Thursday, August 14, 2014

Understanding Differing Author Views on Publishing

Here is my claim: anyone who purports their views to be totally independent either (1) has no skin in the game, (2) is honest, but fooling themselves, (3) is dishonest and trying to fool you.

Harsh, I know, but I do believe it to be true and a useful guide for reading anyone’s opinion.

Your immediate question should be, so Jim, in this blog are you representing (1), (2) or (3). Unfortunately, my earnings as an author qualify me as having almost no skin in the game. However, I do have a worldview that causes me to want to convince you to look behind rhetoric to understand what drives the presentation of stated facts. I guess that means you’ll need to decide if I am fooling myself with my purported independence or fooling you by cherry-picking facts.

The Amazon/Hachette business dispute is acting as a lightning rod for authors. Amazon and Hachette are negotiating over contract terms; and as part of their attempt at economic leverage, Amazon had been giving Hachette titles poor treatment as compared to books from other large publishers. Two competing forays by authors into the public discussion of the Amazon/Hachette negotiations are the letter paid for and signed by 900 authors, and a petition on asking authors and readers to back Amazon’s position (8.400 signatures). Let’s take a peek at each.

What 900 Authors Want You to Know

Here is the full text of the “Authors United” letter published in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. The biggest complaints (all true from what I can tell) from authors revolved around four issues. 
  • Amazon has chosen not to list all pre-order books from Hachette in their online bookstore
  • Amazon has chosen not to stock some Hachette books at normal levels, leading to longer than normal delivery dates
  • Amazon is not discounting Hachette books as much as they normally do (and are still doing for other publishers)
  • Amazon is suggesting alternative, less expensive books on some pages for Hachette books.

The signatories include Hachette authors, who naturally have an economic interest in hoping Hachette prevails. To the extent they are losing sales by Amazon’s tactics, and some clearly are, they are being economically disadvantaged in the dispute. Publicity for this letter has made hay over the fact that Hachette does not publish most of the signing authors. The trumpeting would have you believe those authors are signing in solidarity.

However, those authors at other large publishing houses have almost as large a stake in the outcome of the Hachette negotiations as do Hachette authors. Their publishers will shortly have to deal with Amazon on the same contract issues, and they presume Amazon will continue to use the same negotiating tactics. After all, Amazon is using them on others, such as the recently reported dispute with Disney. (Blu-ray titles are experiencing the same issues)

Their letter goes on to state that, “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.” Yet there has been no equivalent angst by this group toward Barnes and Noble and many independent booksellers for refusing to carry Amazon Publishing titles. Why? Because that is not an economic issue for authors published by big publishers.

They suggest they are not “taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon” and then go on to ask Amazon to give up its bargaining advantages, as if that request is not taking Hachette’s side.

One last point on the Authors United letter: they close by requesting readers to tell Jeff Bezos what they think and provide his email address. Bezos can tell what readers actually think by looking at Amazon sales – emails aren’t going to cut it.

8,400 sign petition

Now, let’s look at the petition to Hachette on to “Stop fighting low prices and fair wages” created by Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey and others and signed by 8,400 people to date.

A key line is “Amazon, in contrast [to big publishers who purportedly control what you can read], trusts you to decide what to read, and they strive to keep the price you pay low. They allow all writers to publish on their platform, and they pay authors between 35% and 70% of the list price of the book.”

The interesting thing is that the dispute is between Hachette (the publisher) and Amazon (the retailer, not Amazon the publisher). There is no doubt that many people are published today because Amazon has let anyone inexpensively self-publish and market their book. To the promoters of this petition, that “freedom” means we should give Amazon a free pass on the rest of its operations. Amazon is good, other publishers are bad. Therefore, support Amazon as it fights against the other publishers.

Authors and readers alike would do well to separate Amazon the publisher from Amazon the retailer. It is Amazon the retailer who is battling Hachette for profit margin.

The petition itself regards a proposal made by Amazon to create a fund jointly funded by Amazon and Hachette to keep authors whole. How generous of Amazon. While they continue to try to cripple Hachette sales they cause Hachette more pain by making them pay for the decreased sales! A small price for Amazon to pay to help solidify its bargaining position.

The petition is short; the “explanation” is almost 2,500 words. It is a full-out apology for Amazon. So why are these authors so enamored with Amazon? Because their livelihoods depend on it. Self-published authors make most of their sales as ebooks and Amazon sells the most ebooks, by far. If people stop using Amazon and turn to independent bookstores (very few ebook sales) or Barnes and Noble (either brick and mortar or electronic), their sales will plummet. Of course they are in Amazon’s corner.

The 900 might have done better to simply notify the public that because of Amazon taking a hardball approach to the protracted negotiations, readers might find it difficult to buy certain authors’ books from Amazon. While this is no different than what big stores do to their merchants, it is affecting authors. Readers need not be inconvenienced; they can find the books elsewhere. Including QR Codes to Barnes and Noble and a few favorite Indy Bookstores (who might have helped foot the bill) in the notice would help readers easily buy from the alternative stores. If Jeff Bezos saw a decrease in sales, he might reconsider whether his negotiation tactics were working.

The 8,400 should try to take advantage of Amazon’s making it difficult to buy some books by running promotions of their own books.

And we readers should realize that Hachette is looking out for Hachette, Amazon is looking out for Amazon, and we can any book we want even if Amazon isn’t carrying it.

~ Jim


  1. Interesting point in separating Amazon the publisher with Amazon the retailer. However, big stores like Walmart and Costco discount all the time. Walmart, especially, tries to beat all other retailers selling the same goods. If they choose not to sell a certain product, that is their decision, and nothing says they have to. If a company doesn't like Walmart's designated price of their product, they don't have to sell to them. I had a retail operation for twelve years and a wholesale one for twenty-five. I know manufacturers who were willing to cut their price for the volume of Walmart's order. If Hatchette cared about their authors, they might consider bargaining a price somewhere in between for the volume of the sales. Hatchette is a tiny percent of the gross of their owner company, Lagardere. Considering they might sell more books, dropping the price could be financially beneficial. This is a game of hardball with two multi-billion dollar corporations. Make no mistake about that.

  2. I think this is the most common sense article I've seen about this issue. You're right, I also have almost no skin in this game either. My Amazon sales have never amounted to very much, and my big publisher ratings will be based on what happens at B&N and will pay no attention to what happens on Amazon. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the end.