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    I’m writing a book, which is giving me a perspective on various technologies as a client rather than as a producer. I also find myself (perhaps surprisingly, because I’m also a programmer both by trade and tribe, and its corporate culture seems so toxic) cheering on Amazon.

    For those who don’t know the book publishing industry, it’s fucked up in an ungodly number of ways. It’s also hard to assess blame because most of the fucked-up-ness hurts publishers (e.g. the consignment model) as much as it hurts writers. It’s not like those editors and agents (about whom unsuccessful writers love to complain) are living high on the hog. They’re not. There’s a relationship-driven, feudalistic aspect of the publishing business that hurts almost everyone (not to mention the quality of the product) and that includes 95+ percent of the people who work at literary agents or publishing houses. Moreover, studying this industry makes you realize that the chain bookstores (that Amazon killed) were never sympathetic characters. They had the chance to change their business model, and they didn’t, and now they’re dead.

    I don’t know whether I’ll use a traditional/“trade” publisher or self-publish. It’s still too early to make that call. I am very glad, as a writer, that Amazon exists. They’re at war with the Ivy Cliques and Boomer Cliques that run the publishing world. Trust me; this is a good thing. It will always be hard for writers to make enough money to support themselves, because there will always be an oversupply of mediocre talent, but it’s gone from almost impossible to merely very difficult. In the old world, you waited a year to get an agent, then two more to get published, accepted an advance that didn’t remotely cover your costs, and unless you were well-connected, got neither reviews nor advertising. It sucked, and you could lose your livelihood if your agent fucked up a contract (or if you were dumb enough to go bareback) or if your book didn’t get reviewed in the right places. In the new world, people can self-publish. People don’t have to take deals that can endanger their career (e.g. by locking up rights, or by tying their reputations to a publisher who won’t do a good job). It still takes a hell of a lot of work to get to the point where you can live off your writing (probably 10-20 years for average publishable talent) but you’re less likely to have your progress erased because someone in publicity fucked up and your third book didn’t sell and you got dropped by publisher and agent in the same week.

    To put fairly accurate numbers on it, the old world would tend to offer you a $5000 advance for your first book. If that number sounds shitty, well… (a) it is, but (b) the advance shouldn’t matter if all goes well, because you’ll earn more in royalties unless either your book sucks or your publisher fucks up promoting it. (Both are frequent and kill many a book, but who got blamed? The author.) Unfortunately, 70% of books don’t even make enough royalties to earn back the advance. So, you’d often get one or two small advances, then be dumped by your publisher, then lose your agent, and be fucked forever in publishing. In the new world, you can start over. There’s more risk (because you have to pay for an editor, and cover art) and your floor is zero sales instead of a $5,000 advance, but there’s more upside unless you get the star package (book tour, six-figure publicity budget, executives personally calling in favors to get you reviewed) that very few authors get. Really, the only reason in fiction (non-fiction is different) to go with trade publishing is if you get that star package.

    Amazon is at war with trade publishing. I don’t want either side to win. I want both sides to stay in existence so there’s genuine competition. It was bad for writers under the Ivy Cliques in New York, but it’ll probably be just as bad if one company ends up in a dominant position.

    It’s unclear what self-publishing (or trade publishing) will look like in 10 years, and undoubtedly Amazon has a scary amount of power, but right now, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Amazon’s influence is positive. In a business where authors were lucky to get 15% royalties, Amazon is offering 70%. [1]

    I don’t have a seething hatred for trade publishing. I recognize its purpose. [2] It has a lot to offer society, and it provides important jobs, and it would be a shame if it disappeared outright. I do, however, like the idea of taking a sledgehammer to entrenched cliques that make everything terrible.

    [1] That’s not quite a fair comparison, because e-books have no marginal cost and print books do; it would be impossible for authors to collect 70%– that would put bookstores and publishers out of business. However, most trade publishers only offer 25% e-book royalties. So Amazon is offering almost three times as much. Andrew Wylie (the most powerful literary agent) tried to get the trades up to 50%, to no avail.

    [2] Self-publishing will probably, over the next twenty years, win in fiction. In fact, many fiction authors plan on trade-publishing their first book (to prove to the world that they have the talent) but then self-publish once they have a platform. However, there are niches where the trade publishers add a lot of value. In historical nonfiction and biography, the publishers’ fact-checking services are invaluable… and, to be fair to them, under-compensated. Fact-checking a biography of an obscure 19th-century attorney that’ll sell 250 copies is a genuine public service.

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      Your second footnote sparked a question: could fact-checking books become it’s own thing?