Sunday, December 19, 2010

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Morning

When I talked with Sarah last night, I noted -- well, actually I complained and whined, but we won't go there. It wasn't pretty -- that I was having a hard time figuring out what to write about today. I should have known better. Because by morning, a number of topics reared their ugly heads and now I'm having a hard time narrowing them down to a manageable number. So, here we go.

For those of you who have been waiting for a color e-ink e-reader, it's on it's way and possibly sooner than most of us thought. I have only one thing to say: YAY! I love my kindle, especially the fact that I can read it in direct sunlight and I don't get headaches from prolonged reading on it that I do from backlit screens. But it will be nice to be able to have full color maps and illustrations and it will make reading newspapers and magazines feel more "real". Here's the article from CNET about this latest development.

I also came across an interview with agent Chris Parris-Lamb. Now, what stood out in this interview was Lamb's view that an agent has better things to do for his clients than to take time out of his day to blog, facebook and tweet. At first, I found myself nodding and agreeing with him. After all, as writers, we want out agents out there finding the best deals they can for our work and doing all they can to protect our rights. But then the reality of publishing today hit me. Most agents blog for two reasons and they work hand in hand. One is to raise public awareness of the agent. The second, and as a writer the most important, is to promote the writer's book. Let's face it, publishers aren't spending the money they used to on promotion. Most writers don't have a clue about how to promote their own work. Then there's the added "ick" factor of going out there, shouting to the world how wonderful we are. So agents have to do it for us. What do you think? Should agents take half an hour a day to blog and tweet and facebook in an effort to promote themselves and their clients' work?

Finally, the cry of censorship by Amazon raised its ugly head again. Earlier this week, an author of "erotic fiction" posted on the boards that several of her titles had been removed for violation of Amazon's terms of service. Mind you, like most terms of service, Amazon's are vague at best in places. It wasn't long before another author joined in, saying she'd had titles taken down as well. Soon, cries of conspiracy and censorship were raised. Now, I don't know why these titles were taken down. But, by the first author's own admission, neither did she. She'd contacted Amazon but had not yet received clarification. In her own post, she was giving Amazon a set period of time to answer. And this is where I have an issue. First, I searched for the titles she said had been taken down and, at that time, at least two of the titles were available in print (which she'd said had been taken down along with the kindle versions). Second, and most importantly, she had raised the claims of censorship and thrown fuel on the fire by basically saying "if this happens to me, it can happen to you" before her own deadline for Amazon to respond.

As one of the editors for Naked Reader Press, one of the things I've had to do is read and try to understand the terms of service for Amazon's DTP program (as well as Barnes & Noble's PubIt program and Google books and iBookstore, etc). Every one of them has an out which allows them to remove objectionable material. Would I like the terms to be more specific? Absolutely. But they aren't, so you either accept that or don't publish with them. They are a retailer and can choose what they sell and what they don't. If there is a big enough demand for an item to be removed, they have to weigh the potential loss of sales if they keep that item in stock vs. loss of sales if they remove it.

That said, they have to be fair about it as well. If they remove one -- or a few -- books because they depict underage sex (which, according to the author in question her book did, albeit consensual), then you need to remove all books that do that were brought into the program under the same terms of service. However, we don't know that that's why the books were removed. The author jumped the gun by posting in the forums before getting an answer. As a writer, I feel for her. I'd hate to have anything I'd written removed from Amazon without explanation. I'd be furious and want an explanation. Still, there are channels to go through. You might not get your answer as quickly as you'd like, but you will get one. Wait for it before fanning the flames of conspiracy theories and cries of censorship, etc.

I hope Amazon isn't starting down the road of removing books simply because they get a few complaints about the subject matter. I hope the authors involved will soon get an explanation about why their books were removed. They, and a number of the commenters on the forums, assumed it was because of content. It could be any number of reasons, including format problems. Amazon certainly needs to make its initial notice of removal more specific. But authors also need to wait a reasonable period for clarification before whipping up a firestorm on the forums.

What do you think? Am I off-base here?


