authors with its own body but Amazon won’t stop shooting!” And other such interpretations. Sometimes I think it’s reached the point where if Amazon invented and gave away for free a cancer vaccine, the establishment soundbite would be, “Amazon Cancer Cure a Ploy to Separate Patients from Healthcare Providers."
I don’t know the formal name for the logical fallacy whereby X is proof of Y and the opposite of X is also proof of Y (if you do, please tell me in the comments). But if you decry something when Amazon does it but would cheer for it if Hachette does it, it might be worth taking a step back and reflecting on where your opinions are really coming from.
Obviously, the kind of double standard I’m talking about isn't limited to publishing. In fact, it’s much more common in politics, where many “conservatives” were against foreign nation-building until Bush decided he would be a nation-building president, and many “liberals” were against warrantless surveillance, indefinite imprisonment, and imperial wars until Obama adopted those policies as his own. One of my personal favorite examples of the mentality was a guy I engaged about a year ago on Twitter. He claimed Snowden leaked the NSA documents because he craved attention for himself. I responded that Snowden had refused to give even a single interview beyond the first one with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, despite having been invited by every top-rated television host in the world. "Oh no," the guy responded without missing a beat, “that’s his strategy. Hold it all back, and then later it’ll be like a dam bursting. Super mega attention.”
Do you see the problem with that? If Snowden gives interviews, it proves he craves attention. If he doesn’t give interviews, it proves he craves attention. Logically, one of these things could be proof of the “he craves attention” hypothesis. But not both of them.
This is probably a good place to explain what I mean when I sometimes refer to “Amazon Derangement Syndrome.” I’m not referring to all criticisms of Amazon, or even to most. For example, I think Amazon’s cutting off Wikileaks from Amazon Web Services at Joe Lieberman’s request was pernicious, shameful, and cowardly. I’m glad there’s media scrutiny of conditions in Amazon warehouses. And while still far better than anything I’ve ever seen in the legacy world, Amazon Publishing’s contracts are showing increasing legacy-like lard and legacy-like author-unfriendly clauses. Certainly I don’t think these criticisms are deranged — after all, I’ve made them myself.
Instead, I’m talking about a species of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” criticisms. A quick example: a few years ago, the Seattle Times ran a series of articles that I thought were, if not deranged, then at least seriously unbalanced. In one, the reporter observed that Amazon had purchased lots of downtown office space, but had nefariously hidden the purchases by choosing not to put Amazon signage on any of the buildings! I chuckled when I read it, because I was pretty sure that, had Amazon put out the nefariously missing signage, the headline would have read, “Amazon Flaunts New Dominion of Downtown Real Estate.”
What does that mean? It would seem to mean that no matter what Amazon does, it’s proof of the company’s evil. No matter what might be at issue (and again, with regard to Hachette, we don’t really know), if Amazon has a dispute with a legacy publisher, Amazon must be wrong and the legacy publisher must be right. And the only thing Amazon can do to become right in turn is to toe the legacy line.
That’s not logical thought. It’s religious dogma. Probably not a coincidence, then, that Hachette defender Douglas Preston describes a business dispute with a “blood money” religious reference, or that an unhinged Panda writer outright called Amazon’s offer “30 pieces of silver” with authors as “Hachette’s personal Judas.” I’m not saying these people view Hachette authors literally as the apostles and Hachette literally as Jesus Christ. But they do seem to think the author/publisher relationship properly goes far beyond just business. For the references to be coherent, there has to be a perception of a substantial degree of intimacy, even of sacredness, in these relationships. Meaning, apparently, that by not buying into the faith, Amazon must be committing heresy.
I have to add at this point… it’s a little weird under the circumstances that I get accused of being an Amazon “shill” or of harboring “unconditional love” for the company or of supporting the company because “Amazon feathers my nest.” Unlike, say, James Patterson, who profits enormously from the establishment publishing system and so might be expected to want to preserve it out of self-interest, I don’t have much of a dog in the Amazon/Hachette fight. I’ve gotten back the rights to all my legacy-published books, so everything I have is now either self- or Amazon-published. Meaning that, however the Amazon/Hachette standoff ends, the outcome doesn’t affect me. If anything, you could argue that self-published authors, were they motivated by self-interest, would be cheering for Hachette, because Hachette stands for higher legacy prices which indie authors can more easily undercut. If you look at the rhetoric and the incentives, it's pretty hard to make a coherent argument that Amazon- and self-published authors are motivated by self-interest here, but easy, if that's your bag, to make such an argument with regard to, say, Doug Preston and James Patterson.
