Amazon vs Hachette and the erosion of author solidarity

Writers need to remember that both sides are making more money from our talent than we ever can

Like many other writers, I am caught in a sticky predicament when it comes to the battle between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, in that supporting what is growing into a cause célèbre for many traditionally published authors means diminishing our own work and reducing our (mostly paltry) incomes.

For those who have missed this story, Amazon has begun to delay the delivery of books by Hachette authors significantly, and to create impediments on searches for Hachette books on the Amazon site: apparently due to a dispute between the two companies over ebook pricing. (See the LA Times for details.) No less a celebrity than Stephen Colbert is now urging all of us to boycott Amazon in support of Hachette authors, of which he is one. The New York Times is outraged. So are many noted writers (Malcolm Gladwell and James Patterson are two, both also published by Hachette) and several writers’ organizations.

Those of us who are caught in the middle of this firestorm are primarily established writers who have chosen to go the self-published route for some or all of our new or out-of-print titles, and to use Amazon as our publishing partner. Typically, we ourselves have had books published with traditional presses in the past, and as a result we have strong connections (e.g., through membership in writers’ organizations) and even long-term friendships with other authors who are still published only by established presses. These presses include not only Hachette but all publishers who could receive similar treatment from Amazon in future, which is most of them. Solidarity is at stake here, and in a pre-self-publishing world, we would have easily and strongly stood together. Now, over this issue and several others related to it, such strength in unity is impossible.

For indie authors, there are many good reasons for selecting Amazon to fulfill the role of publishing partner for our self-published books, most of which involve both financial considerations and the ease of getting books created and distributed. CreateSpace (Amazon’s print-on-demand publishing arm) and Kindle Direct (Amazon’s e-book-creation arm) are easy to work with, user-friendly and professionally staffed, and they offer basic packages at reasonable prices. They also offer a range of add-on services (e.g. editing, book design), depending on what you want, need and/or can afford.

The distribution advantages are obvious: almost everyone in the universe has an Amazon account. Amazon delivers what you want, when you want it, and at a lower price than just about any other company (especially other bookstores these days, since Amazon’s innovations combined with the booksellers’ own lack of foresight have put most of them out of business). A writer may choose to make her books available on a number of platforms (Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.) but no writer can afford not to have her books also available on Amazon. Some of us even choose to have our books available exclusively on Amazon, due to the additional advantages Amazon offers us for choosing to limit our sales to its sites.

Yes, Amazon’s forward thinking–embraced by readers everywhere–has overturned the literary landscape. And yes, its innovations have driven most booksellers out of business due to its accessibility, range of offerings, and lower prices. Yes, Amazon has also started hammering at the bedrock of traditional publishing houses: its practice of treating the biggest of the big publishers no differently than it does me, a self publisher, may ultimately bring down Hachette and many other companies that have for decades made their livings off the backs of writers.

Amazon is a hell of a good company for writers who are working with it, rather than with one of its competitors. I get up to 70% royalties on my ebooks, and my readers can buy them for $2.99.  I can even give them away for free if I want to, in order to promote sales. (Publishers typically sell ebooks, which cost next to nothing to produce, for $10 to $15. Their writers get $1.50, and the publisher keeps the other $13.50. Even with print books, self publishers do far, far better financially per book sale than they do with traditional presses.)

What other writers want to do re: publishing their works is their business. However, with this Hachette-Amazon argument, if I choose to “support my fellow writers” and boycott Amazon, I am essentially telling people not to buy my books. And if I don’t support this boycott, I am a turncoat.

For a range of reasons that have to do with my choice to self-publish, in the past few years I have felt a steely and disapproving silence from some of my fellow authors, mostly the mid-range ones, and now here is another divisive issue that threatens to drive an even greater wedge between us.

Writers who ask me to boycott Amazon because of its treatment of Hachette have failed consider (and a lot of them don’t care) that my books are not accepted for sale in bookstores, not reviewed in traditional media, not eligible for most awards and grants, and not available in libraries. Why? Because I do not publish with an “established press.” But I’m supposed to give up book sales to support those companies that do have other avenues for promotions and sales? I think not.

