The Internet is burning up these days with opinions – informed and otherwise – about the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette Book Group USA, which has led to readers being unable to pre-order Hatchette books, as well as significant delivery delays for titles that are, supposedly, in stock. Each side has its vocal advocates, though the weightiest voices tend to come down on the side of Hatchette as a publisher, as the defender and champion of authors.
I’ll defend neither, but let’s compare sides.
No one considers Amazon the underdog here; not even I am enough of a contrarian to take that position. Some of their business practices are borderline predatory, and reports of how they have treated warehouse employees are unconscionable. Anecdotes of their arrogance with book suppliers are legion. Still, arguments by well-known authors that Amazon will ruin the lives of authors are not well taken. The big-time authors who are most damning of Amazon (names such as Richard Russo, Scott Turow, and the writer-turned-conglomerate known as James Patterson) have made their fortunes with the existing model; damn right they view any challenge to it as a threat to their income streams.
As a lesser literary light – more like a single photon, really – I have a different perspective. Were it not for Amazon, my e-books would never have seen the light of day. Even Grind Joint, published by Stark House in paper last year, would likely have sunk with barely a ripple had it not been for Amazon, as many small bookstores – even some in my backyard – will not deal with unknown authors and small publishers. That’s not a condemnation of small booksellers; they have their reasons. It still would have left me, and many others like me, out in the cold. Amazon may be Goliath, but it’s not the Antichrist.
If Amazon is Goliath, we need a David, and Hatchette has rushed to assume that mantle. It’s a bad fit. Hatchette is owned by Hachette Livre, the largest publishing company in France, and the third largest trade and educational publisher in the world. Hachette Livre is, in turn, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lagardère Group, which operates in thirty countries and has a market capitalization of $4.3 billion. This is not David vs. Goliath; it’s Godzilla vs. Megalon. Everything else is collateral damage.
I think the knee-jerk reaction from many authors stems from the still-prevalent idea that success means a contract from a major New York publisher that will hook you up with Maxwell Perkins and nurture your career into the realm of best-sellerdom, or at least the midlist. Well, not so much these days. Major New York publishers – hell, any publisher – do not give out contracts because they liked your book, or your writing. The contract is given because the publisher thinks the book (or books) under contract will turn a profit. Period. You will be shown the door faster than a gay wedding reception at Chick-fil-A if your book does not meet its numbers. (Which you had no say in assigning, by the way.)
Stephen Colbert weighed in for Hachette a couple of weeks ago, lamenting how the inability to pre-order was a death blow to new authors, as pre-orders are what make or break a book’s success. If so, whose fault is that? Not Amazon’s, where they will happily sell the book whenever. It’s Hatchette – and other publishers, no doubt – who have decided to base their support for a book on its pre-orders. So much for the idea of working with the author to build readership.
Who’s ultimately at fault? Neither, and both. As Sonny Corleone said, this is business, and you’re taking it personal. Happens all the time, just not as publicly. No one is looking to screw authors here, though the authors are the orange they’re both squeezing to see how much juice each can get. Amazon is making money, and wants to make more. Hachette will still make money, even if they lose on this; just not as much as they’d like.
The real problem here is the publishing industry’s business model, which is – and has been – deeply flawed for eons. (If blame is to be assessed, a good place to start would be with the shortsighted dimwit who thought it would be a good idea to allow booksellers to return unsold stock at the publisher’s expense, no questions asked.) Technology has made what was always a bad idea untenable, and publishers are resisting the change with the same bitterness and inability to grasp the inevitable as Evangelical Christians up against social change. What all their brilliant MBAs still haven’t grasped is how they really have only two choices here: embrace the future, or be run over by it. I’m not saying all the changes we’re seeing, and will continue to see, are for the better, but building sand walls to stop the tide ain’t gonna get it done.
Dana King is the author of A Small Sacrifice (nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Indie PI Novel for 2013), Grind Joint (named one of the fifteen best noir reads of 2013 by the LA Review of Books), Worst Enemies and Wild Bill. His novels have received praise from authors such as Charlie Stella, Timothy Hallinan, Adrian McKinty, and Leighton Gage, and they are available for free on Amazon from June 25th through 29th. You can also read more on his blog at danaking.blogspot.com.