An Open Letter to Michael Pietsch on Amazon v. Hachette

Dear Mr. Pietsch:

As an Amazon KDP author and fledgling publisher, I recently received an email suggesting I send you my thoughts on the Amazon/Hachette dispute. It took me a while to get around to it, because tortoise. And I didn't want to spam you, because that'd be rude, and politeness is in such short supply on the interwebs. So here goes:

Please, please, please keep doing exactly what you’re doing. (Please!)

As a reader, I would greatly prefer that eBooks be less expensive. While I value, to some extent, the traditional industry’s role curating titles and authors, I’m also tremendously reluctant to shell out ten dollars or more for an eBook, and price is a major concern in my reading decisions. (Case in point: I was going to purchase Don DeLillo’s White Noise recently, because I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but it was at the upper end of the price spectrum, whereas Underworld, which I read when it came out, was briefly on sale for only $3.99. So I reread that instead.) The longer I live, the longer my reading list gets, and since I know I’ll never get to the end of it, I’d just as soon make the journey as economically as possible.

Now that I’m dipping my tortoise toes in the waters of independent—or rather, Amazon-dependent—publishing, though, I realize it’s to my great advantage for you to stay obstinate on this issue. Frankly, the slower you are to change, the better it is for me, and the more time I have to build my company as a viable alternative.

I’ll skip all the normal metaphors about publishing, about castles and gatekeepers and blah blah blah. From my experience, all of these are true to some extent, but they’ve grown a bit shopworn. And I prefer to think in terms of ecosystems.

We’ll call the traditional industry Normal Sea. And I’ve started thinking of this vast new body of publishing waters as the Indie-an Ocean. Where these bodies meet, one finds snark-infested waters—and for good reason. The latter’s a little chaotic, and frankly there are a lot of awful creations therein, ungodly abominations destined to sink without a trace. Whereas the former’s a little too obsessed with purity and homogeneity, despite its protestations to the contrary. Traditionally published books may be edgy, but they’re often edgy in similar ways, depending on the tastes of the particular moment.

As others far more astute than I have observed, two main streams feed the Normal Sea: NYC and MFA. And however one gets to the end of those streams, one must then (according to tradition) pass through a series of gratings to gain entrance to those hallowed waters. And any life form that doesn’t fit those narrowly defined openings gets shunted aside and discarded. (Case in point: the first outside novel I picked up, Giano Cromley’s excellent The Last Good Halloween. The main characters are teenagers, but it’s too good, too literary, and too mature to be lumped into a genre like “Young Adult.” And Giano had been working with agents, but none of them quite knew what to do with it. So I read it, and I found myself laughing out loud and enjoying the hell out of it, and I decided to help him get it out there. And I crowdsourced my second round of edits, and most of my readers told me they were laughing out loud, too—except for one or two, who might have been somewhat cranky because they're trying to squeeze through the gratings in the MFA stream. One of them said, “I don’t know how to read this. Is it YA, or what?” And I wanted to scream: “Who cares? Who the fuck cares, really? Did you read it? Do you like it? Do you think other people should read it?” That’s all that matters, really. If it’s good, it’ll sell eventually.)

As far as the Indie-an Ocean goes, it’s fed by a greater range of streams and rivers, and, of course, Amazon. (I know my metaphor is falling apart here and contravening basic geography, but bear with me for a minute.) Amazon is muddy and far too big to filter, except by cutting off bits at the source. And, of course, the Normal Sea also feeds it. (OK, my metaphor is definitely falling apart. I have no idea whether any of this is hydrologically possible. But you get my drift.) You, of course, have long had a preferred relationship as a source. Now, of course, that relationship’s under review, and I don't blame you or your authors for the positions you're taking; I'd probably do something similar if I were you. But I suspect the river hasn’t gotten noticeably smaller, and I doubt anything you do will change that. The balance of components in the ecosystem may change a bit, that’s all. And some of the readers fishing for their next meal may complain, but I suspect they won’t stay too hungry for too long. Advantage: tortoise. (I think. Wait, do I want to be eaten? Yes, as long as it’s by an actual person with good taste.)

Different people have different tastes, and obviously not everything in the sea matches everyone’s palate. (Oh wait. Crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap! According to Wikipedia, tortoises are land-based, so this metaphorical world has completely fallen apart, and has actually become self-defeating. We're not swimming at all! Maybe we're on the Galapagos Islands or something. Then again, those are on the wrong side of South America. Fuck it, if I don't get this blog post up this week, it'll be completely irrelevant.) ANYWAY, I do believe that you get a greater range of tastes by getting things out there and letting them evolve than you get by trying to control the ecosystem. Plus, tastes are also evolving. Plenty of my friends still wax rhapsodic about the physical book, and I used to, too. Someone actually had to buy me a Kindle to get me on the whole eBook thing. But once I actually started reading eBooks, my taste started changing. And taste, to me, calls to mind another good way to look at the industry—less like what it has been, and more like food service, with low barriers to entry, and a great range of tastes, and places, still, for those who want exclusivity and trendiness, but plenty more options for good cheap eats.

Is Amazon's KDP program as good as it possibly could be? No, of course not, and I do have a couple things I'd change. But it’s pretty damn good, and it's improving all the time. Do I have all the resources I want, or all the resources you do? Again, no. (Given the business trinity, the three things you can't have at the same time--fast, good, and cheap--I'll always be picking the last two, at least until my bank balance is over four figures.) But unless the regular industry suddenly offers me a life-changing amount of money or publicity—which, let’s be honest, is probably not going to happen—I’ll keep rooting for Amazon, as a reader and a writer and a publisher. For unlike the regular industry, Amazon’s giving me SOMETHING—a chance to age and mature and have some fun and be part of the ecosystem, not apart from it. A chance to swim, or trundle, or whatever it is that tortoises do--grow old, perhaps, or win the race, or just find our place.


Gerald Brennan

Founder, Tortoise Books