So some of the “You’re an Amazon shill!” stuff, doubtless, is projection. But some of it is a fascinating reflection of one of the essential qualities of any establishment: privilege. Let’s talk a little about that.
The essence of any establishment is a sense, sometimes conscious but usually not, of privilege. Of course there are different rules for the establishment class and for everyone else; that goes without saying. But to the establishment these different rules don’t feel like a double standard because the establishment deserves and indeed requires different treatment. Often, these “differences" get their own distinct nomenclature. So, for example, they torture; we employ enhanced interrogation techniques. They have gulags; we have detention centers. When we invade a country halfway around the world, it’s called “Iraqi Freedom;” when Iran funds an Iraqi politician next door, it’s “meddling.” Leaks that serve power are "news;" leaks that challenge power are "treason" and prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
(You could write whole books on this and related topics, and indeed, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have — I recommend With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful and The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.)
I’ve written about this kind of mentality before — once, in response to some criticisms that my novella London Twist was too “pro-gay” because of a lesbian sex scene (alas, I’ve yet to be criticized for being too pro-straight because of my straight sex scenes); another time, in response to NPR’s insistence that I not name any establishment figures in an article about the continued relevance of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The implicit outlook might usefully be summarized as "Your politics are political; mine are just pragmatism and common sense."
Obviously, double standards that don’t feel like double standards are to one degree or another widespread, and probably even universal. We’re just wired as humans to give ourselves and our in-groups the maximum benefit of the doubt. I don’t think it’s a tendency that can be eradicated, but it can be mitigated with logic and honest reflection. Which is why I’ve written this post. Doing so helps me examine my own biases; and, hopefully, will encourage others to do something similar. To that end, may I ask a few respectful questions of anyone who immediately criticized Amazon’s compensation offer the other day?
1. If the offer was just a PR stunt, why didn’t Hachette call Amazon’s bluff?
2. If you believe Hachette can’t afford to temporarily give all its Kindle revenues to its authors, have you considered that Hachette is part of the Lagardère Group, a multinational with something like ten billion dollars a year in sales? That Kindle sales represent only one percent of Lagardère’s annual sales? When someone tells you she can’t afford to temporarily forgo one percent of revenue, do you typically interpret that “can’t” as a “won’t”? And if so, why are you so quick to take Lagardère’s “can’t” at face value?
Also, would you offer Amazon the same immediate benefit of the doubt if the shoe were on the other foot? If Hachette had made this offer and Amazon had instantly responded, “Sorry, our margins are extremely slim and we can’t afford this,” would you shrug and say, “Makes sense to me?” If not, why the different standard for Hachette?
3. If you thought the offer was unfair because only 30% of the burden would fall on Amazon and 52.5% on Hachette (people claiming that 70% would fall on Hachette were overlooking the fact that Hachette pays its authors 17.5% digital royalties, but still, yes, 52.5% is more than 30%), why haven’t you encouraged Hachette to counteroffer? Indeed, why haven’t you encouraged Hachette to accept Amazon’s previous, 50/50 offer? Did you even know about that earlier offer? Do you think Hachette might in fairness have at least apprised its authors of the offer's existence?
4. In its offer, Amazon described in great detail how long Hachette has been dragging its feet in negotiations. Do you think any of that is noteworthy? Do you think Hachette’s delay tactics are well-calculated to protect its authors? Would you feel differently about those tactics if Amazon were the one engaging in them rather than Hachette? If so, why?
5. If you believe Amazon’s offer is disingenuous because Amazon has less to lose, have you considered another way of looking at it? Namely, Amazon has little to lose per book because it offers such steep discounts to its customers, while Hachette has more to lose per book because it takes such a steep share of digital revenues from its authors. An imbalance might exist, so far as it goes, but is it one you think ought to be used as an excuse for Hachette’s refusal of Amazon’s offer?
