January 31, 2010

Dispatch from Beleaguered Tokyo

First of all, the CEO of Macmillan, John Sargent, has responded to the Amazon brouhaha. (When I see that word "brouhaha", I imagine it spoken with rolled R's and bugged eyes.) So the rumble appears to be on. (More good observations from John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, the L.A. Times, and Scalzi again.)

For those of you who aren't following this, here's the quick and dirty version. (Not actually all that dirty, sorry.) Along with a number of other houses, Macmillan (whose imprints include Straus & Giroux, Tor, and my publisher, St. Martin's Press) has been pushing for Amazon to change their pricing structure for electronic books from a flat charge of $9.99 (an artificial price point, I believe, intended to drive sales of its electronic reader, the Kindle) to one set by the publishers themselves, giving them the option of charging up to $15. Amazon's response has been along the lines of "Or what? You're going to take your business to some other gigantic, popular company and THEIR ebook reader? Let us know how that works out for you."

This week, you might have heard that Apple released the awkwardly-named but undeniably snazzy iPad, and along with it announced their new iBooks store. In doing so, they signed agreements with a number of the biggest publishing houses, including Macmillan. Those agreements apparently grant these publishers more pricing flexibility. The New York Times picks it up from there:
Macmillan offered Amazon the opportunity to buy Kindle editions on the same “agency” model as it will sell e-books to Apple for the iPad. Under this model, the publisher sets the consumer book price and takes 70 percent of each sale, leaving 30 percent to the retailer. Macmillan said Amazon could continue to buy e-books under its current wholesale model, paying the publisher 50 percent of the hardcover list price while pricing the e-book at any level Amazon chooses, but that Macmillan would delay those e-book editions by seven months after hardcover release. Amazon’s removal of Macmillan titles on Friday appears to be a direct reaction to that.

That's right. On Friday, Amazon pulled every single title published by Macmillan, including mine, from its site. The titles are still listed, but there's no way to buy them except via third party vendors. (This only applies to Amazon's US site, and also doesn't appear to include overstock sales like the one I mentioned the other day.)

As to why Amazon is doing this, especially given the fact that the removal doesn't just affect Kindle editions but all print properties as well, I can only assume that the company is operating under a business model best encapsulated as "No, fuck YOU."

I'm not going to pretend that all has been smooth sailing between St. Martin's Press and myself where ebooks are concerned. A number of you have written to me asking why Schuyler's Monster was only available for the Kindle for a brief time before being removed. Apparently the original scan from the company was fuzzy and it was pulled for quality control. But despite my repeated titty-baby whining, St. Martin's has been slow to replace that scan, and at this time, Schuyler's Monster is unavailable as an electronic book in any format. I've been extremely frustrated by this over the past several months, and so I'm not exactly filled with unconditional love for SMP's digital division at the moment. That's just my anecdotal experience, but it's the only one I have to go on.

But in this clash of the Big Companies, only one of them is intentionally and cynically screwing with the livelihood of authors. Only Amazon has shown such callous disregard for the writers who make their whole industry possible. I've twice visited the offices of St. Martin's Press, and it's not some fancy shining hub of cold, calculated commerce. Up on the top floors of the Flatiron Building in New York, you'll find offices full of manuscripts piled on every available flat surface, and you'll also find creative people (mostly young) who run around frantically, making books happen. And even in the face of the scary-boo economic factors crippling the industry, these folks are giddy about their work. They're book nerds, operating on a very thin margin, and every author I've ever talked to who has been published by them has expressed the same thing, and it's the same thing I've felt as well. Macmillan takes care of its people.

This whole situation just stinks, and I have no idea how long it'll last. Not long, I suspect, hopefully just a few days just to see if Macmillan blinks. I hope they don't. And I hope they're not the only publisher to demand a little free market behavior from Amazon, either. Amazon is a great company and God knows a huge number of the trees I've killed have gone through their warehouses on the way to readers like you. (Eh, trees. Fuck 'em.) But I believe Amazon is acting like a petulant bully in this instance, and the people who are being hurt most directly are consumers and authors. Being both, I don't like it, not one bit.

This would be a much worse situation for me personally if my book had only recently been released, and I recognize that. But still, I can tell you what it feels like, being the author of one of the books that just lost one of its largest outlets for sales, all because two big companies are squabbling over money and the future of the ebook trade.

I feel like a citizen of Tokyo, watching Godzilla and some other monster fighting it out in the streets of my city.

Even if my monster wins, my house still gets squashed.

UPDATE: Blink! My favorite part is this seriously weird quote from Amazon:
"We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books."
Um, I believe the word you're looking for is "copyright".



UPDATE CUBED: I'm linking to Scalzi a lot these days; he's been particularly on-target with this issue lately. Today, he looks out for the citizens of my metaphorical Tokyo. Thank you, John. Your fellow authors appreciate it.


UPDATE FINALE: After exactly one week, Amazon has gotten around to restoring the links to Macmillan titles, including Schuyler's Monster. I'm guessing it'll be at least that long before I return the favor. I'll put it on my To Do list. No, really.

January 17, 2010

I bleed the people.

"I bleed the people."
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Schuyler was writing sentences using spelling words for a homework assignment the other day. I popped by her computer to see how she was doing. One of the words she had to use was "bleed". She had a sentence on the screen.

"I bleed the people."

