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.

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.

Thoughts on Amazon vs. Hachette

Amazon is apparently playing hardball in negotiations with the publishing conglomerate Hachette, and as usual people are outraged.  As usual, I find it hard to understand what the problem is.  Certainly some Hachette authors will be hurt in the short run, but that’s not really Amazon’s concern.  Authors are always buffeted by changes in the marketplace. There is certainly a possibility that Amazon will become something of a monopsony — the only place to which publishers can sell their books.  But the remedy here is legal, not calling Jeff Bezos an extortionist.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times sums things up like this:

No matter what you think of Amazon’s tactics, they surely don’t violate any laws. It is acting the way hardheaded companies usually act — inflicting some pain on the party in a dispute to move it toward resolution. On some level, the book industry has never fit comfortably in the contours of big business. But over the years, as one house after another was bought by conglomerates, as they merged with each other, as they tried to increase profits with the kind of regularity that pleases Wall Street, they began the process of commoditizing books.

Jeff Bezos? He’s only taking that process to its logical extreme.

One other thing: Nocera mentions Walmart and cable companies as examples of big companies that squeeze its suppliers.  But books are not fungible, the way air conditioners and other things you buy at Walmart are; if you want J.K. Rowling’s latest book, you’re not going to accept a substitute.  And there are way more suppliers for books than there are cable providers for your home.  If Amazon makes it hard for you to buy a Hachette book, Barnes & Noble will happily take your order — and, if they have any brains, they’ll give you a special discount.

The only issue here is that Kindle users are more or less tied to Amazon for their e-books.  But if they find that they can’t get a lot of their favorite titles on the Kindle, maybe they’ll buy a different e-reader.  This is no different from Netflix, which has a large but incomplete selection of movies and TV shows to stream.  If their selection doesn’t satisfy you, you have to go to Hulu or some other vendor.  Not having their books available from every conceivable bookseller is not great for authors and their readers, but it’s also not the end of the world.