Author John Greene is quoted in the LA Times article as saying, “The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

I disagree. American (and Canadian, and British, and Indian, and Australian, and so on) literature will thrive just fine without publishers – editors’ imprints will fill their roles in future, and much less expensively for everyone concerned.

Medium-sized and major publishers have done nothing at all for me, ever. They have not rejected my manuscripts so much as they have refused to even look at them, because they base their selections on what will sell, not on “the breadth . . . and quality of [the] literature.”

As Hugh Howey says in wading into this issue, “Publishers could have realized years ago that they are in the story development and delivery service, but they thought it was all about books. Which pretty much underscores all that has happened since.”

It is the publishers I am refusing to support, but that’s not how a lot of authors see it. But I can’t afford to be politically correct on this one. My unwillingness to support Hachette (and their agitating authors) vs Amazon is partly principle and partly economics – not being James Patterson, J.K. Rowling or Stephen Colbert, I can’t afford to support a cause that impacts my own income so directly. But here’s the bottom line: I’ve fought long and hard to get what I (and my reader-reviewers for the most part) believe to be quality books into print and available on the market, and any boycott of Amazon prevents those books from reaching readers. How can I urge that?

So my message to my fellow writers is this: do what you want when it comes to getting your books to print. Just don’t let issues like this one rip us apart. We’re all in this together, talking to our readers. The rest of them are only intermediaries who have figured out how to make more money off our talent than we ever can.

 

 

37 responses to “Amazon vs Hachette and the erosion of author solidarity

  1. Great post! You bring an interesting perspective to this issue. Right now, I’m looking at it from a consumer perspective, and I find it hard to support Hachette.

    I talked about the battle between Amazon versus Hachette a little bit in the comments to my post on May 23rd (“Did Apple Leave Amazon’s Kindle in the Dust?”), where I said that I’d be deeply concerned about every negotiating tactic Amazon used with publishers if they were the one and only place where a person could buy books. But as Hachette’s own statement on the dispute says, their titles are available at many other outlets. Amazon is a major bookseller, but it’s not a monopoly the way Standard Oil was.

    If Hachette doesn’t like Amazon’s terms, they are free to sell their books elsewhere. I’m not going to feel sorry for them, especially after their illegal collusion with Apple to raise ebook prices everywhere (a case that’s now on appeal). Hachette might think that higher ebook prices for its new releases will increase profits, but who knows whether that will work out for them. There are so many people who refuse to buy what is essentially a computer file (that they can’t give away or loan to others) for the prices Hachette wants. So, their books might end up in fewer hands, and the question will be whether the increased profit made on each book will make up for the lower sales figures. If not, authors who choose to go with Hachette might lose in the end. For many consumers, less expensive indies and free (or nearly free) out-of-copyright classics look increasingly attractive in comparison to a $14.99 or even $17.99 Hachette ebook.

    • Thank you, AMB. Again looking at it from the writer’s pov, we have to remember that it costs almost nothing to produce an ebook once a print book has been created (which applies to all books from the Hachette group, I’m sure), so the higher prices on ebooks are almost all gravy for publishers. They pay ridiculously low royalties to writers on ebooks. Writers should be getting 80 to 90% of ebook sales in such situations. Their publishers are ripping them off — and they’re asking us to help them do it.

      Nice to hear from you. Your blog looks interesting, and I’ve added it to my “follow” list.

  2. This is a very thoughtful column. I learned a great deal from having read it, and I’ll save it for future reference. Thanks for taking time to think it all through and share your thoughts with the rest of us.
    Elle Thornton
    The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis

  3. Mary, as always you get right to the point and tell it like it is. Thank you for stating the bald truth of this tempest-in-an-ink-pot in such a clear, concise way.

