by Tess Gerritsen
When I sit alone in my office, writing my stories, I imagine my readers as a big, sprawling community of friends around the world, and I want to please them. I know I’m bound to disappoint some of them from time to time, but I hope that they’ll give me another chance, and that I’ll redeem myself in their eyes with my next book. We writers depend on our readers for our livelihoods, and most of us try very hard to stay in their good graces.
But sometimes, those readers make us want to run for cover.
So far, I’ve had only a few such experiences. There was the man who leaned close and whispered how much he liked THE SURGEON (my book about a killer who slices and dices women) because it allowed him to enjoy his secret fantasies. There was the agitated woman in the leopard-print pants who waited until the end of my booksigning to insist that I write her life story. Which she then proceeded to tell me, ending with the sentence: “And after all that, the jury only convicted me of manslaughter!” At which point my media escort swooped in, insisting that we had to leave now.
I count myself lucky that my fans, by and large, are nice, reasonable people, especially when I read the latest news about Susan Boyle, the shy spinster from England who shot to fame with a show-stopping performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Poor Susan now has a stalker and her home has been broken into several times. Then there was the frightening incident at Stephen King’s house several years ago, when a mentally unstable man broke into the kitchen, forcing Tabitha King to flee in her bathrobe.
This past week, I’ve witnessed yet another example of how the public has teeth — and how quickly those teeth can start ripping into an author. I’m talking about the astonishing wrath exhibited over at the Amazon.com page of Douglas Preston’s new book, IMPACT.
Full disclosure #1: I know Doug Preston. He’s a charming, delightful, literate man. And we both share a lifelong passion for science.
Full disclosure #2: I’m a fan of his books. When I board an airplane, if I’ve brought along a thriller by Preston, or by Preston and Child, I know I will be well-entertained during that flight.
Soon after Preston’s new book was released, I hopped on over to Amazon to see if readers were enjoying his book as much as I did. I was surprised to see a number of 1-star reviews. My surprise turned to consternation when I read those poor reviews and realized that almost all of them weren’t about the book at all. Instead, the “reviewers” were using the site to express their fury that the Kindle edition of Impact wouldn’t be released until months after the hardcover went on sale. They expressed their rage by attacking Preston and his work, saying they would never buy another one of his books. The New York Times caught wind of the turmoil, got Preston to comment on it, and he expressed his quite understandable annoyance with the whole affair. Which resulted in an even more furious, even vicious onslaught of one-star reviews on his Amazon page. (Note to self: if the New York Times ever calls asking for statement, politely decline and hang up phone.)
The public e-lynching of Douglas Preston is a frightening spectacle that will almost certainly be replayed, with other authors as fresh targets. As a result of the recent battle between MacMillan and Amazon, Kindle e-book prices for new releases will probably be increasing across the board. Already, I’ve received an email from a reader, complaining that the Kindle edition of my upcoming book, ICE COLD, is priced at $14.30. “I will not be buying your book at that outrageous price,” the reader said. The email was a civil one, but I’m bracing for others — far less civil — that will probably follow.
What’s astonishing is that “greedy” authors are being blamed for this. That’s like blaming the fisherman for the price of sole meuniere on the restaurant menu. Writers, like fishermen, are simply responsible for delivering the raw product. Standing between us and the final consumer are processors, packagers, and retailers. Unless a book is self-published (in which case the author can set the price) writers have absolutely no control over the final list price, in whatever format it may be published.
Let me repeat: traditionally published authors have no control over the final list price of their books.
In all my twenty-three years in the publishing industry, I have never been asked what my book should cost in the marketplace. Not once. Just like the fisherman never gets asked what the restaurant should charge for its Catch of the Day special.
Because of what happened to Preston, I thought long and hard about whether I should even be discussing this subject on a public blog. It’s tempting to just dive under your desk and stay out of sight, where the bullets can’t find you. But that doesn’t change the fact that every author is a potential target. When the public gets enraged about book prices, and they want to attack, they won’t be hurling their stones at something as nameless and anonymous as the “publishing industry.” They’ll be aiming their fury at the people whose names they know. The names on the books. The “rich and greedy” authors whose $14.00 e-books are — to the public — as potent a symbol of avarice as a banker’s multimillion-dollar bonus.
Put on your armor. It’s going to get rough.
(I’m afraid I’ll be on the road when this post goes up. I’m sorry I won’t be able to respond to comments.)