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Tuesday
Aug122014

Authors United, Readers United, and Stephen The Mad Irishman

Hmmm...apparently while I was getting lost in the mountains all weekend the battle between Amazon and Hachette Publishing has escalated from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 3. I'm not sure what happens when we reach DEFCON 1. Will Amazon launch drone strikes on NYC publishing houses? Will James McPatterson enlist his crack squad of ghost-writers to pen skeevy biographies about Jeff Bezos? Who knows? But it's sad to see the once beautiful and relatively harmonious publishing industry so divided.

On the one side, you have Authors United, representing 900 best-selling authors (and probably 10x that many who would like to sign but are afraid of reprisals from Amazon). And on the other side you have Readers United, which isn't really readers, but Amazon itself turing George Orwell's words upside down and urging their self-published authors to rattle some cages.

Where do I stand on all of this? Well, I'm on Hachette's side of the argument (for now), but with a fierce independent streak. Think of me as Stephen, The Mad Irishman in Braveheart"The Almighty tells me he can get me out of this publishing contract, but he's pretty sure you're fucked."

That being coarsely stated, here are some general thoughts:

  • I sell books on Amazon. But, I’ve been openly critical of them. I love America, but at times I’m openly critical of the govt. That’s okay. That’s healthy. The attitude of “Love it or leave it!” when applied to ANYTHING is lame.
  • Everything Amazon does is for the primary benefit of Amazon (and their shareholders). And they’ve never made a profit, so as Paolo Bacigalupi stated so beautifully, they’re a subsidized underseller. As a business model, that makes me sad because I have an affinity for mom & pop stores on Main Street America and they have a hard time competing with an entity that doesn’t need to make a dime.
  • With that in mind, everything Amazon does, PR wise, should be taken with a grain of salt. This is a company famous for hosting press events and showing bar graphs with no numbers (But look at our upward trend!) So when Amazon calls Hachette a $10 billion dollar evil, greedy corporation, they’ve ignoring the $150 billion dollar mote in their own eye. Amazon is in no way the underdog here. This is like a billionaire NBA owner doing battle with a millionaire NBA player.
  • That being stated, I didn’t sign the Authors United thing because, well, James McPatterson doesn’t write his own books and I have a hard time siding with someone who is basically the Burger King of literature. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, he doesn’t kick puppies and beat his child, but I’m not that impressed. Also, I like having my own voice and there’s the off chance I could do/say something crazy and then I’d sully Authors United with my big mouth.

  • Speaking of big mouths, many of the self-published mega authors who are always championing the little guy (you know, Amazon), they all have special deals and get special treatment like all-expense paid trips for them and their families, free goodies, and worst/best of all, non-exclusivity, so I find it disingenuous (and borderline unethical) when they tout Amazon as the Messiah to other indie authors who won't get the same treatment. It’s like Animal Farm, where all indie authors are equaljust some authors are more equal than others. They are Amazon’s “Golden Children” and Amazon’s de facto PR dept. There’s a saying, “If I tell you I’m the world’s greatest lover, that’s advertising, but if I ask a friend to tell you I’m the world’s greatest lover, that’s PR.” These guys are blog-happy, constantly saying, “Amazon is great in the sack” and for them, Amazon really is.
  • But what about the bazillion indie authors signing that petition at Change.org? *facepalm* When I think about Change.org, I think about altruistic things, not a lover-letter to a billion dollar corporation. They also changed the wording of the letter AFTER thousands of people signed it, which tells me that some indie authors could use a good editor.

  • There’s a lot of animus toward traditional publishing. No doubt about it. My agent receives 40,000 queries each year, so there are a lot of budding authors out there who’ve been told that their baby is ugly by the traditional publishing world. It’s easy to sell this group on the notion that Hachette is big and evil and Amazon is their new BFF. Hence the Readers United email which didn't go to readers, it went to Amazon's self-published authors.

