Book publishing. And everything else.

Go Home, Amazon. You’re Drunk.

I received, along with every KDP author, Amazon’s email this morning and my immediate response was, “What the everloving f***?”

I’d seen that sort of word salad before – after breaking up with someone. The sort of message that is filled with hurt feelings, false equivalencies, misattributions, and not much else.

It’s an uncharacteristic move by Amazon, who previously seemed to act as if they didn’t care what anyone thought about anything. They’ve never had to explain themselves before. They’ve certainly never pleaded with their customers and suppliers before. Bullied their suppliers, yes. Pleaded with them, not so much.

My second response was, “Why on EARTH would Michael Pietsch care AT ALL about what KDP authors think? The entire point of tradition publishers is NOT to care about what independent authors think.” Then I saw that Amazon had extended its message to readers. That made marginally more sense.

So yes, Amazon has blinked. And I think the reason is that they’ve received a little bit of a reality check. They apparently CAN’T bully all their suppliers. Now Hachette doesn’t represent a ton of Amazon’s (weakening) profits. But Amazon still needs Hachette. They need Hachette not to be an example. Because if one publisher does it, another one will too. And if the Big 5 all do it, the littler ones will too. And if book publishers do it, other suppliers will too.

And Wall Street is watching. Bezos’s leash is a little shorter than it has been.

Why Amazon wrote this note, instead of doing the usual clamming up, will probably always be a mystery. But I kind of prefer Simon Collinson’s theory.

Two Days in a Dream Bookstore

Chris Kubica, founder of NeverEnd Media, editor of “Letters to J. D. Salinger”, and associate producer of the documentary “Salinger”, convened a group of book industry mavens (recruited primarily via a listserv called “Reading 2.0,” which is hosted by Peter Brantley) in New York City on July 29-30, to discuss what he called “building a dream bookstore” – and I was fortunate enough to attend. There were about 20 of us, from a wide variety of positions within the industry: literary agencies, IP lawyers, publishers, librarians, book designers, technologists, and Bob Stein. I was wearing my “I used to be a bookseller” hat, mostly.

This arose, of course, from a commonly-held desire amongst the attendees (and some attended virtually as well) to really probe The Amazon Problem. Amazon is many things. To customers, it’s an ideal store that basically sells everything you could possibly want, and delivers it almost before you know you want it (yesterday on Twitter I was calling this #acciostuff). To developers, it’s a technology company that basically invented what we know as “the cloud”. To publishers, it’s a disintermediator, a disruptor, a strong-armed bully upending business models and shrinking margins. To authors, it’s a benefactor and a cruel mistress.

The problem with The Amazon Problem, however, is that to the customer, there are no problems. The problems are with Amazon’s interactions with the book industry – much of which the customer never sees and doesn’t care about. As we poked and prodded, dreamed and built, we kept coming back to this: Amazon works for customers. It doesn’t just work – it works brilliantly. To build a dream bookstore for a publisher necessarily means friction with the customer (publishers would want higher margins and more restrictions in their favor). To build a dream bookstore for an author necessarily means friction with the customer (authors would like to get paid a living wage for their work, ideally, and have more control over sales). Amazon’s ruthless focus on its customers means (a) they are incredibly loyal because Amazon makes it easy for them to be (b) see (a). That model means that by design Amazon has adversarial relationships with its suppliers.

My dream bookstore would sell browser-based, open, standardized, interoperable, web-enabled ebooks. But right now, customers don’t know they want that. It may be that Amazon is building towards some of these features (without the ISO and W3C standards, of course, because they don’t want a platform that makes it easier for customers to buy their books at other stores). Amazon is a world unto itself. And customers seem to like it that way.

This was an incredibly valuable experience. It taught me several things. One is, Amazon did not get to be so powerful by accident. They are very, very, very smart, and their customer service is unparalleled. All of our industry hand-wringing over the Hachette negotiations is just that – the customer experience (and I say this as an Amazon Prime member) is just not that horribly affected by Amazon’s refusal to sell most of Hachette’s titles. That’s a tough realization, because Hachette is big.

Another thing is that we were 20-odd bookish people in the room (with more watching via webcam). And we couldn’t figure it out. We are insiders – collectively, there must have been hundreds of years of experience in the book business sitting around that table. As with most cases of disruption, it isn’t going to happen from inside.

But the third thing I realized is that Jeff Bezos was “not a book person”. He may love books, but until he founded Amazon, he didn’t work in the industry. Now he actually is in the industry, and has been for 20 years. He’s one of us. If a major disruption is not going to happen from inside, then “inside” includes Amazon – and any major disruption by definition will disrupt Amazon too.

We just don’t know what that is yet.

Of course, there’s always more

In 1967, I was 2 years old. 

My parents lived in Verona, New Jersey – just a couple of miles away from Montclair, where we moved a bit later, and where my youngest daughter spends most of her week at her dad’s house. (Oh, irony. Less than a mile from the house where I spent formative years.)

My father was a Presbyterian minister at Central Presbyterian in Montclair. In 1967, the riots in Newark were going on.

