amazon-vs-hachetteSince Amazon’s public statement last week regarding its ongoing feud with Hachette, the internets have been alive with responses from the friends and benefactors of traditional publishing.  Everyone from John Scalzi to the L.A. Times took a shot at questioning, distinguishing, undermining, spinning, and just plain refuting Amazon’s assertion that reducing ebook prices would result in more sales and bigger profits for publishers and authors.

Some good points have been made: yes, it’s dangerous to oversimplify the (admittedly unpredictable) relationship between price and sales.  Yes, Amazon is using a general statistic (the fact that ebooks priced at $9.99 sell 1.74 times more copies than those priced at $14.99) to assert a causal relationship between lower prices and increased sales, which may or may not consistently exist.  Yes, Amazon’s claims also presume a certain level of fungibility among books that may not, in fact, exist–to paraphrase the L.A. Times, the works of Martin Heidegger are hardly interchangeable with The Hunger Games.

While it’s tempting to focus on the nuts and bolts of each side’s argument, it’s also useful to step back occasionally and consider the larger picture.  With that in mind, a few things to remember:

  • Both Amazon and Hachette (and, by extension, traditional publishing) are equally biased.  One of the biggest criticisms Hachette and its supporters have levied at Amazon is that of bias: that Amazon’s only goal is to turn a profit, that its tactics are belligerent and monopolistic, and that it veils these true motives behind phony claims of representing authors’ best interests.  In the above-referenced post, Mr. Scalzi condescends to point out to authors, rather pedantically, that “Amazon is not your friend.”  As if legions of dimwitted (undoubtedly self-published) writers had been hoodwinked by Jeff Bezos’ mustache-twisting corporate masterminds into lobbying for a company that doesn’t actually give a shit about them.  Do such blindly loyal Amazon fanboys and girls exist?  Undoubtedly.  But for every person shortsighted enough to imagine that Amazon somehow owes them something, there are others who look at the situation pragmatically.  Who acknowledge and accept their own biases by acting and speaking out for their own best interests. It’s important to keep in mind, as we’ve mentioned before, the hypocrisy of the anti-corporate sentiments Hachette and its authors and supporters are trying to incite.  Hachette is itself a multinational corporation, and is no more a representative of the little guy or protector of literature and authors’ rights than Amazon is.  It should be obvious that profit is Amazon’s primary goal, just as it should be obvious that it is also Hachette’s.Incidentally, the fact that Amazon could, at some point in the future, take advantage of its legions of self-published authors in some way, or, for that matter, could venture into truly anti-competitive practices, is beside the point.  Right now, on this issue, Amazon has raised a number of good points, and highlighted a number of problems with the traditional publishing model, particularly as it relates to advancements in technology and production.  The people who support Amazon do so because they stand to benefit from Amazon’s services–the vast majority of whom, I’d venture to guess, would not have achieved any sort of publication without Amazon’s existence.  As Hugh Howey has pointed out, the idea that every writer faces the choice between self-publishing and having their book on an end-cap at Barnes & Noble is a false dichotomy.  The real choice is to self-publish or query an agent.  And 98 percent of agent queries never result in publication.
  • For that matter, the authors supporting Hachette are biased as well.  Don’t forget that every traditionally published author who speaks out against Amazon is also guilty of doing the same thing that they’re accusing Amazon of doing: pretending to care about the well being of writers when in fact their main concern is their own financial prospects.  There’s nothing wrong with putting your own business first–and being a writer is just that, being a small business, no matter what anyone tells you.  But keep in mind that when John Scalzi says things like “Authors: Amazon is not your friend,” his primary concern is his own career.  He’s published by Hachette, and, like every other author published by Hachette, he stands to lose money from this deal.  Particularly since Hachette, despite Amazon’s encouragement to the contrary, likely has no intention of giving its authors a larger piece of the ebook royalty pie.
  • Supporting Amazon’s point of view in this dispute does not equate to either approval of anti-competitive business tactics or mindless adoration.  It simply means that those who support Amazon share the point of view that lower prices on ebooks mean more profit and opportunity for writers, namely them.  Nor does it mean that those of us who take Amazon’s side are blind to potential dangers down the road.  It just means we’re making the best business decision we can for us right now.  And, setting aside the question of comparative quality for the moment, anything that narrows the perceived legitimacy gap between traditionally published authors and self-published authors is a good thing.
  • The cost-of-production argument IS relevant, regardless of whether or not it’s hypocritical.  Mr. Scalzi also notably stated that making the argument that, since ebooks are cheaper to produce than print books, the price should reflect that, is hypocritical, because most of us buy products every day that are priced far in excess of their cost of production–such as bottled water:

    This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirelyhypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.

    It’s not that he doesn’t have a (minor) point, it’s just that it’s not a particularly relevant one.  He’s creating a straw man here, saying that there’s something to be gained by consistency across every market in regard to criticisms of pricing vs. cost of production.  It fails to account for the fact that consumers don’t behave consistently, nor should anyone expect them to.  Books are different from bottled water, as so many Hachette supporters have stressed, and as such consumers are going to have different feelings about how much they’re willing to pay for each.  It’s also a straw man because it presumes that consumers would be capable or interested in fighting a pricing battle on every front.  People care more about books than bottled water, which is why there’s more conflict over how they’re priced.  It’s great that the world economy has Mr. Scalzi to defend it from the inconsistent expectations of frivolous consumers.  It is indeed true that consumers fight some economic battles and not others.  To which my response is–who cares?  The conflict is happening.  Pointing out that people ignore other instances of overpricing or high profit margins is irrelevant.  Except, apparently, insofar as it relates to how highly Mr. Scalzi thinks of us.  As devastating a consequence as that undoubtedly is, I’m sure I’ll still be able to sleep tonight.

    Moreover–and let me preface this by saying that I, like Mr. Scalzi, am not an economist–I would venture to guess that there might be a good reason why consumers are behaving in this allegedly “hypocritical” way.  Your average bottle of water costs a couple of bucks.  Your average ebook, as priced by a traditional publisher like Hachette, costs $14.99.  Which price are you more likely to have an opinion about?  It’s not that people aren’t aware of the fact that a bottle of Dasani is drastically overpriced in comparison to its cost of production, it’s that the overall price is still de minimis.  So people don’t care as much.  That being said, it’s questionable whether he’s right about whether or not people actually fail to complain about things like bottled water and fountain soda.  For every person who mindlessly spends several dollars for a glass of Coke the contents of which cost the restaurant around ten cents, there’s another who realizes the gouging going on and asks for tap water.  Just as for every person who is willing to pay some ungodly figure for a bag of stale movie theater popcorn that cost the theater even less than the Coke, there’s one who sneaks in his own snacks in protest.  (None of these examples, incidentally, take into account the fact that the ultimate cost of production must also necessarily include the ancillary costs to the manufacturer, the distributor, and the retailer.  The liquid in your Coke might only cost ten cents to make, but the cost of bringing it to your table is higher.)

  • It’s all going to come out in the wash.  As I’ve said before, a decade and a half ago the music industry was also saying the sky was falling.  Record companies couldn’t possibly put out a CD for less than $18.99.  Impossible.  You’ll bankrupt us!  Music as a whole will cease to exist!  Except…it didn’t.  And your average album on iTunes now costs…gasp…$9.99.  And artists are still making money, there’s a generally more diverse musical field than ever before, and the record industry didn’t disappear.  Nor will traditional publishing.  They just might have to make some changes, which, admittedly, seems to be about on par with the prospect of nonexistence in their minds.  Oh, well.  No great loss.