The Amazon Conflict

by
Kevin Nance
9.30.14

The single most controversial aspect of the current dispute has been Amazon’s tactic of using sanctions against Hachette’s writers as leverage to force concessions from their publisher. For more than six months, Amazon has targeted Hachette authors by removing preorder buttons (which is more significant than it might appear, since publishers factor in preorders to determine their print runs), slowing shipping times, refusing to discount some books and directing readers to competing titles. The move has outraged many traditionally published writers, including members of Authors United, a group led by Douglas Preston that in August purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on Amazon to stop putting writers in the middle of its battle with Hachette. About nine hundred writers signed the statement, including household names such as Stephen King, James Patterson, John Grisham, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, and Suzanne Collins, along with Sherman Alexie (who went on The Colbert Report to discuss the dispute with Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author), Paul Auster, Madison Smartt Bell, Michael Chabon, Andre Dubus III, Jennifer Egan, Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gordon, Allan Gurganus, Siri Hustvedt, Maxine Hong Kingston, Dennis Lehane, Ann Patchett, Scott Spencer, and Donna Tartt. “As writers—most of us not published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want,” the group said. “It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be ‘Earth’s most customer-centric company.’... Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”

For more than six months, Amazon has targeted Hachette authors by removing preorder buttons (which is more significant than it might appear, since publishers factor in preorders to determine their print runs), slowing shipping times, refusing to discount some books and directing readers to competing titles. The move has outraged many traditionally published writers.

The Authors Guild has also officially not taken sides in the dispute, but most of its leadership—including Robinson and co–vice president Richard Russo—deplores what Robinson calls Amazon’s “punitive and intimidating” tactics. “It’s the dirtiest kind of dirty pool,” says Russo, whose novels include the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls (Knopf, 2001). “Amazon and Hachette may both be ruthlessly pursuing their own interests, but Hachette isn’t forcing Amazon to abuse authors.”

Amazon’s treatment of Hachette writers has been widely condemned by a wide swath of authors, including Louise Erdrich, author of the National Book Award–winning The Round House (Harper, 2012) and the owner of Birchbark Books & Native Arts, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. “This a form of blacklisting,” says Erdrich, adding that she’s particularly concerned by the prospect of Amazon becoming a monopoly in all but name. “Allowing one company to get so big that it controls all of the information is dangerous,” she says. “Do we have the freedom to speak and write as we wish? Presently. But if we allow one distribution point, we have a dangerous bottleneck. Amazon is basically holding the books, the information, the writers, the editors, and all who contribute to the book world, hostage.” Entrekin, at the NYPL forum, issued a similarly dire warning. “We’re concentrating the flow of information in our society into the fewest hands ever in the history of the world,” he said. “That’s not a healthy thing, for all the obvious reasons.” 

In its open letter, Amazon responded to criticisms of its sanctions against Hachette writers by pointing the finger back in Hachette’s direction. “We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies,” the company’s book team said in a letter to readers. “Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100 percent of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and parent company Lagardère, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1 percent of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.”

And as Amazon pointed out in the letter, not all authors are united in their opposition to the retailer or its negotiating tactics. Indeed, more than eighty-five hundred people—largely self-published writers, many of whom have been rejected by the New York legacy houses but found success distributing their work on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform—have signed an online petition calling on Hachette to “stop fighting low prices and fair wages.” Calling the Big Five a “collusive cartel”—a reference to the Department of Justice’s 2012 lawsuit alleging that the largest New York publishers conspired with Apple in a price-fixing scheme—the petitioners attacked Hachette and the other big publishers as greedy, elitist, and high handed, while praising Amazon for its consumer focus and willingness to help writers shut out by the New York establishment and give them a chance to find an audience. “Amazon provides us the freedom to express ourselves in more creative ways, adding to the diversity of literature,” the writers state in the petition. “Hachette believes you’ll read whatever Hachette tells you to, and rejects and dismisses many worthy writers.” With regard to Amazon’s negotiating tactics targeting Hachette writers, the petition was sanguine: “Unfortunately for Amazon, a company that prides itself on customer service, a breakdown in negotiations has meant making decisions that are hard on customers and authors in the short run in order to fight for the rights of those same customers and authors in the long run.”

One early signer of the petition was C. J. Lyons, a former emergency-room pediatrician who now writes best-selling medical thrillers published independently and by the New York houses, and who is a member of the Authors Guild board of directors. “I totally see why [Hachette] authors are upset,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Without these extras [such as preorder buttons] that Amazon used to provide, their publisher has to work harder to market and sell their books and, quite frankly, Hachette has not been able to do that. I’ve seen reports of sales dropping by 50 percent or more.” On the other hand, she wrote, “Is it Amazon’s fault that publishers have given it such a large market share or that publishers themselves have created a business model where they have become dependent on Amazon? Several years ago, the same could be said of Barnes & Noble—in fact, Simon & Schuster authors suffered when they were in negotiations with B&N [in 2013]. That’s business. And if you don’t like the business model your own company has created, change it.”

As for nonfiction books that take years to research and write, “Those authors are clearly passionate about their work, as are their readers (however limited),” Lyons says. “While I applaud that, it would be up to each publisher to decide whether a work and author should be subsidized with a large advance. I don’t think we can lay that onus on any one distributor. Perhaps the answer lies in crowd-sourcing, increased grants and endowments for the arts, as well as self-publishing models where the author recoups more of the profit as well as has the chance to connect with [the] audience and create multimedia income streams.”

