Sunday, November 14, 2010

Smoke and Mirrors

This past week has been anything but peaceful in parts of the publishing world. At least that's how it seemed. It began with the news that Amazon had listed for sale an e-book that supposedly promoted pedophilia and ended with the publication of a contract James Frey and company are offering new and very gullible writers.

First, the Amazon affair. I'll start by saying I'm not giving the name of the book or the author. It's out there if you want to find it. But, as I said earlier in The Naked Truth, I'm not going to give this guy any more publicity than necessary to discuss the issue. The basic facts are that someone published through Amazon's DTP platform a book that supposedly told people how to avoid being caught committing pedophilia. I say supposedly because I haven't read the book and never will. Anyway, the reaction was fast and furious when news hit the Amazon boards and it wasn't limited to there. It hit facebook and then the internet and then national media. Demands were made for Amazon to remove the book posthaste. When Amazon didn't instantly do so, there were calls for boycotts.

What no one thought about when making the demands and going viral with them was the simple fact that it brought attention to a book that wouldn't have received it otherwise. The book went from unknown to the top 100 in paid e-books in a matter of hours. And all because of the very public demands for its removal. The author, if I remember correctly, was also to be interviewed on the Today Show. Talk about a lot of free press.

Then Amazon did take the book down. More press. The author is making the rounds saying he's sure the book will be back up soon. Who knows. Personally, I doubt it. At least if the book says what it's purported to say. Why? Because a book showing someone how to get away with the very heinous offense of pedophilia will be against the Terms of Service every author or publisher has to sign before publishing through the DTP platform.

But what worried me and a number of other people about this incident was the potential for more calls for books to be dropped from sales lists by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other digital outlets. It's a slippery slope once started. And it soon appeared our concerns were valid. Within hours of Amazon removing the book, there were new threads popping up on the kindle boards demanding that other books be removed. People were actively searching the catalog to find books on subjects they thought offensive. PETA has since chimed in, sending Jeff Bezos a letter demanding books about dog fighting, etc., be removed from the catalog.


Anyway, to see more of my thoughts on this subject, check out the following posts:
One last note on this matter -- unfortunately, I can't find the link right now. When I do, I'll post it -- Barnes & Noble has apparently responded in a knee-jerk way to the issue by adding a disclaimer to books published through its PubIt portal. Basically, is says that if a reader finds the material in the book objectionable, they should report it to Barnes & Noble.

Edit: I found the general site. It is in the PubIt Help Board at the Barnes & Noble Community. Here's what the disclaimer supposedly says: "About Self-Published Content
Barnes & Noble receives content from many independent authors and publishers. If you find any content that is inappropriate, please report it to Barnes & Noble."

Witch hunt anyone?

The other major firestorm of the week came from James Frey and his Fiction Factory. That should be more like his sweatshop. I initially read about it here after being pointed to it by Pam Uphoff. My initial reaction, because I wasn't really awake, was that it wasn't that big of a deal. Then, as the coffee kicked in and I started reading the contract terms, my blood boiled. I won't go into it all right now. I detailed my opinion of what Frey is doing here. Suffice it to say that for the price of a short story, Frey et al are convincing writers to do outlines, rough drafts, rewrites -- requiring they incorporate ALL notes and comments -- for a new series of books. Books that may or may not bear that writer's name because, gee, Frey can decide what names to put under "author", including fictional names. For a whopping $250, the author does all the work and MAY get a modicum of credit for it. Oh, yeah, they might, MIGHT, receive 40% of any fees from the sale of the work IN ANY FORM -- but only after all sort of fees (most of which are unlimited) have been deducted. And if that isn't enough to get your blood boiling, Frey retained an irrevocable right to have the author do any and all sequels he sees fit. Notice, there's nothing saying the author can opt out. Basically, the author indentures himself to Frey for as long as Frey wants.

