July 24, 2014

Amazon wants Hachette to stop “using its authors as human shields”


All of a sudden, Amazon can't shut up.

All of a sudden, Amazon can’t shut up.

Once upon a time, you could expect one sentence in nearly every article published about Amazon: “An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.” As of this writing, a Google search for that exact phrase yields over 80,000 results. And, while Amazon is still not talking much to the press, it’s been far from tight-lipped about its dispute with Hachette.

Hachette—and other publishers—have largely stayed silent, possibly because it seems to be apparent that they’re currently winning the public relations battle and have maintained the support of their authors. Amazon has tried very hard to erode that support; all of its public statements have, in one way or another, been directed at Hachette authors. Over the past few months, the company has released a condescending statement on its Kindle forums, flown a self-publishing blogger to New York as a stand-in on a panel about its dispute with Hachette, and absolved itself of all blame to the Wall Street Journal‘s Jeffrey Trachtenberg.

Interestingly, over this same period, Amazon has made offers to a select group of Hachette authors before making those offers to Hachette—you may recall a condescending letter that was actually a condescending publicity stunt (that nevertheless contained a condescending offer) that was sent to authors earlier this month. That strategy backfired then—Hachette authors didn’t budge and there was a minor public outcry—but the company has apparently not abandoned the strategy.

Yesterday, Amazon made a second offer to Hachette author Douglas Preston, according to Publishers Weekly. Preston has been an outspoken figure throughout the Amazon/Hachette debate. He started a petition calling for Amazon “to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers” that has since been signed by over 1,000 writers, including Stephen King, James Patterson, Sherman Alexie,Donna TarttJohn GreenJohn GrishamMalcolm Gladwell, and Suzanne Collins. This group of writers is known as Authors United and is currently developing a “long-term strategy” for fighting back against Amazon and resolving its dispute with Hachette; the group plans on publishing a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times soon.

According to Publishers Weekly Amazon’s Vice President of Kindle Content, Russ Grandinetti spoke to Preston over the phone and slightly amended an earlier condescending offer:

Grandinetti suggested a what-if scenario in which Amazon would return to delivering Hachette authors their standard royalties on e-books, and return to stocking of all the publisher’s titles. Amazon and Hachette, meanwhile, would continue to negotiate, turning all proceeds each company normally earns from the sale of ebook titles over to an agreed-upon literacy charity. Like the first offer, this one would motivate both companies to negotiate, something Grandinetti accused Hachette of stalling on. “We tried to talk to them for months,” he reportedly told Preston.

Once again, Amazon has offered a publicity stunt aimed at eroding Hachette authors’ support for their publisher rather than something substantive. Amazon wants the public to see Amazon and Hachette as being on equal footing here, which is why they’re offering a deal in which each party sacrifices equally. But Amazon and Hachette are not on equal footing. They are both very large corporations, sure, but one is significantly larger than the other and has consistently used that fact as leverage throughout these negotiations. Moreover, as we’ve noted in the past, Amazon can afford to take this kind of financial support but Hachette likely can’t—even with the support of their parent company Lagardère (more on this in a moment). As Preston told Publishers Weekly, this offer would have “’the same effect of crippling Hachette’ as the first offer. If [Hachette] wasn’t making money for Lagardère, they’d shut it down.'” This is, in other words, more of the same cynical posturing that we’ve seen from Amazon throughout this dispute. It’s a stunt that does absolutely nothing to resolve the dispute—in fact, by concentrating on this strange flanking strategy, they’re probably extending it. How this offer would “motivate both companies to negotiate” is anyone’s guess.

Authors United does, however, appear to have gotten under Amazon’s skin. Grandinetti reportedly told Preston that “Every time [the authors] make a statement, it makes Hachette less willing to compromise.” According to Publishers Weekly, he also insisted Preston “quiet the chorus of authors speaking out against the e-tailer.” Blaming Preston for continuing the standoff is a bold, interesting, ridiculous strategy, considering that his own company doesn’t appear to have budged in the talks. And it’s especially brazen considering that Amazon has consistently tried to blame Hachette for putting its own authors in the firing line while pitting this as a contest between two giant, multinational companies. Now it’s just not Hachette’s fault, it’s Hachette authors’ fault. The Amazon way: blame authors first.

Preston, of course, is not going to budge, as his willingness to talk to Publishers Weekly testifies. And, though this new offer suggests that this dispute is far from over, the fact that Amazon is simultaneously trying to draw Hachette authors closer while also throwing them under the bus suggests that they’re increasingly antsy about public opinion. For a relentless company that’s been very, very good at managing its image, their strategy, especially in dealing with Hachette authors, has been shockingly ham-fisted. The few flanking maneuvers they’ve attempted have seemed to be largely improvised; regardless of strategy, they’ve bungled their case every time they’ve brought it to the public. Of course, there’s plenty here to satisfy the rabid pro-Amazon hordes; there just isn’t much for authors or the general public.

But Amazon wasn’t done bungling. Contacted by Publishers Weekly to respond to Preston’s comments, the company had this to say (emphasis added):

“You have to look at the parent company—Lagardère Group–rather than just the Hachette division. Kindle books are only 1% of Lagardère Group’s sales. They can afford it, and should stop using their authors as human shields.”*

Amazon’s comments about Hachette have been hostile throughout, but this—which, as Nick Mamatas pointed out yesterday, literally uses the language of military propaganda—strikes me as an especially poor choice of words. Though, as the LA TimesCarolyn Kellogg put it on Twitter, Amazon has an excuse: “To be fair, Amazon spokespeople so rarely comment on anything that they’re probably a little rusty.” And again, whether Lagardère can afford it is an open question (Hachette definitely can’t, and that’s an important fact when one considers how conglomerates are run). Regardless, Amazon is six times bigger than the Lagardère Group, in terms of revenue.

But, despite all of the rhetoric, authors see through the bullshit. “First of all, I’ve been with Hachette for 25 years,” Preston told Publishers Weekly. “I have a six-book contract with Hachette. The thing about Amazon, they think it’s all about money. It’s not [all] about money.”

*This is actually the second time Amazon has used this particular phrase. They had previously used it in reference to Preston’s letter on July 9. (H/T Publisher’s Lunch)

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.