Authors United May Have a Point

Amazon vs HachetteI’m a bit sick to death of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Mainly because it’s a case of one corporate giant against another. Another thing that is troubling is the absolute cheerleading for Amazon that comes from the self-publishing side. While Authors United has made some egregiously overboard claims, Amazon isn’t entirely above reproach.

Today, literary heavyweights have joined the Authors United cause, including Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera.

Ursula K. Le Guin sounds a bit unhinged when she says,

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote in an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

On Facebook, Barry Eisler snarks,

It’s twue, it’s twue: Amazon, the company that created KDP, wants to “dictate to authors what they can write.” Also, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America!” I guess selling too many books destroys literary culture…?

Seriously, I don’t know how this thing calling itself Authors United doesn’t just shrivel up in mortification over its own debased rhetoric.

It’s not quite as simple as that either because Amazon doesn’t have a 100% clean track record. See: 4 Ways Amazon’s Ruthless Practices Are Crushing Local Economies

Lest you think predator is too harsh a term, consider the metaphor Bezos himself chose when explaining how to get small book publishers to cough up deep discounts as the price for getting their titles listed on the Amazon website. As related by Businessweek reporter Brad Stone, Bezos
 instructed his negotiators to stalk them “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” Bezos’ PR machine tried to claim this sneering comment was just a little “Jeff joke,” but they couldn’t laugh it off, for a unit dubbed the “Gazelle Project” had
 actually been set up inside Amazon.

This top-level team focused on doing 
exactly what Bezos 
instructed: Pursue vulnerable small 
publishers and squeeze their wholesale
 prices to Amazon down to the point of no profit, thus allowing the online retailer to underprice every other book peddler. When Stone exposed Gazelle last year in his book, The Everything Store, the project was suddenly rebranded with a bloodless name—“Small Publisher Negotiation Program”—but its mission remains the same.

This is bad. It can be portrayed as normal capitalism, but Amazon is having an effect on local economies in the same way as Walmart. Couple that with Amazon affecting the algorithm for certain books and there’s cause for concern.

Obviously, self-publishing has opened it up so there is increased freedom in what people can publish. That’s where Le Guin goes wrong. But Amazon is monopolizing the publishing space, and conceivably, when they have a complete monopoly they really will have the tools to dictate what books get read. A new head of Amazon could come in with a political agenda of whatever stripe and make it so certain books are more easily discovered.

That’s Orwellian paranoia, but given that

1. Amazon has a history of aggression towards competitors
2. Amazon has a widening share of the marketplace

then what Authors United is saying is plausible. It’s an overstatement today, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. Amazon is very literally monopolizing how books get read.

What these authors are fearing is having to self-publish – the old model is coming down, and that’s daunting. But it’s daunting in part because self-publishing does not lend itself well to writers like Philip Roth or Salman Rushdie, it lends itself to genre fiction. Those guys need publishers more than Hugh Howey does. That doesn’t make them dinosaurs clinging to an outdated model, because the model has served them very well.  Eventually all publishing will be self-publishing and in that environment a first book like Roth’s Goodbye Columbus might not find readers and the next Roth won’t have a career.

If traditional publishers were to fail and all we were left with was Amazon and KDP then certain wings of literary culture could really suffer. That’s where Authors United is right. And this is especially true if Amazon dictates what is seen by readers, which is entirely within their power – even if people have the freedom to publish whatever they want. Freedom to publish and freedom to be discovered are two different things.

Amazon has served the self-publishing community extraordinarily well, in addition to every other writer by creating easy access to books wherever you live. Is this dystopian publishing future inevitable? Probably not, but it shouldn’t be disregarded if it’s even a possibility.

  • Thanks for your insightful article on the tiresome Hachettte/Amazon duel. When I read about Authors United expanding its strategy today, I had some of the same responses you had. Following the antitrust case against the Big Six a couple of years ago led me to conclude that there is no innocence on either side of this struggle. And you are right that some of these heavy weight writers fear the self-publishing trend. But I would add to your points about self-publishing: It’s not only “genre fiction writers” who are served by self-publishing, it’s any writer who has tried and tried to gain the representation need to even approach one of the major houses, and all the subsidiary houses they now own, and who has found herself “locked out” for lacking the ever-elusive “platform,” the latest literary catch-22 that continues to shrink the literary landscape in threatening ways. Anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant model or have some sensationalized story, will find herself without a readership unless she goes the indie author route. And even then, there are no guarantees that she will be visible.

