September 25, 2014

What Amazon can’t do: on Authors United, Hachette, and self-publishing


Does it matter that Amazon doesn't care about literary culture?

Does it matter that Amazon doesn’t care about literary culture?

I: A Tale of Two Letters

Over the past several months, Authors United, a group of over 1,000 writers led by Douglas Preston has emerged as a leading critic of Amazon‘s treatment of Hachette and its larger role in the marketplace. The group quickly made a name for itself in August, when it wrote an open letter that encouraged Amazon to “stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business” and encouraged readers to email Jeff Bezos directly with their thoughts on the matter. Published as an ad in the Sunday New York Times and signed by a host of popular, diverse authors, including Sherman AlexieBarbara KingsolverStephen KingMichael Chabon, Paul AusterLee ChildDonna TarttRobert CaroLauren BeukesSuzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, the letter was both well-executed and educational: it gave readers a clear and concise overview of the dispute between Amazon and Hachette from the perspective of authors themselves. 

It was also a somewhat careful first step. The letter explicitly stated that the group was not taking sides—the signees were representing themselves, not Hachette. And, although Amazon is criticized for treating its “partners” (publishers and authors) unfairly, the ask was relatively modest: Authors United wasn’t asking Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette, just that it stop punishing Hachette authors, who had become collateral damage.

Because Amazon and Hachette have each said very little, the dispute between Amazon and Hachette had largely been fought as a proxy war in the media, with bloggers (including this one) and authors preaching their cases to their respective choirs: on one-side, pro-Amazon, on the other, pro-traditional publishing. The first Authors United letter tried to plot a course between these two camps (or at least mute criticism from one of them); in other words, it aspired (or maybe just gestured, depending on your perspective), to be even-handed and fair. That, of course, didn’t prevent a backlash—this is the internet, after all. The pro-Amazon blogosphere railed against “rich” authors who didn’t know what was best for them, while Amazon Vice President of  Kindle Content, Russ Grandinetti, who is involved in the talks with Hachette, made a rare appearance to suggest that the publisher stop using its authors as “human shields.”

Nevertheless, there was still some of that even-handedness in the group’s second open letter, which was published last week and addressed to Amazon’s board—one paragraph begins “Our position has been consistent. We have made a great effort not to take sides. We are not against Amazon”—but in many ways, the sequel was considerably different than the original. 

For one thing, the follow-up was openly critical of Amazon. Its tactics are described as “sanctions” throughout; one section powerfully argues that Amazon’s efforts to block and impede the sale of Hachette titles are effectively censorship. Audience was undoubtedly a factor in this change in tone and many of the criticisms lobbed at Amazon are framed as appeals to the board. Amazon may have had a rough few months, but it’s still highly regarded with consumers; censorship, on the other hand, has a “long and ugly history”; surely a company that sees its good name as an essential part of its brand wouldn’t want to be associated with something like that? 

The backlash the first letter received from the pro-Amazon camp (including Amazon itself), also clearly played a factor in this shift. In fact, it’s addressed explicitly and convincingly: “Amazon has repeatedly tried to dismiss us as ‘rich’ bestselling authors who are advocating higher ebook prices—a false and unfair characterization, as most of us are in fact midlist authors struggling to make a living. And we have not made any statements whatsoever on book pricing. Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of any books as a negotiating tactic.”

Authors United is playing defense here (though it’s worth noting that most of their members are, in fact, midlist authors who are not millionaires), but instead of getting defensive, they turn the tables by subtly raising two popular pro-Amazon arguments.

One is that that the dispute is all about Hachette’s profits: Hachette wants to screw readers with high prices to overpay executives and make rich authors richer. (Confusingly, this is framed in two contradictory ways: on one hand, traditional publishing is inefficient and outdated and can only exist if it stacks the deck in its favor; it needs to maintain control and skew the market to maintain its inefficient, outdated business model; on the other hand, Hachette is owned by a giant, multi-billion dollar corporation, and is therefore “no better” than Amazon.)

The other is that contractual disputes happen all the time between retailers and suppliers: why should anyone, regardless of their position, treat Hachette any differently than they treat Levi’s or Whirlpool?

In August, Authors United tip-toed into the debate—they purposefully avoided weighing in on the dispute, beyond the fact that they did not want it to affect authors’ livelihoods—but they caused a splash in the form of a backlash that bordered on a smear campaign led by Amazon supporters, self-publishing advocates, and Amazon itself. In September, unable to avoid the opposition, Authors United took it on:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. But books are not mere consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to another country. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon endangers when it uses its tremendous power to separate authors from their readership.

