Amazon, Hachette, And Giant Stompy Corporations

People keep wanting me to have thoughts on Amazon versus Hachette.

And I do! I do have thoughts. They careen drunkenly about like bumper cars.

I feel like this Slate piece by Evan Hughes kinda tells it fairly true.

I like a lot about Amazon. Amazon is one of my publishers. They’ve treated me well and treated my books well and — whaddya want me to say? They’re cool, I’m happy. (And expect me to be promoting my newest with them soon enough.) I also like that Amazon was one of the only companies that saw the Internet as an opportunity rather than a storm that would one day pass. The Kindle is great. They gave life to indie publishing — life it hasn’t had in a hundred fucking years. They put books in hands, man. They get books to people who don’t have bookstores nearby.

But, Amazon also scares me. They have a lot of power. They’re erratic. Some of the company’s behavior could easily be called “bullying,” and who likes bullies? Uh, yeah, nobody likes bullies. And right now they’re going nose-to-nose in the prison-yard with Hachette which means authors — some of whom I’m friends with — are getting shanked in the kidneys and left bleeding on the shower floor with delayed shipping times or lost pre-orders or whatever.

I like Hachette, too. I love a lot of their books and authors. I mean, shit, I love publishers. We can bag on Big Publishing all we want, but at the end of the day you still have to look back and say, okay, all those books that I loved growing up — the ones that made me want to be a writer — they were published by, in most cases, big publishers. I know a lot of people inside publishing. They are frequently awesome people. They are frequently book-loving humans.

I also know that Hachette, along with other Big Publishers, sometimes do scary things. Sometimes they write scary contracts with creepy provisions. Sometimes they’re not forward-thinking. Some of them still treat the Internet like it’s a rash that needs medication.

So, while it’s really, really easy to fall prey to the narrative of Good versus Evil (with various Side-Takers and Zealots claiming different sides as good and different sides as evil), I think it’s vital to resist such lazy categorization. I’ve seen what indie authors call Amazon Derangement Syndrome, which is when folks in the traditional system decry anything Amazon does as being some kind of Lovecraftian Evil — any change in the way they do business is just them building a throne out of the bones of innocent children. But I’ve seen the opposite, too — where indie authors cannot abide criticism of Amazon, as if Amazon is like, a pal they hang out with at a bar somewhere. “Amazon will never betray me,” the indie author says, even as Amazon breaks a bar glass and quietly cuts off the indie writer’s fingers because it hungers for fingers.

(Tip for indie writers: giving all your eggs to the Amazon basket means Amazon gains a lot of power over you. And you may say, “Well, then I’ll just jump ship if they change the deal,” which is all well and good until you realize your investment in them also helped create market dominance for the Kindle device. That exit strategy from Amazon doesn’t look so awesome now, eh?)

Again, good, evil: both of these ways are lazy thinking. Amazon isn’t apocalyptic evil. It isn’t your religious savior, either. It’s just a big company whose goal is, y’know, to get bigger.

And the same goes for Big Publishing.

Let’s try this.

Think of big companies as:

a) giant monsters

and

b) bacterial colonies.

Two creatures of wildly different size, but each with notable behaviors.

The giant monster — a kaiju, let’s say — does what a giant monster does. It stomps around. It doesn’t stomp people because it hates people. It stomps people on the way to find its breeding ground or on the way to mate with a particularly saucy skyscraper. People end up stomped like grapes because the giant monster couldn’t see them. The bigger it gets, the more it loses sight of people. The more it loses sight of all the little things underneath it. (Like, say, book culture.)

The bacterial colony wants to grow. It wants to replicate. It is programmed to fill space, to colonize — in a way, like humanity has itself done. Given no competition, bacterial colonies bloat exponentially. Seeing competition, some bacteria cheat to become resistant to that competition. Being resistant to antibiotics, for instance, allows bacteria to enter a period of unfettered growth. An epidemic. A pandemic. A holy-fuck-a-demic.

Big companies — Amazon and publishers alike — are big monsters and little bacteria.

They want to grow.

They want to stomp.

It’s their nature.

Now, generally, big companies push against other big companies to create competition. And our own government, in theory, regulates big companies so that they don’t stomp everybody or infect everything or completely destroy all their competition. That’s in a perfect world, of course, because that certainly doesn’t seem to happen very much anymore. (Mini side rant: the American public is cast further and further apart from the political system. Meaning, companies are allowed to give money to government in order to influence government to give companies more freedom. As companies get more freedom, they can spend more money to influence government. It’s a circuitry loop that We The People are no longer a part of, and you can see it with food, medicine, health care, insurance, and even here in publishing. If you are totally averse to forms of governmental regulation, then you at least need to try to regulate how money gets into politics. Regulate that and a lot of other things will take care of themselves. End mini-rant.)

Big companies acting without mitigation is how you end up with tons of money spent on war but no money spent toward the health-care of its citizens. (If only we classified illness as a foreign combatant!) It’s how getting antibiotics out of our food is a glacially slow process, and it’s why the FDA has far less regulatory power than you prefer (or think).

Again, this isn’t because companies are evil.

It’s just because companies have the motivation to grow.

Which means, somewhere down the line, making money.

Amazon wants to make money.

Publishers want to make money.

You want things more cheaply.

