September 16, 2014

Authors United sets its sights on Amazon’s board


Imagine holding Jeff Bezos' face against your ear while you whisper goodnight to your loved ones.

Imagine holding Jeff Bezos’ face against your ear while you whisper goodnight to your loved ones.

Authors United is back. One month after publishing an open letter calling on Amazon to end its dispute with Hachette, the group, which is led by author Douglas Preston, has written another powerful open letter, this time addressed to Amazon’s board.

In the letter, Authors United begins by assessing how Amazon’s protracted dispute with Hachette has impacted authors: Hachette authors’ sales have declined “by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent” and that the “sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books.” Authors United, which includes writers as diverse as Sherman AlexieBarbara KingsolverStephen KingMichael Chabon, Paul AusterLee ChildDonna TarttElif BatumanRobert CaroLauren BeukesSuzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, then states its impressive credentials:

No group of authors as diverse or prominent as this has ever come together before in support of a single cause. We are literary novelists, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, and poets; thriller writers and debut and midlist authors. We are science fiction and travel writers; historians and newspaper reporters; textbook authors and biographers and mystery writers. We have written many of your children’s favorite stories. Collectively, we have sold more than a billion books. Amazon’s tactics have caused us profound anguish and outrage.

Then the letter really gets going. Authors United appeals directly to Amazon’s board, arguing that the company should not be proud to be associated with censorship:

Efforts to impede or block the sale of books have a long and ugly history. Would you, personally, want to be associated with this? We feel strongly that such actions have no place in a common commercial dispute. Amazon has other negotiating tools at its disposal; it does not need to inflict harm on the very authors who helped it become one of the largest retailers in the world…

Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of books as a negotiating tactic.

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. 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 that book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.

The letter concludes:

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 must quit their jobs to travel, research and write. Without an advance, for example, many aspiring writers would never be able to leave their jobs to write their first books. 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 and copy editors, who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?

We are certain that you, as an Amazon board member, prize books and freedom of expression as much as we do. Since its founding, Amazon has been a highly regarded and progressive brand. But if this is how Amazon continues to treat the literary community, how long will the company’s fine reputation last? We appeal to you, with hope and goodwill, to exercise your governance and put an end to the sanctioning of books, which are the very foundation of our culture and democracy.

Amazon is famously image-obsessed. As the New York TimesDavid Streitfeld wrote yesterday, “Amazon takes its good name seriously. In the Harris Poll of corporate reputations, it once again took top honors this year. But that prestige is taking a bit of a beating as the fight with Hachette drags on.” That image has taken a bit of a beating lately—the company’s treatment of Hachette has incensed many and, as Streitfeld goes on to note, the company’s first smartphone has been an epic flop. Once priced at $199, the Kindle Fire Phone is now going for 99 cents.

You can read the full Authors United letter here.


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