There has been much talk on the Internet about how traditional publishers like Hachette are “dinosaurs” defending a moribund business model. There have been claims that Amazon is leading the way to a new publishing paradigm, one that pays authors higher royalties, allows anyone to publish, and cuts out the elitist gatekeepers. We agree that Amazon has spurred important innovations in publishing, including a self-publishing model that has given many new writers a voice.

But what these commentators and Amazon itself may not realize is that traditional publishing houses perform a vital role in our society. Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books. This system is especially important for nonfiction writers, who often must travel for research. Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea. By assuming the risk, publishers expect—and receive—a financial return. What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors, copy editors, designers, and other publishing staff who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?

In these three paragraphs, Authors United reframes the debate. It’s no longer Amazon vs. Hachette, or “traditional publishing” vs. “whatever kind of publishing it is that Amazon does.” Instead, there are two entities that each play a vital role. Traditional publishers nurture writers, assume risk, and develop projects and in doing so, bring ideas into both the marketplace and the culture. These ideas, moreover, might not find a way into the marketplace without the assistance of traditional publishers; notably, there is still no alternative to this service (no, crowd-funding doesn’t count). Amazon, meanwhile, provides an unparalleled marketplace for these ideas, a marketplace that it is constantly developing to keep in step with the culture as a whole.

Traditional publishers can’t do what Amazon does; Amazon can’t do what traditional publishers do (and no, the fact that bookstores don’t carry books published by Amazon is not the only reason why this is true, though that’s a subject for another post). Traditional publishing needs Amazon to survive right now, but American culture needs traditional publishing. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, may want to destroy the publishing industry, but I doubt that Jeff Bezos, husband of novelist McKenzie Bezos, would want to live in a world bereft of traditional publishers (at least if there wasn’t anything to replace them which, again, there isn’t right now). I’m sure most Amazon employees would agree.

In effect, what began as a financial argument has ended as a moral one: this isn’t about the future of Hachette (or even traditional publishing) or its profits, so much as it is about the future of ideas, which is, by extension, the future of American culture.

II: What We Talk about When We Talk about Amazon and Hachette

Self-published or independent authors can and should utilize what Amazon provides, but what it provides has limits—and talking about those limits is absolutely essential when discussing the future of traditional publishing and the future of Amazon. Part of what Hachette is seeking to protect is the infrastructure that allows it to contribute most effectively to the culture: editors, copyeditors, designers, and marketers (like me!) who can maximize a book’s potential. Those people aren’t in publishing for the money (ha) or the stature (lol), they’re in it because they care deeply about the future of ideas and want to be a part of that future. They are, in other words, people who love books. What upsets me most when I read online posts that are anti-traditional publishing (though that’s admittedly probably my own fault) is the suggestion that that infrastructure is inefficient and outdated when it’s absolutely essential. Vital, even. If traditional publishing provides “venture capital for ideas,” then a great deal of that capital is human capital.

Of course, not every book has a place in a traditional publishing house and not every book published by a traditional publishing house is necessarily worthy of the sentiments stated above (by me and by Authors United). Some—many, in fact—only get published because publishing houses have become increasingly corporate over the past few decades: bottom-lines have to be met, investors have to be sated. Mergers and acquisitions have dulled the output and the impact of many large houses: essential staff are cut, not necessarily because a house isn’t profitable, but because it isn’t as profitable as investors would like; acquiring bestsellers, regardless of quality, is, in many cases, more important than nurturing talent—Faulkner wasn’t profitable until he won the Nobel Prize (well after he finished writing his best work) and it’s unlikely that a large publisher would stick with unprofitable talent for decades today; and the fact that American publishing is currently dominated—and I mean dominated—by five houses that are, in turn, owned by gargantuan multinational corporations undoubtedly has an effect. These are, for many people inside and outside of the industry, troubling realities.

But attacking Hachette because it’s owned by Lagardère, as many have done over the past several months, is simplistic at best and it’s simplistic and absurd if you’re using it to make a point about how Amazon is better for books. Firstly, traditional publishing houses—even behemoths—contain multitudes, and you’ll find many for whom none of those issues apply, especially if you look to smaller ones (for instance, Melville House). Secondly, while overarching corporate entities have their own concerns (I don’t know much about what the multinationals want), few imprints are motivated solely by revenue, like Amazon is. Publishers want to maintain an identity and publish a list with integrity—not going bankrupt has always been important, and making money is more important now than it’s ever been, but it’s far from the only concern. And finally, and most importantly, Amazon doesn’t resolve any of the issues facing traditional publishing houses.