And there, a digression:

Recently, with food, I’ve come to understand that sometimes, food shouldn’t be cheap. This is a very privileged perspective, I recognize, but here’s the thing: food is something vital you’re putting in your body and cheap food isn’t often good food — at least, not cheap processed food. The cheaper it is, the more corners have been cut to get it to you. And the less people have been paid and the more people have been removed from the equation, which means more people have less money which means those people need cheap food and once again the goddamn carousel goes ’round and ’round. But there’s been some pushback there and you have the rise of farmer’s markets. Some markets are small stands and farmer-driven and offer good real food at competitive prices and some are big affairs where rich people go to buy purple broccoli because, I dunno, it’s fucking purple. All of that is good. It’s good we can shop at Wal-Mart, or a grocery store, or a farmer’s market, or a farm stand. The spectrum is necessary. The problem is when that spectrum is weighted too heavily — and that’s what’s starting to happen with book culture.

Books are food for our mind. A strained, mawkish metaphor, but true (for me) just the same.

Food is bad when it’s too expensive, but problematic when it gets too cheap.

We need that spectrum.

And books are like that, too.

When advocating for indie bookstores, it’s tricky because you can’t just say, “You should pay more for books.” “Why?” “Because indie bookstores.” “But why?” “Uhhh. Something-something freedom?” How do you convince people to spend more money just because?

Here’s why.

You pay more sometimes because you’re supporting an indie bookstore you love. (And if you do not love it, if you don’t feel that the bookstore is good to you or is worth supporting, don’t do it. Indie bookstores aren’t awesome just because they’re indie.) Good indie stores support a community. They bring authors and readers together. They foster book clubs. They create a curated environment for people and full of people that love books. IT’S LIKE MAXIMUM BOOKAWESOME UP IN THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS. And so, we support them.

We also pay more sometimes because it contributes to the health of the whole. It’s worth realizing that you can price yourself out of existence. You can make books so cheap that it’s very hard for the entire industry to survive. You can also salt the earth for everybody else so that only one provider exists — and that one content funnel can then set the rules for how everything is done. Books and book culture are threatened by carelessness and monoculture. Just as it is with antibiotics or food production or global warming, sometimes we need to think beyond our own margins and to the health of the thing outside of us.

This isn’t to say you should eschew Amazon entirely. (I still buy there. I still publish there.) Or that publishers are somehow charity organizations who have only your best interests at heart. Publishers, as with Amazon, are filled with people who are awesome. But they are companies who fill spaces like floodwater, who do what they must not only to survive but to excel. And it’s also not to say that Barnes & Noble is the best thing ever because hey, they’ve done this same shitty thing to authors and publishers — just recently with Simon & Schuster. It’s not even to say that indie bookstores are unilaterally beneficent creatures — because I publish with Skyscape/Amazon, I’ve actually received some overtly shitty treatment from a handful of bookstores by dint of being associated with Amazon. (One store outright banned me with great anger and vehemence.)

Listen. Amazon has seized on opportunities that have sometimes been rejected by book publishers — and book culture is the stakes on the table to be won or lost. Amazon cares about content and low prices. Big Publishing cares about preserving its own culture and relevance. Readers and authors are left in the middle.

So, what the fuck do you do?

I will scream this until my throat collapses, but:

Diversify.

I think that as readers and authors our best bet is to continue to diversify how we write books, how we publish books, how we buy books, and how we read books. We should get shut of the idea of MORE CHEAPER BIGGER FASTER and reject the idea that stories are just “content.” We should then ask how to foster competition both by voting with our dollar and by voting with our actual goddamn votes. We should think about books less as personal entertainment devices or as content blobs and think of them as parts of a whole — as parts of a culture beyond just self-satisfaction. Thus we support stories and storytellers all around the world. Books: vital for our mind as food is vital for our bodies. An old, outmoded idea, maybe. But one I believe in just the same.

We should shop at multiple locations. Buy all kinds of books from all kinds of authors. Buy traditional. Buy indie. Publish that way, too. Go everywhere. Try it all.

Do not be married to a single ecosystem.

Fuck the monoculture.

And, while we’re talking about Hachette authors –

Hachette books now have their own dedicated digital storefront at Books-A-Million.

B&N is doing a Buy 2 get one free deal on Hachette books.

Hell, Wal-Mart smells blood, too, and are offering many Hachette books at 40% off.

Or, you could always go to your friendly neighborhood indie bookstore.

You have seen Indiebound, right?

93 comments

  • Probably the most level-headed take I’ve read on this whole debacle. I’m reading comnents from ibdie authors that sound like buzzard caws and rants from trad authors that sound like…. something just as unpleasant. NOBODY is the hero in this mess. And NOBODY, dear authors, is your friend when it comes to making money off your work. Not Amazon, not the big 5, not the little university press in your home town.

  • Amazon is a big private company, which means its sole function in the world is to make money, get bigger, make more money. Period. That’s it. You can add all kinds of other bullshit about some moral obligation or other, but at the risk of repeating myself, that would be bullshit.

    Hachette is a big private company, which means its sole function . . . blah, blah, blah.

    Now, these two bad boys are duking it out, each with the single purpose of making more dough for they own selves.

    (Amazon says its tactics are standard in the industry. They probably are, that’s why they’re illegal, proscribed by a law that the US has not enforced in a couple of decades.)

    The solution is easy. What if you, as an author, got an offer from a publisher you didn’t like?

    You would negotiate to get a better deal.

    What if you were not able to get the deal you wanted?

    You either take what you can get, or you walk.

    Amazon says: “We are THE place on the internet to buy books. If you want to sell a lot of books, you must use us. Here’s the deal we want.”

    Hachette says: “Fuck you, That’s too much. You’re a big bad bully, and you should let us use the system and the reach you’ve developed through your efforts and investment, to make as much money as we want.”

