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Without a Paddle: Amazon and Hachette and Us

Posted in: Understanding Publishing on July 7, 2014 Leave your thoughts đź’¬

Cold War 2

Hi. At Reedsy we live, sleep, and all but photosynthesise self-publishing news and discussion. Even if you were living under a rock, a massive rock, like a boulder, you wouldn’t have been able to avoid the suddenly very loudly proclaimed views of authors both traditionally published and self-published over the whole Amazon-Hachette blood war that’s been happening for over a month now.
So we had to say something. In fact, we said two things. Below you can find Dave’s take, and you can find Ricardo’s perspective over here.

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Well, that was a hell of a week.

The Amazon/Hachette cold war is now into its second month. Hachette’s books continue to suffer difficulties on Amazon’s store, including availability issues and price increases.

On Wednesday Douglas Preston released an open letter to readers. Previously it had been quietly circulating amongst authors, collecting signatures including Robert A. Caro and Stephen King. Preston et al asked Amazon to “resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.”

Self-published author Hugh Howey responded almost immediately on change.org petitioning Hachette to “stop fighting low prices and fair wages [for writers].” The letter is detail-rich and thorough but, Howey says, “the gist is this: Amazon wants to keep e-book prices affordable, and Hachette wants to keep them artificially high. Higher than for the paper edition of the same story.”

Howey’s undersigned are asking for Michael Pietsch, Hachette’s CEO, to help end these negotiations. Not necessarily to give in to whatever Amazon are asking[1] (although Howey does specifically ask Pietsch to accept Amazon’s offer of a fund to pay authors and royalties lost as a result of Amazon’s actions), but to step up and compromise, somehow.

Three questions: 1) What should readers do? 2) What do readers want? 3) Who’s right? Amazon or Hachette?

I’ll start with 3): I have no idea. Sort of both and neither. I’m giving Pietsch the benefit of the doubt that he believes Amazon’s terms would impact Hachette’s ability to publish great books. But I also wish Hachette, or anyone else in publishing, were doing more to give readers reasons (and places) to buy books away from Amazon. Doesn’t sound so right.

What about Amazon? It’s wonderful that they enable self-publishing. For authors, 70% royalty rates means needing to sell fewer books to earn a living, and Amazon make it easy for these authors to build audiences. Sounds right, great even. But I’m uncomfortable when a company restricts the availability of books as a negotiation tactic. Not least because this disproportionately hurts authors, whatever else it does to Hachette. The 50/50 fund would negate this some, but that’s not quite the point. Sounds far from right, even icky.

2) What do readers want? It depends who you ask. Howey says he fights for authors and for readers. He appeals not just to Amazon’s as a bookseller for readers, but as a distributer / publisher / producer of books for independent authors. Amazon’s publishing capabilities mean more books, and so far has negotiated cheaper books overall - more books at lower prices sounds a lot like a healthy marketplace.

Preston, on the other hand, focussed on the impact of Amazon on authors, not readers. This is what we’re still missing - someone who can argue how traditional publishing creates a system that’s better for readers.

Amazon allows more books to be published by removing the caps traditional publishing ends up creating. The greater the number of books that are published, the less the chance a reader is denied something they love because of some editor’s downturned thumb. Amazon helps more books get put on sale. More books means more choice, means an even playing field, means *fair*. In theory.

What we don’t know is whether the low prices that come with Amazon’s marketplace today are going to lead to a good selection of books in the future. Suppose, totally hypothetically, that higher prices than what Amazon demands are necessary to allow publishers to give large advances like the $50,000 advance Tao Lin supposedly received for his novel Taipei. Suppose that, furthermore, some authors can only write with the assistance of advances as a kind of loan - David Foster Wallace was barely able to write Infinite Jest around his teaching commitments, until he received an advance. (An advance that came, by the way, from Little, Brown, now part of Hachette, and was fought for by… Michael Pietsch. Small world.) If that kind of investment was thanks to the wider margins of Big 5 publishers, more power to them I say.

It’s true, as Howey argues, that some books will only be read if there is a place for the authors to sell them after they self-publish. This is why Amazon is, at least in some ways, a force for good. But other books may only be read thanks to the different kind of support, of enabling, that comes with the traditional publishing infrastructure; if someone other than the author is able to produce them, which might mean needing the existence of a publisher able to back the book’s production

Maybe you’re thinking that if a book needs angel investment to even exist, why does it deserve it? If an author isn’t selling enough books to earn a living, why should someone fund his writing? Well, and this is my naive and optimistic view, because he’s really good. It’s not impossible that someone could be really good and yet totally commercially unviable. If it’s a good thing for readers to be able to buy books for $1.99 on Amazon, it’s surely just as good for readers to be able to buy Rachel Kaddish or Barbara Trapido at whatever price they’re willing to pay.

I’m probably a sucker for even thinking that publishers are a little invested in the any public good they do fulfil. But if they are - until they find a better business model - the whole current pricing schema is a part of making that possible. Maybe Amazon’s pressure will be the catalyst that galvanises the industry to some new evolutionary stage - and wouldn’t that be awesome, if it let them keep taking risks and making sacrifices at finance’s temples for the love of good writing. But maybe it won’t.

We’re going to find out what happens when Amazon pulls back from Hachette like this and, oh boy, is it going to be fascinating. But being dogmatic about it doesn’t help - whether it’s boycotting books you love because Hachette is publishing them, or buying a dozen paperbacks you’ll never read because Hachette is publishing them. If a book you want isn’t on Amazon, whatever the reason, go buy it somewhere else. Pay what you can. Let’s find out what happens.

[1] It’s almost absurdly comic, by the way, that this whole conversation has continued without a real, firm context of what exactly Amazon are asking for. The issue driving this could be anything from Amazon demanding discounts and charging for pre-order buttons to Jeff Bezos personally demanding Hachette deliver a plump firstborn male infant every Summer Solstice in unholy tribute. If I were a betting man…

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