Just when I thought Amazon Derangement Syndrome couldn’t get any more acute, I woke up to this “letter to our readers” spearheaded by bestselling writer Douglas Preston and signed by 69 authors. One day, historians and psychologists might manage to explain how various authors came to fear and revile a company that has sold more books than anyone in history; that pays authors up to nearly six times the royalties the New York “Big Five” lockstep rate; that single-handedly created the ebook and self-publishing markets; that offers more choice and better prices to more readers than anyone ever has before; and that consistently ranks as one of the world’s most admired companies. But for now, let’s see if we can figure it out ourselves...
A letter to our readers:
Amazon is involved in a commercial dispute with the book publisher Hachette, which owns Little Brown, Grand Central Publishing, and other familiar imprints.
Unmentioned is that Hachette is part of the Lagardère Group, a French conglomerate with sales of something like ten billion dollars a year. Not exactly David to Amazon’s Goliath.
These sorts of disputes happen all the time between companies and they are usually resolved in a corporate back room.
Indeed, Amazon and Hachette are just a retailer and a supplier having trouble coming to terms. Something that couldn’t be more common. Unless, unless...
But in this case, Amazon has done something unusual. It has directly targeted Hachette’s authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms.
This is misleading. Not only has Amazon not “targeted Hachette’s authors,” it has offered to compensate them for any damage they suffer by virtue of their publisher’s dispute with Amazon. Hachette has refused that offer. Do the authors of this letter not know about Amazon’s offer to help compensate Hachette’s authors, and Hachette’s refusal? Why don’t they mention it?
For the past month, Amazon has been:
--Boycotting Hachette authors, refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette’s authors’ books, claiming they are “unavailable.”
Amazon is not boycotting anyone. All books by all Hachette authors are available in the Amazon store. In the face of this, to claim there’s a “boycott” is either ignorance or propaganda.
Not including a preorder button for a tiny percentage of titles isn’t a boycott. It’s a shot across the bow, and a fairly mild one compared to what an actual boycott of all Hachette titles would look like. As for “unavailable,” if a book isn’t published yet and you can’t preorder it, how else should its status be described?
--Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette’s authors’ books.
The prices of Hachette’s books are set by Hachette. If the authors of this letter think those prices are too high — and apparently, they do — it’s bizarre that they’re blaming Amazon.
--Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette’s authors’ books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.
When a retailer and supplier can’t come to terms — something the letter’s writers acknowledge happens “all the time” — what is the retailer supposed to tell its customers?
As writers—some but not all 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.
This is a bit rich. My own Amazon-published titles are boycotted by Barnes & Noble and by many indie bookstores. Tens of thousands of Indie-published authors face the same widespread boycott. An actual boycott, as in, outright refusal to stock books written by these authors — not because of price or other contractual terms, but simply because the retailers in question don’t like these authors’ way of publishing. Yet this is the first I’ve heard any of the letter’s authors express their strong feelings on bookstores preventing or discouraging customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.
What’s really weird, when you stop and think about it, is that if customers being able to read the books they want is really an important value for the letter’s authors, you would think they would love Amazon’s business model and find Hachette’s suspect. After all, Hachette is a gatekeeper — their whole business model is predicated on excluding from readers probably 99.99% of manuscripts. Amazon’s model is to let all authors publish and to trust readers make up their own minds. If customer choice is the real value in play here, you can’t coherently support Hachette and decry Amazon.
Unless, of course, all that happy talk about customer choice is a canard.
It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.
It wouldn’t be right if Amazon were doing it. As explained above, they’re not. What I’d like to know is why the letter’s authors apparently feel it is right when Barnes & Noble and other booksellers really do single out authors for retaliation? Why are they upset about a fictional Amazon boycott, and sanguine about a real Barnes & Noble one?
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.”
I agree that it’s an inconvenience for customers when a retailer and supplier can’t come to terms. But it happens, and it’s not that hard to understand why a retailer might feel compelled to hold the line in one discrete area to prevent its supplier from forcing it to charge higher prices across the board. Think of it as a “lesser of two evils” dynamic a retailer might face with regard to what’s best for its customers. Regardless, I’m not sure why the letter’s authors reflexively lay blame for the dispute and its consequences at Amazon’s feet while reflexively absolving (and refusing even to question) Hachette. And I don’t see Amazon doing anything here that I would characterize as “misleading.”
All of us supported Amazon from when it was a struggling start-up. We cheered Amazon on. Our books started Amazon on the road to selling everything and becoming one of the world’s largest corporations. We have made Amazon many millions of dollars and over the years have contributed so much, free of charge, to the company by way of cooperation, joint promotions, reviews and blogs. This is no way to treat a business partner.
Under the circumstances, that last line sounds like projection.
Nor is it the right way to treat your friends.