    Amazon says: “Fuck you, it’s our ball and bat.”

    Now, Hachette either plays ball, or they don’t. Their option is simple. Go somewhere else. Start their own internet book seller. Make it a place all big fat publishers can go and do as they please. All they have to do is sink a bundle of cash into development and marketing, and off they go.

    As to the indie bookstore part, I’m very sympathetic. I love going to a bookstore, big or small.

    But what did we do when big malls came to town and crushed the mom and pop places? We let them die. We could have continued to go there and pay more. We could have gone to the mall and made donations to mom and pop to keep them alive. But we didn’t. We want cheap items.

    We did the same with WalMart and the huge grocery store chains.crushing the little guy, Amazon is the mall coming to town. Big discount chains crushed indie drug stores and record stores, and about any other kind of store you can think of.

    But that’s the system in which we live, and we’re all very happy to buy at the lowest price we can get. Perhaps someone can name a thing for which they are willing to pay more in order to support the maker or seller thereof. Why are cars assembled in Mexico? Why are Apple products made in China? Why is about every stitch of clothing you have made in the third world? Take your time.

    • I agree, publishers need to make a site to sell direct and as such beat Amazon at their own game. The problem is they did that…it’s called Bookish and it has been plagued by delays, is totally unknown, doesn’t discount, and all in all is a terrible user experience. If I were them I would make a site, provide some discounting, and announce that any books bought there would provide a higher royalty to the authors. I think if they got the word out, readers would be more than happy to shop there to support their favorite authors.

      • I would patronize the HELL out of such a site, and not in the bad way.

        Sadly, the chances of them doing this before it is too late are somewhere between slim and negative twelve.

      • I don’t know about a website, but I’ve been using the Bookshout app, which allows publishers and authors to sell direct. So far I’m reasonably happy with it. I’ve gotten some freebies, so I bought Stephen King’s new one on it, even though it wasn’t at a discount.

      • I visited Bookish last week and found that they were “temporarily” not selling ebooks. So it’s even worse than it was. Every few months I click on a link on the Bookish newsletter to see if they’ve changed anything to make it a better shopping experience and so far it’s not changed to be anything competitive with other retailers. They had so many things they could have done to make it compete.

        I don’t understand why with 3-5 years their interface is so clunky. Is it really that hard starting from scratch to design a decent shopping site? Heck partner with Google for the search engine and algorithms.

        If you are cutting the middleman out pass the savings along to your customers and authors. Give incentives to your authors link to your site. Why do so few (none?) of the big 5 authors include links to Bookish among links to buy their books? I wonder how many big 5 authors even know their publishers have online retail stores?

        You and I have talked about a number of ideas to make the site more appealing including bundling ebooks with hard/paper books.

        Get big name book bloggers to blog on their site instead of internal “editors” who simply gush and do basic interviews – it’s not catchy. Have a section for serious bloggers/readers to apply for eArcs and be able to post reviews in advance so reviews of books are up the day the books release.

        Another thing the big 5 could do is set up a way for authors to sell books ebooks directly from their websites at a discount and a higher royalty – after all they are cutting out the retailer middleman who takes some 30%. I’m not sure if hardcover/paperback would be too difficult although autographed copies would make sense to me.

    • “Amazon is a big private company, which means its sole function in the world is to make money, get bigger, make more money. Period. That’s it. You can add all kinds of other bullshit about some moral obligation or other, but at the risk of repeating myself, that would be bullshit.”

      Why?

      Morality does not equal legality. That a corporation – something that is created by humans – is acting in accordance with laws – something created by humans – does not mean that by correctly fulfilling its function the corporation and its actions are laudable, inevitable, or just beyond criticism.

      I grew up on a dairy farm. I know how large companies treat their suppliers. I never buy store-brand food, I shop local if I can, farmer’s markets if at all possible. And I intentionally pay full price for books.

    • “Perhaps someone can name a thing for which they are willing to pay more in order to support the maker or seller thereof. ”

      Books. I pay more for books. I also buy books authors and publishers have already given me free copies of, if I like them. If I love them, I might buy multiple copies and give some away. Because I believe in supporting the makers. I want them to write more.

    • “But that’s the system in which we live, and we’re all very happy to buy at the lowest price we can get. Perhaps someone can name a thing for which they are willing to pay more in order to support the maker or seller thereof. ”

      That argument doesn’t hold up for me. I can think of a lot of goods off the top of my head that people will pay MORE for, knowing that they are a) supporting the maker, and b) getting a better product. Food, clothing, furniture, art. Not ALL people will pay more for these things, no. But there are markets that have developed around the people who WILL pay more.

  • Great argument for the need to diversify and have a little bit from all sources. A good argument for keeping both of them around. Watching the changes in the publishing industry is fascinating. To be honest I don’t have a lot of love for either Amazon or the Big 5. While Amazon has created amazing opportunities for authors, I’m never sure just how much (or how little) to trust them. While the Big 5 published all those books I loved as a kid, they also publish a lot of watered down, overrated shiite that I want to throw against a wall.

    Both are businesses, and while both of them do things that are unsettling to our creative, idealistic author stomachs, at the end of the day they are likely to make decisions that are good for business but not necessarily good for books. But the more choices we have in the market, the better off books will be.

    • I’m cool with publishers publishing what I perceive to be shit, as long as it sells — because them selling shit subsidizes them selling stuff that isn’t shit. Further, what might be shit to me might be a beloved read to someone else — and as long as it meets a relative standard of publication, hey, cool, whatever.

