Amazon vs. Hachette — The Final Blog

Amazon and Hachette have finally settled.  Thank goodness.  The settlement appears to follow the outlines of Amazon’s recent agreement with Simon & Schuster — the publisher can set its own price for its ebooks, but they get better terms if the price is in the range Amazon likes.  This is exactly how it works with independent authors — we only get the lovely 70% royalty if we set our price between a dollar and $9.99.  Anything higher or lower, we only get 35%.

This all seems perfectly reasonable.  Clearly, Amazon wasn’t trying to put mainstream publishers out of business.  It wasn’t trying to destroy literature and “disappear” authors.  It was using its clout as a reseller to get ebook prices where it thought they ought to be, to maximize sales. Business as usual.

Hugh Howey sums it up:

Conflating our love of books with the virtuousness of those who package them is a very bad idea. Publishers belong to multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations. They need to make profits. They do this by pushing prices up on readers and pushing wages down on writers. I don’t blame them for that (though I do try to pressure them to be more fair to both parties).

The people I blame are those who should do their homework, understand this business better, and get on the right side of these debates. The real damage has been done by those who refuse to fight for the little guys; the real damage has been done by the parties who seem to think that publishers can do no wrong and that Amazon can do no right.

This includes the New York Times and many other traditional media outlets. It includes The Authors Guild and Authors United. By waging a PR campaign without understanding the issues (often stating things that were patently untrue), these parties caused severe damage and helped to prolong this negotiation. They aligned themselves with a party that has broken the law to raise prices and refuses to pay authors a decent digital royalty. I don’t think this damage is done intentionally or with malice but by simple ignorance.

Who are these annoying little people who are reviewing my book on Amazon?

Advice-columnist Margo Howard is distressed that she received bad reviews of her recent memoir from real, ordinary people on Amazon.  The reviews were written by Amazon’s Vine community, and Ms. Howard didn’t like them one bit, finding them “inaccurate, insulting, and demonstrably written by dim bulbs.”  She finds the very idea of being reviewed by these folks distressing:

I can see the valuemaybefor man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?!

(I love the interrobang.)  And:

Books, of course, can be and are reviewed pre-publicationbut by reviewers who are attached to magazines or newspapers. “Book Reviewer” is considered a profession, and reviews are done by other writers. Good sense would seem to militate against any group of people unschooled in creative and critical reviewing coming up with a worthwhile review. The Vine people, who deal mostly with products for the home and the body, seem inappropriate bellwethers regarding products for the mind, if you will.

Luckily, Jennifer Weiner is around to offer some sensible words in response:

Howard frets that the Amazon attack hurt her book’s chances. There’s no way to tell if that’s true, but I’d give readers the benefit of the doubt. My guess is that they can sniff out a review that’s the result of baseless jealousy or an unfounded agenda, the same way they’ve learned to dismiss five-star fan-girling from an author’s BFFs, colleagues, or mom.

If the Amazon reviewers slammed Howard’s work without reading it, that’s a problem, and Amazon should address it. If they panned Howard’s book because they didn’t like it, that’s reality, and Howard need to figure out how to live with it, and to come to terms with publishing in 2014. Everyone is a critic. Everyone’s got a soapbox. And the worst fate for a writer isn’t being attacked … it’s being ignored.

Here, by the way, is a review that just popped up on Barnes & Noble about my novel The Distance Beacons:

Wow, Violet! This was great! Thanks so much for recommending it to me! (Haha, sorry for the typo) Your style is absolutely wonderful! Please keep going, and l will keep reading! <p> Thanks again for reading mine, Ring &infin

Huh?  Actually, there seems to be a random conversation going on between a couple of people, carried out via reviews of my novel.  Luckily, all their reviews are 5-stars.  At least I’m not being ignored.  I think.

 

Why Amazon is not a monopoly

Franklin Foer of The New Republic has joined the ranks of folks with Amazon Derangement Syndrome; take a look at this article.  The best response I’ve seen is this blog post at the Washington Post (now owned, of course, by Jeff Bezos). To Foer’s assertion that big publishers just can’t compete in the face of Amazon’s demands, the author points out the obvious:

They just can’t compete?  Why the hell not?  They can’t sell their e-books from their own websites?  Why is that?  Or at barnesandnoble.com?  Powells.com?  Ebooks.com?  The ebook market is, as the antitrust lawyers say, as “contestable” a market as one can imagine, with virtually no barriers to entry.  Sell your stuff there, at whatever price you want to sell it at.  If you want Amazon to sell your stuff, you have to take their terms.  It’s not “exacting tribute”!  It’s “business as usual.”  If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.

Of course, convincing people that Jeff Bezos is the devil and Amazon is an evil empire is one way of competing; I don’t find it a very compelling approach, though.

As I mentioned in another post, the one time I wanted to buy a Hachette book on Amazon lately, it took me three clicks to find it at Barnes & Noble with a 20% discount.  No monopoly here.

The Times’ public editor weighs in on the paper’s Amazon Derangement Syndrome

It doesn’t surprise me that Margaret Sullivan, the public editor New York Times, has finally seen fit to weigh in on its absurdly one-sided coverage of the Amazon/Hachette dispute.  The column’s title, “Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined” sums up her opinion.  The reporter, David Streitfeld, insists that he’s just covering the controversy.  Sullivan isn’t quite buying it:

MY take: It’s important to remember that this is a tale of digital disruption,not good and evil. The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and — in story choice, tone and display — helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business.

I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.

That sounds about right to me.

