Effective Advocacy Must Choose Targets Carefully

lionOn my one month anniversary as a member of SFWA, I discovered the board had determined the letter mentioned in this blog post was a correct summation of the situation and remedies involved in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, an accurate representation of SFWA member beliefs, and must be SFWA-endorsed without member input the day before a long holiday weekend over which so many people would be out of touch and unable to respond.

Do read the comments at that link. Frankly, they’re quite tame as most folks are simply tired of it all.

Let me say this from the start: even if I agreed that Amazon should be told how best to handle its negotiations, I would never have endorsed this letter for the simple fact it contains glaring factual errors.

The letter states, “As writers — some but not all published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.” That’s right! In an overreach worthy of Plastic Man, that statement claims folks in the business of selling books must sell all the books.* Every single one of them. A bookseller cannot call a book “unavailable,” because that might deter someone from purchasing it. A bookseller cannot refer a customer to another bookseller – a bookseller who might have immediate access to the book – because that might discourage the buyer. Every bookseller, no matter how small or targeted, must maintain a system for preordering any and every title up for release. A bookseller cannot block the sale of any work, no matter how offensive the material. I suppose there is someone out there who’d love to be able to order incest-porn while in a children’s bookstore, and that children’s bookstore better not discourage the book-buyer, right?

Is that an extreme? Yes. That’s what overreaching statements lead to.

By the way, if you know a bookseller who meets that sells-everything-at-all-times standard, do let me know.

I don’t have the time to go through this point by point, and others have already done so.
Besides, my biggest problem isn’t with the content of the letter, though I believe it will be completely ineffective, not in the least because it never once acknowledges Amazon offered to reimburse 50% of the authors’ lost royalties and Hachette refused.
What I find most egregious is the fact SFWA didn’t write a demand letter to Hachette first.

There has been no move to urge Hachette to join Amazon in royalty reimbursement. Hachette in fact gave the notion of reimbursing writers a complete brush off, and many writers excused Hachette’s decision by saying everything is Amazon’s fault. It’s an incredible combination of victimhood-meets-elitism. Hachette hasn’t made any effort to explain its ignoring of Amazon’s offer. Authors have blamed Amazon anyway.

There has been no effort to even ask Hachette, on behalf of its authors, how Hachette is handling fulfillment of Amazon’s orders. Hachette says Amazon is causing delayed shipments to customers. Amazon says they aren’t warehousing Hachette titles, and the delay is caused by waiting for Hachette to get them the books. Hachette claims it is fulfilling orders as usual. All those claims could be true, actually, if Hachette is indeed shipping on its usual schedule—one that takes weeks instead of days to deliver the goods. Were Hachette concerned, it would be expediting those Amazon orders and publicizing the shit out of it. Alas, Hachette has no reason to be concerned since many of its own authors are willing to blame Amazon without prompting.

There has been no effort to push Hachette to mitigate the ongoing damage of its negotiations by promoting the work of the affected writers. Unless you’re a Hachette author with your own TV show, you’re pretty much out of luck. Hachette sent out its biggest names to inform the public where those big-name books could still be found. Hachette hasn’t done a thing for the books expected to sell less anyway. Hachette has no reason to be concerned about those sales, and authors are more than willing to blame Amazon anyway.

Most importantly, no one has thought to demand Hachette disregard sales numbers during the dispute period when the time for author contracts comes around. The certainty Hachette will use low sales numbers to punish the authors is simply accepted as fact, and is at the root of every “Amazon is ruining careers!” cry.

It should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Amazon has no power to ruin a trade-published writer’s career. The writer’s contract is with the publisher, and if the publisher chooses to use its own failings as an excuse to offer a poor contract — or no contract at all — that is the publisher’s fault. But Hachette has made no effort to assure its authors they’d not do something so obviously and blatantly dishonest. Hachette doesn’t need to because authors have been conditioned to accept that behavior from publishers so they’ll blame… Oh, you get the idea.

When at Wiscon, members of the the “Is SFWA Relevant?” panel spoke of supporting SFWA as part of their families’ tradition of union membership. Alas, SFWA has chosen to side-step advocacy that’s in the best interest of writers. (And if someone wants to trot out Hydra as an example, please don’t. Hydra was a no-brainer. It’s like passing a bar set on the floor.) A strong advocate goes first to the party with whom its members are contractually tied. You do not first work on behalf of those who hold your members’ contracts.

It shouldn’t be controversial for a professional organization that wants to be seen as an advocate for its members to actually, you know, advocate effectively. The Amazon letter — aside from being factually incorrect, aside from the endorsement being made without member input — is a waste of time. It will not help the affected writers better make a living, negotiate for better contract terms, or expand their career options. It’s long past time SFWA take on the ones who have taken advantage of writers all along the way, those who have told writers directly and indirectly that writers who ask for too much won’t have much of a career, and those who’d rather send their writers out to expend time defending them rather than own up to their own negotiating stance and responsibilities.

And I’m not even touching the issue of how self-publishers view this incident, coming as it is on the heels of SFWA finally saying they’re considering maybe letting self-publishers into the club yet being unable to articulate why self-published writers would want to join. The Amazon letter reinforced the belief SFWA is unable or unwilling to address the known-to-be unfair and dishonest practices of publishers.

I’m saying all this, too, under the assumption I’ll not be invited to some of the Cool Kid things now. I say it knowing some folks whose artistic accomplishments I so admire will be angered and offended. But I’d rather have it known I don’t accept the notion that a writer who wants to work with a trade publisher should silently put up with mistreatment as if such silent suffering is a badge of honor and accomplishment.

Many SFWA members are letting their membership lapse. I’ve eleven months to go in my membership, so SFWA is stuck with me for some time. I’m not in the mood to let that time just roll by. I do wonder how long those eleven months will feel.

*If you want to know how easily this argument turned into trade-published against self-published, consider that Barnes & Noble and many independent bookstores absolutely refuse to stock books through CreateSpace because CreateSpace is tied to Amazon. And SFWA has never uttered a peep. Bring that up in some trade-published circles then listen to the answers, and you’ll have a fair idea of the reasons why self-published writers would be so quick to point out SFWA’s lacking.

I have not, at any time, been asked or told by any person at SFWA to refrain from talking about this in a public space.

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