C Kelsey said...

I think you're pretty spot on here Amanda.

With modern technology, the publishing market shifts so quickly that, even a year ago perhaps facebook and blogs and twitter (and whatever comes next) could have been a waste of time. Now they're business tools.

Synova said...

On the "terms of use" thing I think that there has to be some room for judgment calls even if the result is capricious from time to time. The alternative of absolutely codified clarity is worse.

Who hasn't tried to get something done, say way back in school, and it was entirely reasonable and you got told "no" because if *that* thing was allowed then everyone would insist that *this* be allowed as well. Sometimes it is presented as "fairness." I've run into that lately at work where the reason given that those of us working in the stock room can't have our own music is that the people working the floor complain it's unfair. Boo-fricking-hoo. The stock room is not the floor and the boss ought to be able to make an exception.

This sort of thing always falls down on the side of more restrictions, not less.

Underaged sex, or any sex for that matter, in books really is not all the same. And anyone who's tried to define the differences knows it's near impossible to do. Underaged erotica smells too much like underaged porn and someone has to decide if it's going to be a pedophile magnet or not. If they are not allowed to decide to leave one iffy example available and take a different iffy example down, the result will be tighter rules, not wider ones.

The result is always more restrictions rather than less when the goal is to make everything fair.

MataPam said...

I think the first few writers to try to raise the censorship flag and forment rebellion will get attention. By next year we'll be sick and tired to listening to the whining crybabies.

Writers need to be aware that they too must follow rules, set by marketers and influenced by people they'd consider prudes.

In the case of underaged sex, they have to know they're on the edge. They might argue that it is shown negatively, or that it contains useful contraceptive information, or that it deals with undue influence, how to recognize it and how to deal with it.

That is, they need to present a rational case, not throw a public snit and try to whip up support.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, you're right. While I applaud the agent for wanting to spend his time talking with editors and his clients, I have to wonder about promotion. That leads me to wonder if his agency has someone, or several someones, who do what so many agents do themselves. If not, then I feel for the writers who are having to bear almost all, if not all, the brunt of promoting their work.

Amanda Green said...

Synova, you hit the nail on the head. It's one thing to have a YA book with high school students as characters. Do high schoolers have sex? Absolutely. But to have it in a book that's marketed as erotica goes over my "ick" line. I still think Amazon could save itself a lot of trouble if it would cite specific reasons when telling an author or publisher their work is being But, to quote you, boo-fricking-hoo. Life isn't fair and we don't always get what we want.

Amanda Green said...

Pam, looking at the threads I referenced, that trend you forecast is already starting to come about. The authors and a few of their supporters are finding themselves faced with a growing number of others who aren't all that sympathetic. Unfortunately, there are those who see any negative thread concerning Amazon as a call to the trolls.

As for the underage sex, there are times and places where an author can write about it without violating terms of service or stepping over that ick factor line. But if you write erotica and the book in which the underage sex is depicted in is marketed as erotica, you have to expect there to be issues with it.

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. When publishers outsourced slush - AND made authors pay for it to be done, they fundamentally altered the purpose of agents and principal work of agents. Before that they were paid roughly 10% of the author's take and their pupose was to look after the author's best interests. Finding new talent etc. is IMO not something agents have the tools for or resources for (oh agents always did a bit - but it was by way of a sideline). Nor is there any good reason why authors shold fund this venture (agenting fees rose 15%, as the publisheres stopped slush) -- it's of seriously no direct benefit to the already agented author, to have your agent devoting his time to reading slush. On the other hand an agent who raises his AND my profile, is working for me. This young man is spending the bulk of that time looking for new business. Why is the author funding his attempts to make them LESS important him? What good does it do me? My agent shouldn't HAVE to do my publicity, but it certainly in his best interest to see it happens. If the publisher thinks I should be doing it... well I think my agent needs to take his turn, or get the publisher to pull their weight.

Mike said...

Just musing about the Amazon stuff...