  4. Well put, Mary. I’m in the same predicament as most Indie authors. Right now, it is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Amazon is big (too big for many), but right now they are the only game in town for Indie authors like myself. I’m waiting for some company to come along to challenge Amazon’s control of books and eBooks. I have no idea why another company hasn’t come along yet to challenge them. With competition, it’s just possible that we author’s might get a better deal.

  5. I listened to industry insiders and commentators hash this case out on the Diane Rehm show (http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2014-06-05/dispute-amazon-over-e-book-pricing) and it burned me that no authors were invited to weigh in. On guest had the decency to admit that most of what the big publishing houses published wasn’t worth reading and that many indie titles were worth reading. Other than that the panel ignored the author’s interests in this case. Neither Amazon or Hachette is fighting for authors. But I agree with you that Amazon has traditionally been on the side of indie authors and given us both the opportunity and the autonomy to publish our books through KDP. The self-appointed gatekeepers of literary culture don’t have my support in this fight. Parents, teachers, and librarians whine that #weneeddiversebooks and yet shun indie authors who are providing them. I love Rowling, Colbert, and Green, but I don’t agree with them that Amazon is a bully. They are standing up for their publisher as they perhaps are expected to do. But Hachette and the other big houses don’t represent the majority of authors and they certainly are not representing readers’ best interests. They’ve already proven that they are willing to go to criminal lengths to protect their profit margin. Why should any of us trust them in this fight? I’m not saying that Amazon is without fault, but they don’t have a history of screwing authors and customers the way the big publishers do.

  6. Bless you Mary, for being able to say many of my thoughts with such clarity and professionalism. I had a problem supporting Pietsch for another reason. He published a book, which might have been decent if the author had been alive to help make changes. Instead, it is a poorly written, rambling, non-sensical bit of junk. But it has raves reviews because of the author fan club, many of who give five stars while saying it’s not a well written book. Fine to admire an author, but to put this out, charge people for it, and claim it’s greatness based on the author and not the quality of the work gave me a true taste of traditional publishing, and the futility of trying to break into it. If this had been written by a nobody, it would have been panned and canned after reading two or three pages. So why is it celebrated? Because a publisher told everyone it was worthy of it, made sure it got good press, and the entire hoopla, even if its a disaster.

    Agents, editors, publishers will barely acknowledge new authors. Instead they often force feeding less than quality work. They cling to known authors, no matter if the writing deteriorates or is obviously ghost written. In other words, many traditional publishers have lost my respect because they are not truly seeking new literature, variety, new voices, new ideas, but rather bullying their way to limit the choices we have as readers. I find them far more heavy-handed in their approach to publishing than Amazon. Most publishers have now been absorbed into large conglomerates, so that even smaller presses which once accepted manuscripts are now secluded from writers and only have limited access through agents. So who is playing the bully? Amazon of the four or five remaining publishing giants.

    They aren’t listening. Amazon is growing because it is listening. Plus, Amazon has given opportunities for new forms of publishing, as well as book selling. Many small used book sellers are able to stay in business by becoming Amazon partners, allowing those of us who love to peruse the old and dusty and out-of-print, access to both physical stores and a wider range of others. I feel as if some of the bookstores didn’t fail because of Amazon, but because of some of their own faulty practices — limiting choices and selections, failing to offer certain authors because they hadn’t met an established sales quota yet. And best of all small publishers are springing up because now they can get books and eBooks published for very little, so they can invest in editors, reviewers, proof-readers, etc, to begin to give more options for new writers to find a way of getting published without have to figure out the elusive access to agents or promotions. They will hopefully be a part of a revival of variety in reading, and give some credibility to Indie authors who they accept and work with as a team, not a subject.

    So before I can support Hachette, or even some of the big name authors who have not spoken out for providing more opportunities for new writers, I’ll put my faith on new, emerging opportunities, both for writers and readers.