I’m not sure what this means. What does friendship have to do with a retailer and supplier negotiating terms? Are they saying that in a contract dispute, you can’t allow your friends to become collateral damage? Okay, but why is that message directed at Amazon and not at Hachette?
I know, I know... they really just want to end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy...
Bear in mind that no one outside of Amazon and Hachette even knows for sure the details or their discussions. There’s been a lot of informed speculation in the blogosphere, and it seems likely that the essence of the dispute is that Hachette wants to return to “agency” pricing, which enables Hachette to keep the prices of ebooks artificially high, while Amazon wants the flexibility to charge less. But in the face of no knowledge, or of the likelihood that Hachette is trying to force Amazon to charge higher prices, the knee-jerk anti-Amazon response isn't easy to understand.
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.
Well, that made me smile. I’m glad no one is taking sides! In fact, reading their letter, I still have no idea which side the letter’s authors favor… :)
But seriously, I have to ask… do these people really not recognize that they’re taking sides? Not that I think taking sides is wrong; personally, I think Hachette is a joke and I side with Amazon because I favor lower prices, higher royalties, and more choice. But to write a letter like this and claim you’re not taking sides… are they disingenuous? Or are they so psychologically wedded to legacy publishing that they think taking Hachette’s side is just being neutral?
For some reason it reminds me of the joke: “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?"
But anyway… if the value in play here is that a company should "stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business,” I’m gobsmacked that these people aren’t demanding more from Hachette. Hachette pays its authors 12.5% in digital royalties. It keeps the lion’s share of increased ebook profits for itself. It demands life-of-copyright (that is, forever) terms of license. It inhibits its authors' ability to publish other works by insisting on draconian anti-competition clauses. It pays its authors only twice a year. It has innovated precisely nothing, ever, preferring to collude to fix prices with Apple and the other members of the New York “Big Five.” That’s Hachette’s business record… and these authors, who purport to care so much about a company harming the livelihood of authors, have nothing to say about it?
I guess that’s what they mean by “not taking sides."
None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.
Then why aren’t they telling Hachette to set their books free? End agency pricing! Let retailers discount! Don’t collude! Free those books!
(We’re not alone in our plea: the opinion pages of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which rarely agree on anything, have roundly condemned Amazon’s corporate behavior.)
I always mistrust this kind of assertion in the absence of links or other citations — especially coming from a group that has already made as many misleading claims as this one. But let’s assume their claim about overlapping op-eds is true. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal "rarely agree on anything”? This is possibly the most thoughtless (or misleading) claim the letter’s authors have made yet. I know it’s a bit discursive, but here’s Noam Chomsky on propaganda:
"One of the ways you control what people think is by creating the illusion that there's a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, then you can have a debate.”
Like the Democratic and Republican branches of America’s single political party, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have far, far more in common than they do in dispute. Suggesting their concurrence on a topic is meaningful is exactly like suggesting that because majorities of Democrats and of Republicans voted to invade Iraq, the war was a good idea.
We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.
I know I’m repeating myself, but… it’s fascinating that these people — who are of course not taking sides! — are calling on Amazon this way and saying nothing at all to Hachette. You’d think Hachette is a wholly pure and innocent child, lacking any autonomy at all in this business dispute.
We respectfully ask you, our loyal readers, to email Jeff Bezos, c.e.o and founder of Amazon, email@example.com, and tell him what you think. He says he genuinely welcomes hearing from his customers and claims to read all emails from this account. We hope that, writers and readers together, we will be able to change his mind.
It’s sad. Imagine the good that might be accomplished if mega-bestselling authors like Child, Patterson, and Turow were even fractionally more inclined to leverage their fame and fortune in calling attention to real injustices in publishing. The pittance the New York “Big Five” (the cartel is right there in the moniker) pay their authors. The industrial-level scamming of newbie writers by Penguin Random House-owned Author Solutions. Harlequin setting up subsidiaries solely to screw writers out of their royalties.
Instead, these one-percenters consistently ignore the tremendous good Amazon has done for all authors, and allow misguided self-interest to distort their perceptions and their arguments. They take full-page ads in the New York Times, they give interviews with an adoring press, they publish letters like this one… all to perpetuate a publishing system that is designed to create a one-percent class of winners and to exclude everyone else.
You want to know something else the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are going to agree on? They’re going to offer a ton of coverage to this “letter to readers” because it was signed by a few superstars. And they’re going to ignore a competing petition that in the few hours since it went live is already closing in on a thousand signatures, many of them submitted by the mom-n-pop, small-business, indie authors Amazon has enabled to earn a living from their writing for the first time ever. This imbalance is the way establishments work, and the authors of the “letter to our readers” are nothing if not part of the publishing establishment they seek to perpetuate.
It’s all right. The establishment has the names. Freedom and choice have the numbers. And the numbers always win in the end.
Oh, and that petition? You can add your name here.
P.S. Some further suggested reading on this topic.