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Authors United Sends Open Letter to Amazon Board, Filled With Bad Arguments and Factual Errors

33968122_dc135bdd9f_b[1]The anti-Amazon group Authors United fired their next salvo today in their battle against Amazon. After seeing that their last effort, a $104,000 full page ad in the NYTimes, was less than successful in swaying public opinion, Authors United turned their attention to a smaller audience.

This morning Authors United published an open letter to Amazon’s board of directors, calling on them to change Amazon’s policies.  Authors United wants Amazon to stop using rough negotiation tactics in its contract dispute with Hachette Book Group. Said dispute has been going on since spring 2014, with no end in sight.

You can find the complete letter over at

I had planned to simply cover the basic facts of the letter, but now that I have read it I can’t help but marvel at the amount of talent that is lined up behind something so terribly written. Over a thousand gifted authors have joined Authors United at this point, yet somehow they managed to produce a letter which reads like it was written by a committee.

I am surprised at the number of bad arguments presented and facts they got wrong.

For example, near the end of the letter AU warns the board about the possible damage to Amazon’s reputation:

Since its founding, Amazon has been a highly regarded and progressive brand. But if this is how Amazon continues to treat the literary community, how long will the company’s fine reputation last?

This argument tends to fall apart when you remember that in many segments of the book industry, Amazon’s reputation is already dirt. This ongoing dispute is not going to hurt any.

Also, the latest market survey suggests that the contract dispute is not harming Amazon’s reputation with consumers. In July the Codex Group surveyed 5,300 American book consumers and found that 60% were unaware of the dispute, and that only 8% were buying fewer books as a result of the media coverage. (And while that survey data is old, if there was newer data which contained bad news for Amazon, it would have been published in that flurry of anti-Amazon pieces last week.)

And that is just the beginnings of what’s wrong with this letter. Authors United has a rather interesting view of their position in this contract dispute:

Our position has been consistent. We have made a great effort not to take sides. We are not against Amazon.

Funny,  I don’t recall Authors United taking out a full page ad calling on Hachette to make peace with Amazon. I also don’t recall any mentions of plans to send a similar open letter to board members at Lagardère, Hachette’s French corporate parent, calling on them to come to terms with Amazon.

And on a related note, Authors United has not indicated when they plan to castigate Barnes & Noble and other booksellers for refusing to stock titles published by Amazon. (An oversight, I am sure.)

The letter goes on to misquote Russ Grandinetti:

Russell Grandinetti of Amazon has stated that the company was "forced to take this step because Hachette refused to come to the table." He has also claimed that "authors are the only leverage we have."

This quote caught my eye because the NYTimes has a different version in which Grandinetti supposedly said: "This was the only leverage we had."

One of the quotes has to be wrong, meaning that either the NYTimes is lying or this letter is lying about what Grandinetti said. Would you care to lay odds which version is correct?

Given that both versions came from Authors United, I don’t think it matters, but I do find the inconsistency  interesting.

I also found their claim that about Amazon’s mis-characterizations interesting:

… But Amazon has repeatedly tried to dismiss us as "rich" bestselling authors who are advocating higher ebook prices—a false and unfair characterization, as most of us are in fact midlist authors struggling to make a living.

No, it’s that $104,000 ad that characterized you as rich best-selling authors. Anyone who can afford to waste that much money, even if it’s divided among the entire group, is well-to-do.

To continue:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods.

Ah, the "books as special snowflakes" argument.

Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China.

A false argument. Amazon isn’t fighting for the books to be made more cheaply; they want to sell the books more cheaply.

And then there are arguments like this that characterize Authors United as out of touch, rich, best-selling authors:

Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books. This system is especially important for nonfiction writers, who must quit their jobs to travel, research and write. Without an advance, for example, many aspiring writers would never be able to leave their jobs to write their first books.

While I would like to criticize them as simply being wrong, this is how many in the industry views publishing. It is a sadly myopic vision which excludes the vast majority of authors who don’t get huge advances and have never been able to quit their day jobs.

It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of first novels are written long before the publishers even see them; said manuscripts have usually been passed around for a couple years before an author is offered a contract – with a small advance. (The smarter ones  have given up by that point and self-published.)


All in all, if this letter succeeds at doing anything other than preaching to the choir, I will be terribly surprised.

If nothing else, the Grandinetti quote will sink this letter. All it will take is a single phone call and one director asking "Did you really say that?" When he denies the statement, the rest of the letter will be disregarded.

What do you think?

image  by jonrawlinson

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Mackay Bell September 15, 2014 um 11:33 am

Totally agree. Great analysis. I’ll add that when you feel obligated to include a statement saying you’re not just a bunch of rich spoiled writers, you’ve already losing the debate.

Particularly when your petition only has the names of a few hundred and opposing petitions have thousands.

fjtorres September 15, 2014 um 11:59 am

That was their great move?
Telling on his mommy?
Oooh, pooh bay-bies…

Jeeze, they really think highly of themselves!

fjtorres September 15, 2014 um 12:02 pm

BTW, great pic.
A bunch of past their prime layabouts complaining about the neighbor kids.

Nate Hoffelder September 15, 2014 um 12:04 pm

I know! I was looking through Flickr and saw that. I just had to use it!

Cee September 15, 2014 um 12:07 pm

I think they realize their campaign to win the hearts and minds of readers has failed so now they’re going to the board. I can’t imagine this effort will have more impact that the first.

It’s amazing that they do business with Amazon at all, isn’t it? Given their efforts to harm authors and all…

Bridget McKenna September 15, 2014 um 12:34 pm

Thanks for dismantling this Frankenstein’s monster at its badly stitched seams.

J.A. Konrath September 15, 2014 um 12:57 pm

Nicely done, Nate. I just blogged about this and linked to you, because you mentioned some things I missed.

Nate Hoffelder September 15, 2014 um 1:14 pm

Thanks for the mention, Joe.

fjtorres September 15, 2014 um 12:58 pm

We knew this was coming:

Hint: it’s going to leave a mark…

Hit the muchies.

Eric Welch September 15, 2014 um 1:18 pm

There’s absolutely nothing preventing Authors United from starting their own online bookstore for themselves. It would have been a better use of their money than a silly ad in the NYT.

David September 15, 2014 um 1:24 pm

I’m still waiting for the letter that begins,

"Dear Amazon, we know that Hachette’s agreement with you expired months ago, and we’d like to say thanks for continuing to sell our books on your site despite the lack of a distribution agreement. In doing so, you’ve allowed our income flow to continue…"

Not holding my breath.

purple lady September 15, 2014 um 4:17 pm

I see they’re complaining about Amazon not discounting their books again. Umm… isn’t that what they wanted and part of what started all this? Not allowing Amazon to discount?

Bridget McKenna September 15, 2014 um 4:19 pm

Hey, stop making sense, willya?

Chris Covert September 16, 2014 um 2:35 am

There’s an old joke that’s apropos of the Hatchette/Amazon cage match:

Authors United wants Amazon to leave the field so they can score a touchdown.

Authors United to Call for Antitrust Inquiry into Amazon – The Digital Reader September 24, 2014 um 7:34 pm

[…] not taking sides in taking out a $104,000 advert in the NYTimes, and after not taking sides in sending a letter to Amazon’s board of directors (and then revising it so it was even more insulting), Authors United is now going to not take sides […]

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