“Why Are They Sabotaging Us?” Famous Authors Speak Out on Amazon vs. Hachette

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It may not be immediately obvious, thanks to the shifting habits of readers, but book publishing is still very big business. Most of that big business – approximately 41 percent, according to the Codex Group — is controlled by Amazon. Because of that market control, Amazon has a lot of power, and for most of 2014 it has been flexing its muscles, especially in the face of Hachette Books.

This all started, like most recent problems in publishing, with ebooks. This year, many publishers’ contracts with Amazon were up for renewal, and Amazon was looking to change the way profits from ebooks were shared. Hachette doesn’t like the idea. The proposed change would give Amazon 30 percent of the sales, while authors and publishers would split 70 percent. Oh, and Amazon wants to cap the price of ebooks at $9.99, too. For those of us who are far removed from the actual cost of making books, that might make sense. Printing is what makes books so expensive, right? Well, in actuality, that’s not the biggest factor in the cost of producing books.

Because of Hachette’s refusal to play by Amazon’s rules, Amazon has, like most bullies, kicked Hachette off of its court. This means that the thousands of new books by Hachette’s authors are not eligible for pre-order and take an absurdly long amount of time (several weeks vs. the usual 2-5 business days) to be shipped to readers.

What gets lost in this fight — a fight which is taking place, as noted by Sherman Alexie, between giant corporations — is that the authors are the ones who are suffering. And lord knows authors suffer enough already. They stayed quiet during the first months of this fight, hoping, probably, that some concession would be made in favor of humanity rather than corporations. But as the cold war that is Amazon vs. Hachette drags on, more and more big-name authors are speaking out against Amazon’s bullish practices. Here’s what they have to say.

Authors United

This group of more than 1,000, mostly non-Hachette writers — including Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Jennifer Egan — signed a letter addressed to Jeff Bezos and the other members of Amazon’s Board of Directors. In the letter the writers outline how Amazon’s actions have reduced sales of Hachette authors’ books, sometimes by as much as 90 percent, asking Bezos, “Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?” They raise the further point that Amazon and publishers have depended on one another for a long time, saying, ultimately, that this is not a way to treat a “business partner.”

That pretty much sums up the problem with the way Amazon has handled this whole ordeal: They have stopped seeing publishers as partners and started seeing them as companies whose survival is entirely dependent on the retailer. Unfortunately, Amazon is mostly right, and they’re taking advantage of it.

Stephen Colbert

Colbert has probably brought more attention to the Amazon vs. Hachette fight than any other media figure. (This isn’t entirely altruistic on his part: All of Colbert’s books have been published by Hachette.) Colbert has had several Hachette authors on his show, but he made his biggest impact by bumping Edan Lepucki’s California: A Novel, and offering pre-orders on his own website. This lead to Lepucki’s book debuting at the No. 3 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Lepucki later appeared on The Colbert Report and bumped fellow Hachette author Stephan Eirik Clark’s Sweetness #9.

Malcolm Gladwell

The Hachette author and New Yorker writer (and signee of the Authors United letter) has made a long string of statements concerning Amazon, the most recent of which appeared in the Financial Times (where it’s behind a paywall). There, he stated that he “thought Amazon wanted to be nice to me. I thought their endgame was to woo authors. So, then why are they sabotaging us?”

Back in June, Gladwell ran a satirical piece in the New Yorker that included a meeting between Gladwell and comedian Dave Hill, playing himself as the supposed Director of Fulfillment at Amazon. Hill sums it up nicely, saying, “This is an important transitional period for Amazon, going from getting things done to not getting things done.”

Dick Cavett, who mediates the meeting, cheerily remarks, “Where but in America could such a thing happen?”

Janet Fitch

The White Oleander author penned a private letter to Jeff Bezos regarding the artificial delaying of her own and other authors’ books. Obviously, Bezos never replied to the letter, so Fitch made the letter public.

The whole thing is certainly worth reading, but the section of Fitch’s letter that is perhaps most eloquent argues that Amazon’s financially motivated actions will have a lasting, negative impact on the future of literature.

