To say the ongoing feud between Hachette Book Group and Amazon, Inc. has polarized the publishing world is an understatement at this point. On one side you have Amazon, global commercial giant and alleged monopoly, and on the other you have Hachette, one of the Big Five American publishers and purveyor of books (through a variety of imprints) by authors such as James Patterson, Richard Galbraith (pen name of J.K. Rowling), and Mitch Albom, among many others. (If you’re unfamiliar with the details of the dispute, take a look at Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent summary at LATimes.com.)
Each side has their supporters. Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch has rallied a veritable mob of authors, publishers, editors, along anyone else willing to listen, to speak out (often with surprising vehemence) against Amazon’s “bullying” tactics. Amazon, along with its tens of thousands of other book suppliers who are either too small or too uninterested to get involved, has remained its massive, indomitable self–which is to say, dismissive and largely aloof.
To my knowledge, none of the other four Big Five publishers have publicly taken a position in the matter, which is probably wise on their part.
If you have any interest, financial or otherwise, in publishing, and you spend a lot of time on Twitter and the rest of the internet, it has been very easy to get caught up in the anti-Amazon hype Hachette’s supporters have stirred up. As author David Gaughran recently wrote on his website, it’s important to cut through the spin.
Hachette and its cabal have very clearly and deliberately painted themselves as a modest group of artists and other creative types being bullied by a huge, evil corporation, the brave young David to Amazon’s towering, belligerent Goliath. In comparison to any other company except Amazon, however, Hachette Book Group portraying itself as the Little Guy would be laughable–and still is, if you think about it.
The truth is this is a case of old Goliath versus young Goliath, of an old king refusing to give up his throne.
Hachette Book Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of Largardere Group, a French multinational mass media corporation worth billions of dollars in its own right. They’re hardly “little,” by any definition of the word.
Hachette, its authors, and other supportive writers connected to the traditional publishing industry are trying to make this an argument about the death of literature, when in reality it’s anything but.
In a compelling and bravely contrarian article for The Guardian today, author Barry Eisler collected the reactions of several big name authors:
As an author of ten novels – legacy-published, self-published, and Amazon-published – I’m bewildered by the anti-Amazon animus among various establishment writers. James Patterson pays for full-page ads in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, demanding that the US government intervene and do something (it’s never clear what) about Amazon. Richard Russo tries to frighten authors over Amazon’s“scorched-earth capitalism”. Scott Turow conjures images of the“nightmarish” future that Amazon, “the Darth Vader of the literary world”, has in store for us all. And “Authors Guild” president Roxana Robinson says Amazon is like “Tony Soprano” and “thuggish”.
From an editorial standpoint, I’d say Mr. Turow and Ms. Robinson need to tone down the hyperbole. This is a business dispute, pure and simple, and not a unique one, as Gaughran points out:
The last time I saw an anti-Amazon media push this big was in the run-up to the price-fixing trial. It seemed pretty clear to me that the large publishers were attempting to litigate the case in the court of public opinion because they had no chance in an actual court.
Don’t you think it’s interesting that a very similar spat between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster generated little of the same negative attention? Authors like Hugh Howey had virtually zero B&N bookstore distribution (for the release of one of the hottest titles of the year), and this was accompanied by no widespread condemnation, just a general hope that both parties would amicably resolve their dispute.
Back at The Guardian, Eisler points out the logical fallacy behind James Patterson’s repeated assertion that Amazon is out to destroy literature:
[Patterson] conflates an important function – publishing books – with the entity currently providing that function (the legacy industry run by New York’s “Big Five” publishing houses). Whatever challenges he then sees facing the legacy industry (no bookstores! no libraries!) then become challenges to literature itself (no books!). That’s a logical falsehood, of course – akin to believing a challenge to the horse-and-buggy industry is a challenge to transportation itself – but it’s a scary thought and therefore produces an extreme defensive response (government, do something!).
An accusation of corporate greed destroying literary culture is particularly rich coming from Mr. Patterson, whose own name is more brand than byline and who keeps a veritable stable of “co-authors” (read: ghost writers) who churn out bestsellers the way Apple churns out iPhones.
The authors railing against Amazon are, by and large, those whose books are published through traditional/legacy publishing houses. Their personal finances are affected by this dispute. Their bias, therefore, should be obvious, but most of them would have you believe that their true reason for objecting to Amazon’s behavior is one of principle.
There’s nothing wrong with protecting your own financial interests; I don’t fault those writers who openly admit that they support Hachette because they’re losing money on this deal. That’s how business works. I do have a problem with those who continue to spin this as some kind of moral war.
The similarities between the Amazon-Hachette feud and the problems the music industry faced in the 2000s are obvious, but history has seemingly not taught Big Publishing any lessons. This is a question of adaptation, not survival, and those who refuse to adapt will not, therefore, survive. The music industry didn’t wink out of existence because of Napster and iTunes and digital downloads, it was just forced to adapt to emerging technological trends. It’s still here. So will the publishing industry be–at least, those who don’t remain luddites out of spite.
Mr. Eisler identifies the double standard at the heart of legacy publishing’s anti-Amazon stance:
- If it’s evil, malignant and bullying for Amazon not to stock Hachette’s books (assuming this is even what’s happening; common sense suggests the truth is otherwise), why is it OK for Barnes & Noble and various independent booksellers (which areare actually thriving) to refuse to stock Amazon-published and self-published books?
- Why was there so little outcry a little over a year ago regardinga similar dispute between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster?
- No other bookstore on earth offers Amazon’s selection. So isn’t every other bookstore by definition refusing to stock more books than Amazon does? Why is this OK?
- Why was it OK a few years ago when the Big Five all threatened to pull their books from Amazon (collusively, as it turned out) if Amazon didn’t agree to raise its prices? Amazon is evil for refusing to buy some books from publishers, but it’s still OK for publishers to refuse to sell Amazon any books at all?
The double standard makes even less sense when you consider how the legacy industry treats most authors. Legacy publishers pay authors only twice a year. (Has there ever been anything like that in any other industry?) They generally pay us only 12.5% in digital royalties, compared to the 70% we get from Amazon. They insist on taking control of our copyright not for a reasonable term, but forever. They’ve done all they can to try to keep the prices of books artificially high, which hurts consumers and costs authors money. They have a record of zero innovation. And they’ve run the industry for decades in a way that has benefited the few while stifling new opportunities for the many.
There are growing pains, and then there is obstinance. Hachette and its partners have no place calling foul on Amazon when they themselves are guilty of just as many, if not more, intimidation tactics. Either stop raising a fuss and treat it like the business-as-usual that it is, or, better yet, calm down and focus on adapting your business model to the times.
The future of publishing will ultimately be determined by those whom it serves: readers. And the simple truth about readers is that they want the books they want, as easily and cheaply as they can get them. Amazon and digital publishing in general makes it easier for readers to get ahold of the content they want, and in so doing they have immeasurably improved authors’ ability to self-publish and support themselves off of their work.
When considering this issue as a whole, the question to ask yourself as an aspiring writer is this: do you want to enter the publishing arena as an author who writes books for readers to read, or as the pawn of an aging industry that refuses to adapt to business in the modern world?