Because the details of the Amazon-Hachette negotiations are so closely held, it’s impossible to predict how much longer they will continue. One thing that does seem likely is that traditionally published authors are unlikely to back down in their adamant opposition to Amazon’s policies with regard to Hachette writers. In mid-September, Authors United took the unusual step of calling upon Amazon’s board of directors to reconsider sanctions against Hachette authors’ books, which the group says have caused some authors’ sales—including hardcover, paperback and e-books—to drop by as much as ninety percent.
Everybody wants better terms—that’s the nature of business—but I don’t think Amazon was prepared for the backlash that’s happening when authors, who are innocent bystanders, are caught in the crossfire.
“Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership,” the Authors United letter stated. “These men and women are deeply concerned about what this means for their future careers…. Amazon chose to involve twenty-five hundred Hachette authors and their books. It could end these sanctions tomorrow while continuing to negotiate. Amazon is undermining the ability of authors to support their families, pay their mortgages, and provide for their kids’ college educations. We’d like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest. We find it hard to believe that all members of the Amazon board approve of these actions. We would like to ask you a question: Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?”
Pressing its argument, Authors United made the case for traditional publishers as curators, guarantors of quality and champions of books ill-equipped to compete in a marketplace dominated by bestsellers. “Publishers provide venture capital for ideas,” the letter went on. “They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books. This system is especially important for nonfiction writers, who often must travel for research. Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea. By assuming the risk, publishers expect—and receive—a financial return. What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors, copy editors, designers, and other publishing staff who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?”
Most recently, top literary agent Andrew Wylie has been successfully recruiting his stable of blue-chip clients, including Milan Kundera, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, and Salman Rushdie, along with the estates of Roberto Bolaño, Joseph Brodsky, William Burroughs, John Cheever, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Miller, to join Authors United. That group has reportedly drafted a letter calling on the Department of Justice to begin an antitrust investigation of Amazon and its tactics.
It’s unclear whether Amazon was prepared for such vociferous opposition from traditionally published writers, a group it once counted among its most vocal supporters. “Whatever one would say of negotiating better terms from a vendor, this wasn’t the ideal way of handling it,” says Joe Regal, CEO of the start-up e-retailer and literary-curation site Zola Books, which is trying to position itself to challenge Amazon. “Everybody wants better terms—that’s the nature of business—but I don’t think Amazon was prepared for the backlash that’s happening when authors, who are innocent bystanders, are caught in the crossfire.”
Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.