    • Thanks for the comment. What I mean by “genre writers” is that they’re best served, they’re the writers who have had the greatest success self-publishing. Literary writers less so. No doubt self-publishing opens up avenues for everyone but harder-to-classify books need more help to get noticed, so they could use a publisher.

      • Thanks, Henry, for your reply. Could use a publisher, for sure. Getting one, even if you have already published traditionally, not so easy for hard-to-classify books.

  • Great article, but I can’t help but comment on this: “Amazon has served the self-publishing community extraordinarily well, in addition to every other writer by creating easy access to books wherever you live.”

    There’s a mistaken impression that, when POD came along and was adopted by many self-publishing authors, that Amazon, in an act of kindness gave them a chance by listing their books.

    That’s not so. It was Ingram’s Lightning Source that opened that door, assisted by various publishing assistance companies like Lulu. Amazon simply sold every book in Ingram’s database, as did B&N and a host of other online book retailers around the world. About 2001 I checked to see how available one of my Lightning Source books was from online book retailers in distant Israel. All six I checked listed it. That was just how broad the Lightning/Ingram reach was. It was Lightning Source that made the difference not Amazon. If Amazon hadn’t existed, POD books from independent authors would still have been easily available online from dozens of sources.

    Far from lending a helping hand to self-published authors, Amazon simply did the easy and profitable thing. It would have cost it money to locate and weed-out independent authors. And with Lightning/Ingram handling the printing and distribution, all Amazon needed to do was pocket the profits.

    This mistaken impression arose because all too many self-published authors simply didn’t understand book distribution, a mistake aided by the fact that some of those publishing-assisting companies, heirs to the sleazy ethics of vanity publishing, offered to get an author’s book on Amazon for an added fee. That was a lie. Any book printed by Lightning Source could be released to Ingram and any book wholesaled by Ingram was sold by Amazon.

    In short, self-publishers owe no debt to Amazon. If offered them no favors that B&N and Books-a-Million weren’t offering at the same time.

    But unlike those other retailers, Amazon has a nasty history of trying to bully. About 2007 or so, it began yanking the Buy button for those publisher-assisting companies, demanding that, if they wanted to be easily available from Amazon, they had to print through Amazon’s own POD affiliate, CreateSpace.

    One Maine publisher took them to court over that, making such a good case that what Amazon was trying to do was illegal bundling that Amazon settled out of court, halting the attempt. Amazon was only halted by a court.

    That’s why independent authors who gloat at Hachette’s troubles with Amazon again yanking that Buy button are being foolish. It’s not simply that, if Amazon succeeds with Hachette, it might turn on them. It’s that it has already done that. Only the particular technique it used was illegal. It could easily come up with another technique that’s just as brutal but isn’t technical illegal. That’s no doubt what it is testing now with Hachette. What works with a publishing giant will certainly work with independent authors.

    • Good points. I was more thinking of self-publishing in the post-KDP universe. Self-publishing was put on the map by the likes of Hocking and Howey, Kindle writers. I agree totally with your last sentiment. If Amazon truly gets a monopoly, they can reduce 70% terms. How Amazon treats publishers is a possible portent of how they’ll treat author-publishers.

    • Michael, all your points are “spot on.” But, to me, it’s not simply a question of attacking one monopoly OR another; it’s a question of looking at who benefits from recent changes in the publishing industry, including among the Big Six. Challenging all forms of gatekeeping that make it difficult for writers whose work doesn’t fit the norm, or who aren’t already famous, to find a venue for their work. Ingram’s Spark has helped, in this regard. It’s global reach is impressive. But, unless you plan to sell a lion’s share of your books through your own website, you need to follow industry discount standards to be competitive, or even find your way into independent bookstores, all of which affects how quickly you can recoup money spent, as you should expect to, on editing, design, marketing, etc. to make your book look professional. Becoming a publisher requires a different set of skills than becoming a writer.