  7. Hachette is a huge, multi-national company, hardly an underdog needing ‘support’ against Amazon.

    This is like a B-movie ‘clash of the titians’ where the two monsters battle it out – and the ‘little guy’ had better get out of the way or get squashed.

  8. Nicely said, Mary . Traditional publishing has long controlled the reader trends. They determined what the new ‘it’ genre if the season will be . Amazon gives the readers a whole spectrum of new material in timely intervals. This should be a business for all readers not a business for a select group of houses/agents/editors/writers. Readers should not be held hostage any longer. The written word has too much competition with video games, instant movies, etc. I’m just grateful that people are still reading.

  9. Well done Mary, such a thoughtful piece. May I share on the Southern Guf Islands Art Council FB site I manage?

  10. Pingback: More on Amazon’s Strong-Arm Tactics – brucekeener.com

  11. I saw this on ‘the Passive Voice’ and thought it might be relevant:

    Jaye Manus wrote: “Then I got it. “Amazon” is a code word. When traditionally-published authors say “I hate and fear Amazon,” what they are really saying is, “I hate and fear indie authors.” They are using Amazon as a proxy. They can’t come right out and admit that they’re terrified because indie authors are eating their lunch, so they go after the “face” of indie authors.”

    http://jwmanus.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/self-publishing-amateurs-versus-the-pros/

    Also from that website: Steven Zacharius, CEO, Kensington said: “In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B&N.com for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites.”

    This is what I’m worried about – Indies being shut out of the market once again. I hope we are a large enough slice of the market that Amazon can’t be forced to marginalize us to a ‘separate website’ or shut the gates of the market completely.

    I don’t want to return to the ‘Pre-Kindle’ book market!

    • I don’t think that will happen, Kat. Amazon brags that it treats all publishers the same — whether it’s an individual or a mega-corp. The democratization of publishing is its strongest talking point.

  12. “Amazon reserves the right to change any provision of its agreement with any author at any time for any reason.” http://nyti.ms/1mAV1iE
    Can you possibly wrap your brain around the big picture here? Anyone who is fighting for any leverage on Amazon’s ability to dictate terms to everyone, is fighting for you.

    • It does not surprise me that the email address associated with this comment originates in a publishing house (not one of the Big 5, by the way, in case other readers are interested, but a significant house nonetheless): I had guessed that it did from its pejorative tone. (“Can you possibly wrap your brain around…” Charming.)

      Did you read my post, Sir? Yes, Amazon could lower my share of e-book income, but it would have to lower it significantly before the amount came anywhere close to the paltry sum that publishers pay authors on ebook sales.

      And further to the New York Times‘s suggestion that publishers pull their books from Amazon, I don’t think that will happen. Publishers are, I’m sure, more than a little concerned that such a move might not significantly reduce the portion of the book market that Amazon now enjoys. Statistics show that a huge percentage of book sales are now indie-published titles. The vast majority of readers care more about price than they do the name of the publishing house.

      Producing top quality books without a publisher is the way of the future. The Big 5 dinosaurs are going down. And your company and its ilk are NOT fighting for my best interests. But thanks anyway.

  13. You’re welcome. You’re welcome to those Amazon customers who came to Amazon because they discounted books from traditional publishers below profitable levels. You’re welcome to those Amazon customers who used to shop at physical bookstores, before those discounts drove the stores out of business. I’m sure millions of beautiful flowers will bloom on scorched earth.

    • I don’t know about where you live but over here in Canada, those physical bookstores were overcharging books by as much as $10 to $15 dollars (if not more) than the stated cover price and blaming that dubious practise on the currency exchange even when the Canadian dollar was on par with the American one, for well over a year. As much as I love physically browsing through books, this is the reason why I stopped going to bookstores and started shopping on Amazon. For years, I have been an avid Amazon customer on the American, Canadian and English websites and have never looked back. If you like to gouge customers, don’t expect any loyalty from them.

      (And after reading this blog post, it infuriates me even more to know that I was not only gouged in the past, but that authors made so little from those physical sales!)