  • I’m with you on this one, bub. Diversify and never depend on a mono-culture, or big fives, or even small indies. I like Amazon. I make money through Amazon as an author, but I trust them like a frog trusts a scorpion while swimming across the river. As a wise ent called Treebeard once told some small hair-footed guy, ” I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side.”

  • Excellent post Chuck, probably because it mirrors my own thoughts ;-). But seriously, really well done and balanced. As a Hachette author this whole thing sucks, I’m hoping for a timely resolution.

  • June 3, 2014 at 8:03 AM // Reply

    Smart, balanced, insightful, with bad words. Right and true on publishing, big business, campaign finance, monopolies, and diversification. And food. Excellent. (I think you meant to say “content globs” and not “content blobs.” You are welcome. Happens to everybody.) Kisses.

  • Warehouses don’t have much to do with the publishing end, but Amazon’s warehouse practices make me cringe a little bit whenever I buy anything from them. I stick to digital book downloads, because I really wish they’d be nicer to their warehouse employees.

    • Amazon warehouses, by and large, are some of the best logistics facilities to work for in the US. The problem is, that’s a very low bar. You’re not really complaining about Amazon: you’re complaining about the way warehouses, almost all warehouses, operate. I am totally cool with us going all Upton Sinclair on the logistics industry, but it’s not fair or reasonable to single out Amazon in this regard.

  • June 3, 2014 at 9:30 AM // Reply

    Can we add libraries into the mix? Libraries actually encourage people to buy more books by introducing them to authors. Libraries are a great place to have book readings and signings too. There’s an article from Overdrive that a survey of 75,000 library patrons showed that ebook borrowers also purchase an average of 3.2 ebooks per month.

    • Yes, absolutely. Libraries are amazing — I was remiss in mentioning them. (I used to work for the library system, actually.) E-book lending needs a major boost in libraries, too. Publishers need to go “all-in” with the library system, in my mind.

      — c.

      • The day I discovered I could get e-books on my Kindle from the library…well, I think I had a heart attack and died. And there was so much joy in my heart, it revived me.

        Yeah, they don’t have everything, but they *do* have all the big bestsellers, which are usually like 11 bucks on Kindle and I ain’t payin’ that. Library FTW.

  • I like the cut of your jib, mister. Yes. It’s giant company versus mega-giant-company, and the collateral damage, while horrible and awful and absolutely needing to be minimised (though I note that only one of the bacterio-kaiju has offered to do this) is just that – collateral damage. Unintentional. We had to destroy the village in order to save our marketing strategy. IT WAS IN THE WAY, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

    While I tend to think ADS is more a problem than the reverse, the reverse is still a problem. Diversify, diversify, diversify. Couldn’t agree more. I have started tattooing it on people’s foreheads when I find them passed out in gutters, I’m that solidly in favor of the concept. (Note: Put it on twice, once forward, once backward. That way they can read it in mirrors.) My only plaint in this regard is that Amazon’s noble competitors, with the semi-exception of Smashwords, seem to be going out of their way to ensure Amazon’s dominance. BN.com’s website is a joke and their stores are rapidly becoming some kind of unholy amalgamation of Toys ‘R Us and Bed, Bath and Beyond. (“Books? Over there. Behind the Legos, turn left at the Doctor Who kiosk.”) So it is incumbent on us all to not only patronize them, but to spur them to improve. I don’t know that it will help, but it can’t hurt.

    Also, you are only the second person I have ever seen point out, quite correctly, that anything the size of a kaiju, assuming we treat them like biologic impossibilities BUT BIOLOGIC IMPOSSIBILITIES THAT HAVE TO MAKE SOME KIND OF SENSE, probably wouldn’t even be able to SEE a human being. (The other was author A.E. Tulloch, in her book “There Goes Tokyo,” now available on all major etailers!)

    So kudos to you, sir, kudos to you. (Other people have probably pointed it out too, I hasten to add, but I didn’t see them do it so it doesn’t count.)

  • In the dog fight between the big houses and Amazons, writers are the bone. The prize.

    My manuscript is on several agent desks right now and if I get a good offer I will sign. However, the Hatchette wars is unsettling and also takes away any last doubts I had about self-pub.

    A very good friend of mine got caught in the B&N kerfuffle. Her book has done fine, but never quite recovered that loss of those first four golden weeks.

    Writers will never stop flinging their word-babies at publishers, so there will always be an unlimited supply of bones to fight over. Neither company is evil. That implies morality which a corporation cannot possess.

    As for me, I shop at Amazon because it is there and I live in the middle of nowhere (Yes, I know, indies ship, but when you start factoring shipping in, pricing becomes problematic.) There is room for all the models. But this weekend I am going to a SinC meeting at an indy 2 hours away. I’ll pick up a book while I’m there.

  • I love this post so much. I live in a town with a B&N (thank you for mentioning they are not the answer – I had nook issues with them (we got it for my kid, I am in love with my kindle keyboard) and I had to report them to the Better Business Bureau and then wait a month to get any answer, and it was a crap answer at that), and I’m an hour away from a good indie, but it’s a terrible drive. We’re moving to a town an hour away from any sort of bookstore.

    I don’t buy a ton of books – I love the library, I have a friend who buys too many books (mostly from Indies) and hands them down to me, but there are some books I have to buy. I found an Indie with free shipping, an Indie with $1 shipping, so I’ll do business with them after I move, but still, ceasing to buy any books from Amazon doesn’t mean I buy all the books elsewhere, it means I buy less books, which is sad.

