Ethics or audience? Indie publishing questions the ethics of cooperating with Amazon

Catching up

I am miserably behind; not just in writing invoices, creating holiday gifts or doing my part of the brand-new Putzplan (housecleaning schedule) – I’m also behind on writing about the stimulating discussions and events I’ve attended lately. This past week or two, I was able to attend the Zugang Gestalten conference in Berlin, where many initiatives presented on their open access projects, from Europeana (European digital library site and app) to the Rijksmuseum, which has completely opened their digital archive for public use. As their digital director Lizzy Jongma says, “please use our images and make them visible” – but don’t forget to send the museum a picture so they can keep track of all the creative ways their art is being reused and reimagined. Then I was at the Netzkultur festival, which featured some thought-provoking speakers on what data protection – and the lack thereof – means for artists and writers. Juli Zeh made a strong case against allowing data to be used for prognostication, since glimpsing the future also means a certain responsibility to act – and this is a level of power which neither government nor the private sector can be trusted with. As Zeh says “wer keine Geheimnisse hat ist kein Mensch” (those without secrets are no longer people).

Data for convenience: a fair trade-off?

Yet certain internet companies are excelling precisely because their users have more or less no more secrets. Not just that, the more transparent we make ourselves, the more personalized and convenient their services are – whether Google’s customized search or Amazon’s tailored recommendations. Recently, in a rare TV interview on Sixty Minutes, Jeff Bezos explained that Amazon’s “customer-centric” philosophy. Thinking about the ease of purchasing on Amazon compared to other websites, customers’ loyalty to the online retail giant seems well-founded: they’ve created a simple and intuitive platform where one can find just about everything one wants at a competitive price. Of course this isn’t the whole story of Amazon, which has also been known to resort to bullying tactics with publishers, tax evasion and poor treatment of their workers.Fiction_Canteen

Small presses debate Amazon: Better to compromise your ethics or audience?

However, a recent panel discussion on digital publishing organized by Transfiction highlighted how Amazon has become an unavoidable if not indispensable platform which book publishers can’t get around – or they face the possibility of losing a large chunk of their audience. In Germany, the conversation about Amazon is mainly an ethical one: is it ethical to support a company which pays and treats workers poorly (evidenced by the major strikes in two of Amazon’s German warehouses)? And is it morally acceptable to support an online retailer whose competitive practices turn brick and mortar stores into little more than showrooms (e.g. one bookseller on the panel talked about how customers would take pictures of the books to buy them online)?

Amanda DeMarco of Readux Books pointed out that first and foremost, a publisher’s moral obligation is to reach readers. As this new publisher found out from her own experience, trying to bypass Amazon means that fewer readers will discover and buy your books – which is a far bigger disservice to authors and translators than it is to the online retail giant. In fact, the two digital only publishers represented on the panel – Culturbooks and Mikrotext – say that Amazon sales represent the majority of their total sales. So why would they even think of surpassing their most important sales channel?

However, to stay competitive on e-book platforms, publishers (and authors) have to sell their books at competitive prices. And for digital-first publications, low prices are also crucial to make the inhibition threshold as low as possible, since the titles cannot be found on bookstore shelves. Some of the publishers present at the Fiction Canteen admitted that they aren’t able to pay advances to authors and translators, but instead offer them higher royalties. This sharing of financial risk seemed ethically sound to most members of the panel (including Zoe Beck and Nikola Richter, who are both writers themselves), but not to a German translator in the audience, Katy Derbyshire, who elaborates on her position here.

Moderator and organizer of the event, Lucy Renner Jones, compared the changing payment models in digital publishing to the transformation in digital photography, where photographers were expected to “diversify or die”: suddenly everyone was expected to own their own digital equipment and use the corresponding editing programs, but accept lower wages. Granted, writing and translating are still much more lo-fi than photography, but it is true that authors are expected to shoulder a lot these days.

As I mentioned a while back, even traditionally published authors are expected to contribute to marketing their books, in particular by being active on social networks. As these channels require so much time and energy to use properly, there is a certain parallel to the photography metaphor. Moreover, if it becomes the norm that translators get most of their payment from royalties, then they’ll have just as much incentive to help market the books they translate. So not only does this payment model require the contributors to share the financial risk, it also encourages them to shoulder additional work. While this may not be an issue for authors, who put years of work and passion into their writing, as Derbyshire points out, it is a lot to ask from a translator, who is first and foremost providing a service to a publisher.

Trumpfing convenience with community

But where does that leave us in the David and Goliath debate about cooperating with Amazon? Everybody on the panel (which also consisted of Nerys Hudson, from Dialogue Books, and Volker Oppmann from LOG.OS) seemed to agree that boycotting Amazon is not an option, since getting books/ebooks into the hands of readers is the whole point. Mike Shatzkin recently said that publishers’ new value proposition has to be “we will help authors reach their whole audience”, which means making their books available in as many channels as possible. Until a formidable alternative to Amazon emerges (in Germany beam is worth keeping an eye on, and LOG.OS has big plans), indie publishers have little choice about working with Amazon, alongside the other ebook retailers. However, it’s still important to think about what independents can offer that Amazon can’t, and how to best leverage those advantages to win loyal readers in the long term.