To have amassed such influence in our culture, and to use it in such a negative way, to give and withhold, to distort, to silence–to silence! is what is usually done in totalitarian countries with a political agenda–but which Amazon is doing for the sake of squeezing out the last drop of profit. As a result it is undercutting the ability of writers to live and create, the ability of publishers to gather and refine and put the best of the best before the public, rather than reinforcing and strengthening the components of our intellectual and cultural life whose future you, at bottom, hold in your hands.

James Patterson

Patterson has sold more than 200 million books in his career, so he may seem an unlikely voice for struggling authors and independent booksellers. But in early 2014, Patterson pledged to donate $1 million to independent bookstores across the country. This led to Patterson’s being honored with the Indie Champion Award at the American Booksellers Association’s Book Expo America. And that, in turn, gave Patterson a medium for his criticism of Amazon. Here it is, in full:

Hello, I’m Jeff Bezos. No, I’m not, but I’m sorry, I can’t do that maniacal laugh … I’m trying to get people to focus on the perilous future of books in this country. And that future is happening right now, this year. There is an evolution/revolution going on and it affects everybody who reads, everybody who writes, everybody who publishes books. Small bookstores are being shuttered, book chains are closing, libraries are having serious trouble getting funding, especially school libraries. Every publisher and the people who work in these publishing houses is feeling a great deal of pain and stress. If we don’t fix those problems, the quality of American literature is going to suffer. Fewer or no more Infinite Jests, Blood Meridians, or Book Thiefs, less of a chance for young writers, like James Patterson back in 1976, to be published — or maybe that would have been a good thing? I’d like you to think about this, and I’d like the press to think about this: Publishers are not terribly profitable. If those profits are further diminished, publishers will produce less serious literature. It’s just a fact of life. And that’s one of the reasons why right now, the future of our literature is in danger. I will say that there are no clear-cut villains — yet — but there are no heroes either, and I think it’s important that major players involved in publishing, as well as the press, and our government, step up and take responsibility for the future of our literature and the part it plays in our culture. [Big applause.] Right now bookstores, libraries, authors, publishers, and books themselves are caught in the crossfire of an economic war between publishers and online providers. To be a teeny, tiny bit more specific, Amazon seems to be out to control shopping in this country. This will ultimately have an effect on every grocery- and department-store chain, on every big-box store, and ultimately it will put thousands of Mom-and-Pop stores out of business. It just will, and I don’t see anybody writing about it, but that certainly sounds like the beginning of a monopoly to me. Amazon also, as you know, wants to control book selling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy. If this is to be the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed, by law if necessary, immediately, if not sooner. I think that might have been a worthy subject for this BEA. I think it’s a subject that Indie Bound, the PEN American Center, the National Book Foundation, the New YorkTimes, TheWall Street Journal, USA Today, Huffington, and NPR should latch onto with vigor, with passion, with urgency. Thank you for this generous honor. It means a lot to me, it really does. I’m pretty emotional about it, more than I ever am at speaking engagements. It means a lot to my wife Sue who’s here, and to our son Jack, who has become a big reader primarily because of independent bookstores pushing books at them. Thank you very much.

Neil Gaiman

The novelist and literary geek icon, who is a Hachette author himself, spoke out on Amazon in a June interview with Salon.

I’m obviously pissed at Amazon. I’m a Hachette author in the U.K., my wife is a Hachette author now, and I’m very aware that Hachette is the first of these publishers that negotiations are going to happen with, and that HarperCollins [Gaiman’s U.S. publisher] will be coming up in six months’ time or whatever. On the other hand, I’m just as aware that what you’re seeing right now, is huge, giant-level dealings between huge corporations both under non-disclosure, and every time I try to actually read enough stuff to figure out what’s going on here, what I run into is lots of “We can’t say anything, but he says,” and “We can’t say anything, but she says.”

Sherman Alexie

The award-winning author of War Dances and The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss just how fundamental pre-sales and pre-publicity are to the success of books. While there, he also promoted Edan Lepucki’s California: A Novel.

This wasn’t the first time Alexie voiced his opinion on ebooks. He refused to have War Dances be made available digitally — and, again, he appeared on Colbert to explain why.

John Green

The author made a statement while on the press tour for the film version of his The Fault in Our Stars, reminding us that, “The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”