Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent Dear Author post on books as commercial objects and now I’m going to try something ambitious. I’m going to talk about Amazon and Hachette and Authors United. I’m going to talk about Ellora’s Cave as an Ellora’s Cave author who’s published six short books with them in the past four years. But most of all, I’m going to talk about work: when we notice it, when we don’t, and what happens when we emphasize or downplay labor in the book industry. My Marxist credentials are, well, nonexistent, but I’m going on 15 years in the book business so that will hopefully compensate.

Should be fun, right?

Invisible Author-Work

We’ll start with the author, since that’s where books begin. Author-work is profoundly hidden, even in the midst of its occurrence. It makes for notoriously terrible television. Getting the words out on the page is only the start of it. There’s also research, revisions, and the inevitable but embarrassingly necessary craft technique of Staring Blankly Out The Window Until You Know How To Fix Whatever’s Wrong. Plus, once you have a manuscript you’re unafraid to call maybe kinda good if you read it on a Tuesday when the moon is in Sagittarius, then you have to send it out to agents and publishers — or get it properly edited and formatted and hire a cover designer, if you’re self-pubbing — all of which requires countless hours of hair-pulling, teeth-clenching mental mud wrestling, but all of which happens almost entirely out of public view. (Unless you’re on Twitter. I love you, Twitter.) And when it’s published, you have to market it and track sales and pay quarterly taxes — if you’re lucky, that is, you pay quarterly taxes — and pitch reviews and talk to readers and attend conferences, all while starting the whole process over with a brand-new book idea. Rinse and repeat.

It’s more fun than it sounds.

Author-work is made visible when authorial integrity is in doubt. For instance, relevant life experience is highlighted as a guarantee of quality fiction — which is why Clive Cussler is so often photographed next to classic cars, and why it was A Thing when pseudonym Robert Gailbraith’s military background turned out to be a backstory created by author J. K. Rowling. Author-work becomes most visible every time someone lambastes a reviewer because the author worked so hard and put so much effort into their book. Effort is unerased and presented as evidence of worth.

Invisible Publisher-Work

A publisher is not merely a channel for authors’ invisible labor: they have a lot of behind-the-scenes labor of their own. Two words for you: slush pile. I pulled submissions from a slush pile exactly once in college for the literary magazine and I still have Lovecraftian nightmares about it. And meetings — sometimes when I listen to editors and publishers at conferences I get the sense that a publishing house is just a large collection of meetings galumphing ever forward through time. Individual editors, too, perform much of the same kind of labor that authors do: revisions, reading submissions, presenting themselves professionally at conferences and conventions, etc. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen editors desperate to clear their inboxes or mentioning they’re taking work home for the evening.

But also: bookkeeping. And money. A publisher lives and dies by the numbers. The value they offer is tied to the accounting: they pay for editing, cover art, marketing, and distribution so that an author does not have to undertake all those as separate tasks by a new author unestablished in the network. They also track distribution numbers, returns, royalties, wholesale discounts, sale prices, etc. — I get hives just thinking about trying to juggle all those numbers, which is why I haven’t self-published.

This focus does lead to a certain amount of secrecy. Publishers generally do not tell the author how much they’re paying that author’s editor, or the cover artist, or the PR person. Publishers DO tell the author how many copies of her books are selling, and where, and at what royalty rate. Or at least, they SHOULD. Much of the issues authors have been having with Ellora’s Cave — issues which started at least a year ago and which therefore predate the ‘Curious Case’ Dear Author post and the now-justly-infamous defamation lawsuit — stem from a frustration with the invisibility of publisher bookkeeping work: the definition of “quarterly” versus “monthly” payments, the obfuscation of whether “May royalties” describes sales made in May or simply received in May, and so on. None of what I’m saying here is new: author Lolita Lopez’ post is an excellent and very strong take on this.

As we saw with authors, a publisher’s invisible work is underscored every time someone wants to give publishers rhetorical weight and authority. It’s why John Scalzi has often described the benefits he gets from being traditionally published, and why self-publishing advocates often minimize the work a publisher puts into a book’s development. EC founder Jaid Black’s blog post (DoNotLinkified) emphasizes the time and money EC has put into contracting and editing books to give her claims to contractual rights and steady payments more credence. What Jaid Black also does in this post is going to be important for the rest of this discussion: she states that some authors are also making public statements in service of a secret, selfish agenda to reclaim rights and revert contracts.

This is the invisible work of conspiracy. We’ll be coming back to this.