6. If Doug Preston feels as he claims that he has a moral obligation to share his revenues with Hachette and so can’t accept Amazon’s “blood money,” why not encourage Hachette to accept the offer and then voluntarily share the windfall with Hachette? There would be more money for everyone: Amazon would offer full discounts again, would reinstall preorder buttons, and would stock full quantities of paper books. Best of all, there’s precedent: the Sanhedrin priests decided it was moral to accept Judas’s return of his blood money as long as they used it to purchase the potter’s field. If it was good enough for the high priests, surely it’s good enough for Hachette authors?
7. More broadly, is there anything Amazon could do in its dispute with Hachette, short of outright capitulation to whatever Hachette is demanding, that would satisfy Amazon’s critics? Preston has proposed nothing. Watch him here, and listen to his description: “We don’t know exactly what the dispute is [which is itself pretty amazing, considering the opinions he’s nonetheless willing to offer]… All we’re saying is please don’t hurt us… Please, Amazon, can’t you resolve this dispute like two large corporations without involving and hurting authors? We’re not for Hachette, either [that’s why all my pleas are all directed exclusively at Amazon]… We just want Amazon to stop targeting and retaliating against authors…"
So Preston “just wants Amazon to stop targeting and retaliating against authors.” Amazon offers to turn over all its revenues to those authors. And Preston responds that this won’t work. Okay, fine, then what will? The “Authors Guild” has proposed nothing. In fact, "Authors Guild" president Roxana Robinson opined that the Amazon offer "seems like a short-term solution that encourages authors to take sides against their publishers. It doesn't get authors out of the middle of this – we're still in the middle. Our books are at the center of this struggle.”
Respectfully, what does that even mean? If your books are in the middle and that’s a problem, wouldn’t Amazon’s offer be a solution? But Robinson doesn’t address this question. She just talks around it.
(By the way, shame on Publisher’s Lunch for offering pointless, pernicious, promiscuous anonymity to the unnamed “Hachette executive” quoted in that article. Amazon’s executives are all on the record, and Publisher's Lunch offers anonymity to Hachette executives…. why, exactly? Are they whistleblowers? Do they fear retaliation from Amazon? This kind of anonymity is unworthy of anyone who takes journalism seriously.)
And Hachette has proposed nothing, either. Can anyone here do better? The 50/50 compensation offer was ignored, the “let’s just turn over all digital revenues to Hachette authors” is inadequate… what, aside from capitulation to terms that he admits he doesn’t even know, would satisfy Preston? If anyone has a more creative approach than what Amazon has already proposed and the ciphers emerging from Presont, Robinson, Hachette, and the rest of establishment publishing, I’d be curious to hear it.
Here’s about the fairest way I could describe the pro-Hachette position if I were to ignore Hachette's foot-dragging and some other aspects of the dispute:
“Look, Barry, it’s true that Hachette might have accepted Amazon’s previous offer or its most recent. Or it could have treated those offers as opening gambits and tried to negotiate something even more favorable rather than automatically rejecting them. And yes, it’s true that had Hachette done so, its authors would have been better off — but only in the short term. Because in accepting Amazon’s short-term offer, Hachette would have been eroding its long-term negotiating position. Which would mean that in the long term, Hachette’s authors would be worse off. So Hachette had to make the difficult choice between the lesser of two evils: refuse an offer that would have been a boon to Hachette authors today in order to protect them tomorrow.”
I think that characterization is exceptionally charitable to Hachette, but it’s not crazy, either. But in fairness, doesn’t it apply to both sides? There’s no question that in the face of Amazon’s latest offer, Hachette is taking a position that results in short-term harm for its authors as the price the company feels it has to pay for a longer-term gain. Similarly, Amazon would prefer to come to terms with Hachette quickly to prevent any harm to Hachette authors, but believes that capitulating now would result in a longer-term loss. How can you excuse Hachette from being willing to place authors in harm’s way in the service of some strategic gain, while castigating Amazon for at worst the very same thing?
You can only do so if on some implicit level you believe Hachette’s tactics are somehow sanctified by Hachette's insider status, while believing Amazon’s are illegitimate because Amazon is a publishing outsider. As in usual in these matters, the people who hold such views don’t recognize them as double standards. Which only makes them more insidious.
I guess what it comes down to is this. Online book-selling and digital books have fundamentally changed the publishing industry. There are people who welcome that change. And there are people who are intent on stopping it. The people who welcome the change don’t look at one side or the other as more or less legitimate. The people who are trying to stop that change are a bit less even-handed. But that’s to be expected — the essence of establishment privilege is blindness to its existence.