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Sides forming in the Amazon-Hachette dispute

Anti-Amazon ad

On Sunday, a full-page ad will appear in The New York Times, paid for by a group of best-selling authors and signed by 900 other authors, calling on Amazon “in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”

This ad is “the latest salvo in a battle over terms which has seen Amazon delay delivery and remove the possibility of pre-orders on a swathe of books by Hachette authors, including JK Rowling and James Patterson,” The Guardian reported on Friday, Aug. 8. “The online leviathan Amazon says it is attempting to ‘lower ebook prices’; publishing conglomerate Hachette argues that it is seeking ‘terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them.’

The Guardian continues: “Both sides have gradually sharpened their rhetoric over recent weeks, with Hachette saying that it would be suicidal to accept Amazon’s proposals, and Amazon (saying) that Hachette should ‘stop using their authors as human shields.'”

The authors’ ad says, in part: “As writers – most of us not 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. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. 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.'” The authors include Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Paul Auster, Barbara Kingsolver and other well-known names.

Other authors’ responses to the ad

When the news broke last month about this upcoming ad, a petition was published on Change.org (a popular petition platform), written by indie authors Hugh C. Howey, Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, and signed by 27 other authors before publication. As of 3 pm Saturday, Aug. 9, there were over 8,000 signatures of support on this petition, which says in part:

“New York Publishing once controlled the book industry. They decided which stories you were allowed to read. They decided which authors were allowed to publish. They charged high prices while withholding less expensive formats. They paid authors as little as possible, usually between 2% and 12.5% of the list price of a book.
“Amazon, in contrast, 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. … You may have heard that Amazon and Hachette are having a dispute about how books are sold. The details are complex, but the gist is this: Amazon wants to keep e-book prices affordable, and Hachette wants to keep them artificially high.”

A word from Amazon

Sometime between Friday evening, Aug. 8, and this morning, Aug 9, on the URL “readersunited.com,” Amazon published the article “A Message from the Amazone Books Team.” This piece calls for readers to contact the CEO of Hachette books, Michael Pietsch—which is obviously a response to the NYT ad calling on readers to contact Amazon’s Jeff Bezos “and tell him what you think.”

Slate’s Alison Griswold, reporting on this, noted the mention of George Orwell: “Amazon Invokes Orwell in Latest Stab at Hachette.”

Blogs by Hugh Howey (“Could it be any Clearer?“) and author Mark Phillips, writing on GoodReads (“On the Importance of Perspective“) talk about how Amazon terms are better for authors than any of the publishers’ terms.

An opposing view against Amazon was offered by Maria Bustillos (“Amazon wants Readers to Write to (Hachette CEO) Michael Pietsch! Gladly.“), talking about how Amazon’s business model devalues books.

No small players here

There is always fear of Amazon becoming a monopoly, but Hachette, Apple, and four other big publishers were brought to court in 2012 for colluding to keep prices high. (“How the Agency Model led to an AntiTrust Suit,” by David Gaughran, April 2012). They wanted to sell new ebooks at $14.99; Amazon wanted to sell them for $9.99 or less. Gaughran’s May 26, 2014, blog (“Amazon vs. Hachette: Don’t Believe the Spin“) adds more updated information on this story. There have been some settlements in this case, but it’s ongoing.

Several folks commenting on these various blogs have pointed out that Amazon doesn’t care about the writers and readers any more than the big publishers do. They just want to make money. Probably true, but that’s not the point. Under the current Amazon model, writers can make 70% royalties and sell more books (calculations show lower book prices lead to enough increase in sales to produce higher total revenue).

Many articles, many opinions

I am not an expert on this, so I can only continue to read about it and gradually form my own opinion. I realize I’ve put a lot of links in this article, and I don’t expect everyone to read all of these … plus there are plenty of other articles on the topic to be found.

But Amazon vs Hachette aside, here are some of my basic beliefs:

  1. Authors should be paid for their work, but if their books are overpriced, they will not sell. As a reader, I want the prices to be kept low for as long as possible. I’m certainly not going to buy an ebook for $14.99 if the paperback is $15.99. And anyone doing the math can see that selling more ebooks at $9.99 (or $4.99) will earn an author more money than slow sales at $14.99 (or $6.99).
  2. The contracts of most authors at most publishing houses do not garner them very much money; royalty percentages are traditionally very low. Amazon offers higher royalty percentages.
  3. If five major publishers plus Apple were secretly collaborating to keep prices high, Amazon can hardly be accused of monopolistic practices.

I realize that last statement has me leaning more toward Amazon’s side, but as of right now it feels Amazon does more for small and mid-level authors, especially self-published authors. And I do highly support self-publishing and self-published authors.

I’m going to keep following the story.