My dad was (and my sister and brother and I are) part Seminole and Blackfoot. His dad and mom grew up passing for pure white. (But also with a weird pride when it became fashionable again.) And Dad’s gut was yanked into the instability in Newark. He wanted to help. Knowing my dad, it wouldn’t surprise me if he felt he had no choice. A hardscrabble, mixed-race kid from Oklahoma City who made it to Harvard Divinity School (where he met my mom), the situation must have been howling at him.

So he went to the traditionally black churches in Newark. And one night he was jacked up against the wall and threatened. Basically, “white people are the problem, why are you here” sort of thing.

Somehow he talked everyone down. Most likely by relating to them – “I grew up hard – my grandmother’s family hated my dad because he was Indian and born in a sod house and of uncertain parentage”. He got out of the church intact. And he blamed no one for the rage. He understood it.

And he kept working. We moved to Southern Delaware, which in the 1970s was plenty racist, I can assure you. I was taught Civil War history by a Byrd from Virginia who insisted on the “states’ rights” line of thinking among a bunch of 10-year-olds – and that was the only Civil War history we received. Everything else I’ve had to learn on my own. But the fact that he dealt corporal punishment exclusively to African American kids was not lost on me. 

Dad had plenty to do there. And he did. He counseled other ministers who had crosses burning on their lawns (oh yes, the Klan was alive and well then). He embraced gay rights long before anyone else ever did – counseling families who were breaking up because the father couldn’t live the lie anymore; counseling women who were lonely because they could not confess their relationships or even desires. He was incensed at prejudice, at bigotry, whenever it reared up.

I miss him a lot, because there’s so much to talk about now


Sexism in the book industry

In the course of my career in the book industry, I have:

  1. Been asked if the reason I was having trouble negotiating a deal was because “you’re a woman and she’s a woman.”
  2. Had a vicious rumor spread, after a conference in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, that I had taken off my top in exchange for some beads – I literally had to approach every person this man had talked to and ask for help in stopping the spread. One of the people to whom he lied, a founder of a startup that ProQuest acquired, is now the boss of my boss. To this day I don’t know if he knows the truth.
  3. Been told I need to “work harder to break in” to cliques of men who are tightly bonded and want nothing to do with me.
  4. Been told I am “arrogant”. Tried to square #3 with #4. Failed.
  5. Been paid less than male co-workers of equal rank.
  6. Taken only 3 weeks of maternity leave when my youngest was born because I didn’t want to compromise my job (and I was on email the whole time). Still got laid off.
  7. Had a director of sales feel me up publicly in front of the rest of the company (and no one said anything).
  8. Had that same director tell me he wanted to get me into a tent (?!).
  9. Had HR ignore all my documentation about these things.
  10. Been called “defensive” by a male colleague too impatient to listen to the structural reasons why his big idea won’t work.
  11. Been called “emotional” by a male colleague when I presented evidence about why a toxic business deal was going to actually shut out the very market we wanted to recruit.
  12. Been asked to pose in a swimsuit.

This is only what I can remember. Oh, and there was that time I was asked to hold onto some gun parts, but that had nothing to do with gender. I was just conveniently located in a bookstore.

Stop Hitting Yourself!

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been killing it over at The Atlantic. It’s a public debate with New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, but Chait’s voice is receding in the face of the truths that Coates is telling.

I won’t summarize, because the pieces should  be read in full. Coates is a beautiful and powerful writer. I am left with an image of the wealthy white libertarian, boot planted firmly on the neck of the poverty-stricken black fast food worker or Walmart stocker, yelling that his misery is his own damn fault and to get up off the ground and make something of himself. And not moving from that position (or silencing the yelling) for approximately 500 years.

It saddens me that a movie like 12 Years a Slave had to come out of England – because in the US we cannot bring ourselves to talk about it. It saddens me that there are still statues to people like John C. Calhoun, the father of “You’re not the boss of me” politics that masquerade not just racism but the lie of white supremacy. It saddens me that after centuries of slavery, killing, redlining, homelessness, and mass incarceration, that anyone is equivocating on the rear view perspective that this country was founded on the vision of white supremacy.

It was not a question of “oh, black people and their civil rights just didn’t occur to anyone at the time.” Each and every step of this brutality has been intentional. Perhaps not planned, but definitely intentional.

It’s not a coincidence.


ETA: This piece, by Tressie McMillan Cottom, is a pretty great analysis of what’s going on.

Today’s the Day!

The Place Where I Come From is FREE on Amazon Kindle today! If you like small-town fiction, go snap it up!

This means that the book is temporarily unavailable at BN and Kobo, but if you require an EPUB version, let me know and I’ll make sure you get one.


I’m experimenting with different marketing approaches. First, of course, is Amazon KDP Select. I’m going to do a free day on Monday, August 26. This means the book is “on vacation” from BN Nook and Kobo. It’ll be back on sale there in November. In the meantime, if anybody needs an EPUB or PDF version, let me know in the comments.

We’ll see how effective this is.

It’s Friday

So I give you a bunny in repose:



In which…

I post on SelfPublishedAuthor.com about my own self-publishing experience.

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