From T. Thorn Coyle:
Under capitalism we are all for sale, and most labor is grossly underpaid.” –– Maggie Mayhem
Nothing in this world is clean. Everything supports, depends on, tears down, or eats something else. Sometimes these cycles feel useful and nourishing, like soldier fly larvae in their wriggling, pale masses, slowly eating compost scraps, and making soil.
Other times? The cycles feel as if the jaws of death have us in their crushing grip and we can no longer breathe.
When I was nineteen, I, a young anarchist with a blue, flat top mohawk and gold Dr. Martens boots, got a job on the Pacific Stock Options Exchange. I did so to learn more about the US economic system and to feed myself and pay my rent. My previous jobs didn’t pay nearly enough to live on.
It was as I suspected: our economic system was very bad, and based on gambling. In more recent years, that view expanded, as it became more and more clear that the system of “shareholders” meant that profit was the only motive, crushing workers, choking sky, and poisoning soil and water as it sought its own sick life of making billionaires.
One day, in that late-80s world, I took my lunch out to a long, low wall where the ultra punk-rock bicycle messengers hung out sometimes. One of them asked for my sandwich. I gave him half.
These messengers were rebels. Free spirits. They careened through the streets of downtown San Francisco, through traffic, up and down harrowing hills, chains clanking, hair wild. They were mercenaries who could not be bought or sold.
Except, one day it hit me: they delivered packages to Shell Oil Corporation and to other crushers of soil and souls. Any money that changed hands within the system of capitalism was not clean.
There was blood on it.
There was blood and suffering everywhere.
I’m an author and a small, independent publisher. It’s a cottage industry. I have no workers but myself, hiring other independent people to edit books and design series covers.
And I sell those books in the marketplace.
Many people ask if they can buy my books in places other than Amazon. Because Amazon, they say, is evil. Considered a monopoly by some, and run by an infamous multi-billionaire, Amazon doesn’t pay its workers nearly enough, and by all reports, treats them very badly.*
Now, as an independent publisher, I could work out how to sell both ebooks and paper copies from my website. And I am working up to the latter, and may eventually do the former with some of my books, at least.
But here’s the thing: I want my books to reach as many people as possible. I also want to make money because, you see, I need to eat, and money is the most direct route to that. Even maintaining a food garden ––which my family does–– requires some money, plus no small amount of effort.
I could sell books to 100 ––maybe 1000–– people from my website and get a job elsewhere, likely working for some other place connected to a large, oppressive corporation somewhere.
No money is clean in these systems, remember?
And I do sell e-books in other places, it is only my current novel series that is Amazon exclusive for the e-books only. And that’s a temporary business experiment.
What are those other places I sell e-books?
Kobo. A young, Canadian upstart that some authors sell pretty well on, though my books haven’t so far. Oh, and they are now working in partnership with Walmart. As you may know, the Walton family are the wealthiest people in the United States, and by all reports, also pay poorly and treat their workers very badly. Many Walmart workers resort to food stamps and food banks in order to survive.
iBooks. Owned by Apple. You know, the mega corporation that –– like every single computer and phone maker–– is tainted by terrible factory conditions, suicides, and the mining of coltan gained by the suffering of indentured people, a process that has decimated the only home of the mountain gorilla. I type my essays and books on one of their computers.
Barnes and Noble. Barely a player anymore, and a company that, not so long ago, lovers of independent booksellers hated. Rumor has it that they may soon be on their way out of business.
The truth is that Amazon, being the first successful e-book peddler ––smaller companies took a stab at e-books early on, before the world was ready–– holds 80% of the market share. Currently, if you want to sell e-books in any quantity, you have to be on Amazon.
. . . .
I am also traditionally published, by both a very large house, and a small to medium sized publisher. The large house, Tarcher/Penguin, is now Penguin Random House. It is owned by the massive media conglomerate Bertelsmann ––run by the Mohn family–– and by the multinational British corporation Pearson.
These corporations own or license a lot of “intellectual property” which, if you follow such things, is a great way to amass huge amounts of capital, so much so that people who formerly had no interest novels or comic books are taking note and buying up IP not to send it out into the world, but to hoard as assets.
I have friends who are traditionally published, too. Some of them write for Tor, a small SF/F house that is lately doing its level best to publish more diverse voices. Another thing they’ve been doing lately? Placing an embargo on libraries.
Tor is owned by MacMillan, which is owned by the larger company Holtzbrink. Why is MacMillan placing an embargo on e-books in libraries? They fear it undercuts sales.
These books for lend –– despite being sold to libraries at higher prices than to bookstores –– just may cut into their bottom line.
So, while traditionally published authors may have their books available in all retailers (except now, perhaps, in libraries), books coming from them are no better than books being sold exclusively on Amazon.
I’m using only two examples, but could go on about the Big 5 publishing houses, including the ways these publishing houses treat writers –– not paying the majority of authors a living wage, for one thing. Also, in traditional publishing ––like most corporate systems and institutions–– racism runs rampant. Just look at who gets published in the first place, then look at who gets promotional support. Look at who has garnered awards for the past sixty years.
Ask any Black or Brown or Indigenous (or frankly, any disabled, or queer, or trans…) author how big publishing has treated them. Even the “successful” ones have stories. Ask how many Black editors there are. Ask about tokenism. Ask about misogyny, while you’re at it. You’ll be told of myriad problems including the common phrase, “We already have a South Asian author.” Or “Your books belong in our African American imprint.”
Despite dedicated editors still championing the written word, in my opinion, the traditional publishing model itself is not designed to support authors. I don’t have time to detail all of the issues with a 19th century publishing model trying to operate under 21st century global corporate capitalism.