      • I really appreciate that comment, Rose. Thank you for it. I’m in Canada too. One thing you might add to your list of frustrations (it is certainly one of mine) is the knowledge that amazon.ca is not the same as amazon.com or amazon.uk — it is more like a bookstore that takes its own cut on TOP of the cut taken by amazon.com So if my book is available for sale on amazon.com for $15, when people buy my book from amazon.com I earn $5.15. If they buy it from amazon.ca I earn $2.15 In other words, amazon.ca is making more than I am by selling my book. I never ever buy from amazon.ca.

        Thanks again!

    • Hi Dean, just another Indie-first author here. I buy exclusively from Amazon as a reader and am a huge advocate for them. They’re still the good guy in my book. As a reader and consumer they do a fantastic job truly understanding what I want and providing it at a fair price. As an author I also fully support them. I have never traditionally published and will always go Indie (read: Amazon) first. The publishers don’t represent my or other readers or authors interests as far as I can tell. So yeah, if tomorrow all the traditional publishers folded I would weep no tears at their passing. Good riddance. Provide what readers and authors want at a fair price and compensation and sure you can have a seat at the table. Otherwise, hasta la vista baby.

    • Dean
      I know others claim that Amazon is forcing others out of the market, but here’s my reality on book buying. I found Amazon when they were pretty much a nobody, selling books and music, that was it. No one was threatened back then and my guess is not too many paid them much attention. But for me, who doesn’t want to be force-fed a certain type of book and who has a broad range of interests, Amazon became my haven, right along with Albris and few other used/rare book dealers. If I want to learn how to cane a chair, I am not going to find a book on that at a big book store. So you can condemn it, but it is one of the few places I can find just about any book, including some extremely old reprints that some companies have started re-producing. I’m talking about reprints from the early days of print press type re-prints. Can you tell me anywhere else I can get that kind of selection?

      And when publishing houses begin to become more receptive to writers other than movies stars, rock singers and former politicians, maybe I’ll get behind them, too. When do new authors get a chance in the age of mega corporations? Given an opportunity, I’d be happy to support an alternative. Right now, I don’t have access to any alternative because my name lacks recognition, so I am not yet worthy of notice by traditional publishers. I keep trying, and maybe someday publishers will take note but until then, can you suggest an alternative?

      • I noticed Amazon when Jeff Bezos was posting on USENET, almost 20 years ago. Amazon was not the first online bookseller, but the early pioneers did not survive. The publisher I work for was selling our books online before Amazon arrived. As were many other publishers.

        What Amazon did from the beginning was sell books at steep discounts, sometimes below what they paid for them. A time-honored means of gaining market share. But one can’t be a $75billion company and show virtually no profit indefinitely. It’s a highwire act that Amazon has done very skillfully, but eventually the stockholders want the payoff. Amazon’s strategy to become profitable doesn’t involve raising prices, but getting lower prices from its suppliers. Publishers have to become less profitable so that Amazon can become more profitable.

        There are a whole lot of publishers, and undoubtedly Amazon will put the squeeze on each of them, eventually. There are thousands of publishers who are unreceptive to writers who are movies stars, rock singers and former politicians. And even at the mega-publishers there are some folks who see publishing the very commercial crap as a just means to publishing books for smaller audiences–translations, poetry, literary and experimental fiction, narrow-interest non-fiction. There are a lot of writers working in publishing.

        Except for books that are published only on the Amazon platforms, you can get any book though your local bookseller, or through Powells.com or B&N.com. Many publishers sell directly, too. The reprints of public domain books you mention that appear on Amazon may be available through Amazon’s CreateSpace, or they may also be available on Lulu, Blurb, Peecho, or QooP. (Multiple platforms makes sense to me.)

        I’m not apocalyptic: Amazon is here to stay. As are print books, and ebooks, and publishers. But the less diverse the retail marketplace becomes, the more consolidation we will see on the publishing side. Neither of these trends is good for writers (or literary culture) in the long run.