    I also love the part about cheap food – YES.

  • Okay, so here’s something kinda depressing. I don’t have a lot of indie bookstores in my city. I approached two to sell my book. One said NO and showed me the door without even looking at my book. The other one took my book, told me it would take months for them to get to it because the stack was THAT high, and then the salesperson openly mocked self-published books. To my face. In a sing-songy voice.

    Is that weird?

    I do all my shopping for physical books at B&N now.

    • The mocking is weird and unnecessary and I’d stay 1000 miles from that store’s door. The “not looking at the book” is less weird, because believe me, booksellers (like bloggers) are inundated with self-publishers. That’s unfortunate, because what it means is bad apples spoil the bunch, thus sometimes forcing policies to get made at the bookstore level about no indie books sold on their shelves because their employees just don’t have the time to deal with it.

      • You’re right. But still, I was a bit thrown. I mean, if independent bookstores really teamed up with indie writers/author-publishers/whatever you wanna call ‘em… Like, wanted and demanded high-quality indie books, the best of the best, lots of them, piled high…just imagine that. It would be beautiful.

        • It would be. And there may be a partnership there in terms of e-books. But like I said, the real problem is one of filter. That’s an advantage to indie authors in terms of getting out there, but a disadvantage when it’s time to actually look for curators of good work — bloggers, booksellers, librarians. There’s a sudden glut of self-published work (not enough of it good) for already-overworked people to provide additional curation for dubious return-on-investment.

  • Authors are like tiny Japanese women who desperately sing to call forth their giant moth kaiju to fight for their interests. Unfortunately, Mothra doesn’t do well against the Ghidoras and Gigans of this world. We need a beta capsule, stat.

    • I must object in no uncertain terms to your analogy. Mothra kicks ass. Yes, she often has a rough go of it, as do all beautiful things in this sad, fallen world. But in the end she always prevails, and her next generation rises phoenixlike to do battle once more.

      Alas, the real problem is that there is no Mothra in this story. Mothra only fights to defend herself others, and tries very hard to help people avoid collateral damage. (One time she even assisted with evacuation.) Which side is Godzilla (who mostly destroys things by accident while fighting the real bad guys) and which side is, say, King Ghidorah (who is usually actively malevolent) depends on your interpretation.

      • Oh, I shouldn’t have picked on Mothra, but in my analogy, the authors are still the tiny twins reliant on larger forces to fight for them. Our economics rewards gigantism. Certain authors can transform into giants (Stephen King, JK Rowlings, etc.), but most are at risk of getting crushed underfoot by publishers, distributors, amazon, etc. We’re food of the gods, and I’m tired of it.

        I’ve stretched this metaphor too far and I sound too defeatist. It is my hope that we can get the best of both worlds: robust self-publishing options as well as publishers who realize they must now compete with the author’s choice to self-publish (and so begin to raise their ebook royalties and become more transparent and responsive to their clients about marketing, cover art, etc.).

  • Yup. Yuppity yup yup yup. I refuse to unilaterally bash anyone or see anyone as the enemy, because frankly, everyone’s playing their roles that are awesome for authors, and everyone’s playing their roles that suck for us. I support indie bookstores, because I love them and appreciate them and I want to see them continue to exist and succeed in my city, but as a small press author, they don’t necessarily support me back. (Debut doesn’t come out for another three weeks, so maybe I’ll eat my words then, but…probably not.)

    Amazon sure does support me, though. And when I eventually self-publish, as I hope to do, they’ll support me then too, a whole lot more than any local indie will. As for brick-and-mortar stores that carry my publisher? Barnes & Noble is literally the only one I’ve seen. (And, full disclosure, I blog for them.) But I also love Hachette and S&S books and authors and seeing the power that’s been wielded over them and how friends of mine have been irreparably screwed makes it impossible to wholeheartedly love.

    So, everyone has their ways in which they suck. But everyone has their ways in which they’re great. And I’m glad they all exist, and will continue supporting every single one of them without feeling pressure or shame to do otherwise.

  • Often it’s not the PEOPLE within the Publishing company that are at fault, but the giant money-making mechanism that drive the Publishing company that’s at fault… That, and Bean Counters. I hate Bean Counters. They have absolutely no concept of “what damage could this do to actual people,” they only see dollars in versus dollars out.

    I work in Educational Publishing—Creation of textbooks to be precise—and I’m constantly dealing with Bean Counters. The Editors will tell me how the book looks amazing and what a wonderful job we’ve done and then the Bean Counters will stomp in and say, “We need to lose 100 images because they stock photography is costing us too much!” What? You’re producing a textbook for children! Visuals are extremely important! “No! Get rid of 100 images!” says the Bean Counter. And so we go on and create a lackluster book rather than a visually appealing book because the Bean Counter decided they needed to cut $8000 off our image budget and put that money into the pockets of the “Shareholders.” Yeah, I’m sure that extra $8000 went far…

    I do not shop on Amazon unless there is absolutely no other way I can get what I need. I do not like the way that Amazon treats their employees, nor do I like the way Amazon treats Canadians (me) versus Americans. The term “predatory pricing” often springs to mind when Amazon spouts the old, “It costs us more to ship things to Canada” excuse. Right.

    I also do not purchase eBooks. Why? Ask yourself what an eBook is worth after it has been purchased. Have you ever seen a “1st Edition eBook”? I buy dead-tree books, and I feel that when someone goes out and buys a dead-tree hardcover book that they should be given the eBook as well. A hardcover is a premium product and one should expect to get the “whole experience” from it.