For now, the health of the publishing business is “extremely important to the health of literary culture,” Nawotka says. “They’ve published a lot of books that advance our culture that will be difficult to fit into the self-publishing structure, which is largely relegated to genre fiction and self-help books. You’re not going to see a lot of self-published biographies of Abraham Lincoln.”

Comments

What a mess!

I have worked for two years on my first novel. This is so disheartening I'm tempted to just put it in a trunk until these boys and girls stop behaving like school kids on the playground. Writers seriously want to communicate to readers, regardless the subject. Creating this political he said/she said is the best possible way to totally discourage new authors, not to mention reducing credibilty of the entire industry. Shame on all of you!

Ridiculous Fear-mongering

Sorry, but this article is completely one-sided. What about self-published authors who have been very successfully and couldn't get traditionally published? The future at literature is NOT at stake. Whenever that sentence is written in an article about a dispute between giant corporations, it automatically invalidates the entire article.

While everything in here is

While everything in here is understandable, reality requires mentioning that only the smallest minority of advances for a first work of fiction (or second, third, or fourth, or or for non-fiction books of most kinds as well) is currently enough to for a writer to live on while working on the book under contract. Once, that may have been the case. But advances of over $10,000 (let alone a living annual income for the several years it may take to write a book) are exceedingly rare.

It's also transparently obvious that allocating some share of initial costs to e-book costs is just a matter of choosing to do so, since the *incremental* costs of publishing a book don't go up that significantly when e-books are added. The editorial process is unchanged from the time when books existed only in print, except for someone adding some html code. And distribution/manufacturing is far cheaper.

Times are difficult. I very much want traditional publishing to survive. Amazon can't become the only outlet in the field for getting books into people's hands. Still.. truth-telling matters, if we want to think both clearly and fairly about the evolving future of books. Publishing industry spokesmen need to not pretend to P&W's readers and aspiring writers that living wage advances are the rule, when they are rare. And P&W would do better reporting this story with objective views and a bit of investigative thoughtfulness.

The Eye of the Beholder

Reading the article, we understand that Amazon did not generate the catchy label collusive cartel; it was the Department of Justice's description of the arrangement between the big five as to costs and prices for their products in the marketplace, which by their non-public arrangement became anything but a free market. From another perspective, if the largest automakers arranged for a minimum level pricing for all the industry's production, the same label would apply. Anything that restricts the public's ability to access goods and services by an understanding between the producers of the goods and services qualifies as actions by a collusive cartel.

We can understand how the big five publishers may wish to arrest the passing of time and the continued advances of technology. They certainly would be justified in attempting to control the goods and services by initially controlling the number of writers they sponsor, the subjects of their writings, the manner of their expression, and above all, accepting only productions that generate the highest possible price for the work with which their chosen writers reach their public. It would not surprise us if the big five preferred to produce hard-cover editions bound in leather ignoring the paper-back editions that produce for them lower profit margins. These august enterprises probably resist lower margins as vehemently as the investment banks who barely fifteen years ago charged hundreds of dollars for trades that today an investor can make at discount brokers for a paltry $7. 

The fact is that some of us own the entire collection of 19th century American, British, French, and Spanish novels in electronic format--be it on Kindle or Nook or some other trademark of lesser fame and market penetration--for a negligible out of pocket cost. Our grandparents were unable to stock the books we hold in our libraries today and they would be stunned to learn that we paid for them less than the price of a mediocre bottle of wine. True, the 20th and 21st century writers command higher premiums, but their work is accessible to the masses, not just the exclusive classes.

The technological revolution spearheaded by Mr. Bezos may be ill-regarded by the publishers, especially the big five, but the overwhelming majority of the readers around the world appreciate the access they have to works across the spectrum of creativity and knowledge, academia and trivia, all because of the ingenuity of individuals like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs to name the easiest to recall. This turf war is truly not about the writers. It's not about the readers, either. It's not about anything beyond the publishers' profitability and greed, all attempting to safeguard their hefty compensation schemes for executives at the very top of the food chain. 

Corporate publishing hurts anyone small - writer, reader, store

I am an author of literary fiction who grew up in a jobless, depressed area where people may always be "laboring harder for less and less" — the kind of town Jonathan Franzen (correctly) identified as a place Amazon chooses to build warehouses. My "publishing career" has been fitful. In 1994, my first published story won a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award, and at the banquet I was slapped to attention before some bright literary lights, introduced to a Park Avenue agent, and, ultimately, received a year's worth of heart-stopping rejections from editors of a caliber I could only dream of reaching again. Nearly twenty years later, after riding out rollercoaster economies, raising kids, and writing after-work, I was again struck by good fortune when Kindle Singles picked up two of my stories and, nearly overnight, I acquired thousands readers and a renewed hope of living a literary life.

I care about the health of the American author and publishing as much as anyone who's been fascinated by the Amazon-Hachette fight. But my perspective on that spat — and the Department of Justice's anti-trust case against Apple, or related responses by Franzen, Scott Turow, Roxana Robinson, and others I admire — lacks the same End-Times savor you hear out there. I can't see Jeff Bezos as the Anti-Christ (Franzen's image) or Darth Vader (Turow's) because it's been my experience that if American authors — big and small — are indeed experiencing a "slow death," neither Amazon nor the Big Six traditional publishers will have killed us. Nor will we be able to blame the latest unthinking, amoral technology that we'll continue to use each day. We need to step outside the storm and listen close for the whisper inside to see what's killing America's authors, how they might be saved, and how we might give our nation's literature, overall, a boost in the process.

My full reply is posted on Medium, at http://bit.ly/1EqUwSY