The contract dispute between Amazon and Hachette took a turn for the bizarre late Friday night. After months of alternating silence with reserved statements (and a leaked letter), Amazon decided to change their tactics.
The retailer sent out a letter to KDP authors and publishers (and possibly even ebook buyers), asking them to intervene in the dispute by sending an email to the CEO of Hackette Book Group. While it is too early to see how the public responds, the response in the various publishing spheres would best be described as not what Amazon intended.
Over the past few hours I have been searching for and collecting some of the more colorful and more thoughtful responses. I do not have them all (Mike Shatzkin and David Streitfeld, to name a couple absent names), but the pundits I cite below tended to be the most shared on Facebook, twitter, etc.
Many questioned whether they should get involved, or even if Amazon should have sent the letter at all. When I reported on the letter, I mostly filtered my opinion out of the post and tried to simply summarize the contents. Others reacted in a less neutral tone, including John Scalzi, who tweeted:
Also, on an unrelated note — Jesus, Amazon: Releasing this on a SATURDAY? Do you have a headless chicken running your PR strategy?
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) August 9, 2014
And he’s not the only one to wonder what was going on. Similar opinions were expressed by authors over on the KBoards forum, and Moriah Jovan described her first impressions in the comment section of my post:
I read that email at 3 am. It sounded like a half-drunk noir writer with a raging hateboner for Hachette wrote it. It took me a while to decide it wasn’t a hoax and it really was from Amazon. It was dismaying, not necessarily because they did it, but because it stinks of amateurism.
Those are two of the more colorful comments on the tone, timing, and wisdom of the letter Amazon sent out, but they are by no means the only ones.
Chuck Wendig picks apart the letter with his usual acerbic wit, starting with:
Listen, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, because our toddler was awake until approximately blarp o’clock last night and I can barely see through the sleep still desperately clinging to my eyeballs, but I’m pretty sure — though it may be a hallucination! — that last night Amazon wrote me, a KDP author-publisher, to get me to… I think ding-dong-ditch Hachette? Maybe prank phone call them? Pull down Hachette authors’ pants? Give them a swirly?
They have posted this at readersunited.com.
We’re at a point in this struggle where things just got really goofy.
He goes on to ask if anyone else is tired of this insanity. I certainly am; this morning I had to keep resisting the urge to simply delete the email I got from Amazon and finish writing the post (I fought the same compulsion when writing the post about Authors United Friday night).
But not everyone feels that way; some authors even took the time to show that authors truly were not united on this issue. Maria Bustillos took Amazon’s suggestion and turned it around. She posted her letter to HBG CEO Pietsch on her blog:
I write to you as a reader, at the behest of Amazon. Also as a writer, a sometime tech journalist, a former antiquarian bookseller, and as a student of publishing and copyright history.
I beg you to refuse to negotiate with Amazon, now or ever. Don’t do it!
Amazon claims that its concerns are merely on behalf of readers: “books should be cheaper”!! No: they should not. Books are not widgets. They should be prepared for publication by professionals, and sold by professionals, who actually know and care about books.
And she’s not the only one to question Amazon’s call to arms. As I went through my various leads I found that, aside from the usual anti-Amazon voices, the overwhelming response ranged from ambivalence to annoyance.
Take Denis Campbell, for example. He posted his response as an open letter on LinkedIn, asking the CEO of Amazon and of Hachette Book Group why exactly he should get involved:
We, the self-/small publishing house authors are the ants yet you choose to enlist us in your fight? What and for whom are we exactly fighting? If we support amazon we get 70% commissions but our titles become part of a Netflix-like experiment. Is this not the industry that objected to Google taking all books in print and indexing them/making searchable?
If we side with Hachette we are tacitly supporting a broken book publishing system that indeed over-charges for e-books to maintain false margins and support a broken system rewards top authors, yet ignores the up and comers who do not overnight become JK Rowling.
And then there’s Neil Gaiman, who is affirmatively neutral in this fight:
I don’t see an enemy. I see two huge multinational corporations having a fight over contracts and terms, and authors staring up at them from ground level. It’s like Godzilla battling Gamera, and we’re looking up from the sidewalks of New York rather worried that a skyscraper might topple on us. I liked Chuck Wendig’s summary and commentary.
I’m a Hachette Author in the UK. My wife’s a Hachette Author now, and she has a big book coming out in November, which you cannot pre-order through Amazon. Which sucks. I don’t regard Amazon as the enemy, any more than I regarded Barnes and Noble as the enemy when they had a dispute with DC Comics and stopped selling the hundred top DC Comics Graphic Novels in their stores (which included 17 books by me, including all Sandman).
Just to be clear, the responses were not uniformly against Amazon or neutral; there were any number of tweets as well as comments at The Passive Voice and on KBoards in support of Amazon, including ones which said that they had sent an email.
It is worth noting that I didn’t find any posts to that effect, but here’s one such email:
Just a note to let you know that this legacy published author has turned to independently publishing her novels. After years of begging my publishers to bring my 16 out-of-print novels back into print, I finally gave up and did it myself. I write three series, and I give away the first book in each series as a loss leader. Through experimentation I discovered that $4.99 was the sweet spot for an e-book, the price the average reader was willing to pay without complaint, and so priced the rest of the books in each series. It took about nine months after the last book went on sale for me to pay off the last of approximately $230,000 in mortgage debt.
Allow me to recommend two books by Chris Anderson that would greatly inform your business model going forward, The Long Tail and Free. You publish them both, and both are available on Kindle for $9.99. I’m pretty sure Jeff Bezos has already read them.
Barry Eisler also reports that he wrote a letter, albeit one which was more neutrally worded:
Hi Michael, even if the Big Five (why would anyone imagine something called the Big Five could be a cartel?) still had the power to control the market — and you don’t — the best you could do through agency and windowing and the like is delay the inevitable mass market transition to digital. Is that really who you want to be? A reactionary, focused on shoring up the next quarter rather than expanding your opportunities for the long term?
I don’t want big publishing to die — I want it to get well. But to get well, you’re going to have to change the lifestyle that’s led to your ongoing decrepitude.
Please, think about the future. Think about your place not just in the Big Five, but in the world. Stop impeding what’s best for readers, writers, and reading. Don’t fight progress. Be progress.
Eisler goes on to dissect several arguments for, against, and tangential to Amazon’s letter, and I would Highly Recommend that you go read him.
For added enjoyment, check out John Scalzi’s fisking, which included gems like:
Leaving aside that Amazon’s initial phrasing of their argument seems to be largely and clumsily lifted from a Mental Floss article, and that paperback books existed well before the 1930s — see “penny dreadfuls,” “dime novels” and “pulps” (further comment on these and other flubs here and here) — the central problem with Amazon’s argument is economic, to wit, it’s trying to say that its drive to have all eBooks priced at $9.99 is just like paperbacks being priced ten times cheaper than hardcover books.
All in all, I don’t think Amazon’s letter is having nearly as much of a positive effect as they would like. Even the authors and independent publishers who might be expected to have a common interest with Amazon are less than enthused.
To be fair, it is too early to completely write off the effort, but when the most vocal voices are expressing doubt or hostility it does not bode well for Amazon.
How did you chose to respond to Amazon?