Amazon and Hachette (one of the Big Five trade publishers) disagree terms. Amazon takes action against Hachette-published books by allegedly lowering discounts and removing pre-order options. Negotiations drag out and authors feel the pinch.
Authors such as Douglas Preston, Lee Child and John Grisham sign a letter, calling on Amazon to resolve the dispute without hurting authors and asking readers to email Jeff Bezos to ‘tell him what you think’.
Hugh Howey launches a petition of his own in support of Amazon and criticising the Big Five as devaluing readers and authors alike.
Amazon offers Hachette authors 100% royalties on their eBooks while the dispute lasts.
UPDATE: July 29: Amazon release a statement with hard data on pricing.
He blogs regularly about writing and the book business here. A keen observer of industry changes, a top-rated blogger and publishing advisor, this is his take on the dispute.
WWJ: This is not the first time a distributor and publisher have clashed. Why is Amazon v. Hachette attracting more interest than, for example, Barnes & Noble v. Simon & Schuster?
DG: Because it’s Amazon! It doesn’t matter that Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster had a similar dispute last year (without people losing their minds) because the currency of the internet is attention and a story on Amazon will guarantee more clicks than anything else. The spat between Amazon and Hachette is essentially a business dispute between a large corporation and a very large corporation, but the “industry” is attempting to depict it as a battle for the future of writing as a viable profession.
This allows them to tap into the fear that many writers have about the paradigm shift that’s underway. Hachette can’t come right out and say that it wants higher book prices (which is the result if they prevail in negotiations and take back control of pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount), so instead we get a narrative of a rapacious corporation versus a plucky guardian of our literary heritage. Authors should adopt a little more scepticism towards what is a concerted PR campaign from a series of vested interests.
WWJ: The recent furore over author earnings can’t be ignored. Leaving aside the Pattersons and Childs, who’s losing out, if anyone?
DG: I don’t think we should set them aside so fast. Bestselling authors like Patterson, Preston & Child are being hit hard in this dispute because Amazon is no longer providing pre-order facilities to Hachette. Pre-orders are essential to the very top-selling authors because the New York Times counts all pre-order sales as first-week sales for the purposes of their bestseller list. These big-name authors are on very different contracts than the average writer (which is why we’ve never seen them organize a protest against unconscionable contract terms and the paltry royalty rates the average writer receives, or something like the industrial-scale scamming at places like Penguin Random House-owned Author Solutions). These guys tend to get escalators or bonuses based on things like appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, so the real reason for this protest, I respectfully submit, is that it’s hitting them in the pocket. I don’t think they care about the average writer.
That’s not to say the average Hachette author is unaffected by this dispute. Hachette’s Amazon sales are way down – by much more than other retailers are seeing an uptick. I’m sure that affects Hachette titles across the board. And I’m also sure that when these authors come to negotiate their next contract with Hachette that reduced sales numbers will have an impact on any terms they are offered, despite the fact that this dispute was outside their control, because that’s what always happens.
I’m hoping this dispute gets resolved as quickly as possible. However, I fear negotiations could drag out for some time, so it’s essential that Amazon and Hachette remove authors from the firing line immediately. To date, Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to compensate affected authors. Hachette has summarily dismissed each offer without making any counter-offer whatsoever – indicative, in my opinion, of how it has approached the overall negotiations. Indeed, it could be argued that Hachette wants to keep authors in the firing line to increase the pressure on Amazon.
WWJ: Accusations and emotions are running high, with commentators invoking everything from commercial suicide to predicting the death of literature. What’s your outlook?
DG: Fear is the most powerful tool if you want to manipulate public opinion. Emotions are running high because the publishing industry is being radically reshaped by the same disruptive forces that have transformed all sorts of industries from travel and insurance to newspapers and music. Change is scary, and the publishing industry is changing at light-speed. If you want a parallel with music, I think it’s akin to going from vinyl straight to MP3.
