Tentacular Plot?

06.08.14

Amazon’s Fight With Hachette Strands An Author In The Crossfire

David Shafer awaited the publication of his first novel. Then Amazon went to war with Shafer’s publisher—or was it, gulp, really after Shafer all along?

When your first novel is due to be released in, let’s say, 58 days, you may find yourself swinging between fantasies of its wild success (Will they need a new word for “novel”? Is there enough of whatever they use instead of ticker tape these days?), and terrifying visions of its dismal failure (Your book blips momentarily above the horizon, your mom buys 50 copies, and then it streaks—but silently—towards the kind of obscurity that turns your years of work to years of waste.).

Luckily, I now know enough about how this works—thank you agent, thank you editor—to be reassured that the above is just writerly melodrama. My manuscript was good enough to have been acquired by Mulholland (which is an imprint of Little, Brown, which is owned by Hachette. You see where this is going?), and it got steadily better as it moved across the desks of the professionals who make books good enough to be worth your money. But neither should I be concerned about ticker tape. There are many like me, many who have poured years of labor into a single work. There are so many books worth reading, and they’re coming out all the time. That’s what makes a book culture strong. I just want my book to be given a chance in the book jungle. What it does with that chance, well, that’s out of my hands now.

So it really burned me up when I heard that Amazon, leveraging its market clout to dictate terms to publishers, is taking hostages—unless or until Hachette knuckles under, Amazon is going to make it more difficult for you to buy my book.

Come on, Amazon, give a schmuck a break here. Or rather, don’t even give a schmuck a break. Just don’t unfairly sabotage a schmuck in your ongoing effort to further squeeze the margins in the book business until all the value added by the people who—just for instance—made my book better has been squoze out; until books are like the tube socks I bought from you once, which, yes, arrived 28 hours after I ordered them, but which had holes in the toes a couple of weeks later.

I spent years writing a novel in which three characters get pulled into an elaborate and tentacular conspiracy. I did this probably because I’ve spent years waiting to get pulled into one of those. When that didn’t happen—or at least when the elaborate thing I got pulled into turned out to be called my Life, a conspiracy between my decisions and dumb luck—I decided to write the story that I’d secretly hoped I’d be involved in, a story in which three characters who are just trying to get through this strange life find themselves flung together, vital to a just cause, and opposing a nefarious shadow state.

Unless or until Hachette knuckles under, Amazon is going to make itmoredifficult for you to buy my book.

But maybe I just hadn’t waited long enough. Maybe the reason Amazon is underserving readers and harming writers isn’t just to so that it can corner the book business or hasten the demise of the physical book and bring about a future in which we consume all our content through its proprietary devices. Maybe they’re doing this to silence me, because I wrote a novel that features an evil cabal trying to bring about a future in which we consume all our content through its proprietary devices; a future in which we’ve traded our access to ideas for instant downloads and our social compacts for End User License Agreements.

I know: I’m being paranoid and melodramatic and self-aggrandizing. But even paranoid melodramatic self-aggrandizers sniff out nefarious and tentacular plots from time to time. Plus, there’s been a Comcast truck outside my house for two days now, guy just seeming to spool inch-thick cable into hoppers hung from the crowded pole. I’m just saying.

David Shafer is a graduate of Harvard and the Columbia Journalism School. He was born and raised in New York City. He has traveled widely and has lived in Dublin and Buenos Aires. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and daughter and son and dog. His debut novel, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, will be published by Mullholland Books/Little, Brown on August 5.  Follow him on Twitter at @jaycreal