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.

Blurring boundaries, artificial walls: A discussion on digital versus print

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On Friday night I attended a discussion panel on “print or digital: literature finds its way”. It was put on by Ocelot, the Berlin-based bookstore which recently celebrated its first birthday and (re)launch of its brand new, customizable online shop, in cooperation with the neighboring Phillip Schaefer library for the Lange Nacht der Bibliotheken.

For the Print or Digital discussion, three author/publishers represented print (Hendrik Rohlf from diaphanes, Markus Feldenkirchenn from KEIN&ABER, Peter Graf from Metrolit Verlag) while the other two participants – Nikola Richter (mikrotext) and Wolfgang Farkas (shelff) – spoke from a perspective of e-publishing. Although nearly all participants represented an indie publisher, the moderator more or less divided them into two camps – and two sides of the stage – to discuss the pros and cons of digital publishing, reading and the changing meaning of the book as an object. It was a shame that the moderator wanted to turn it into a debate at all, since it would have been much more interesting to let each indie publisher talk about what they are up to in e-publishing. Instead, only Nikola Richter (Mikotext founder) and Farkas (Shelff Cofounder) really touched on how focusing on digital changes the process of publishing and marketing books.*

Wolfgang Farkas (Shelff), who also founded the German independent press Blumenbar in 2002, was surprised how freeing it is to be an e-only press. It reminds him of the living room literary salon evenings he and his colleagues had when they were starting Blumenbar. Digital publishing enables editors to “return to a fresh, direct way to produce books”, says Farkas.

Nikola Richter of Mikrotext agrees. Richter, who is herself a blogger and published author, explains that she publishes with the author’s perspective in mind. It’s also freeing to have a much quicker turnaround with ebooks, which can be produced in a matter of weeks or months. In addition, a lot of the German ebook presses are focusing on shorter, hybrid forms of literature (some of which I outlined in this post). In this sense, Richter considers that Mikrotext is publishing the short form prose that may have otherwise never been published – at least not in book form.

Whereas the defenders of print regressed into platitudes about what constitutes a “real book” and scoffed at the low number of ebook sales in Germany, the ebook publishers weren’t afraid to admit that they’re on unfamiliar ground. Farkas explained that his initiative Shelff had a longer incubation phase because “at first we didn’t really know exactly what ‘digital publishing’ meant”, or all the possibilities that e-publishing opens up.

For Richter the answer is the ability to leverage the online presence of her author,s who write by and large online, such as Jan Kuhlbrot, whose prose pieces incorporate the input of his blog readers, or the Syrian writer Aboud Saeed, whose ebook (The Smartest Guy on Facebook) consists of a series of Facebook status updates. By making the most of these authors’ already existing readership, Mikrotext’s books can have a far reach based on word of mouth alone. Saeed’s book will now be the first Mikrotext to be transformed from pixels to pages, since the press will be releasing it as a print book. In digital form, “these books have already found a readership,” says Richter; once they’ve proven their worth, it’s only natural that they will likewise reach readers in print.

In short, although this was by no means a proper debate, from my perspective the e-only presses nailed some of the key advantages of digital. They are excited about the flexibility of publishing both short and long formats, fast turnarounds and reaching readers in a variety of places. And whatever the future holds for digital reading in Germany, these initiatives have the advantage of being small, with little overhead, low production costs and of course no physical storage costs. Assuming they find their readers, these e-only start-ups could very well be the trailblazers in a much bigger movement to publish more off-the-beaten-path literature digitally. At least a reader can dream …

*aside: I really hate to neglect discussing the incredibly cool Metrolit, Kein & Aber and diaphenes publishers in this piece, since each has a very interesting focus; Metrolit on cosmopolitan culture and history, also in literature and illustration; Kein & Aber produces books, ebooks and CDs; and diaphenes, which puts out a number of books on literature, art, philosophy, essays and more, including a series of “eTexts” – individual articles which the press sells or offers for free as open access.