Home » Amazon, Big Publishing » Nothing in Capitalism is Clean: On Making Art in Empire

Nothing in Capitalism is Clean: On Making Art in Empire

16 September 2018

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.

Link to the rest at T. Thorn Coyle

Amazon, Big Publishing

27 Comments to “Nothing in Capitalism is Clean: On Making Art in Empire”

  1. Wow! This author can write! Great piece.

    • SMonster, I did not recognize your handle, so I checked the previous 50 TPV posts for ‘SMonster’. You did not appear in any of them. As far as I can determine, this is your first post in TPV.

      Wow! This author can write! Great piece.

      The truth is that T Thorn Coyle cannot write. All she can do is rant. About what? About the great injustice that the world is not ordered according to her fancy.

      BTW the fact that a piece agrees with your pre-conceived notions of how thing should be does not make it great. Great writing engages the reader and makes the reader live in the character’s skin for a little while. This screed did not do that.

      • The last 50 posts on this site don’t even cover this month, let alone the seven odd years that the passive voice has been running.
        I’ve definitely seen the handle on other posts before, I’m not sure what the point of the first part of your comment was.

      • Antares, I’m a long-time reader of the Passive Voice. I don’t comment frequently, but I was moved by the quality of the writing to make a positive comment about a fellow author. Hey, sometimes I say nice things on the internet. PG puts a lot of time into the site, and I appreciate his work, too. 🙂

  2. No money is clean in these systems, remember?

    Alas, yes.

    As humans, we do not live as lone tigers, able to survive in solitude. We support one another, we depend on the support of others, we participate in the cultural web as it exists. Which means we are all complicit to some degree in the exploitative systems that supply us with food, shelter, and clothing. We all have blood on our hands.

  3. Nothing in *life* is clean.
    Nobody’s hands are clean.
    Is this supposed to be news?

    Actions breed reactions. Every choice has a consequence, entropy always wins.

    Only babies are innocent and they play with poop. 🙂

  4. I’d love to know how this fellow’s complaints about capitalism differentiate it from any other economic system.
    In the end, everyone has at least one murderer, rapist, or exploiter hanging out somewhere in their ancestry. And, in the end, everyone has benefited somehow from such persons’ actions. The question is whether you let that knowledge paralyze you, or whether you decide to go and try to make things better anyway.

  5. “These books for lend –– despite being sold to libraries at higher prices than to bookstores –– just may cut into their bottom line.”

    Ah, the old music company fallacy. They don’t realize they are getting rid of some prime free advertising. Sales of music CDs dropped when Napster was closed down, it seems if people ‘liked’ the tune in low quality they’d go buy it to hear it properly. A blog can’t tell you if you’ll like something, you have to hear it for yourself.

    The first two books of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is free to download off the Bean site. If you like how he writes you can buy more of them, but few people are willing to pay too much to ‘try’ an author they’ve never read/heard of before.

    I’d offer my stuff to libraries – if there wasn’t a middleman already in place to gouge the libraries even on ‘free’ offerings …

  6. Poor little fellow, I guess he’s to clueless to realize that without capitalism he’d be too busy hunting/growing his own food to not starve to have any free time to write about it …

  7. I’d love to know how this fellow’s complaints about capitalism differentiate it from any other economic system.

    More important, how does a “Black or Brown or Indigenous (or frankly, any disabled, or queer, or trans…) author” do under any other economic system?

  8. Wow, that’s a lot of drama in her head. I hope she’s channels that to be one of the writers who tells stories where things happen and characters do something about it. But if she’s not, I could always recycle her books as fireplace fuel this winter. After all, the tree is already dead, no? 😉

  9. i get the lay of the land. It is true

    but the world is made smaller by singling out a handful of types of persons by a label… a mere fragment of who and how they are.

    There are many many outside looking in, it is rue. And many who are just a step or more ahead, are giving far more than half a sandwhich to try to help others who have slight to significant lags, with many supports and opptys as they can offer.

    Complaint is not the same as effective action.

  10. i get the lay of the land. It is true.

    but the world is made smaller by singling out a handful of types of persons by a label… a mere fragment of who and how they are.

    There are many many outside looking in, it is true. And many who are just a step or more ahead, are giving far more than half a sandwich to try to help others who have slight to significant lags, with many supports and opptys as they can offer.

    Complaint is not the same as effective action.

    • Complaint without action is self-indulgence.
      If you really care about something, you act not scold.
      Charities can use all the help they can get.

    • But complaint is communication. And sometimes the pen is mightier than all else.

      T. Thorn Coyle writes blog posts to communicate. She writes novels and stories. She supports other artists and creators by subscribing to their Patreon accounts and by buying their works. And I suspect she takes other actions that she has not listed out in this blog post of hers.

      To me, it looks like T. Thorn Coyle is taking action.

      • Communicating something everybody knows?

        How many people haven’t heard that p!aint hundreds of times this decade? This century. Last. The one before.
        We spent fifty years under threat of annihilation while the matter was debated.

        And it’s still being debated every single day of this election year.

        Might as well be saying “roses smell nice!” .

        How about communicating a viable solution? Or, better yet, an entirely new idea or concept?

        Failing that, soup kitchens can always use help.

      • See, I’ve being hearing these diatribes for decades, going back to college. It’s recycled 60’s “radical speak”. And it wasn’t new then.

        Nothing new, leading to nothing. It’s empty noise for the benefit of the speaker: “I’m spurring change!”

        Yeah, right.

        Every decade a new cohort takes up the banner raising a minor bit of sound and fury, signifying less than nothing, but thinking they are the first and greatest to rail against “evil” while heartily partaking of the products of said “evil”.

        It gets wearying.

        The stuff isn’t even useful for story building since the type has long moved into joke and stereotype territory.

        • I think some of Coyle’s readers or her writer friends were criticizing her for making her books available on Amazon.

          They seemed to think that she should avoid connecting her works with any large corporation. I suspect they believe that there is a way for an artist to make a living without engaging with the economic machine of our modern times. Coyle was explaining to them why this is impractical. (They seem to have missed the memo that there is no innocence.)

          • So, she sets up her own website, and does as well as she is currently doing with Amazon. That does not wash the “blood” from her hands.

            Her website host? Most likely a big corporation. If not, I can guarantee that the server her site resides on is manufactured by a big corporation (and most of its components in Chinese slave labor camps).

            The telecom lines that her site is served over? Owned by big corporations. The computers and other devices from which her customers access the site? Big corporations. The banks through which the payments for her works are passed? Big corporations. Right down to the electrons by which all of this is made possible, big corporations are involved.

            Of course, we could eliminate all of this by going to socialism. Where everything is owned by the “collective.” Which, every time it has been tried is simply the biggest corporation of all, where the workers toil for their meager scraps from the system, and the “leaders” have their guarded mansions and elaborate parties. (And, where the ideology further degenerates into communism, there is plenty of literal blood to go around.)

            • That does not wash the “blood” from her hands.

              Yes, that was her point exactly.

              Her readers/friends/criticizers think that she might “be pure” by avoiding Amazon. She is saying that such “purity” is not attainable, so long as she is participating in buying and selling. Nor does she agree with the people who say that all art—books, paintings, photographs, etc.—should be available for free.

              Therefore, given that she intends to continue participating in the buying and selling whereby goods and services are distributed in this world, she also intends to continue to make her books available on Amazon and other large etailer sites.

  11. “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.”

    It took me about one or two days of research and work in order to set up a website and sell my own books from it. Then i perfected the website and made it better. That was years ago. And she’s still “working out” how to do it ?

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