  • But, it’s all about price! No, it isn’t. Seriously. It’s about making eBooks the preferred platform and giving Amazon total dominance of that market. Imagine how much easier it would be for the workers in Amazon warehouses if people stopped ordering physical books and simply ordered off their Kindles. This is about pushing the eBook platform over traditional books. It’s a win, win, WIN for Amazon. Traditional publishers are worried about that agenda, because the lower pricing will hurt their bottom line and give too much control to an entity that already controls 50% of the marketplace. Do you want that? I don’t want that. I like bookstores and I like balance. But I also live in Montana and there are communities that can’t sustain a bookstore, so Amazon and eBooks are great! But real books are more important. I’m doing an event with Bernie’s Book Bank in Chicago this fall. Bernie’s gives new books to poor kids in inner city neighborhoods. These are kids who don’t own a single book—not one! They’re certainly not going to have a Kindle lying around.

  • And lastly, it’s worth noting that a year ago I offered a free short story to anyone who pre-ordered SONGS OF WILLOW FROST from a traditional bookstore. Someone at Amazon lost his or her mind over this. They called my publisher and took issue with my tiny gesture of kindness to indie booksellers. And when I refused to include them in my free deal, it was intimated that my book was being considered for Amazon’s September Book of the Month and that status was now in jeopardy. I told them to go perform hideous obscenities upon themselves. I don’t like bullies, even if they do offer free shipping.

You know you've entered Crazy Town when Amazon starts quoting Orwell.

Wednesday
Jul302014

50 Books. 50 Authors. 50 Shades...

Apple is featuring 50 Great Authors, 50 Great Books for $1.99 and yours truly has somehow made the cut. I picture George R.R. Martin and Neal Stephenson staring at me and whispering, "Who let THAT guy in?"

Coincidentally, my editor also edited the first Game of Thrones book as well as Neal Stephenson's standout novel, Snow Crash. (Both are excellent, by the way).

In other news, I'll be in Missoula next week at Shakespeare & Co., with fellow author, Carol Bradley. I'm planning to read a chapter of the new book I'm working on––to take the new novel out for a little test drive, so to speak.

Prepare to sign blood oaths, be sworn to secrecy, etc.

And lastly, I'm too busy writing to comment on the ongoing donnybrook between Hachette and Amazon, but Chuck Wendig breaks it down nicely. Enjoy.

Sunday
Jul272014

It's a good life, Sadie Dog

This has been a wonderful month but also a sad month as we had to say goodbye to Sadie, our beloved Golden Retriever.

To get a sense of the complexity of emotions involved, picture The Fault In Our Stars with me in the role of Hazel and Sadie in the role of Gus. Or as Sadie would say, "My thoughts are bones and I cannot fathom where I've buried them."

To us, Sadie was the quintessential shelter dog with a heart of gold. We had her fourteen years, from her youth, when she'd steal entire pizzas off the kitchen counter (and once licked out a whole pumpkin pie, still warm) to her latter years when I had to build a handicap ramp so she could more easily get to the backyard and she didn't mind the fireworks on the Fourth of July, because she couldn't hear them.

She was somewhere between sixteen and eighteen years of age, we're not sure. But either way, that's a gloriously long life for a dog, surrounded by a houseful of kids who showered her with affection. Even my oldest daughter, Haley, who once took Sadie to show-and-tell in the 2nd grade, had to come home from college to say goodbye.

What else can I say? I've always, shamelessly been a dog person, from when I was a toddler and got a puppy for Christmas (a boy dog named Sue--you're welcome, Johnny Cash fans) to adulthood. I remember that for years, whenever I was asked in job interviews, "What are your career goals?" my answer would always be, "To someday be able to bring my dog to work every day."

Eventually I landed that job. And I'm so grateful Sadie was that dog.

Thursday
Jul242014

My adventures at the Bay View (guilty by) Association

This is a kind of a "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" type of report, because there's good, there's bad, and there's even a coming-of-age moment for yours truly. This is about my recent visit to Bay View, Michigan, where I was honored and absolutely dee-lited that the literary powers-that-be chose Songs of Willow Frost for their Third Annual Bay View Reads selection.

