Among my eclectic, self-directed writing projects I have several books I intend to self-publish sooner rather than later, then make available by some yet-to-be-determined means. In book culture the publication of those titles would be cause for various forms of genuine and transactional celebration, from in-person launch parties and book signings to online ask-my-anything interviews and marketing blitzes. While I don’t plan to do any of that, even at my most excited — and here we are talking maybe a three on a ten-point scale of delusional euphoria — I don’t even find myself thinking about potential sales or profits or reviews, or even the quiet joy of providing a single reader with a moment of entertainment or enlightenment. Instead, what I always find myself thinking about is the technologically sophisticated black market which exists solely for the purpose of exploiting the work of authors, and the abuses of which that have only worsened over time. And when I say abuses I’m not only talking about criminal conduct, but corporate practices which are legal but also clearly designed to usurp power, authority and profits from authors and their works.
To publish or promote any writing anywhere these days — even on widely recognized platforms in the United States — is to provide fresh content for rapacious, voracious thieves, who are, ironically, likely faster and more efficient at distributing pirated and knock-off titles than the best commercial publishers will ever be at making the content of their own authors available to the paying public. Along with outright theft of content, however, there is also money to be made by providing a marketplace for content thieves and their purloined wares, in much the same way that Craigslist and eBay became known as the local and national/international distribution centers, respectively, for stolen and counterfeit goods. And of course in the book world the unquestioned king of for-profit abuses aimed at authors of every rank is the perpetually, willfully and preposterously credulous Amazon.com.
I mention this not because it is a new development, but because of the convergence of two items I ran across on the interweb over the past few days. (And also because one of the books I plan to self-publish is giving me fits right now, and it is more enjoyable to write this post than to keep banging my aching head against that figurative rock.) As regular readers know, for decades my view of Amazon.com has been that it is a quasi-criminal enterprise for various reasons, not least of which is the seamless integration of the thoroughly disreputable Amazon Marketplace, which you have probably never heard of but likely been scammed by at least once. Between turning a blind eye to third-party abuses and crimes, while simultaneously preventing content owners from protecting their intellectual property and professional reputations, Amazon.com — and by extension Amazon the overarching corporation — profits directly.
Speaking of which, the first item that caught my eye was a blog post from Jane Friedman, which I encourage you to read before proceeding here. As regular readers are also aware, not only do I think highly of Jane, but over decades she has built and maintained a reputation as an honest information broker in the publishing industry, which has its own dark history of abuses against authors. In that context, the fact that someone with Jane’s standing could be cavalierly invalidated by the brigands who work for Jeff Bezos should make clear that the average author — let alone an independent or self-published author — has no chance of protecting their authorial brand on that platform.
While the relentless assaults on authors in the Information Age are truly depressing, as Jane has routinely noted one of the most important steps any author can take is to establish their own platform, no matter how small. That usually takes the form of an author website, and I believe you should own that site right down to its web-hosted foundation. If you want to branch out to various social media sites that’s fine, and probably smart, but as the recent gutting and collapse of Twitter has shown — both as a website and a culture — if you don’t legally own the space you’re occupying, then you have no rights to that space regardless of the effort you may have put into building and maintaining a presence and following. And that can be a huge bummer when a megalomaniac like Elon Musk decides that he wants what you have.
Now…as you already know if you jumped over and read Jane’s post, the companies in question — first Goodreads, then Amazon.com — did finally attend to the messes their lax policies inevitably created. Unfortunately, that belated attention was clearly driven not by corporate concern about the negative effects that their permissive policies have on authors, but by self-interested concerns that Jane’s exasperated blog post — and her standing in the publishing community — might cause those corporations to suffer brand damage themselves. Brand protection for me, but not for thee.
The second item that caught my attention was news that parent company Paramount finally unloaded publisher Simon & Schuster after a three-year search for a buyer. While media companies routinely buy and sell each other in an attempt to establish just the right mix of creative expertise and intellectual property, Simon & Schuster had a unique suitor. Instead of passing a major publishing house to another media company looking to add assets to its portfolio, Paramount sold Simon & Schuster to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co — an extremely wealthy and aggressive private equity firm, known around the world as KKR. (If you’re old enough you may remember KKR’s hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco, which was subsequently chronicled in a book and television movie titled Barbarians at the Gate.)
In a moment we will consider the implications of a bloodthirsty financial firm purchasing a staid publishing house, but here I feel morally obligated to note that when i read the headlines about that transaction I laughed myself sick. The reason for my deeply inappropriate mirth was the irony of a no-holds-barred mercenary company dipping its toes in what is almost always portrayed as a respectable industry, but it wasn’t the purported clash of cultures that amused me. Instead, it was the realization that the facade of publishing respectability was being shattered by the same fixation on profits that has in fact driven business practices at the major publishing houses for decades. The only difference is that KKR won’t pretend they’re doing the world a favor while they’re wringing every last penny out of their new publishing firm, by any and every means available. (For more on the deal, there is a good explainer here.)
