Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Ugly Disasters in the Blogosphere

I'm going to be a bit more...serious...today. And long-winded, sorry. I suppose I'm serious most days. I'm a person who chose a career that involves long amounts of time in library carrels coding data, so try as I might, I find my blog persona is my persona. And my persona is one that tends to mull over publishing industry issues, because these are the things that my brain finds fun.

So I want to talk about something I saw over the last two days that really concerns me on a number of levels. I am not going to link, except to the books themselves and the authors' original posts, because I'm questioning a problematic practice in the blogosphere. As such, I'm not interested in pointing fingers at any one particular blogger, in part because as you'll read below, I do understand where they're coming from.

Here's the story, and why it concerns me, and why I think the real issue isn't what everyone is blogging about.

The beginning: Beautiful Disaster makes waves.

Last spring, the author Jamie McGuire landed a big trade deal with Atria for her hugely popular self-published book, BEAUTIFUL DISASTER. It was amidst several other SP-to-trade big deals, like BARED TO YOU and ON THE ISLAND. She got cheers from all over the web, from self-published authors to trade. The book blogosphere was completely abuzz, and for good reason. It seemed in early 2012 that self-publishing was poised to take trade publishing by storm.BD is also widely hailed as being one which, along with Colleen Hoover's books, has paved the way for the New Adult category.

The Atria book sold extremely well (and continues to), and a sequel is planned.

The middle: You'll Find Us Under "Emails, Poorly Worded."

This weekend, however, Amazon sent out an e-mail telling Kindle readers that they could return their copies of the self-published edition of DISASTER, and that Amazon would foot the bill for the Atria version (which is sold at a higher price point). Now, this email has got to go up there as one of the worst-written emails ever in that it was decidedly unclear what was going to happen to the book on people's Kindles.The email, which you can read on McGuire's blog, made it sound as though the SP version wold be ripped from people's Kindles, and that is not the case—they sent a second email to clear this up, but have not, to the best of my knowledge, barred returns of the first edition of BD.

McGuire urged her readers not to return the book. Seems the returns hit her account, and since BD is no longer available, it hits her other self-pubbed trilogy's sales. As a former publishing house money person, this does make sense to me—one problem with self-published books is that there is no reserve against returns. In trade publishing, a certain part of owed royalties is held for a certain period of time as a hedge against bookstore returns, since books in a bookstore are generally 100% returnable. It's a holdover from a print-only era, and in an ebook age, less and less necessary, but it's a line-item that keeps one party from paying and then having to ding the author's other sales over returns of a particular title (and a line-item that a savvy self-publisher would do well to account for). It may seem draconian, but it is in fact the way publishing has always worked, and whether it should continue to work that way in this day and age is a different question.

The middle part 2:  This must be why it's called a "Kindle."

This controversy set the world on fire. It immediately hit the Kindle boards, and self-publishing bloggers all over started giving it light. "Amazon is evil!" "Amazon is out to screw over self-published authors!" "Beware what will happen if you actually have wild success with your self-published books!" Never mind that Amazon has frequently been hailed as a huge friend to self-publishing with its Kindle Direct Publishing Select options, the lending library, its wide distribution channels, etc. Personally, I don't think in the end Amazon is a friend to self-published authors, but the sudden about-face among bloggers and Kindle publishers was interesting to watch.

As the day went on, it came to light that there is a potential copyright issue with the SP version of DISASTER, as brought to light by Dear Author.  It seems the SP edition quotes almost the entirety of the Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." The Atria version edits this down to a very small mention in the scene.

Now, lyric rights are crazy expensive. Music in general is crazy expensive, because you pay by volume: the more something is played and/or the more it sells, the more you owe the rights creator. And if tens of thousands of copies of the book went out with the Stones' lyric in them, then huge money is owed to the Stones. So unfortunately, if McGuire used those lyrics with no permission, then there is a problem with the SP version, and it's one well worth a recall.

The middle, the aside: What's a recall?

Recalls of books happen from time to time. They occur when it is discovered, post-publication, that the author did not have the ability to publish the book. Either because the entire book is plagiarized, one section contains copyrighted material, the author has submitted something that is substantially factually inaccurate, etc. The most recent instance of this is with Jonah Leherer's book, IMAGINE. After it was found that Leherer fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his book, the book was pulled from shelves, returned to the publishers, and bookstores were instructed to honor all customer refunds for that edition indefinitely.