In fact, it makes each of them worse: its sole interest is money; it has absolutely no interest in human beings, whether that person is an employee or a client (for instance, an author); bestsellers are promoted more than unknowns and Amazon authors have to bootstrap it to change that; and, last I checked, one company dominating the marketplace isn’t any better than five. There’s an important conversation to be had about corporate publishing and American culture, but it’s not happening now and it’s not going to happen if people keep saying “Hachette is owned by Lagardère” or “Five publishers control a large percentage of the American book market” without thinking about what that means. Those are facts that have cultural repercussions, but they don’t mean much on their own and they certainly don’t settle any arguments. 

That’s not to say Amazon doesn’t have its virtues for some authors. Amazon publishes authors traditional publishers won’t and it publishes authors who won’t work with traditional publishers. I don’t see any problem there, just as I don’t see any problem with the fact that traditional publishers publish books that Amazon can’t, along with a number that it could. Although hybrid authors, who move between publishing houses and self-publishing, certainly exist, for the most part it seems as if separate constituencies are being served: some authors and books are better for self-publishing than traditional publishing (and vice versa) and each mode of publishing privileges different kinds of work and different personalities. None of this should matter, but it does.

The biggest difference between self-published authors and authors who publish with or work for traditional houses is crucial: each, unsurprisingly, has a very different relationship with Amazon. For self-published writers, Amazon gave them a voice and the opportunity to make a living from writing; for those on my side of the aisle, Amazon is an existential threat. Those are drastic differences, but they speak to differences in priorities, rather than in attitudes: self-published authors and traditional publishers operate with fabulously different business models, so it’s no surprise they disagree about, say, discounting. These are practical distinctions, not cultural ones.

And yet, something of a culture war persists—and a remarkably hostile one at that. Take this, from a post about Authors United by self-publishing blogger and author J.A. Konrath: “Consider the French Revolution. A bunch of blue bloods really thought they were born to rule, and the peasants couldn’t live without them to govern. They were wrong. Guess what? The reading community can easily live without books from every single Authors United signatory.” For many who self-publish, authors who advocate for publishers (or even publish with them) are ignorant elites who treat their “peasant” readers with disdain and nearly every blip about traditional publishers, regardless of the subject is proof of their stupidity and their inability or refusal to adapt. It’s pure identity politics—not much analysis, but a lot of us vs. them. And here’s the thing: the reading community certainly could live “without books from every single Authors United signatory,” but why would it want to? And why should it matter how an author with a very different relationship to Amazon feels about a pricing dispute? Talk about collateral damage.

That drivel isn’t necessarily emblematic, but the underlying attitudes make a little more sense when I think about my own anti-Amazon posts. I criticize Amazon fairly regularly and I’m sometimes heavy on the snark (though I can’t compete with the “peasant” talk), but I rarely, if ever, write about Amazon and self-publishing or self-publishing in general. I follow a few blogs, but for the most part, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The prevailing idea among some self-published writers that people who work in traditional publishing look down their noses at those who self-publish couldn’t be farther from the truth. Instead, I get the sense that most people who work in publishing don’t really think about self-publishing at all; they certainly don’t think about self-publishing as much as some self-published writers think about traditional publishing.

Is that elitist? If you think of self-published authors the way Konrath does—as a populist horde, the true reading public, here to finally break the shackles of tyranny—then maybe it is. I’m not convinced though. When I write about Amazon’s effect on publishing, I’m thinking about its effect on traditional publishing and that probably seems as ridiculous to some self-published writers as the stuff I see about traditional houses on, say, Konrath’s blog: I don’t recognize the publishing industry he’s writing about in the slightest and I’m sure he doesn’t recognize the Amazon I’m writing about either. The problem is that these approaches are seen in being in opposition to each other when, in my opinion at least, they run parallel. I’m not necessarily saying that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, but it’s obvious that there are vastly different economic and, frankly, cultural priorities at work and different models, too.

I make no bones about the fact that I think Amazon has been bad for literary culture in America, but I don’t want to take it away from anyone. If Konrath and other self-published authors are happy with the way Amazon is working for them, then that’s great for them and it’s great for literary culture. I just want Amazon to also work for publishers and I don’t see why that’s a problem. The goal should be to grow literary culture, not stifle it. There’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution and this certainly isn’t a fight to the death. 

Or at least it shouldn’t be.

III: What Next? 

