The Amazon Conflict

by
Kevin Nance
9.30.14

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.

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