    Anyway, now I’m rambling…

    • I buy dead-tree books, and I feel that when someone goes out and buys a dead-tree hardcover book that they should be given the eBook as well. A hardcover is a premium product and one should expect to get the “whole experience” from it.

      You will be happy to know that Amazon concurs, and allows publishers to participate in its MatchBook program, where if you buy the paper book, you can get the ebook at a discount or for free, as the publisher wills.

      If you buy a paper book from Amazon, and this feature is not offered, it is because the publisher chose not to do so.

  • I think we might run the risk here of playing the Climate Change game here, which is being so respectful of the other side of a debate that we pretend that everything is totally equal. I don’t want to say too much, out of fear of being attacked by Mothra and Godzilla and Michael Bay, but I do think that the sins of the two sides here are not equivalent, either on an ethical or practical level. There is a side here that simply cares more about the world of good fucking literature, and a side that simply cares more about selling a fuck-ton of books, regardless of what’s really in them. There is a side that sometimes dicks over authors, and a side that engages in predatory practices with the express aim of shutting down businesses and ruining careers. I love the respectful debate here, but you don’t have to create total equivalence simply in order to be civil…

    • There’s also a side that has already been smacked down by the Department of Justice for engaging in illegal collusion and price-fixing — and hint, it ain’t the side that “engages in predatory practices,” because that’s the side that fought back against the rampantly illegal actions.

      So perhaps it’s a bit more equal than you’d like to think.

      • Hey Gareth. I’m not sure I would agree with what you’re saying there. Most people in the book industry were outraged about that case, but not because they were horrified by the price-fixing. They were horrified that Amazon won.

        The suit happened because the publishers were simply banding together to try to create competition with Amazon (which is a monopoly that controls the digital book business, exerting crazy downward pressure it puts on the price of books). That’s the irony here. Because the companies joined together as a single unit, they were smacked down for collusion. Amazon exerts much more power on its own than the Big 5/6 do even banded together, but because it isn’t multiple companies, it has to be smacked down for monopolistic practice, which is much less exercised/harder to prove than collusion/price-fixing. Either way, something isn’t ethically wrong simply by dint of being illegal (just as something isn’t ethically right simply by dint of being legal). I’d be interested to see why you think the price-fixing was really practically/ethically wrong, rather than simply arguing that it’s bad just because they got sued.

        • “simply banding together ” — which was patently illegal. And they knew it. The DOJ proved it, conclusively. So everybody settled.

          You’re defending knowing criminals. Think about it.

        • Amazon isn’t even remotely close to a Monopoly. B&N, Apple, Smashwords, Publishers that actually do sell direct, Authors who sell direct, and entry barriers that are so low, thousands of kids living in their parents basement can, in a day, create a viable ‘competitor.’. Being better than everyone else and out-competing them in a popularity contest does not, in any way, equal a monopoly, and claiming Amazon is a monopoly really makes the person making the claim look silly. As for illegal practices:

          Loss Leader Promotions: Legal
          Declining to promote the goods of a supplier: Also Legal
          Collusion to fix prices, generally used to increase cost of goods to consumers: Illegal

          Abuse of Monopoly to Lock Out competitors: That would be illegal, but as stated, there is (almost) no monopoly here.

          In the alternate word, where Kindle devices are the only way to read e-books, and they are over 80% of e-book devices, that would be a monopoly, and Amazon could abuse it by making it near impossible for other entities to sell Kindle Books. That would be abuse of monopoly to lock out competition. However: 1. Kindles aren’t nearly so prevalent. 2. Amazon is the only e-book device maker that goes out of their way to enable anyone to load books onto Kindles. Kindle owners even get a dedicated e-mail address they can use to send books to, and Amazon will load it on the device for you, (free over wifi, small fee for those who just have to use 3G for whatever reason.) and store it in cloud for easy synching.

          And please, no need to get on the old shoe about proprietary format. Mobi files (hint, Mobipocket) were a well understood de-facto standard format before Kindle ever left the gate. Kindle file formats are only proprietary in the sense that a single company defines it, rather than a committee.

          Above I said “almost.” There is one thing Amazon monopolizes: The e-books for Amazon publisher imprint books. Amazon refuses to sell those through any other channel. It’s been a *long* time since I heard anyone complain about Amazon doing that, however.

        • AMAZON DID NOT WIN.

          AMAZON WAS NOT A PARTY TO THE SUIT.

          *ahem* Sorry.

          The Department of Justice won. The Department of Justice which represents the American people, or at least those portion of them who are consumers of books.

        • (Reply to your “Oy,” above, since the system won’t allow replies past a certain point.)

          It’s not at all beside the point — your point was that there was no equivalency, that (inferred from your post) Amazon was much worse. My point was to demonstrate that both sides are pretty shitty, and that you appear to be willfully ignoring that, in favor of your preferred narrative.

          Your response is to deny that by showing that… both sides are pretty shitty.

          Um… OK…

  • I was also lectured by an indie bookstore owner about my association with Amazon when I asked if they could host a signing. Irony of course being that this bookstore also sold used books. I could have been an asshole about that if I wanted to, but I tend to see more than one layer to most issues.

    At any rate, love the kaiju metaphor. As writers (and readers) we must always be prepared to be the “San Francisco” of this equation (reference to the recent movie, in case others haven’t seen it).

  • Just as an adjunct, too many of the self-published don’t seem to grasp that this Hercules vs. Antaeus battle is over the ebook revenue split. So, if Hachette eventually agrees to less than the current 70/30, guess who else will be affected? Yep, that would be the self-published and the small independent presses and everybody else.