Invisible Distributor-Work

Distributors are possibly the most invisible part of the book industry, at least from the outside. When I became an author I was shocked at how many writers had never heard of Ingram, much less had the ability to check and see if their books were available through them. Brick-and-mortar bookstores order direct from publishers if they order in quantity, but for smaller presses and individual items they’ll go right to Ingram or Baker and Taylor or the others on this list. Sometimes I remember that there is a whole major subset of the book industry that never speaks to a single plain reader and I get a little stunned, I really do. Digital distribution is even more opaque and confounding: sure we have Amazon and ARe and Smashwords and Kobo and such (for now), but there’s also many smaller etailers that are easily mistaken for the equally ubiquitous pirate sites.

Amazon of course is both a publisher and a distributor. This gives me, a longtime indie bookstore employee, a serious case of the side-eye. Print bookstores track sales through physical copies: the store receives a certain number of books and returns (usually) some of them, then is charged for any unreturned copies whether they were sold, damaged or stolen. This is why some (horrible) authors are advised to do the (invisible, horrible) work of signing bookstore stock without asking so that it can’t be returned. (Short answer: sure it can, and fuck you very much.)

Digital sales cannot be tracked the same way: digital sales numbers are half-invisible to start with and therefore more easily obscured. Amazon is the only one who can know whether Amazon is fudging sales numbers. Amazon also keeps its notorious algorithm very close; this is no doubt a sound business tactic. Sometimes Amazon tweaks the algorithm (through invisible code-work — remember that time some French Amazon employee made all the GLBTQ books vanish from Amazon searches?). This too is probably a sound business tactic and prevents savvy authors from gaming the rankings. A rigged game benefits only the rigger, after all — and Amazon’s not letting anyone else have control of their roulette wheel.

So far so good. Except: Amazon is also a publisher, not only through their imprints but also through the KDP program. Most self-published authors are not self-published, but really published through Amazon; the term self-published used to stand as a euphemism for the initial exchange of cash that was the mark of a vanity press. Now it more commonly stands in for published through Amazon or Smashwords or another non-traditional content delivery system. Notice how it’s become a more respectable description when that initial cash outlay is erased — though you could argue that it’s only moved, that the paying of editors and cover artists upfront in self-publishing is not meaningfully different from paying a publisher to loan you their own editor and cover artist. Amazon has not actually invested resources in your book, after all, aside from the tech set-up of the Kindle system.

We’ll be coming back to invisible tech-work later, too — but for now …

Invisible Bookseller-Work

The reason you’ve heard of The Night Circus and The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Boneshaker and Shadow of the Wind and China Mieville and Haruki Murakami is because of the invisible work of booksellers. People with boots on the ground who can collectively make or break a book’s success. People who have constant access to books and the enthusiasm to follow favorite authors across many years and genres. Murakami, for instance, is a literary writer of truly odd and dreamlike stories working in Japanese whose translated English editions now get midnight release parties with masks of the author’s face. Some of this is self-interested: booksellers generally like their jobs and want to keep bookstores in business.

But self-interest isn’t the whole story: most booksellers are avid readers.

Invisible Reader-Work

Readers’ work, like authors, happens in private and in solitude. Not only the process of reading a book, but the process of becoming expert in a genre or subgenre, reading and writing reviews and doing any research that those reviews might require. Articulating feelings about a book is work, whether your feelings are good or bad or mixed. You also get the invisible work of dedicated hardcore reviewers, whose reviews are more critical (in the academic sense) and often require much research and expertise. Places like Love in the Margins and Romance Novels for Feminists and the new-to-me-but-awesome-for-everyone Cooking Up Romance. My own Feminism A to Z series of reviews took months of dedicated writing, reading, and link-hunting. (Worth it: I’m super-proud of those posts.) Even the Goodreads gif-heavy reviews that some authors consider too snarky take more than minimal effort to produce, and this effort is nearly always overlooked when authors choose to take issue with a review/reviewer.

What does get emphasized in those flare-ups is that a reader paid money for a book: money stands in for work in a way, as it often does in American culture more broadly. This is why we think rich people have earned their wealth: they wouldn’t have all that money if they hadn’t done all that work, right? Over and over again in author-reader conflicts we see the invisible effort of the author butting heads with the equally invisible effort of the reader, with money fluttering around the discussion like a musty green moth. Because of course the author’s objections to a negative review are financial as well as personal: reviews sell books, and many authors believe positive reviews sell more books.

Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.

And now we’re (finally!) ready to look clearly at the Amazon-Hachette-Authors United tangle [egregious farting sound effect].

For background, I’m using this excellent Guardian post. It’s important to point out at the outset that this whole conflict centers around a secret: the actual contract terms in dispute have not been made public, as far as I know. We’re all chasing MacGuffins here.

The usually invisible labor we’ve charted shows up front and center in this conflict. We have publisher Hachette, who wants to retain as much control as possible over ebook pricing because their royalty rates and therefore their revenues are directly tied to that number. They’re protecting their accounting strategy because that’s where their value lies as a business, to authors who might want to send them future books to publish. They had support from the booksellers, whose often-invisible work was briefly in the spotlight as they rallied around Hachette authors caught in the corporate dispute.