Hum... It's tricky. I may be one of the few who remembers "This restaurant reserves the right to refuse service to anyone" as being code for "Whites only." I would rather not get into those days again. At the same time, Amazon is a business, and personally, I tend to think businesses have to have some control over their business. I.e., what they offer, what price they offer it for, and so on.

The trick, I think, can be seen in a simple analogy -- if you walk into Baskin-Robbins, and say, "I want tutti-frutti," what should happen when the smiling person behind the counter says, "I'm sorry, we don't carry tutti-frutti." Should you then throw a tantrum, insist that fair is fair, if they have chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and all those others, then they absolutely positively must also carry tutti-frutti? Get your friends to parade, let's shut down Baskin-Robbins?

Or should you simply say, "Oh, in that case I'll go down the street to a store that does?"

Now, we might argue that Amazon is practically a monopoly, and that monopolies may have to meet different standards (e.g., just as the big three networks were constrained to meet different standards because they were using a limited resource). But right now, I think book publisher, distributor, sales are still considered to be pretty much independent businesses -- which means that they have the right to say "we don't sell tutti-frutti." But... it is tricky.

I think a great deal will depend on why Amazon removed the books, and what kind of process they have (or put in place) to handle this. I think it would make sense for them to have a fairly open "judging" process, with complaints openly registered, along with some kind of fact-finding process to see whether or not the book actually does what the complaints say, whether it has socially redeeming value (hah! there are some legal precedents that we could point to -- libel, porn, and so forth actually have pretty well-established boundaries). But we'll have to see what happens.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, you went straight to the heart of the matter. The publishers, on the whole, have abdicated a large part of their responsibilities to authors. They don't read slush and yet they expect agents to bring them new talent. They don't do decent copy-edits or proofreading, again expecting agents to do it. They don't do promo, expecting agents and authors to do it. That takes away from an agent actually "representing" his client. And, while I don't think the agent -- or the author -- for that matter should have to spend a great deal of time on promotion, it's an unfortunate truth that they do. Hence, any agent who isn't blogging and facebooking and tweeting is doing himself and, more importantly, his author a disservice, imo.

Amanda Green said...

Mike, I remember those days as well. We won't get into that.

As for Amazon, they have a terms of service every person or entity using their DTP program must agree to. No problem there. Where the problem comes in is that their initial contact with the author(s) in question wasn't specific in how the books violated the TOS. However, this isn't unusual. New as NRP is, I've had to deal with another entity after receiving a similar notice. They thought we were violating their terms of service and we had X-number of days to correct the problem. Instead of whining into cyberspace, I found an email AND a phone number to use and made contact. Within less than 48 hours the problem was cleared up and they admitted we weren't in violation. In fact, it was their mistake. No harm, no foul.

Would life be easier for all involved -- whether we're talking Amazon or another company -- if their communications were specific and detailed? You bet. Is it going to happen? Doubtful in this day and age of automated checks and balances. So, whether we like it or not, the responsibility falls to us to get clarification and to correct the situation if necessary. Stirring up controversy without getting the whole story first doesn't do anything but cause problems for all involved.

And I still come back to the point made upthread. If you are writing erotica and you tag your book as erotica, you ought to expect problems to arise if you have underage sex in it. It doesn't matter if the sex is consensual or not. Erotica has a certain connotation in this country and underage sex doesn't belong in it. As Justice Stewart said, "I know pornography when I see it." That is going to be how most folks will see underage sex in erotic fiction. Sorry, but that's just how it is. Either the author realizes this or they will continue having issues with Amazon and other platforms.

As an aside, if you check the first page or two of books published through the Barnes & Noble PubIt platform, there is language to the effect that if you find the contents of the e-book objectionable, let B&N know. So the public truly is the judging hand here.

Mike said...

Yeah... I'm a little cautious about "the public judgment" partly because at one time I was involved with the MIT STOPIT program, which deals with harassment and such. And sure enough, we had some attempts to game the system, accusing people who were innocent and trying to use that accusation as a lever. Somewhere along the way, I'd like some checks and balances on the public judgment to help make sure it doesn't run wild.