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Amazon vs. Penguin

My Chinese uncle had a favorite proverb: "Great misfortune disguises great good fortune." With the imminent publication of my new novel,, I reflect on that proverb, and the events that occurred before the book was finally published.
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My Chinese uncle had a favorite proverb: "Great misfortune disguises great good fortune." With the imminent publication of my new novel, THE SPY LOVER, I reflect on that proverb, and the events that occurred before the book was finally published. Events that transformed me from a moderately successful author with a prestigious publisher, to a contractually terminated writer with no foreseeable future.

This happened a year ago when Penguin terminated my book contract for the novel mentioned above. I had received a moderate-to-modest advance from Penguin and, to make ends meet financially until the book was published, had self-published a collection of stories, CANNIBAL NIGHTS, on Amazon Kindle. My agent and Penguin were informed of this before that ebook's publication.

Nonetheless, Penguin contended that I had materially breached the publishing agreement with them. That I had 'violated the next work presentation,' the 'no-compete provision,' and the option clause in our agreement. Based on my 'material breach' they terminated the agreement and demanded payment of the $20,000 partial advance paid to date for the work. Until then, they were holding my manuscript hostage.

Jan Constantine, General Counsel for the Author's Guild, took on my case, arguing that I had in no way breached the publishing agreement with Penguin. (For details of the case, please refer to my blog post of August 25, 2011, "Sleeping With The Enemy.") Whether I was right or wrong, I could not legally challenge a corporate giant like Penguin. In the end, I would accept their termination, repay their advance, and try to move on with my life.

Inevitably, the media picked up the story, and I suddenly personified writers stuck in the cracks of this massive tectonic shift in publishing from print to electronic, from legacy to self-publishing. Added to that, we seemed caught in the cross-fire of the Legacy Wars, pitching Amazon against the century-old New York publishing world, so lagging behind in foresight, efficiency, in equitable authors' rights. A world in dire need of change.

Perhaps because of the media attention, several Big Six publishers stepped forward, offering to 'save my book, and my reputation.' But they were still offering the same outmoded book contracts, 15-page theses written in micro-script that befuddled authors and kept us ignorant and infantile. They were offering the same anachronistic terms and royalties that have kept authors in bondage for decades, and the same twice-annual royalty statements that were often illogical, erroneous and required auditors.

Thus, when Amazon approached me and, after reading my manuscript, offered me a contract with their Thomas & Mercer imprint, it did not present an ethical pickle. I chose them for a number of reasons. Amazon's royalty rates, especially for electronic books, are significantly higher than other publishers. Their non-compete clause allows me to continue self-publishing my stories if I choose. Their contract is only six pages long and completely comprehensible. And, most astonishingly, the editor consulted with me every step of the way while drawing up my contract.

Nonetheless, there will be no bookstore chains stocking my books. In my hometown, Honolulu, Barnes & Noble -- once my champion -- has declared me and my book non grata because its publisher is Amazon. Still, Amazon is forward-thinking, ingeniously innovative, considerate of its authors and its readers. It does not overprice its books. A writer learns to compromise.

What, you might ask, have I learned from my daunting experience in publishing, my personal Ground Zero? Until Penguin fired me, I was incredibly naive. I looked upon writing as a 'holy calling,' forgetting that it was also a business. My business, my only source of income. Now I look upon writing and publishing with a jaundiced eye. No longer the dreamy writer with the 'holy calling,' I look for the bottom line, understanding that writers need to be quicker, shrewder, contractually hip. It may be that in this digital time-warp state of mind we call the Present, we have all emerged from the vortex as hybrids and pragmatists. We have lost things. And we have gained.

As if to balance all the grimness, in the worn-out grooves of doomsday babble, I see a faint glimmer. A reader emailing me, voicing her support. Then a dozen emails arriving. Then, more. Readers who have faithfully followed me since publication of my first novel, SHARK DIALOGUES, in 1994. In essence, they were all saying, 'We don't care who publishes you. We support you, and we will find you. Please advise us of publishing date for your new novel."

With a kind of slow-quick-wittedness, it dawns on me, as it has lately dawned on many writers, that books and electronics are only delivery mechanisms, and publishers are the middlemen. The important thing is still content. So it seems to me that there are two supremely important elements in publishing that have lately been ignored in this contretemps called the Legacy Wars.

One, the writers who provide the content. And two, our readers, who consume and embellish the content. Along the way, even writers occasionally forget that a book is never fully formed until the reader animates the text.

In essence, a reader rewrites the text, infusing it with possibilities accidentally realized, enriching and refining it with his or her uniquely individual interpretation. Writers are nothing without readers. And publishing is nothing without writers and readers.