Things I don’t understand about the war between Amazon and Hachette

The dispute between Amazon and Hachette has continued long enough that it probably qualifies as trench warfare.  Everyone seems to have an opinion about the conflict, even though neither Amazon nor Hachette is being very specific about their positions.  Amazon clearly wants to lower ebook prices, and Hachette wants to keep them higher to avoid cannibalizing print sales.  Amazon has flexed its muscles by refusing to discount books by Hachette authors and limiting their availability, among other things.

OK, fine.  I can understand how authors, even non-Hachette authors, could be angered and possibly worried by Amazon’s actions.  But here are some things I don’t understand.

Why is the New York Times presenting such a one-sided view of the war?  Here is their latest article, titled “Literary Lions Unite in Protest over Amazon’s E-book Tactics”.  Well, I suppose it’s news that authors like Philip Roth and Ursula K. LeGuin have come out in opposition to Amazon, but you will search in vain in the article for a quote from anyone supporting Amazon.  It’s not like they are hard to find.

Why are these authors so certain about Amazon’s evil motives?  Here is a quote from LeGuin:

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote in an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

Huh?  The matter at hand is a contract dispute in which Amazon wants to sell Hachette’s books at a lower price.  How do we get from there to censorship and total control of publishers, authors, and readers?  And how is Amazon making books impossible to get?  I went looking for a book to buy my lovely wife for her birthday.  It happened to be published by Little Brown, a Hachette company, so it wasn’t immediately available.  I went over to the Barnes & Noble site and found it there.  I didn’t want to pay extra for shipping to get it in time, so I stopped in at the Barnes & Noble store and got it there.  Slightly more expensive and more inconvenient than getting it shipped to me by Amazon Prime, but no big deal.

Why don’t the authors focus on the more basic issue?  Lee Child mentions it in this colloquy with J. A. Konrath: Why does Amazon care so much about ebook prices?

One thing few people know about me is I love ironing.  I just moved, which was a great excuse for a new ironing board.  I checked Amazon, naturally, who had boards ranging from $18 all the way to $220.  Has Amazon approached the expensive manufacturer and said, “C’mon, pal, America needs cheaper ironing boards!  Think of the children!”  No, it said, “Sure, throw it up on the site and we’ll see if anyone’s interested.  We trust our customers to decide for themselves.” . . . Can you explain in detail why the e-book market shouldn’t operate the same way as the ironing board market or the amplifier market?  Why do e-book buyers – uniquely – need Nanny Amazon to save them from deciding for themselves?  Are books special?  Are they different?  Or are there others factors in play?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that.  Why does Amazon care so much about ebook prices?  I assume it’s because of the Kindle.  Amazon wants t ebooks attractively priced so people will want to read them on this device that Amazon sells.  But I don’t know.

Why do self-published authors go against their own self-interest by supporting lower ebook prices for books from traditionally publishers?  If Hachette wants to charge $12.99 for their ebooks, isn’t that good for those of us charging $4.99 and less for books that are every bit as good as Hachette’s?  But most self-published authors that I’m aware of are firmly on Amazon’s side.  One reason, I suppose, is that Amazon has done right by these authors, and as a result they approve of Amazon’s model — lower prices leading to more sales.  More people reading more books is just a good thing.

It sure is an interesting time in the world of publishing.

My favorite customer review so far

A satisfied Amazon customer writes about The Portal:

Product was sent on time and as expected. Thank you.

You may say that there’s some mix-up here: the satisfied Amazon customer actually thought she was reviewing something entirely different — a printer cartridge or a dog collar or a box of trash bags.  I prefer to think that she likes my novels so much that, when she discovered that the The Portal was “as expected,” she was moved to give it five stars and express her deepest gratitude.

That’s perfectly plausible, right?

What you can do when you’re not writing

  1. Go for a run and listen to Chopin.  Listening to Chopin doesn’t generally make you run faster, but for me, running is about survival, not speed.
  2. Sit on your deck, drink a Little Sumpin’ ale, and read Middlemarch.  This ale is the perfect complement to a long Victorian novel.  Middlemarch doesn’t have the humor and passages of stupendous genius that mark a Dickens novel, but it also doesn’t have the absurd coincidences and simpering female characters. Reading the novel, though, is taking me about as long as writing my own.
  3. Watch The Two Mrs. Carrolls, an entertaining but incredibly bad 1947 thriller starring Humphrey Bogart (a tad out of character playing an insanely murderous artist) and Barbara Stanwyck, who only gradually comes to the realization that the artist she married is also insanely murderous. It features a ridiculously primitive application of Chekhov’s gun — “Here, I happen to have this gun.  Why don’t I leave it with you in case the Yorkshire strangler happens by?”  It also features what I’ll call the principle of “Barbara Stanwyck’s gun” — in a movie of a certain era, if the female lead is pointing a gun at the villain at the climax, she will find herself unable to shoot the guy, for no apparent reason.  The villain will easily disarm her, but the hero will arrive in the nick of time to save her from certain death.
  4. Go to the beach and complete the Sunday Sudoku.  I am man enough to admit that I am often unable to complete the Sunday Sudoku.  However, I’m here to tell you 2014-08-10 11.22.20that I completed it in near-record time today.  Was it the salty air?  Or the knowledge that I didn’t have an unfinished novel to return to?
  5. Read the two-page open-letter to Amazon in the New York Times signed by a bazillion famous authors, telling Amazon to basically quit using them as leverage in their negotiations with Hachette.  Color me unimpressed.  Here is one response to it, via The Passive Voice.
  6. Come up with a couple more ideas for your novel.  Well, yes, that can happen, too.