When you hear people claim that publishing houses nurture young writers or champion marginalized voices, that may have been the case long ago, but today all it means is that there is a commercial benefit — and likely an increase in profits — from making such claims. in reality, traditional publishing houses abuse writers as a matter of course in the same way that the music industry abuses songwriters and performers. In a perverted twist, however, the unapologetic money grubbing of a private equity firm like KKR could be just what the publishing industry needs right now, because once you stop pretending that you care about what happens to writers, or even to your own culture, you gain a certain clarity of purpose.
I don’t know whether the traditional publishing industry is intimidated by Amazon.com, or if it suffers from Stockholm syndrome following decades of dependence on that site and its underlying logistics operation, but whatever has prevented publishers from attacking Amazon.com head on for its intentionally deceptive business practices, KKR is immune to all of that. All KKR cares about is making money, and because they have deep pockets and the kind of corporate attitude that goes with hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and generally just being ruthless, they are perfectly positioned to haul Amazon.com into court to protect their new and extensive publishing assets from the same kind of abuses that were visited on Jane Friedman. Indeed, the very fact that Amazon.com quickly responded to Jane’s concerns when she finally went public makes clear that Amazon.com knows their policies are problematic, to say the least.
Before a private-equity firm like KKR shells out cash for a company, they do exhaustive due diligence not only on what the company is worth, and what it will cost to take control of that company, they look ahead to identify growth opportunities. As savvy and sophisticated as the bean counters at KKR inevitably are, however, I wonder if they have given any thought to how Amazon.com’s business practices inevitably erode and devalue Simon & Schuster as an asset, both directly on a per-author and per-title basis, but also indirectly, because those practices erode consumer confidence in books as products. Multiply Jane Friedman’s experience by thousands of authors and titles, and its not hard to imagine that KKR might lose millions of dollars a year in revenue simply because Amazon.com is more interested in providing a black market for thieves than they are a safe retail space for honest authors, publishers and consumers.
Amazon.com’s relationship with third-party sellers — including thieves and con artists — is elegant in its cynical simplicity. In exchange for providing a mechanism by which third-party sellers can offer products for sale on Amazon.com, thus also benefiting from the Amazon brand, Jeff Bezos takes a cut of every sale while assiduously avoiding any assessment about whether the products on offer are legitimate or as advertised. In effect, Amazon.com is incentivized to make as many products available for sale as possible, because every sale profits Amazon.com, even if it is a crime.
Finally, as you are probably aware, we are currently in the middle of an artificial intelligence (AI) craze, which has also created an AI bubble in the financial markets. What actually constitutes artificial intelligence is a riotous debate in itself, but even if we merely think of AI as a new level of automation, anticipated advances should cut both ways. Meaning while criminals will certainly use AI to broaden the reach and effectiveness of their online scams, it should now also be much easier for proprietary systems like Amazon.com to use AI to combat such deception. And that’s particularly true when individual authors like Jane are more than willing to step up and provide clear information about what should and should not be made available for sale in their name.
One website I registered with years ago, long before AI mania, routinely queries me about whether I am the author of a given article or title, so it’s not hard to imagine Amazon.com and other websites implementing the same sort of query to disambiguate between authors and published works. Unless of course those sites really are in league with the thieves, and don’t want to give up their cut of fraudulent sales, or lose the increase in online traffic and other site metrics generated by providing a platform which is ripe for automated abuse. (I’m looking at you, Goodreads.)
If AI really is a transformative advance in computing, and particularly in communication between human beings and online networks, then it should be relatively trivial for tech titans like Amazon.com to use AI to wipe out crime on its platform. And of course if that doesn’t happen, it will either be proof that AI is largely a scam in itself, or that Amazon.com really is in league with the criminals, and abetting the exploitation of authors and publishers for profit. In any event, every author and publisher should do the same kind of due diligence on their names and titles that Jane clearly does, and that includes documenting abuses with dated screenshots, and retaining any attempts to communicate such problems to the sites facilitating those abuses.
If sites like Amazon.com publicly claim that AI allows them to tailor product offerings to consumers, while privately telling authors there is nothing that can be done to prevent brand jacking, pirating, fake titles and related frauds — which in turn damage the reputations of authors and publishers — then that disconnect is going to be a centerpiece of future legal action. Whether KKR wants to lead that fight in the courts to recoup and preclude lost profits, or join the other major publishing houses in a class-action lawsuit, Jane Friedman’s experience should make clear that it is time for corporate heavyweights in the publishing industry to fight back against the erosion of consumer confidence that is not only taking place in retail publishing, but is being facilitated by bad online actors like Amazon.com. It will probably never be possible to preclude such abuses worldwide, and the theft of intellectual property will continue in countries that have no laws against such crimes, or no motivation to enforce any laws they do have, but Amazon.com and websites like Goodreads clearly do want to protect their own reputations. Brand protection for everyone, or no one.
Update 08/25/23: If you are or intend to be a self-published author, you will find a subsequent related post here from Jane Friedman which is worth your time.
— Mark Barrett