I'd been to this part of Lake Michigan, namely last year, to Booktopia, and the thought of a few relaxing days away from the kids seemed like a slice of Heaven. Or heaven (lower-case), if you don't believe in Heaven (upper-case). More on that in a moment.

Peace pole in front of the church. Anyone speak Hebrew?When we arrived in Bay View we were blown away by its charm, its coziness, its Americana, and best of all, of the 440 cottages that comprise this community (Victorian vacation homes, really) we were billeted in the cottage formerly owned by Irma Rombauer who wrote The Joy of Cooking. The only bad part is that we'd feel guilty ordering pizza or mircowaving a Hot Pocket on such hallowed ground.

Then came the surprising, non-ironic, actual bad part.

We quickly learned that Jews are not allowed in Bay View. WHAT! ARE YOU FREAKIN' KIDDING ME?! IN THIS DAY AND AGE? Okay, calm down. It's not that bad, or that simple to understand. Don't fall for the sound bite. It's actually quite nuanced. Jewish people can rent (or as one Bay Viewer joked, "Hey, we don't mind their money,") but they can't become a member of the official resort community known as the Bay View Association.

Why? Because the Bay View Association was founded by Methodists and while the association is a non-profit organization, the vacation homes are on land leased from the association, and to purchase a home you must be approved by the association. And while fewer than half of the association members actually go to any church these days, that Christian requirement is used to keep people of other faiths, namely Jewish people, from joining. (Even though I was told that the Methodist Church itself is in favor of letting anyone join). And you thought the Hobby Lobby thing was complicated.

But...but...this is a religious institution founded 100+ years ago, they can't change! Actually, from what I can tell, this is a homeowner's association. I've given talks at churches and on the campuses of faith-based colleges and universities. They look and feel like churches. This looks and feels like a resort community. And it's lovely. And they did change their by-laws in 1959 when they removed the language forbidding non-white races from joining. So, change is possible. The members just need to vote that way. Last year's vote was split right down the middle.

So, knowing that I was about to give my big talk the next evening, I did what anyone with WiFi would have done, I Googled the heck out of this controversy. And most telling was a fifty-two page document by current and former Bay View members urging change. In it were statements like this:

No matter how tightly you wrap yourselves in the idea of freedom of religion, there is the foul odor of prejudice and racism in this position. During my interview, I was asked, “But what if more Jews wanted to join Bay View?” Implicit in this statement was the country club mentality of “we don’t want their kind among us.”

That's when I realized that by showing up, I'd accidentally stepped on flaming bag of dog-poop while wearing new shoes. I couldn't do my song and dance here because by doing so might imply tacit approval. So I talked to my publicist, my agent, and most importantly my wife who recommended that I do my thing, but use the spotlight as a teaching moment. (Um...yeah, that sounded like going into the lion's den and preaching veganism. But, hey, like with most things, she was right).

So my choices were:

1) Take my ball and go home. I could have cancelled. Packed my bags and left, which makes a certain kind of statement and would have been easy to do.

2) Dance, monkey, dance. I could have gone through with my normal event. Get check. Cash check. This actually would have been the hardest thing to do. I'm just not built that way. Some days, I wish I was. Life would be easier without a conscience.

3) Speak from the heart. And that's what I did. I turned down my speaking fee and gave a different kind of talk, one where I shared how my great-grandfather changed his last name from Chung to Ford so he could own property in Nevada. How my grandparents lived on Beacon Hill in Seattle because that was the only neighborhood in the city where a Chinese person could buy a house at the time. I talked about how my mom, who was from Arkansas, married a Chinese man in the 60s. And I talked about how the magic of this place vanished as soon as I realized the magic was only reserved for certain people. I expressed how Bay View was a wonderful community with a rich heritage and that I hoped they'd invite me back, and that if they did, I hoped I'd want to come back. It was a knee-trembling, voice-wavering, emotional speech and when I was done there was a round of thunderous applause, much to my relief.

Half of the community was thrilled that I spoke up. One woman from Louisville even gave me a "battlefield commission to Kentucky Colonel." The other half, not so much. But even a few of the angry ones still wanted me to sign their books.

I wrote "True love abides all."