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.

Here's How a Trilogy Can Outsell a Septology on Amazon (and What it Means for Your Weekend)

Word came via The Mary Sue that, on Amazon, Susanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy has outsold Harry Potter both in print and digital. The article raises the question: how is it that a young trilogy can outsell a seven-book series with a devoted generational global following? The answer that occurred to me, and to numerous commenters on the original piece: bookstores, and how there's still more to the bookselling world than just Amazon's dominance.

I was an early adopter of Harry Potter, having discovered the first one when it was brand-new in one of those eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-room scenarios that normally only occur in 50s romance films and Frank Sinatra songs. I was literally across the room, and my eye snagged on that famous purple cover, and a jolt of electricity went through me. I knew I was going to love that book even before I picked it up and read the cover blurb. By the time the third one came out, I was dragging my friends to midnight release parties, standing in huge lines of kids our age and younger with lightning bolt temporary tattoos on our foreheads.

Later, I attended events at small, dedicated bookstores like Walla Walla's Book & Game and worked huge release events for the sixth and seventh books at the marvelous Third Place Books. Those midnight release parties -- they're common enough now, but I can't emphasize enough how revolutionary they felt at the time. Reading is often depicted as a solitary pursuit, an escape from other people, the consoling hobby of lonely kids and adults isolated by any number of factors (temperament, geography, what-have-you). Midnight release parties were where the non-literary book world showed up en masse: it's where we looked around and recognized ourselves in others on a vast, unprecedented scale.

And if you'll pardon me some adult language, those book events sold a metric fuckton of books over the course of an entire decade.

It's not surprising that The Hunger Games and its sequels have sold plenty of copies: they've got a gripping story, compelling emotional resonance, cross-generational appeal, and the kind of kickass female protagonist I would have Quarter Quelled somebody for in high school. They've also been released at a time when digital reading is at an all-time high-water mark. The same is not true of Harry Potter, whose digital release was significantly delayed (though exquisitely managed -- I approve full-voicedly Pottermore's avoidance of DRM).

But popular as they are, the Hunger Games have not (or not yet) performed the kind of literary and cultural sea change that Harry Potter did. It seems like a safe bet to say that Susanne Collins' success is very indebted to the culture of reading nurtured by J. K. Rowling. And nurture it she has -- through charity work, interviews, fan events, and numerous other avenues designed to engage kids with a culture of reading, not just her own series and its brand.

The way that this news about sales rank is being framed -- HUNGER GAMES NOW OFFICIALLY THE BEST BOOKS, as indicated by lots of headlines that use the word 'surpass' -- illustrates the trouble with assuming that Amazon rankings and sales data represent the whole of the book industry or reading culture. I'd argue that most Harry Potter books are not sold via Amazon -- they were picked up in print bookstores, or in airports, or grocery stores, or Walmart. I know I've picked up paperback copies of Harry Potter books in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Helsinki. Those sales do not, cannot factor into Amazon's numbers. (This aside from the fact that Amazon's data on sales can only be verified by Amazon, and not by chain or independent retailers or publishers -- a sinister point that seems to get glossed over quite a bit in print-digital conversations.) And while Amazon's promise to ship you a new release on the official day is convenient and customer-friendly, it doesn't bring the giddy elation of witnessing two hunded black-clad wannabe witches and wizards waving wands and cheering at the top of their lungs because you've just sliced open the first red-taped box of Book Seven with your trusty Exact-o knife.

So, though I'm as guilty as any author of checking my Amazon sales rank like a gerbil going back for a food pellet, it bears repeating: Sales are not substance. Amazon is great at getting books into people's hands -- I've yet to be convinced that they're great at getting books to change people's lives.

"Hearts And Harbingers" Is Now On Amazon

My second novella, "Hearts and Harbingers," is now available in the Amazon Kindle Store! I've just started buying Kindle books myself because it is ridiculously easy, and also because then I get a chance to browse Amazon's one-star reviews, which soothe my author-worries and make me giggle. Below are some of my favorites.