Publishers like Hachette have been doing everything possible to slow down the changeover from print to digital. It knows that self-publishers and small publishers are grabbing huge market share because large publishers don’t have a lock on digital distribution like they do with print. Once a reader goes from shopping in Waterstones to buying e-books from Amazon, that reader starts buying way more books that aren’t published by the biggest players. The response of large publishers to the digital revolution was to drag their feet on the digitization of backlist books, institute windowing for e-books (so they weren’t released at the same time as hardbacks), and engage in an illegal conspiracy to fix the price of e-books to keep prices artificially high – all of which is designed to slow down the switch to digital.
Hachette’s aim in these negotiations is to regain control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount books. The net effect will be higher prices for readers, which in turn will slow down the transition to e-books. This buys Hachette time as it figures out this weird thing called the internet and how to talk to those strange people called readers – something they didn’t really have to do in a print world where its customers were booksellers.
I absolutely reject the notion that if Hachette fails to regain control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount books that this will lead to some kind of disaster. I think that’s a regressive, zero-sum view of the marketplace which fails to grasp that books are in competition with all sorts of other forms of entertainment. I think lower prices are something that we should strive for as that grows the market – which benefits all writers (and readers).
WWJ: Both the letter and petition I mention above appeal to The Reader. Do you see readers as the reluctant jury service or fortunate beneficiaries in this case?
DG: I don’t think most readers care about the details of any publishing dispute, but they do care about the after-effects – which often aren’t immediately apparent. Readers reacted with boycotts and one-star reviews when five of the Big Six publishers engaged in an illegal conspiracy with Apple to fix the price of e-books. I think they will be similarly mad if Hachette prevails now and Hachette e-books become more expensive overnight.
WWJ: Amazon’s hold on the market is described as a monopsony. If the UK had retained the Net Book Agreement [fixed price book agreement such as exist in France and Germany], would we now be playing on a fairer field?
DG: It’s quite revealing how traditional publishers cast envious eyes at the price-fixing/discount-restricting laws in places like France and Germany. It makes a mockery of any claim that they weren’t intending to fix e-book prices in America. The nostalgia with which the Net Book Agreement is viewed is equally illuminating. Such price-maintenance agreements are always presented in the media as a positive thing for the future of literature, but they are really about control. Publishers want to maintain e-book prices at a higher level so they can slow the changeover to digital as much as possible. Let’s be very clear about this: anyone campaigning for these kinds of laws or agreements is campaigning for higher book prices – something I absolutely oppose and something I think would be an incredibly regressive step.
With regard to the UK in particular, the problem, in my view, wasn’t getting rid of the Net Book Agreement, but the practice of publishers offering sweetheart deals to chains and supermarkets, making it next-to-impossible for independent bookstores to compete.
WWJ: Earlier this month, New York publisher Morgan Entrekin said, “we’re seeing concentration in the fewest hands ever in publishing history.” Do you think that’s true?
DG: I presume Morgan Entrekin was talking about the retail side of the business, but it’s also happening on the publishing side. Penguin Random House was the highest-profile merger/acquisition in recent years but the first half of 2014 was the busiest for mergers/acquisitions since before the financial crisis. The concentration is more obvious on the retail side where Amazon has grabbed a huge chunk of the market and major bookselling chains have collapsed or are teetering on the brink. What’s interesting to me is that consolidation on the publishing side has historically led to poorer conditions for writers and readers (with worsening terms and higher book prices), but consolidation on the retail side seems to be doing the opposite. Book prices are falling, and writers have new ways to publish their work with better contract terms and higher royalty rates – whether that’s with a progressive digital publisher, or through self-publishing.
There’s no argument from me with the view that a diverse retail landscape is the ideal, but the above phenomenon should be noted because it illustrates that market domination by one player isn’t inherently bad, but what makes it less than ideal is what companies can do with such power. In other words, it’s about what Amazon might do at some undefined point in the future rather than their actions to date. If the solution being proposed to this future-problem is for government intervention and/or price-fixing agreements then that will make the situation worse, not better. We should be encouraging Amazon’s competitors to raise their game, instead of trying to remove competition from the marketplace.
The simple fact is that Amazon sells more e-books than anyone else because it provides a better customer experience. If you look at the e-bookstores of Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and Google, the difference is immediately apparent. And if you start divvying up the market by governmental fiat, then these players will have zero incentive to raise their game.