The news has been full of stories about the feud between Amazon and Hachette these last few months. In a nutshell, Amazon have been trying to force Hachette to accept lower retailers pricing for some of their ebooks, and Hachette has been refusing. With Amazon halting pre-orders of some Hachette titles, and Hachette orchestrating public petitions from well known authors in their defence, most notably J.K Rowling and Stephen King, the least that can be said is that it’s been getting dirty. There have even been calls to boycott Amazon entirely.
A quick survey of articles on the subject reveals a fairly solid majority siding with Hachette, and over the last few weeks, this has begun to rile me. Not because Amazon necessarily are one hundred percent right in this case (I’m not going to pronounce on that here), but because Hachette is almost systematically being painted as a small indy victim of Amazon’s megalithic monopoly.
This irks me because such simplifications of truth, while making for good copy, simply don’t help anyone understand the many shades of grey (did you see what I did there?) that underpin the truth.
For Hachette is no indy publisher struggling for survival. Hachette is a subsidiary of the Lagardere publishing group whose turnover for 2013 was over seven billion euros. And Amazon is no monopoly. There is not a single product that Amazon offers for which a well known alternative doesn’t exist, and its competitors are not suffering, struggling startups. Apple and Google are amongst the biggest companies on the planet (in Apple’s case, arguably the biggest), and both sell ebooks and music. If you want an ereader, you can choose between the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, or an iPad or Android tablet. You want electronics? Currys or PC World have web stores too. You want dog food? Go to Aldi. The list goes on.
Now why should I care about how this dispute gets depicted?
Well, the truth is that it feels a little like hearing about a celebrity friend being trashed in the media. And in my case, this celebrity friend just happened to change my life. Repeatedly.
So just to add my own little dash of grey to this oh-so-black-and-white business, here’s my story.
In 2002, I finished my first ever novel, a collection of slightly clunky interlinked vignettes based around the gay dating scene, called 50 Reasons to Say Goodbye. I had been writing since I was five, but this was the first time I ever felt anything I had written was worth showing to someone.
A friend of a friend at the Times read it and declared himself “moved.” “You should get this published,” he told me. I dared to show it to a few more friends. They loved it. I made a PDF and shared it around. People passed it on. Enthusiastic emails from strangers started to find their back to me.
Encouraged, I purchased a copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and sent the manuscript to almost a hundred publishers. About ten replied that they only accepted manuscripts from Agents (the others didn’t reply at all). So I started to send it to agents. Over the next two years, about thirty of the hundred agents I sent it to replied that, “No, 50 Reasons didn’t fit their lists.” Again, the others didn’t even bother to reply.
Demoralised, and with boxes of rejection slips that I still have today, I gave up. The wall formed by the gatekeepers of the literary world seemed impenetrable.
In 2004, I heard about Lulu’s print on demand self publishing. The press was full of snotty outrage at the unfiltered rubbish that plebs like myself would be able to publish, but I signed up for an account all the same. The learning curve was steep. I had to format my book myself, I made (very dodgy) covers for it, I uploaded it all to their servers. I crossed my fingers and waited.
After a month or so, the book appeared for sale on Amazon’s servers, and within six it was creeping into the top hundred in the gay literature category. It was only selling ten or twenty copies a month, but the reviews were good. I felt encouraged. I started writing a sequel.
In 2005, I published the sequel: Sottopassaggio. It too, got good reviews, and I even managed to get some coverage in the gay press for both books. Sales of 50 Reasons took off. It reached #1 in Amazon’s gay fiction chart, and I even managed to place copies with wholesalers in the USA and UK so that the book could appear in bookstores.
Over the next five years, I wrote three more novels, all of which I self published, and by 2009 I had sold almost three thousand books. It wasn’t bad for a self published author in those days, and it was enough to reassure me that people enjoyed my writing. But it was nowhere near enough to pay the bills. I had lost my job and used the last of my savings in order to keep writing. The debts were mounting.
In 2009 another route to success appeared to sparkle on the horizon. I had started to write my first crossover novel, a gay/straight title provisionally entitled The Case of The Missing Boyfriend. I told a writer friend (who I had met at a gay literature event) about it, and he was enthusiastic. He put me in touch with his (extremely well known) agent.
The agent, let’s call her ’C’, loved my synopsis and encouraged me to send her the first few chapters once they were finished. C loved these as well, and told me to carry on.
I was excited! It was the first time anyone in the “industry” had ever told me I was good.