Jeff Bezos once said that Amazon “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” Amazon detests gatekeepers, middlemen who stand between creators and consumers, and the publishing industry, in Amazon’s view, is a gatekeeper, which makes it outdated, inefficient, and old-fashioned. But in the case of books “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual,” as Authors United put it, gatekeepers are essential. There are, undoubtedly, some writers who don’t need editors, others who don’t need marketers (every writer, from my experience at least, needs a copyeditor and a designer), but the quality of a book is often dependent to a large degree on the people behind it. The success is, as well: customers tend to buy what they already know about from Amazon, which has consistently failed as a discovery engine. Amazon doesn’t value the publishing industry, in other words, because it doesn’t value literature; it doesn’t know how it’s made and it doesn’t care. Amazon just thinks books should cost less, because Amazon thinks everything should cost less.

In this sense, the dispute with Hachette is instructive. If its statements are to be believed, Amazon wants ebooks to be less expensive and it wants Hachette to receive less money from ebook sales: Currently, Amazon receives 30%, Hachette receives 45%, and authors receive 25% from ebook sales; Amazon wants to change that so it still gets 30%, while publishers and authors each get 35%. Now, I’d certainly rather have authors get more money than Amazon, but in a sense that’s beside the point: what matters to Amazon is that Hachette gets less money.

This is partly based on perceived wisdom that is entirely inaccurate. Many consumers think that ebooks should be less expensive because consumers think all digital products should be less expensive: they don’t have warehousing and manufacturing costs, after all. But the truth is that those are relatively minor production costs: what you’re paying for, when you buy a book in any format, is not just the book, but the infrastructure that allowed it to be what it was—editing, marketing, design, love. So, the lack of warehousing and manufacturing costs should make a book less expensive, but it shouldn’t make it drastically less expensive. (At least not initially—this post, from Melville House author Josh Cook, is instructive.)

Here’s the thing. Authors will always need editors and copyeditors; books will always need covers; and marketing and publicity are more important now than they’ve ever been—especially because the biggest bookseller in the country is, again, really bad at discoverability. Ebook sales have leveled off for most publishers—they’ve accounted for roughly 30% of revenue for the past few years—so a full-on digital transition isn’t going to happen anytime soon; but even if it did, it wouldn’t have changed what went into making a book.

Amazon has drastically changed the commercial and economic reality in America and it wants the publishing industry to reflect that, to bow in submission. But books are made differently. They’re not toasters. There aren’t ways to drastically alter their production in a way that doesn’t lower their quality, in a way that doesn’t damage the quality of American culture. But Amazon either doesn’t realize that, or it doesn’t care. So what to do?

Yesterday, Authors United announced it was writing a third letter, this one addressed to the Department of Justice. Douglas Preston told the Financial Times that “It’s not an emotional or a populist appeal, it’s simply citing points of law… They are expecting this letter and they have told me that they welcome any information we can provide.” I’m skeptical about this course of action for a few reasons, though that’s partly due to cynicism—U.S. v. Apple made it fairly clear that the government is in Amazon’s pocket—and partly due to the fact that I don’t think Amazon has actually broken antitrust law—at least as far as Hachette is concerned. This isn’t France, after all: books are afforded no special protections here; anyways, nasty contractual disputes happen all the time.

Of course, this contractual dispute is somewhat different. Amazon is a monopsony and it’s behaving like one here by utilizing its leverage and market share to dictate terms to suppliers. Again, I don’t know how persuasive that is with regards to Hachette—especially because it’s the only publisher engaged in this kind of dispute—but Amazon has a long, long history of treating suppliers the way it’s currently treating Hachette. A letter that laid out that history may not sway the Department of Justice, but it could sway some consumers, especially considering the spate of bad press Amazon has received over the past six months.

But I wouldn’t mind if Authors United sent an adaptation of their second letter to the Department of Justice, even if it didn’t end up making a difference. The dispute between Amazon and Hachette is far from unique. It’s happened before and it will continue to happen—Amazon, after all, is under increasing pressure from investors to finally turn a profit, so it may go hunting for more gazelles.

But it will also continue to happen because it speaks to an unresolvable conflict: Amazon thinks that books should be treated like any other consumer good, but books aren’t like any other consumer good. They’re unique, the work that goes into them is essential to that uniqueness, and they hold a unique and irreplaceable place in our culture. That matters, even if it may not matter to Amazon. This dispute isn’t just about commerce, and it isn’t just about the future of traditional publishing, after all: it’s about the future of American culture. 


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