    Other than that, I’ve been saying pretty much the same thing for the last two weeks, along with noting that while the affected authors are well within their rights to urge their readers to boycott Amazon, they need a better basis for it than that the battle is interfering with their sales.

    Because boycotting Amazon does the same thing to all those of their fellow authors for whom Amazon was and is the only major retail outlet for their books.

    • Nobody but Hachette and Amazon knows what the fight is over, and they ain’t saying. If you *do* know, you’ve probably violated trade secret law and/or an NDA by spilling the beans.

      That being said, all available evidence points to the fight being mostly over agency pricing, not ebook revenue splits. Hachette, like the other members of the Price Fix Six, has publicly stated that it prefers agency pricing and that as soon as the injunction they agreed to in return for not being prosecuted for their criminal behavior expires, they will actively begin trying to reinstate it. The negotiations now ongoing are exactly that – discussions as to how Amazon and Hachette will do business when that injunction and the corresponding distribution agreements expire.

      And Hachette gave up the “they’re gouging us” implied sympathy card when they ran to Wal-Mart and begged for help. I’ve done business with Wal-Mart, and with Amazon. (Not just as a self-published author, but in my other life as an IP attorney.) Wal-Mart has forgotten more about hardball negotiating technique than Amazon will ever know. Bezos says, “Your margin is my opportunity.” Wal-Mart says, “We’re going to make you increase your margin, and then we’re going to take it.” If Hachette was really hanging on like grim death to save the tiny crumbs of profit they so generously share with their authors at eight-to-one, Wal-Mart is the last ally they would have struck a bargain with. That’s like saying there are too many spiders in your house, so you’re going to import fire ants.

  • Its not over the split, its about the fact Hachette is trying to return to the agency pricing model, and Amazon still isn’t buying that. But rather than be able to collude with the other publishers to force this new (old) price model, Hachette is trying to go it alone, since they are the first ones able to do so. They’ve already had Barnes and Noble agree to the agency model (just look at the prices at BN.com), and are trying to get Amazon to do the same. Higher costs for their customers and a lower margin for them isn’t how Amazon operates.

    Authors who signed contracts with Hachette complaining about Amazons behavior strikes me as….odd.

    • This aspect of the negotiations is not getting nearly enough airtime. The rest of Big 5 will also be renegotiating their deals with Amazon soon and will also try to push for the agency model. That’s why Amazon is taking a hard line here.

  • Again, here’s yet another article about Amazon strong-arming the rest of the industry. Though apparently nobody is willing to discuss it except me. Sigh. But keep in mind this is actual journalism, from a respected source, and they clearly state that Amazon has the power to distort the market, which is effectively the same as having a monopoly (or monopolistic power, at any rate). Notice in the article that all the Big 5 and Apple were trying to do was give the company producing the products (the publishers) the power to price THEIR OWN PRODUCTS. Amazon was discounting them to the point where they were losing money on each book, simply in order to price other companies out of business. Arguing that Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly on digital sales is, to put it simply, ridiculous. Now you could argue that it SHOULD have a monopoly, or that monopolies are capitalism’s way of choosing winners, but to argue that it doesn’t have a monopoly is just not to be looking at the facts. Oy oy oy. I continue. Oy. Please, present something from an unbiased news organization on the other side of this argument. I’d be psyched to read it. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/04/opinion/amazons-power-play.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0

  • And thats not an unbiased article, that’s a biased editorial opinion. Hence the word ‘Opinion’ appearing at the header.

    I’m looking for the New York Times article talking about how the strong armed tactics of Barnes and Noble last year with Simon and Shuster over this same issue were hurting authors there. Or from the 90’s, when Barnes and Noble and Borders drove more Independent bookstores out of business.

    Look, the Big 5 and Apple did collude to fix prices, to increase the share of the pie they got and reduce the share their distributors, and their authors, received. That is not in dispute.

    But, here’s the dirty little secret: Traditional publishing was making money off Amazon before Agency pricing. They are making even more money now, mostly through their ebooks sales, but in their minds, they aren’t making enough, especially in paper sales, so their solution is to raise the price of ebooks beyond that of paperbacks in many cases, or to inflate the price of both. Go look at almost any Hachette book on BN right now.

    When Amazon discounted the books, the Traditional Publishers still made their money, it was Amazon choosing to lose it in order to try and maintain their market share, a share that’s been falling since they virtually created the ebook market in 2008. Traditional Publishing felt then, and does now, that lowering the cost of books will mean lower profits for them, and they don’t want that. They want as much as the pie as they can get, and they aren’t trying to share that piece with their authors either.

    Amazon is not a monopoly. It is not your local electric company. It is not Standard Oil circa 1900. In this day and age, where anyone with a computer can set up a store and sell almost anything, they can’t be. They can try and maintain market share, which they do a pretty good job at. But lets be honest, if were afraid of what a company that controls more than 50% of the market might do, when should I start worry about what RHP is going to do?

  • I’ll be okay with publishers raising the price of ebooks when DRM is removed. When that’s gone, then it will be an actual purchase and NOT a rental. Until then, I don’t think they should be priced the same. It may also price some of us out of quite a few books.

    I read an average of 9 books a month (thank you Goodreads!), priced anywhere from $7.99 to $9.99. I will pay up to $12.99 for a new release (all Kindle versions). I then purchase an audiobook version of the same books, if available. I get 2 free/month and pay anywhere from $3.99 to $12.99 with a Kindle multi-format discount.