Hudson made the point that where Amazon falls short is community – while it may be convenient, readers are hard-pressed to trust its algorithm like they would trust the recommendations of a friend or community bookseller. There is still plenty of room for growth and experimentation among the indies, as the Berlin bookshop ocelot has shown with their recent online store, which combines personal recommendations and blog reviews with the ability to personalize the online shop to suit each user’s taste.

As Bezos said in his interview, “complaining isn’t a strategy”. Instead, independent publishers and retailers need to get busy innovating and thinking about the long term of their business models – as these publishers in Berlin are definitely doing. This includes not only connecting with readers, but also working together with authors and translators as equals, since without them, there would be no literature to spread in the first place.

Connection: In the body, in the world and in Berlin with Eve Ensler

Some people impact your perspective of the world more than you realize. For me, one of the voices that shaped my understanding of female identity in college was Eve Ensler. Her piece The Vagina Monologues demonstrated in a palpable way that it’s still a radical act for women to tell their stories in a public forum. As it did for many in my generation, the Monologues finally turned my understanding of gender equality on its head.

eve-lacombe

Photo courtesy of Dialogue Books, Lacombe

Last week Eve Ensler came to Berlin, where she gave a talk and reading for free at Soho House, which was organized by incredible team at Dialogue Books. She read from her newest book, In the Body of the World, which really shows her artistic (and activist) progression since the Vagina Monologues. Ensler also spoke on the founding of V-Day, a day to end violence against women, which has expanded into a global movement.

Ensler explained how the Vagina Monologues started. She had written the piece “The Flood” about a seventy-year-old woman who didn’t have sex for her entire adult life after being shamed as a teen. She read the story at an open mic night, where other writers encouraged her: “you have to do this vagina thing!”. After the Monologues opened in New York, Eve experienced a veritable flood of women coming up to her and wanting to share their own stories of abuse, repression and strained relationships with their bodies. It was as if “whatever they had heard had uncorked their stories,” which they desperately needed to share.

After the Monologues ran for a year or two, it became clear to Ensler that something had to be done to “combat this epidemic” of violence against women. That’s why she started V-Day on February 14, 1998, as a day of activism to break this cycle. Since then, the initiative has grown into a global movement: active in over 167 countries, Ensler’s nonprofit has raised over 100 million dollars. This money has helped to open the first shelters for women in Egypt and Iraq, sponsor annual workshops and donate satellite-phones to women in Afghanistan. It was also instrumental in the founding of Karama, a program in the Middle East and North Africa the works to end violence against women by collaborating with local women’s organizations and other advocacy groups.

But that still doesn’t explain how she came to write her new book. As Eve sees it, the intense emotional strain of hearing story after story from women all around the world – which pinnacled in the Congo, where she met women who talked about their experiences with the rape and violence being used as a systematic weapon in the country’s ongoing civil war – impacted not only her emotional, but also her physical well-being. When she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she had to put everything else on hold, and turn inwards.

Cancer threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me deep into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced the disease and what I felt like was the beginning of the end. (In the Body of the World, p. 7)

The irony is that after spending so many years standing up for the female body, until her illness Eve had felt disassociated from her own body due to the sexual abuse she experienced as a child. The process of undergoing cancer treatment, in which her body was “pricked, punctured, probed and scanned,” she became “all body.” This experience transformed how she views the world; she now connects the personal with the universal, the body with the environment, and what she terms as the global assault against women with the systematic exploitation of the Earth.

Suddenly the cancer in me was the cancer that is everywhere. The cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, the cancer that gets inside people who live downstream from chemical plants, the cancer inside the lungs of coal miners. The cancer from the stress of not achieving enough, the cancer of buried trauma. The cancer that lives in caged chickens and oil-drenched fish. The cancer of carelessness. (p. 7, In the Body of the World)

That’s how Eve sees the world – as interconnected, and everyone is dependent on everyone (and everything) else. Although the above passage might seem negative, it’s hard to express the strength and energy that radiates from Eve. She talked about the power of dance to heal, in particular to heal people’s traumatized relationships to their bodies. The newest incarnation of V-Day, One Billion Rising, mobilized women in 167 countries to come together and dance – not only to protest, but to demonstrate the power women truly have when they stand up for each other and themselves.

Afterword

Here are a few stray lines and thoughts that stood out to me during the evening. For instance, on chemotherapy: with the help of her therapist, Eve was able to visualize the chemo as an empathetic warrior that “burned away” the negative – in her past and in her traumas. She talked about how undergoing chemo puts you in an extremely sensitive state of being; she’s in conversation with doctors about how to leverage things like visualization in this state to help patients steer the effects of the chemo and overcome cancer. Or on setting an example: No one is telling the truth (about what has happened to them) – you have to stand up and be a leader. This creates a chain reaction and empowers others to stand up and do the same. Everyone is interconnected – those in power have a stake in maintaining this illusion of separateness, otherwise we would rebel. On that same note, “start defying authority, trust what you know to be right” – and act on that knowledge. During One Billion Rising 2013, women in Mogadishu also rose up and organized the first dance protest ever. Since then, the first rape cases have been prosecuted in the country.