Moby-Dick: "Be sure to avoid the audio version read by Burt Reynolds."

Infinite Jest: "It makes Twin Peaks look straightforward and simple, but wihtout [sic] any of the charm and quirkiness of that show."

A Christmas Carol: "There can be no arguing with Dickens's wish to show the spiritual advantages of love. But there was no need to make the object of his lesson an entrepreneur whose ideas and practices benefit his employees, society at large, and himself."

Sherlock Homes: The Complete Collection (Kindle edition): "this book turns into the book of mormon at the end of the first story (before they tell you who did it)!"

Reviewer dt_barber's one-star review of one particular edition of Ulysses is a masterwork.: "This is a fantastic novel...it is really beyond a novel and beyond reproach. The paperback Gabler edition, however, posesses what is quite possibly the most worthless and flimsy binding of any novel, great or small. If you read the entire book (a difficult task, but well worth it), it is guaranteed to crumble in your hands like the gilded pork kidney dome of new Bloomuselem." A large black 69 on a white background. He isn't as excited about the Magnetic Fields' album 69 Love Songs, however: "Maybe I'm wrong and stupidity is actually creative and charming, but this souless piece of tripe is the faintest echo of a distant thud in a very large, very empty room somewhere in the brokendown palace of rock. Really, folks, he's not even trying."

Some Reactions to Amazon's New Library Lending Deal

1. I admit, when I first heard that Amazon and OverDrive were collaborating to make Kindle ebooks available through libraries, my very first reaction was to download the Kindle app for iPhone so I could finally check out library books on the go. Free reading on those hour-long bus rides to downtown? Hooray! 2. On the other hand, I've spent about ten years working in/around independent bookstores, and I've seen firsthand how Amazon has progressively chipped away at the rest of the print book industry. If only I had a dollar for every time I helped a customer locate some book they heard about on NPR, but they couldn't remember the title or the author, and they think it was something about history—and when I am able to actually find that title and author and often the actual book in a matter of seconds, they look at the price tag and hand the book back and say, "I'll get it for cheaper on Amazon …"

If I had a dollar, I tell you, for every time that had happened, I still couldn't afford the fancy French jet that Jeff Bezos reportedly uses to get around.

Cover image for The Great International Paper Airplane Book, with a paper jet, paper helicopter, and some other fancy folded paper in the background.

3. On the other other hand, it's nice to feel justified in the opinion that library patron access to books is a largely untapped customer base. Like I've been talking about here on the blog, libraries are vital to what I'm increasingly thinking of as the book ecosystem—they allow discovery without regard to an individual's budget, which ultimately leads to more book sales and a loyal readership.

It's obvious that making all Kindle books available through libraries is going to make a lot more titles available to a lot more people—especially since the technology threshold is much lower, thanks to the Kindle app being free across so many platforms.

And that sneaky little detail, that any notes/highlighting you put in a Kindle library copy will transfer to your own copy should you purchase the book at a later time, is designed to add impetus to the move from library patron to Amazon customer.

4. Back to the other hand—is there a more Orwellian technology name than Whispersync? Josh Hadro spells out a concern worth tracking on Library Journal:

At the very least, I’d like to opt out of this “give Amazon my interests” data program, and I’m hoping once more details emerge that we’ll see such an option.

What that line from Amazon implies is that some amount of data—the annotations linked to the title and an account identifier at the very least—are stored in perpetuity. Anything tied to library patrons stored in perpetuity by a retail operation makes me uncomfortable.

With this and the Elastic Compute Cloud they've lately developed, Amazon is making forays into Google territory, and trying to establish itself as a major Place Of Internet—with the same general heedlessness for privacy concerns. And I trust Amazon even less than I trust Google (or Facebook, for that matter) with my personal information. Library patron records have been such a citadel of the privacy battle for so long that it's hard to see Amazon as anything other than a threat to this ideal.

5. However: this means you could potentially read "Generous Fire" for free! It's due to appear in the Kindle store any day now. Further bulletins as events warrant.