I could go on but I'll stop here. John Scalzi says it so much better in his post about the contract:

Writers: This contract would be appalling and egregious regardless of who was offering it. A story idea good enough for James Frey to sell to Hollywood would be good enough to sell to Hollywood without James Frey. Write your story, get an agent, and sell your work with your own name on it and all your rights to the work intact. It may take more time, but it will be worth it. Have more respect for yourself and your work than quite obviously James Frey will have.

So, any thoughts about this or the Amazon slippery slope?


MataPam said...

Oh, the Slippery Slope.

And here we are, right back to the Slush Pile.

Some people are going to have to read all of it, else we get this sort of mess because no one has read any of it.

Perhaps would like to set up something like the Baen Volunteer Slush Readers. A widespread completely open group who can read and rank books. And recommend books not be sold, due to objectionable content.

But Amazon, and B&N and any other venue needs an actual employee(s), someone management has vetted, trusts, to oversee the whole thing and especially rule on the objectionable material. It can’t be based on mob rule. The guys out there waving the torches are biased, often in ways unacceptable to the rest of us.

Rank how?

Probably a checklist. Poor grammar or other basic issues. Porn. Near-porn. Anti-Black. Anti-Semitic. Anti-whites. Anti- male/female/gay/lesbian/Christian and on and on. Not Suitable for Children. Should not be sold.

A positive checklist would be useful as well. Recommended for age X. Good handling of [problem]. And a genre label, although the author ought to have done that.

This would both help readers sort through the dross, and help the e-stores avoid these sorts of screw ups. Or at least make them less common. Because there are a lot of shady areas where there will always be disagreement.

Amanda Green said...

The are several problems with that, Pam. The first is that there are small publishers and authors with backlists using the DTP and similar programs. Are you going to put then through a slush pile sort of mechanism? If you do, because they are publishers or the title has already been published and the rights have reverted, should you cut them a break? Think of the howls of protest that will bring.

The other problem -- and in many ways the more urgent problem -- is that of time. The average length of time it takes for a title to go live on Amazon by going through their automated vetting system is 72 hours, give or take. Add another 24 - 48 hours for the product description to be added. It's even slower on B&N's PubIt system. Smashwords, to be included in their "premium catalog" does have a visual check for formatting. It's not unusual for that to take at least a week or more. All that is if you're lucky and there are no formatting issues that have to be fixed on any of these sites.

So, how do you add a human factor in? How do you add in a guarantee that books and short stories will be read in order? This is important from a publisher's point of view. There are schedules you try to hold to and if your "slush readers" are choosing what they review in a hit or miss manner, your schedule is thrown out the window, never to be seen again.

As for the check-list, it's a starting point. But are you going to give definite descriptions of what each term means? If I was Amazon or any other, I wouldn't for the simple reason that someone will disagree and try to go viral with it. Another reason I wouldn't is that very same list can then be used to try to force a retailer to remove public domain books or even books being offered through the major publishing houses.

As I said before, there is no easy answer and surely no quick fix. The situation on Amazon this week has taken on yet another flavor. One of the regular posters on the kindle boards has apparently read the book in question and, iirc, said it doesn't say what the protesters allege. Again, I can't vouch for this. But it does point out the problem of letting a very vocal minority set policy.

There is one thing these retailers can do. That is do spot checks. They can have employees who periodically check not only the titles published through the DTP-like programs, but through their major publisher track as well. If you apply it to one end, you have to do it to the other. When a perceived violation of the terms of service is noted, the publisher or author can then be contacted and the review process begun. This is the same sort of procedure companies like PayPal use to insure their own TOS aren't being violated.

Again, I'm not sure what the answer is. But to add even more delay into the process for small publishers and authors with backlists isn't ideal.

MataPam said...

Yep. Take your choice.

Check everything or check nothing.

Or just have a very easy-to-find complaint process, and keep up on it.

Personally I'm getting very tired of the torch wielding mob. I don't like censorship in the abstract. I very often don't agree with the mob on specifics. And as you've pointed out, their actions often result in the opposite of what they claim to be wanting.