    That’s all the books I can afford every month. If Kindle and audiobook prices go up, I’m not going to magically be able to afford it, I’ll find a cheaper book or re-read one of my thousands of previous purchases. It was the same when I was purchasing dead-tree books. Many times I had to wait for the paperback because I couldn’t afford to let the $19.99 – $24.99 hardcover destroy my budget.

    I would venture to say that any dedicated reader doesn’t expect Walmart basement pricing for books. Pricing is only one of the reasons Amazon succeeded. I got great Customer Service, free shipping on many items, accurate recommendations(not so much today), and didn’t have to pay taxes. In my case, I have been reading the fantasy genre for a long time. Fantasy hasn’t always been as popular as it is today, but I could always count on finding something on Amazon. I don’t expect to pay 99 cents for every ebook, although its a great way to find new writers, but I’m not trying to get screwed either.

    And lets be real. Most readers don’t give a shit how much the writer is getting paid except in the same vague way they might care how much Juan Valdez and his donkey were a part of a sustainable coffee culture.

  • A couple of things:

    1. If in fact the issue between Amazon and Hachette is the agency model on ebooks, why are self-published authors siding with Amazon? These authors should be *glad* that trad publishers wish to keep the prices on their books high. Bargain-basement prices are the main reason why people by self-published ebooks. Let’s face it, if, say, the new Gillian Flynn or Stephen King novel is the same price as an essentially un-edited self-pub ebook by Joe Blow, there’s not much reason for me to bother with Joe Blow. There are far more good books by top-notch authors being traditionally published than I can ever read, so it’s not like there’s much demand on the part of readers for still more books of most-lower quality. A significant price difference between trad-published and indie-author books ought to look like the best case scenario for self-published authors

    2. Why do all these discussions seem to focus on novels? The biggest argument on behalf of trad publishing is that it is the most workable model for producing significant works of nonfiction. You can’t just knock out a thoroughly-researched biography of LBJ in your spare time. Traditional publishers provide the advances that fund this type of book. Every time I raise this issue, the Amazon truthers do some ridiculously vague hand-waving along the lines of “Oh, they can find other means of funding their research.” Like what? Sure, there are some grants out there, but that’s not enough to go around as it is. If the old publishing model evaporates, as some people seem to wish, we are going to lose out on a lot of really great nonfiction books that authors are not going to be able to afford to write on their own dime. Yet so many of the trad-publishing haters seem to care nothing about this. What does a vibrant, substantive nonfiction book marketplace matter when compared to their desire to see ruin come upon the industry that rejected their work?

    Authors really do seem to be the most selfish, short-sighted, vindictive people.

  • RHP doesn’t control more than 50% of the market. Amazon does control 50%. That isn’t a monopoly, but it is worryingly close (and Amazon’s goal is very clearly to BECOME a total monopoly). To argue that the two sides here are equal just because they are both corporations is crazy sauce. But I will continue to post people talking about my side of things, while no one posts anything from a major news outlet supporting the other side of this argument. http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/5/5782184/colbert-skewers-amazon-war-with-hachette

    • Not only is 50% not “worryingly close” to monopoly, Amazon’s share of the e-book market (which they invented and developed at great personal expense as even Mike Shatzkin points out) has been slowly and steadily dropping. If they are wanna-be monopolists, they are demonstrating a strange and atypical incompetence at it.

  • There are plenty of people posting about Amazons side. Hugh Howey, Konrath, Barry Eisler in the Guardian, the list is long.

    50% is not worryingly close. In this day and age, Amazon cannot become a total Monopoly, any more than the Traditional Publishers can return to the cartel glory days of the 80’s and 90’s.

  • I was reading a book where a US senator lamented that, “The only thing we get to do anymore is moderate disputes between Big Greedy Bastard vs. Big Greedy Bastard, Big Greedy Bastard vs Small Greedy Bastard and, if we’re really lucky, Small Greedy Bastard vs. Small Greedy Bastard. That’s what this feels like. And once again. It doesn’t matter who wins. Everyone else loses.

  • Great post. I try to weigh up all the factors, not just emotional ones, and at the end of the day, publishers and distributors are all in it to make money. Sometimes that’s good for the industry, sometimes it’s good for authors. Sometimes it’s both, or neither.

    Smashwords has an interesting take on this issue and its possible fallouts, particularly for indie authors: http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/05/amazons-hachette-dispute-foreshadows.html

    I’m not a staunch supporter of the Big 5, and it’s easy to dismiss this as Hachette vs Amazon, but what if it’s bigger than that?

    Amazon might not have a straight monopoly now, but they’ve been pushing towards it for some time and they’re making headway. Demanding increasing concessions from publishers and pushing self-publishing authors into exclusivity are just a couple of the tactics they’ve used and continue to use. It’s easy to get distracted into arguing about a single case like this, but it’s the big picture that really worries me.

  • June 7, 2014 at 8:14 PM // Reply

    This is excellent overall, particularly your recognition that both Amazon and the publishers are neither good nor bad but corporations. However, I think you malign cheap a bit too much. Spending less money isn’t necessarily being selfish because the money you save ALSO means more money for other causes, be it charity or education or better food or more books.

    Consumer desire for cheap goods is also, combined with profits, the main incentive for corporations to lower costs and become more efficient with their resources — which if you think about it, amounts to wasting less.

    So the person who spends more to buy at an indie bookstore probably isn’t helping the planet or the economy any more than the person who shops for the cheapest deal.

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