Saturday, August 09, 2014

What Does Amazon/Hachette Have to Do With Me?

In connection with the $100,000 ad some reactionary authors bought to run in tomorrow's New York Times, Amazon has sent a letter to its self-published authors. It's a good read, with some interesting historical context, for anyone who values low-priced ebooks and fair royalties for writers. And if you want to share your opinion on those topics with the CEO of "Big Five" publisher Hachette, you can email him -- just scroll down the Amazon letter. Here's what I said:
Hi Michael, even if the Big Five (why would anyone imagine something called the Big Five could be a cartel?) still had the power to control the market — and you don’t — the best you could do through agency and windowing and the like is delay the inevitable mass market transition to digital.  Is that really who you want to be?  A reactionary, focused on shoring up the next quarter rather than expanding your opportunities for the long term?
I don’t want big publishing to die — I want it to get well.  But to get well, you’re going to have to change the lifestyle that’s led to your ongoing decrepitude.
Please, think about the future.  Think about your place not just in the Big Five, but in the world.  Stop impeding what’s best for readers, writers, and reading.  Don’t fight progress.  Be progress.
Sincerely yours,
I've seen some interesting reactions to the Amazon missive. I responded to some of them over at The Passive Voice, which consistently has some of the best industry coverage I've seen (both for Passive Guy's presence and the insights of the people who comment there). I'll address those reactions here, as well:

1.  Amazon and/or Hachette are trying to get me to do their bidding, drag me into their war, dragoon, me, etc.

I don't see it that way. Would you prefer that giant corporations resolve their conflicts secretly, in smoke-filled rooms, with no input from customers and suppliers (here, that means readers and writers)?

There’s not much I can do to influence the course of the revolution in publishing, but damned if I won’t do what I can. That’s not doing anyone’s bidding or fighting anyone else’s war. It’s fighting for what I believe is right, and that includes making smart alliances when objectives overlap.

Given a small opportunity to influence a battle the outcome of which affects me vs watching passively and becoming a victim in someone else’s war doesn’t sound like a hard choice to me.

2.  But I'm a KDP author -- what does Amazon/Hachette have to do with me anyway?

Well, I am a KDP author, but that's not primarily where I'm coming from when I look at the Amazon/Hachette fight. Instead, I’m concerned as reader who enjoys low prices, better selection, more convenience, and all the other improvements Amazon has wrought; as an author who supports Amazon for injecting the first real competition and innovation the publishing industry has seen in decades; and as a citizen who values books and wants more people to have access to them.

3.  But as a KDP author, I like that Big Five publishers like Hachette collude to keep book prices high. It gives me an opportunity to undercut the Big Five by pricing lower.

It's certainly possible that high legacy prices create an opportunity for indie authors to sell their books for less. But there is another possibility -- that more readers will spend more money on all books overall if more individual books cost less.

To put it another way: if I had a choice between selling my books at $5.00 into a market where all other books were priced at $15.00, on the one hand, and selling my books at $5.00 into a market where all other books were priced at $5.00, on the other hand, I would prefer the second market because it would be so much bigger.

One other way of looking at it: among people who go into a bookstore thinking to buy one $20 hardback, and discover the store is having a three-for-the-price-of-two sale, how many wind up spending $40 and leaving with three books?

The point is, you can grow a market with low prices in such a way that individual sellers make more money in the bigger low-price market than they would have made undercutting prices in the smaller, high-priced market. When perceived value goes up, consumers spend more money. The market thereby grows, and individual sellers, even if the percentage of their slice of that market remains constant, make more money.

I've done no empirical studies on the book market and have only my own experience in the world as a guide (and my own pricing experiments with my own books). So I could be wrong about the book market generally -- but as a matter of logic, it seems a mistake to to treat as an axiom the assumption that lower across-the-board book prices must necessarily hurt indie authors' bottom lines.

4.  Oh come on, writing letters is useless. Stop wasting your time.

I hear this kind of thing all the time about blogging, activism generally, even voting. To me it smacks of learned helplessness. The only thing that’s guaranteed to be useless is passivity (at least to you; to the powers that be, individual passivity is a wonderful thing).

So if you care about books and reading and believe low prices and fair royalties are good for both, share your thoughts with Hachette's CEO! Who knows? If enough of us speak up, we can get the publishing establishment to actually listen.

P.S. The petition in favor of low ebook prices and fair author royalties has gone over 8000 signatures!  Not too late to add your voice...


T. M. Bilderback said...

Well said, Barry. Well said.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Let Hachette set the prices of their books. If Hachette, or any other publisher had the ability to set their prices, and sets them too high, consumers will probably purchase fewer of their books, barring certain titles by favorite writers which fans consider "must haves." Eventually, Hachette will lower prices. Problem solved.

I don't need Amazon to contain the price of ebooks or print books, supposedly in my best interest. Market forces will work just fine. Books are a luxury, not a life-sustaining necessity. Amazon and Hachette aren't public utilities dispensing a service or product whose exorbitant pricing might leave the have nots in physical jeopardy.

Kris L. said...

Great post, Barry. Have you Streitfeld's latest round of garbage? At least it's a blog this time. You know, a place where his opinion actually belongs, as opposed to a NEWS article. His arguments are still just as weak. He's used a quote from that great financier, George Orwell, to suggest that higher e-book prices are justified. If you want a laugh, take a look:

Paolo Amoroso said...

Here's my email to Hachette:

Subject: A reader and author does love Amazon and is unimpressed with legacy publishers

David Streitfeld is absolutely right when, in his New York Times story, he mentions the “rambling love song” of Amazon’s supporters. As a reader and author, I do love the retailer. And I am less than impressed with legacy publishers.

Amazon keeps book prices low, pays authors well, treats them fairly, provides choice and convenience, and offers superior service. They changed reading for the best. Why shouldn’t I love Amazon? Legacy publishers don’t seem to be able to match Amazon’s creativity, competence, vision, and boldness.

There’s another reason why I’m unimpressed with legacy publishers: their patronizing attitude that publishers are the only ones who can tell readers what to read. That may well be true of some executives with plush offices in Manhattan, who probably have their secretaries print their emails, but not for a large and growing number of readers.

We live in the 21st century and know how to use the Internet. We can find good and new books just fine without publishers.

We are voting with our wallets, and hearts.


Paolo Amoroso, from my summer -- and winter -- shack in Milan, Italy

Camille Minichino said...

It's not the first time you've been the Voice of Reason, Barry. Thanks for entering the discussion.