Another I can recall from the last few years is OPERATION DARK HEART, where it was found the author had leaked sensitive security information and the book was recalled so that it could be redacted, and the original versions were destroyed by the Pentagon.

A standard clause in a publishing contract includes a warranty by the author that s/he has all rights to everything in the manuscript and indemnifies the publisher against any wrongdoing by the author. 99.99% of the time, this is all correct, the author is above-board, and books stay where they should be—in readers' hands. But sometimes that goes awry, and a book must be recalled, because the author does not have the rights to publish the piece that is out there in print.

The half-ending: Huh? What happened?

Amazon seems to have followed up the email with a second email clarifying that people's copies would stay put, although this seems to have also been the gist of the first, poorly written email. From what I can tell, the recall is still in effect, but Amazon has simply confirmed with readers that they are not obligated to return their copies, nor will their copies be taken from them. I don't own BEAUTIFUL DISASTER in any format, so I can't test to see if the return option is still available—if anyone has that information, I'd be interested.

The open ending: Why am I blogging about this?

Here's where I think the problem is: it seems that either Amazon didn't inform McGuire of why they were offering a refund (and it does look to me like a standard recall), in which case, severe shame on Amazon. Or, McGuire was informed of the reason for the recall and didn't tell her readers, in which case, shame on McGuire. This remains unclear, and I'm not interested in speculation or pointing fingers at either Amazon or McGuire. Something went awry in communication here, and that's about all that is clear at this point.

The thing that bothers me more, though, is that this lit up the blog world before all the facts were in. What appears to be a fairly standard recall, and likely for a very sound reason, immediately got turned into "How Amazon is going to crush self-publishers" and evidence of some sort of mass intimidation tactic by Amazon. Instead, every bit of evidence I've seen since points to this being nothing more than a standard recall, albeit one fraught with communication issues.

The irony of me standing up for Amazon in this instance is by no means lost on me, but I think this situation emphasizes something we, as a community of bloggers, must be careful of. Blogging without all the facts is an expressway to hysteria, and I think we owe each other in the book community more than that. The evidence is pretty clear that Amazon isn't screwing over people who own prior versions of SP books that have made it big—there has been, for instance, no recall on BARED TO YOU or ON THE ISLAND or ANYTHING HE WANTS or any of the other self-published to big trade deal books that hit in 2012. Whether it's the Stones lyrics or no, it seems likely that there is some reason for this situation with this particular book, and looking into that before posting could've helped a lot here.

It's fun to participate in something that is zeitgeisty and incendiary, and as I said in my posts about this topic on Absolute Write, I can understand completely why, absent the information about a potential copyright issue, this would cause extreme concern for other self-published who hope for the trade-deal lightning to strike again. Yet we do owe it to one another as bloggers to stop and try to understand the situation fully and, if we don't have all the facts (as I don't), to leave our interpretations open and to point clearly to the areas in which we don't have all the facts.

Blogging is fun. But being really honest with your readers, I've found, is always even more so.  

I welcome your comments on the issue: did you see any of this? Participate in discussions? Feel differently about book recalls? Are there spots I've got wrong (because that's certainly not out of the question, here?)

Thanks for reading.


  1. Hi Jessica,
    Its good to be here,
    I am here via this year's A to Z Blog Challenge Pages,
    I have notice that you are on board this year,
    Waiting to hear and read about your posts at a to z
    Thanks a lot for this wonderful information and the great reminder,
    Blogging is interesting and you really considered or thought about the bloggers in this post
    Keep inform
    I have noticed one thing that, since you registered your name for the challenge, you need to project the a to z badge at your pages you can collect the html code from the pages of a to z
    pl. embed the code at your side bar of the page,
    keep blogging
    Good Wishes
    Keep in touch
    I am
    Phil @ Philipscom
    An ambassador to A to Z Challenge @ Tina's Life is Good
    And My Bio-blog

    PS: Again. Please remove/take out the word verification here. this give troubles to your readers to comment. This you can do it by going to your dashboard.

    1. Hi Phil! Thanks for stopping by. Oddly, my word verification is set to "no," so I don't know why you're seeing it. Maybe a bug of some sort? I've gotten a lot of spam lately, but it seems to be getting properly caught, so I don't know why it showed you the word verify. Maybe because of all your links?

      I will have the A-Z badge up shortly. :) I just signed up and am looking forward to hanging out with you guys!


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