We also have Authors United. Their letter emphasizes the importance of their invisible labor — hence that tone-deaf bit about “outsourcing.” While I sympathize with their position — more so recently, you may guess — I can’t muster any corresponding passion for their high-mindedness. Frankly, although there are big names on that list, I will be shocked if they turn out to have any effect on the results of this dispute. I get tired of the bombast just reading the first half of that letter. Especially when we have an actual on-the-ground free-speech case playing out in the romance genre.

And finally we have Amazon: a busy, secretive behemoth, who insists over and over again in this debate that they’re only looking out for readers’ interests. That their priority is the reader/customer experience. But in this system they have all the financial agendas and invisible work of a distributor, a publisher, and a bookseller — without, of course, the tax burdens to match. They choose each face as it suits them: they present themselves as a bookseller to readers, as a distributor to publishers, and as a publisher to authors. And that’s not even getting into their much-publicized Dickensian warehouse working conditions, which continue to appall. Because of Amazon’s lack of transparency and multiple agendas, I find it hard to completely trust them — and I’m not alone.

Remember that notion of the invisible work of conspiracy? There seems to be a lot of it in the book industry these days, depending on who you listen to. Certainly Hachette should be mentioned here, since they settled when the Department of Justice sued Apple for ebook price-fixing. I find it less plausible to think that Ellora’s Cave authors are colluding, not least because we’re all exhausted and busy and who has the time for conspiracy, honestly? I’m trying to finish a book and a workshop presentation before the Emerald City Writers’ Conference next weekend. In the immortal words of Allison Janney’s erotic romance author Ms. Perky: “I’ve got deviants to see and a novel to finish.”

But this is the most succinct distillation of my anxiety regarding Amazon: if they wanted to collude, they could so easily collude with themselves. (I know, it’s a little crude, but you follow, yes?) They have access to so many moving parts of the process, and they are so reticent to allow their inner workings to be examined. They’re a ready-made conspiracy waiting to happen.

It makes me uneasy. I just wish that I knew what to do about it.

___

As a palate-cleanser, this short essay by Mary Beard on the book business in ancient Rome is entertaining and will strike many familiar notes.

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5 thoughts on “Invisible Labor in the Publishing World

  1. I was thinking about you twice yesterday. First, I had read two historical romances and was comparing them to the story of yours I once reviewed, and thinking what a really good writer you were. Seriously, good enough to be on the Julia Quinn level of success. It got me to thinking further about the work you must do, the research and thought involved. I’m not a reader of erotica (begging your pardon) but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating quality writing when I see it, and there is certainly a lot more to your stories than the steamy scenes.

    Second, I read a feminist critique of a favourite book and it sparked several ideas of my own, but I knew I wasn’t clever enough to articulate them well. I thought, if only could write analyses as well as Olivia Waite does.

    Ugh, it all sounds like the worst kind of flattery, I know. But I honestly was thinking these things yesterday, so when this post appeared today I felt nudged to tell you.

    By the way, as a self-published author, I want to put my hand up for those of us who do *all* the work – all the editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing. I once had someone write to tell me about a spelling error in one of my books, and I gritted my teeth because all my work was invisible until it went wrong. But that’s the same with actual writing, isn’t it?

  2. Thank you so much, Sarah, for your kindness. (And for everyone else — definitely check out Sarah’s blog, because it’s one of the most thoughtful, peaceful places on the internet, a rare and wondrous space for reflection.) I really needed to hear something good at this moment in time. And I definitely agree with you about self-publishing: it’s an intense and ambitious choice, and I stand in awe of anyone who attempts it. “All my work was invisible until it went wrong.” EXACTLY.

  3. “They’re a ready-made conspiracy waiting to happen.”

    I think that’s right and I think that’s what I would be most concerned about if I were the US equivalent of the UK Competition Commission who investigate monopolies, monopsonies and other things of that kind. It’s not that Amazon have a monopoly on any one part of the industry, but they do have a unique (?) hold on the industry as a whole. At the very least, their practices ought to be thoroughly scrutinised, and possibly there ought to be complete separation between the publishing and distribution parts of the chain.

    The only place where I take slight issue with you is that I don’t think Amazon can rightly be called the publisher of everything published through KDP (and I wish they didn’t use the P part of that acronym). I think they are a distributor/seller of self-published books, but they don’t do the work of a publisher for those books. My relationship to Amazon for my self-published books is more or less the same as Hachette’s relationship to Amazon, and not that of, say, James Patterson to Hachette.

  4. That is an excellent nuance: thank you for pointing it out. Certainly Amazon does the bare possible minimum for self-published authors. A spectrum of control options (from an old-school publisher all the way to complete self-publishing) would be best for everyone concerned, but it’s difficult to make happen in reality, considering market forces.

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