July 14, 2015

Author Alexander Chee on What's Wrong with ePublishing

-Nicole Chung
(Chee won a Whiting Award for Edinburgh,and is a recipient of the NEA fellowship in fiction and residencies from the MacDowell Colony, Ledig House, and Civitella Ranieri. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, and on NPR. The Toast asked Alexander to talk with us about writing, teaching, changes in publishing, his recent “Future Queer” cover story for The New Republic, and his forthcoming second novel, The Queen of the Night, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2016.)
Chung: Can you share some of your views on the current state of publishing, and also how Amazon might be changing the game?
CHEE: Well, we know publishing profits have improved while writer pay has declined. So that is terrible. I’m greatly encouraged by some recent developments in publishing in terms of what is getting published and reviewed.
What worries me most is that we are still in a weird place where, 20 years in, we’re being told we still don’t know how the Internet affects book sales or readership, and so writers can’t be paid as much for writing written online — even as every major media outlet is now online and increasingly abandons print editions. Yet so far, you still get paid more for print even though it is often read less — and you get paid less for digital, and yet everyone reads that. That has to change. Because it’s a scam.
It’s time to admit the Internet is here.
I was going through old files and found pay stubs from digital writing I did in 1999 that are roughly what is still getting paid for something that you also have to fact check yourself and in some cases copyedit — but that is also given a title you don’t choose. And because of content grabs in contracts, it may not even belong to you.
And so I don’t have any comment about Amazon except to say that over time I am less and less interested on any seasonal focus on Amazon’s most recent moves, whatever they are — like many American companies they are a mix of good and bad, what I agree and disagree with — and I’m more and more interested in the larger context for this, the Internet and America, income inequality and the destruction of the creative class. We’re in this horrible world where everyone wants everything for free now or almost free because to pay for it reminds them of how little they are paid and that reminds them of their powerlessness in the face of that. Or at least how powerless they feel. And there’s so much blocked anger there.
Historically, despots kill the artists, writers, journalists and professors when they seize power, as what they teach is critical thinking, and what comes with that is the ability to resist tyrannies of various kinds. What America is doing, purposefully or not, is historically distinct: delegitimizing the work of that class, and acting as if an education is the tyranny, all while insisting writers and professors make work on starvation wages, while also paying exorbitant fees for everything from healthcare to housing to taxes even on what grants remain. In order for an artist to have any respect they have to have amazing sales — or be dead after a life of poverty. So I’d prefer a bigger conversation about all of that instead.
All of which is to say, Amazon isn’t changing publishing — everyone involved in publishing is, from the writers to the editors to the readers. If we want to improve publishing we have to talk about the whole thing related to how writers are valued and compensated, and what we want our literature to contain.

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