The Confederates are setting up camp here on the 4th of July.
No, really. I’m spending time with my mom in the mountains of North Carolina, and the annual Christmas in July celebration is kicking off in West Jefferson, within view of her front porch. Tents are going up everywhere to sell food and crafts. And in the field behind the library, a group of reenactors are firing off cannons and waving rebel flags. On the 4th of July.
This surreal juxtaposition is a reminder that wars within borders are considered “civil wars” if the rebels lose and “revolutionary wars” if they win.
From a distance, it’s hard to imagine (and of course impossible to remember) that not every colonial resident desired independence from British rule. It wasn’t Americans who fought for their freedom, it was British subjects. They became Americans only through victory (much to the chagrin of the peoples already settled here).
Today, a different sort of war is being waged: a war of ideas and ideals. On one side, you have people who think not everyone should be published and that readers need help knowing what to read. This group also thinks that the book is the thing, not the story. Confabulating their love of the written word with the vessel they are accustomed to receiving it in, any change in how stories are delivered is seen as a threat to their cherished way of life.
The other side believes the opposite. Every voice has a right to be heard, even if we can’t control how many people pay attention. Every reader should have the freedom to choose, including the choice to go to a curated source. This group believes that the story is the thing, whether it is spoken, on a screen, in a book, or on a website.
These sides have clashed before. The five major New York publishers have taken the war to Amazon in the past, agreeing amongst themselves to raise prices in an attempt to slow the adoption of e-books (or at least to maximize profits if the adoption was going to continue apace). They paid millions in fines for the attempt. And the publishers promised to resume their efforts as soon as they were able.
That time has come. Hachette has stated to investors that it wants control over how e-books are priced. Amazon has broken its vow of silence to say the same thing. All the smoke and thunder from this battle is over who should set the final price of the object you enjoy: the manufacturer or the retailer.
Most retail works on a wholesale model. The retailer pays a percentage of the suggested list price, and then they can choose to discount and reduce their margins if they want. This is why you can walk into a bookstore and see a hardback marked 20% off. Publishers do not want Amazon to be able to sell e-books where they might compete with paperbacks. This, despite the incredible margins they make from each sale (partly because they pay their authors a laughable share).
The tension over these negotiations is near a breaking point. After Hachette, there are four other major publishers due to negotiate retail terms with Amazon. Lurking in the woods is the combined armies of Penguin and Random House. Generals on all sides are watching the battle with Hachette, because it could signal which way goes the war.
Picking a side is not necessary, of course. Both of these companies are large corporations with the potential to do both good and ill. It is far better to say “I love books,” or “I love readers,” or “I just want to write,” and hope the noise over the hill sorts itself out. Who wants to say they fought for one of two generals whose interests were largely their own and did not perfectly align with ours? If you suit up, you are a traitor or a shill. Better to sit it out.
There was a lot of that during the Revolutionary War. Remember that it was a civil war before the outcome was determined. Subject against subject. There’s no glory in that.
But one side will have to relent in this struggle. We will wake up one day and e-books will be nearly twice what we paid for the mass market paperback equivalent, or we will wake up and find stories we love at reasonable prices. You don’t have to pick a side—no one should have to pick a side—and I’m not here to ask you to. I’m here because I have decided to suit up. And some of my brothers and sisters will disagree with me. But I fight for them as well.
The borders around us will be redrawn, no matter what. And this war will turn out to have been a revolution or a quelled uprising. Right now, it’s too early to tell. It’s a little confusing when I see Confederates camping out on the 4th of July.