When I asked her what she meant, she just laughed, and kept laughing as I tried in vain to get an answer. She eventually changed it to something about bleeding when she lost a tooth, but I don't know, when your little girl writes "I bleed the people", it's hard to let that go. When she embarks on her future as a brutal despot, don't say I didn't warn you.


Schuyler has been such a constant presence in my life for the past ten years that it's hard to remember what my life without her was like. It's strange, thinking that she never heard me play trombone in a performance (something that she should perhaps be grateful for), or that she never met my first wife (again, something... well, you know). The first thirty-two years of my life had no Schuyler in them, and in all the most significant ways, I feel like they were preparatory years.

But in the past ten years, Schuyler has changed, a lot. People who meet her now see a completely different person than the ethereal, sweet but disconnected little girl I described in my book. They probably think I'm a crappy writer, and they may very well be right about that, but it's not because I didn't describe her accurately at the time. She's changed dramatically in the last three or four years. She's growing up, and becoming the person she's going to be.

She's changing still.

Those of you who have met Schuyler and interacted with her for short periods of time might not believe this. Those of you who have spent a little more time with her may have an inkling of what I'm talking about. She's always been a happy kid, friendly to a fault and energetic to the point of manic, but for the past few months, maybe as long as half a year or so, Schuyler has had occasional but intense lows. She'll start crying for no apparent reason, particularly when I'm away on trips or at work late. She's always tested Julie in different ways from myself, and I suppose that's normal. But in these past few months, she's been sad, sometimes hysterically so. Recently, I've gotten to witness more of it myself, rather than just hearing about it.

Schuyler just turned ten; a few weeks ago, we bought her first training bras. (Yeah, you can imagine how well I took that particular milestone.) As her behavior became more erratic, I think we chalked it up to normal, hormonal changes. But in the past couple of months, and particular the past few weeks, the cloud over Schuyler's mood has darkened. Her emotional state, previously unflappable, has become more tenuous, even sensitive. Perhaps this is what most of you have dealt with in your own children, but it's new to us.

Sometimes when we asked her why she was crying, she would bring up some injury or slight from a classmate, but often these were from days before. I don't believe she was trying to hide anything from us. I think that she was grasping for an answer, trying to reach back to something that made sense, to herself as much as to us.

I don't know why it never occurred to me, of all people, that something a little harder than pre-adolescence might have been at work. The little red flag didn't pop up until I asked her why she was so sad, and she answered "I don't know!" Not defiantly or dismissively, but with real confusion, and a look in her eyes that seemed to ask me what exactly was going on inside her heart.

That's the answer she gives now, when she doesn't have an injury to fall back on. Earlier this week, after hitting her funny bone at school and crying on and off for the rest of the evening, she started off by saying her elbow hurt, but after a few hours and no apparent physical damage, she simply answered "I don't know."

"Schuyler," I asked, once it had occurred to me, stupidly late but finally, "Do you ever feel sad and you don't know why?"

She looked at me, quickly and wide-eyed, as if I'd said something wise, something that had been in front of her all along but had somehow escaped her own realization. "Yes, Daddy."

"I do, too," I said. "It's okay to feel sad. And you can tell me any time it happens, okay? You don't need a reason. I'll always listen to you when you're sad."

She's been hugging harder than usual lately, too.

I don't know much about hormones and little kids, and certainly not little girls. I think I'm probably overreacting, which is my fatherly duty in all things, of course. I do know that when I was Schuyler's age, I'd first begun to experience the dark clouds that came to visit me with greater intensity as I got older. I didn't know what it meant at the time, and none of my own family seemed to notice, which surprises me a little, in retrospect, since my own grandmother killed herself a few years before I was born.

But then, it took me a long time to accept the possibility that Schuyler might just possess one of my own monsters for herself, and that it might just be waking up.

So yeah, I have no idea if Schuyler's simply like every other kid in the world her age, and maybe she's just growing up and living more fully in a world that's not always very kind or easy to understand. It's hard, though, watching her find such emotional valleys now and again, especially seeing as how they contrast so sharply with the genuine highs that have defined her throughout the first decade of her life.

I've been reading a great deal over the past couple of days about childhood depression, and while it's easy to scare myself with the lists of symptoms, I also have to admit that they sound pretty similar to the normal behaviors of little kids who are standing on the edge of adolescence, staring into a future they can't possibly understand. I read about the circumstances in a kid's world than can trigger childhood depression, and they sound an awful lot like Life.

But I have to admit, when I read about depression being caused in part by physiological stressors and genetic vulnerabilities and, God, difficulties in successfully communicating, I feel a real squeeze of fear in the very center of my chest.

I've struggled to understand Schuyler's monster for seven years now. Now I'm facing the glimmer of a possibility that she might be carrying another monster as well, one that I may have given to her and which I understand all too well.

Understanding it doesn't help. I don't know how to protect her from this monster, either.

January 9, 2010

Hopeful Me

Well, given my previous post, this may seem sort of ironic, but as of today, I am now writing once a month over at Hopeful Parents, a site for families of kids with disabilities. My first post may seem sort of familiar, since it's adapted from something I wrote a few months ago. But it's an issue that's about to raise its ugly head again, just in time for it to get kicked in the mouth by my size thirteens. Because I'm seriously not in the mood to fight this fight again.

Anyway, go check it out. So far, no one's gotten too crazy in the comments, beyond a little bit of passive-aggressive "if you REALLY loved your kid..." stuff. But it's early yet.