When I got to the half-way point, C said the book was “very exciting” and told me that once I got to the two-thirds point she would start trying to “place” it for me. I had reached my overdraft limit by this point and suspended my mortgage payments for the maximum one year period as well. Friends were lending me money for food and electricity. C’s optimism was a lifebelt I could cling to.
When the novel reached the two thirds point, I sent it off, and then, whilst waiting for news, I ploughed on and finished it. All in all it had taken me almost a year and I was proud of the result. It was funny and quirky and different, yet, I believed, very commercial. I was by now living on brown rice and burning fallen branches for heat. The cats were on Aldi’s cheapest cat food. They weren’t happy mogs.
C’s reply, when it came, was devastating. “Due to the crisis in the book industry, I’m unable to take on any new writers at this time.” I screamed. Literally.
Throughout 2009, I sent The Case of The Missing Boyfriend to many tens of publishers. I used the rejection letters to light the fire.
I tried to find another agent too, and in 2009 I struck lucky. Or so I thought. An agent took me on. He would sell the Missing Boyfriend in no time, he said.
By mid 2010 nothing had changed, the agent had drawn a blank, and I had reached, financially speaking, the end of the road. My mortgage payments were due to kick in again, my car had died, my bank was threatening me with bailiffs and though friends were still sticking by me, I couldn’t reasonably borrow any more from them. I decided, with much angst, to put my house on the market. I would rent a hovel somewhere with the proceeds, and hope something would change before the capital ran out.
And then, in 2010, Apple and Amazon opened up their book publishing platforms to non-US self-publishers. Everyone was talking about iPads and Kindles. I thought, “What the hell, it’s worth a bash.”
The result was astounding. The Case Of The Missing Boyfriend went, within a month, to #1 on Amazon UK. It sold, in that initial edition alone, over 90,000 copies. It was priced below £1 and often free or at 20p (these were the days of the price wars between Amazon and Sony), but by the end of the year, I had earned over £20,000, enough to pay off my friends, then the bank, and get the car fixed.
A young, hip, publishing company, Corvus then contacted me. They wanted to bring The Case of The Missing Boyfriend out in paperback. Stupidly I got the agent to negotiate the deal. No only did he negotiate poorly, but he ran off with my first ever royalty cheque. (If you are an author, then never, and I mean, NEVER sign to an agent who isn’t registered with the Writer’s Guild, no matter how desperate you get.)
The Case of The Missing Boyfriend went on to sell over 300,000 copies, and the sequel, The French House another 300,000. And then the team at Corvus changed, and suddenly I was back to square one. They weren’t sure they wanted to publish my new novel. They couldn’t commit. And once again, I didn’t have an agent to approach other publishers for me.
When, by 2012, I still hadn’t managed to find either a publisher or an agent for The Half-Life of Hannah, I thought, f**k it! I self published it again on Kindle, iBooks and Kobo. (Nook still hadn’t got their act together for UK authors). Again, it went straight to #1. Again, it sold 300,000 copies on Amazon Kindle alone. This time, I cleared my mortgage. I bought a new car. I burnt offerings at the feet of that great god Amazon.
The success of Hannah brought a new deal from a new publisher, Black and White for the paperback edition of The Half-Life of Hannah and the sequel, Other Halves. But again, success via a publisher came after self published success via Amazon, not the other way around. And even then, without Amazon, I don’t think my publisher would have made a penny: 97% of my sales are kindle ebooks, only 3% paperbacks. The book buyers for the stores, still, it seems, don’t much like me.
And now, here I am, about to publish my eleventh novel: The Photographer’s Wife. And still, despite having sold almost 900,000 ebooks, by far the best option offered to me is Amazon’s self publishing platform.
So are Amazon perfect? No, of course not. Are they too big? Perhaps. Do they make life difficult for the book trade by paying self publishing authors more than they pay the publishers themselves? Almost certainly. Is that bad for authors? Well, that, my friends, is debatable.
Because Amazon may be big, and big things may be a bit scary, but personally, they really have changed my life. They have paid off my debts, they have paid for a new car, and they have paid for decent cat food for Paloma and Pedro too.
And when Donna Tartt and JK Rowling criticise Amazon for “hurting author’s incomes” please remember that they aren’t talking about the hundreds, perhaps thousands of authors like myself who depend on Amazon for survival. They are talking about the one percent of authors who can still get six figure deals from the billionaire publishing conglomerates. They are talking about themselves. Judge them by all means. Worry about JK’s income if you wish. Send poor Stephen King a tenner if you must. But give a thought for the rest of us too.