Authors United has pulled a boner. The group of writers who’ve published through Hachette, which is in an ongoing contract dispute with Amazon, sent a letter this week to Amazon’s board of directors demanding it “put an end to the sanctioning of books.” In this case, “sanction” is meant as “discipline” in the way an overlord disciplines a minion. The writers are angry at Amazon’s tactic of slowing sales and delivery of Hachette books as a means to pressure Hachette on the core issue, the price of ebooks. Amazon wants to price ’em low. Hachette wants to price ’em high. Authors United says the tactic has driven down sales “by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent.” A drop in sales means a drop in income for Hachette authors, the group says.
My instinct is to support authors. In the book world, writers are the makers. Publishing could not exist without them. A whole ecosystem of editors, graphic artists, sales and marketing experts, and the bookstore itself (including Amazon), depends on authors sharing their dreams and nightmares. But Authors United has twisted this world into a fantasy. In its letter to Amazon’s board, it casts books as “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual” and publishers as providers of “venture capital for ideas.” Authors United romanticizes an industry that has ignored orders of magnitude more writers than it will ever publish. The industry has inflicted far more financial and emotional pain on writers in the past 200 years than Amazon will in the next 200 years. One has only to compare legacy publishers’ pitiful royalty rates to Amazon’s generous rates to see how authors figure in each camp’s mind.
I’ve seen both sides of this story, though I’m not a Hachette writer. I’ve published non-fiction books in the legacy world, and I’ve self-published non-fiction print and ebooks, as well as a novel. (See the list to your right.) I’ve earned far more per book through Amazon than through a traditional publisher. That said, I’ve earned more in total from a traditional publisher because of their higher-quality distribution and promotional channels. On the other hand, traditional publishers are doing all they can to shift their costs to writers, such as requirements for professional editing and some types of promotion, reducing publishers’ financial risk. So much for the “venture capital for ideas.” At first, they wanted writers to invest their time. Now, they want writers to invest their time and their capital. What’s left for the publisher? Distribution and getting the book into the hands of reviewers, the two toughest nuts for indie authors to crack.
Amazon made a terrible tactical error by freezing out Hachette. The move tarnished the company’s reputation among the authors and prospective authors on which the company’s future depends. Among writers, Jeff Bezos now looks less like an innovator and more like a bully. After months, he ought to recognize that the tactic isn’t working. On the other hand, Authors United’s letter smacks of an elitism that plays into the stereotype of the artist as a parasite, not a contributor. It’s hard for the average book buyer to sympathize with a “lonely, intense” whiner who looks forward to money (an advance) without having written a single word. Nice work, if you can get it.
I sincerely hope the Amazon/Hachette dispute is settled soon, so I can stop thinking of them as Godzilla versus Mothra. The Hachette authors deserve to be treated well by Amazon and every other retailer. But the Authors United scribblers need to accept the slow death of an 18th century business model. We’re heading to a mixed landscape where traditional publishers no longer dominate, but still play a curating role. Amazon may be the Wal-Mart of books, but a lot of authors are living their dreams and making money within its environment. Authors United represents the last of a shrinking breed, a small group of creatives lucky enough to benefit from an antiquated system in danger of economic irrelevance, no matter its utility.
Whose side are you on? Amazon or Authors United?