        • Dean, sorry for the delay in posting this. I was away from my computer yesterday. I won’t have time to read and respond until later but I wanted to get it posted.

        • I utterly agree with everything you say. As the former editor-in-chief of a publishing company, I understand the economics of publishing and the commitment of many presses to help subsidize literary works through sales of more commercial books. I find this commendable. I have some concerns about the proportion of ebook sales that are going to writers from publishing houses, and the prices that publishing houses are charging for ebooks (since I know how much they cost to produce), but this will change with time. We’re in a transition period. However, those of us who have chosen to leave behind the headaches of working with poor marketing and distribution capabilities of many publishers, and/or have been unable to find a mid- to large-sized publisher based on our booknet figures for previous books that were poorly marketed by incompetent smaller presses, and have chosen to self-publish, are finding that amazon is — right now — the best place to find readers. And we are making more money per sale than are those who are with most traditional presses. We are part of the writing community, some of us even creating quality work, and people like Colbert and Patterson (and others with much smaller incomes) need to begin to recognize that. We need amazon at this stage of the evolution of self-publishing. And they treat us well.

  14. Thank you for this, Mary. You bring a true professional writer’s insight into it. I’ve pretty much leaned towards self-publishing for my first novel. I don’t care about awards or special prizes. I personally don’t write to please or impress anyone in the literary elite. I write because I have stories to tell. I know my odds of becoming incredibly wealthy, with people waiting anxiously for my next work, are low. But, we writers shouldn’t have to get caught up in cat fights between publishing houses. We also shouldn’t have to struggle so hard just to make a living. If people didn’t write fiction, the world would essentially end.

  15. But there are rewards and prizes. I’m proud my first novel has received several awards and honors. You have to work hard for your book, but all authors have to do that. As for indie bookstores, I appreciate the support my wonderful local bookstore has given me for my indie novels. It hasn’t been easy for the owners, but indie bookstores are on the rebound around the country and they are accommodating indie authors.I can make more money if they buy from Createspace, but I urge local readers to buy from this bookstore. It’s a mutual thing. Word of mouth just gets around and leaps to the internet.

    • Yes, there are awards and prizes, Janet, but I want my books to be eligible to compete with all books in its genre, not only other self-published books. We are fortunate here in Canada to have a number of local, provincial and national prizes for writing, some of which are lucrative, all of which help promote books tremendously. Even if they don’t win, the judges learn about them and that can have unexpected positive repercussions in the future. Self-published books are not yet eligible for consideration.

      As for booksellers, some are supportive but many more still are not. And to work to change the thinking of each bookseller in a region takes time most of us don’t have. They should be reaching out to us.

      Not everyone has the energy or confidence for promotion and outreach that you do! I continue to be very impressed with what you do to penetrate the market with your books.

  16. I keep reading that the “stigma” of self-publishing is disappearing, but clearly it still exists — and there’s resentment as well — especially from writers lucky enough to have gotten traditional contracts or not to have been dropped (yet) by their publishers. The stigma may be lessening among readers — especially readers within certain genres who can’t get enough and enjoy the lower cost for content. Mostly, I think my fellow and sister writers look at me as someone who started driving on the shoulder to get out of a traffic jam. I view myself as someone who simply turned onto another road after hitting one too many detour signs.

  17. This isn’t an indie vs traditional thing. Amazon has a problem with wanting everything digital. For folks like me, who prefer hard copies, this poses a problem. I want to buy a hard copy book. I like some of the Hachette authors, why should I have to buy my hard copies off of Amazon, when Amazon says that they won’t be able to supply my demand over a fight with the publisher? This makes me go to another store. When the last Dean Koontz book came out, I spent 20 for it, rather than buy it from Amazon for 15. This is my choice. I don’t want anyone having the ability to just delete my purchases. I don’t want anyone in my computer. This is what I’ve decided; Amazon decided to lose my business when the new Pendergast book comes out.

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