I'm leaning toward "no controls" on the fliter process. If someone commits a crime, then prosecute them for it. If someone posts a book about the murder they committed, that's a great deal different than someone posting a book about a fictional murder written as if it were factual. They might be equally horrible to the reader, but only one of them is evidence of a crime.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Wow, we live in really interesting times.

The book has been a topic of discussion on lists. And I've also come across the contract. Sigh.

Another thing I came across was a couple of long posts from a writer who spent around $10K getting his book edited by a 'reputable' editor, who was married to a well known agent, on the hook that the agent was interested once the book was edited.

These kind of scams (the contract and editor/agent) are why we have Writers Centres and author groups like the Australian Society of Authors.

A newbie writer needs to take responsibility for their actions. You don't walk into anything (buying a car, getting the bathroom renovated, taking out a personal loan etc) without doing your research.

Further on the book - I like the way you didn't mention the name or title. I think if someone commits a heinous crime like multiple shootings, their name should not be mentioned and their photo should not be published. The crime should be known by the names of the victims. No 'fame' for the killer.

Kate said...

Personally, I think if the book contains illegal material, contact the cops and let them deal. If not, ignore it. Pushing it into the public eye like this just gets it attention and gets it bought.

As for Frey... Slavery is supposed to be illegal in this country. A contract that effectively creates a situation of slavery is not, the last time I heard, legally enforceable (This is a pretty hot topic in my line of work, in the form of NDAs and non-compete agreements).

I'd like to see Frey and his ilk taken down, and taken down hard. They've earned it.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, you know my opinion of the mob mentality. My biggest concern is that companies like Amazon or B&N will decide it is too much trouble to run platforms like the DTP program for small publishers and authors. If they do, after what I've seen this week, I'm not sure I'd blame them. Still, fingers crossed that the shouts of "bad book!" will soon die down.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, it never ceases to surprise me the different means folks come up with to get money or work out of new or all-too-trusting writers. The agents with editors and independent editors who have ins with agents are just one of the set-ups that sound my alarm bells. It seems too close to those agents who charge reading fees.

And you are right. The authors bear some responsibility as well. Even if they don't know the ins and outs of the business, they need to have an attorney look over any contract before they sign it -- at least any contract that is more than a page long.

Not all of us are lucky enough to have an agent, much less a good agent. That means we need to take steps to protect ourselves. We need to educate ourselves as much as possible about the industry and we need to make sure we don't sign something we don't understand.

As for not mentioning the name of the author of the book that caused the uproar -- or the title of the book -- I simply don't want to give them anymore pr than they've already received. I think you've got the right idea about not giving a criminal the limelight, but keeping the focus on the victim. That's why I appreciate those states that have passed laws preventing a criminal from profiting by writing books or selling movie rights, etc., to their criminal story.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, YES! On both points.

Synova said...

I think it was in Patterson's Maximum Ride book (but I could well be wrong) the 1st person POV character hot wires a car and says in an aside to the reader that she's not going to explain how that really works because then kids reading this would do it and she'd get in trouble.

I wondered if it was true that an author could get in trouble for explaining how to commit a crime. But how could that be true? Crime shows and books always have all sorts of "good" ideas.

A good idea for a book, actually, would be one on publishing scams. Absolutely "How To". Call it something like:

"How To Make Big Bucks From Hopeful Novelists and Poets"

Maybe libraries can be induced into shelving it right next to Writer's Market.

Amanda Green said...

Synova, it might not be a violation of criminal law -- and that very well could vary from state to state, much less country to country -- but I guarantee you if someone read the book and then went out to hotwire someone's car Patterson would be sued. Either by the car owner or by the person (or their family) who did it and who then got injured in some form or fashion. Don't believe me? Remember all the suits brought by families after their darlings committed some violent crime that they blamed on the violent video games. I guarantee at least some of those suits were settled out of court.

And LOL on the "How to" book. The only problem is, people would think it is fiction when, unfortunately, it is all too true.