Kiana Davenport and the Terrified Penguins

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm

One of the stories I’ve been following in my oh-so-copious spare time lately is the rapid outward ripples caused by Kiana Davenport’s burgeoning legal battle with Riverhead Books, a branch of Penguin.

Davenport’s blog entry about it is a little dramatic, but perhaps the event deserves the drama, and certainly she does not lack perception.

Essentially, Davenport signed a contract with Riverhead to publish her novel, “The Chinese Soldier’s Daughter”, receiving a $20,000 advance for the rights to publish. In the meantime, she had collected a series of short stories she’d written into an anthology, “Cannibal Nights“, which she self-published. She’s very clear about this: self-publishing a book of unrelated stories didn’t break her contract, and it’s a little astounding that the publisher didn’t laud her for building a platform, for the “hustle” we’re told as writers we should have if we want to succeed.

Instead, apparently Riverhead Books totally lost the plot:

So, here is what the publisher demanded. That I immediately and totally delete CANNIBAL NIGHTS from Amazon, iNook, iPad, and all other e-platforms. Plus, that I delete all Google hits mentioning me and CANNIBAL NIGHTS. Currently, that’s about 600,000 hits. (How does one even do that?) Plus that I guarantee in writing I would not self-publish another ebook of any of my backlog of works until my novel with them was published in hardback and paperback.

Davenport’s plight is pretty incredible — she’s now in the position of having to hire a lawyer and fight a legal battle to keep money she was paid in an unrelated contract for a totally different book, simply because she chose to self-publish a series of stories which had been published in other formats previously.

New York Times writer David Streitfield has some cultural context to offer: mainly, that publishers are terrified of Amazon. Because Amazon, at least in the public eye, killed the big box bookstore, and in the coming year Amazon will be publishing, publicising, and distributing over a hundred books. It’s coming for the publishers.

That terrifies me too, I’m not going to lie. I don’t like when a single company tries to control the entire process of information distribution, and I include fiction under that term.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, the company’s chief executive, referred several times to Kindle as “an end-to-end service,” conjuring up a world in which Amazon develops, promotes and delivers the product.

Doesn’t that give you a chill?

Especially since it’s Amazon, who have not been known, in the past, to be either evenhanded or transparent in their dealings with individual writers or with subject matter that doesn’t fit a patriarchal heteronormative mold. Google Amazonfail and you can see what Amazon thinks of gay people, and of women’s reproductive health.

But Riverhead clearly has no clue what the internet is about — they want her to delete Google hits — and I will say this for Amazon: Amazon gets the idea when it comes to the point where the internet and the printing press intersect. NYT quoting Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives:

“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

I’ve been saying for three years now that we should be readers and writers, not buyers and sellers.

I don’t want to trust Amazon, because they’ve proven to be utterly untrustworthy. And certainly it looks as though trad publishing is catching onto the change in the wind and losing its everloving mind in fear over it. Lulu, while I love them and use them regularly, is in selfpub to make money; the same is true for essentially any selfpub website. The money’s not in the books but in the services novice authors are willing to pay for. So even small sites like the one I use are a bit like a zoo tiger — only safe as long as you know how to handle them.

These are not placid waters, and the change is coming. This is not the last we’ll hear about this, and the fight between Amazon and the trad publishers should be awesome to witness. They both scare me, but hopefully the carnage will produce something that’s to the benefit of the rest of us — the readers and the writers.


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