Monday, August 11, 2014

Amazon versus Hatchette, round 3 or 4

Wow. The gloves are off! It was reported a while ago that the trade press Hachette was negotiating with Amazon on pricing. This happens each year as contracts come up for renewal. But this year is being different. According to some observers, Amazon is pressing harder for more profitability (due to shareholder pressures?). And also according to some observers, the Hachette negotiation is becoming something of a test case for other publishers. The chief executive of the company, Michael Pietsch is something of a hero to literary editors, having been the guy who out-bid everybody (by a huge amount) for David Foster Wallace's novel, eventually titled Infinite Jest. Pietsch spent years mid-wifing Wallace through the final re-writes and cutting process to produce what is considered a modern classic, published by Little, Brown a subsidiary of Hachette. Pietsch is an editor-hero, and apparently a good executive, now to the parent company. Other industry insiders are watching the negotiations intensely:

“In a sense, Michael Pietsch is like ‘Horatius at the Bridge,’ ” says the literary agent and former Amazon executive Laurence J. Kirshbaum, referring to the soldier of legend who single-handedly saved ancient Rome by fighting off an invading army. “He is carrying the rest of the industry on his back.”
(from NY Times article June 2, 2014, linked above)

But after several efforts on both sides, things are breaking down big time. On Sunday, August 10, 2014, 900 authors banded together as Authors United, signing a open letter, and taking out a full page ad in the New York Times. Authors United is the brainchild of author Douglas Preston. But many authors have signed, and a number of high profile authors helped pay for the Times ad. The letter complains that Hachette authors are being squeezed in the battle between Amazon and Hachette in the following ways:

--Boycotting Hachette authors, by refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors' books and eBooks, claiming they are "unavailable."

--Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette authors' books.

--Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors' books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.

--Suggesting on some Hachette authors' pages that readers might prefer a book from a non-Hachette author instead.
The list of signatories includes many authors who are NOT Hachette authors. They just feel the practices are unfair to authors and to the consumers as well. Read the complete letter which calls on Amazon to resolve its differences with Hachette without further hurting authors or blocking or delaying shipments and sales to customers. (Over the weekend, it became known that Amazon was engaging in the same blocking/delaying tactics with another producer/publisher in negotiations with the sales giant: Disney. Might be an interesting fight, and one with a little more equal weight.)

The New York Times ad from Authors United was a little more in-your-face than the letter. The ad included the e-mail address for Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon. It reproduced the open letter, but the inclusion of Bezos' e-mail address implicitly encouraged readers to contact the man with readers' opinions on the matter.

Amazon has responded. They created a counter organization, Readers United with a web page attempting to present the history of publishing's antagonism to the introduction of the paperback book. Unfortunately for Amazon, they did a sloppy job of research, and quote George Orwell, of all people, trying to implicate him as one of those opposed to paperbacks, and trying to show that he was promoting collusion of the publishers to suppress publication of paperback books. (I think they are trying to remind folks that Hachette is among the publishers called to task by the Justice Department recently for colluding with Apple to increase pricing of e-books on the Kindle.) The web page also gives readers the e-mail address for Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch (who actually had nothing to do with the Authors United ad, as far as I know), and offers a number of rather aggressive suggestions for e-mails to him:
We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
Lowering e-book prices will help — not hurt — the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon's offers to take them out of the middle.
Especially if you're an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.
As to the quote from George Orwell, though Amazon's Readers' United page asserts that he advocated suppressing paperbacks, that simply misunderstands what he wrote:
When Orwell wrote that line, he was celebrating paperbacks published by Penguin, not urging suppression or collusion. Here is what the writer actually said in The New English Weekly on March 5, 1936: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

Orwell then went on to undermine Amazon’s argument for cheap e-books. “It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade,” he wrote, saying that the opposite was true.

“The cheaper books become,” he wrote, “the less money is spent on books.”

Instead of buying two expensive books, he said, the consumer will buy three cheap books and then use the rest of the money to go to the movies. “This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller, it is a disaster,” Orwell wrote.
(from NY Times article of 8/11/14.)

But the Orwell mis-quote has boomeranged on Amazon in the Internet world. To mis-quote and mis-represent a hero of TRUTH, mis-using his words for your own commercial purposes is a pretty bad move in the cyberworld, I think. It's especially ironic coming from the company that brought you the 99 cent 1984... and then took it away again. Actually, Orwell's original essay is pretty darned apposite. He was balancing the interests of readers, who are naturally pleased to get cheaper books (I know I am -- sorry), against the interests of authors, and all those who work in publishing, who are getting (despite what Amazon asserts), a SMALLER PIE, when books cost less. People really don't spend the same amount or MORE on books when they cost less. They buy the same number of books they were going to get in the first place, and pocket the money they saved, to buy something else. This is very nice for Jeff Bezos and Amazon, who have spread their marketing into LOTS of new areas. Amazon sells nearly everything on earth now. So they really do have a bigger pie. But for authors, and publishers, compositors, type designers, etc. -- all those folks who in print or digital worlds still are needed to produce books --- cheaper books translate to a smaller pie. No matter how Amazon wants to cut it.

There are a few voices out there supporting Amazon. Hugh Howey, Damien Walters. It's quite true that there is a balance point in the market where if you charge too much for e-books, or make them too hard to get, you will lose your market, which is the point of some of these folks. People will not pay above $9.99 or so for most trade e-books, apparently. Don't know why. But despite the fact that you save on printing and paper, and delivery, there are still sunk costs to an e-book. The author's time and the compositor still has to lay out the book in an attractive way. Anybody who has tried to read an e-book from Project Gutenberg will quickly see the difference in a nice modern lay-out compared to the less effective layouts from the books at Gutenberg that are out of copyright!

The image decorating this post is bare knuckle boxers from the 1820's - evidently a collectible print. See for the original site.

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