I wasn’t going to talk about Amazon and Hachette

This entire story has been such a mess that it’s really hard to know where to begin. It would be nothing more notable than two massive corporations vying for supremacy if there wasn’t this bizarre rhetoric about holy wars and oppression surrounding it. Hachette versus Amazon has come to symbolize the larger war of self-published authors (or indie-pub or author-pub or whatever terminology you want to use) against traditionally published authors, and the old guard versus the new upstarts.

Let’s see if I can recreate the timeline of events:

July 2012: Apple is found guilty of colluding with big publishers, including Hachette, to set ebook prices higher than Amazon’s usual $9.99 price tag. As part of their punishment, the publishers involved are forced to renegotiate their contracts with their retailers, including Amazon, and are no longer allowed to set their own prices for two years. In other words, Amazon can discount their ebooks to their heart’s content and the publishers can’t do much about it. A fitting punishment, really, since the publishers did commit a crime.

Early May, 2014: The contracts from the anti-trust agreement are due to expire. Hachette is the first publisher to start negotiating with Amazon again. Amazon, which controls 50% of the book selling market, wants to continue to sell Hachette’s ebooks at a discount. Hachette refuses. In retaliation, Amazon starts pretending all books published by Hachette are out of stock and will take 2-4 weeks to ship. It also recommends other, lower-priced books to customers on Amazon, and stops letting readers preorder Hachette books. Many Hachette authors see their sales plummet. Here’s Stephen Colbert on the dispute. (Side note: I don’t watch television, so it’s only in watching that video that I realized Hachette isn’t pronounced ‘hatchet’).

Late May: Amazon finally issues a statement, and offers to establish an “author pool” to give Hachette authors some of the money they’ve been losing, as long as Hachette agrees to cover the other half of the cost. In other words, Amazon punched a bunch of authors in the face, then said they’d only give them some ice if Hachette helped pay for it. Hachette looks bad if they don’t help their authors, but it’s admittedly Amazon who punched the authors in the face in the first place.

Hachette responds, saying that they’ll agree to compensate the authors hurt in the deal once Amazon and Hachette have come to an agreement about the pricing. Still, Amazon doesn’t mind a little bit of a tarnished reputation as long as this strategy works. If Hachette gives in, then each subsequent publisher whose contract comes up for negotiation is more likely to give in, since they’ll have seen what damage Amazon can do. The more publishers let Amazon control the prices, the more Amazon will control the entire market, and eventually publishers themselves will start going bankrupt, which—since Amazon is, of course, a publisher as well—means Amazon will benefit financially.

Early July: Some self-published authors, led by Hugh Howey, write a weird petition praising Amazon and urging Hachette to give in. Chuck Wendig writes about it here. Here’s John Scalzi’s take. (Related: Publishing is not a holy war.)

Amazon asks Hachette to give 100% of book revenue to their authors. Hachette refuses, calling that suicidal. Amazon accuses Hachette of using their authors as meat shields.

Late July: Amazon writes another letter. This one points out that customers buy more books when books are cheaper. In other words, everyone makes more money when prices get lower. They also say that authors should get 35% royalties on their books, and say they think Hachette isn’t paying its authors enough. (Amazon also casually slips in a mention of Hachette’s illegal collusion.)

Early August: Hachette author Douglas Preston asks Amazon to stop bullying authors. 900 authors sign on, and a full page ad is scheduled to run in the New York Times tomorrow (Aug 10).

Today: Amazon sends a letter to their Kindle Direct Published authors, asking them to join the battle. They ask their authors to email Hachette’s CEO, and to cc Amazon on the email. They mention many of the events listed above. It’s weird in many ways, but to me, this is the weirdest: the readersunited.com domain on which they published that letter was registered 18 months ago. Yes, that’s right, a good 14 months before this brouhaha even started. (Though I’m not sure when, exactly, Hachette and Amazon began negotiating in private). So, uh, I’m not sure what to make of that.

Phew, that took far too many open tabs to compile. Long story short, this struggle between Amazon and Hachette is a key battle for power in the publishing world. If Hachette wins, Amazon loses a bit of its power for a little while longer. If Amazon wins, it’s possible that it will kick off a slow decline into bankruptcy for not just Hachette but all the big publishers.

As for my opinion on the matter? I don’t want Amazon to be a monopoly. They might have low prices now, but that won’t necessarily be the case once they’re free from competition. Also, I don’t think it’s too much to ask readers to pay more for their book than they’d pay for a Starbucks latte, since the former took a little more effort to make.

Edit (8/10/14): Hachette’s response.

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2 thoughts on “I wasn’t going to talk about Amazon and Hachette

  1. Thanks for this breakdown! I’ve been following this fracas from a distance but wasn’t very clear on the details.

    Also, ugh, Amazon. Thanks for treasuring authors sooooo much that you think their work should be available for the price of a Subway sandwich.

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