July 15, 2014

Richard Russo: Amazon does not think “books are different and special”


Richard Russo. (via Wikimedia)

Richard Russo. (via Wikimedia)

Last Tuesday, Amazon offered to “take authors out of the middle” of its dispute with Hachette by paying them “100% of the sales price of every Hachette e-book” sold on Amazon. It was a brazen, condescending, completely empty offer. But Amazon thought it might turn authors against publishers and help quell the rising tide of anger against the company’s treatment of Hachette and its authors. It didn’t work.

Two days after Amazon made its cynical Hail Mary Pass, Authors Guild Vice President Richard Russo took on Amazon for its shabby treatment of authors in a statement released on the Author’s Guild’s website. In many ways, it’s the perfect response—not just to Amazon’s treatment of Hachette, but to its treatment of authors and the book industry in general. An excerpt is below (emphasis added):

On Tuesday, Amazon made an offer to Hachette Book Group that would “take authors out of the middle” of their ongoing dispute by offering Hachette authors windfall royalties on e-books until the dispute between the companies is resolved. While Amazon claims to be concerned about the fate of mid-list and debut authors, we believe their offer—the majority of which Hachette would essentially fund—is highly disingenuous. For one thing, it’s impossible to remove authors from the middle of the dispute. We write the books they’re fighting over. And because it is the writing life itself we seek to defend, we’re not interested in a short-term windfall to some of the writers we represent. What we care about is a healthy ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive. We believe that ecosystem should be as diverse as possible, containing traditional big publishers, smaller publishers, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores, as well as both e-books and print books. We believe that such an ecosystem cannot exist while entities within it are committed to the eradication of other entities.

Over the years the Guild has often opposed Amazon’s more ruthless tactics, not because we’re anti-Amazon but because we believe the company has stepped over the line and threatened the publishing ecosystem in ways that jeopardize both our livelihoods and the future of authorship itself. There’s no need to rehash our disagreements here. But it is worth stating that we are not anti-Amazon, or anti-e-book, or anti-indie-publishing. Amazon invented a platform for selling e-books that enriches the very ecosystem we believe in, and for which we are grateful. If indie authors are making a living using that platform, bravo. Nor are we taking Hachette’s side in the present dispute. Those of us who publish traditionally may love our publishers, but the truth is, they’ve not treated us fairly with regard to e-book revenues, and they know it. That needs to change. If we sometimes appear to take their side against Amazon, it’s because we’re in the same business: the book business. It may be true that some of our publishers are owned by corporations that, like Amazon, sell a lot more than books, but those larger corporations seem to understand that books are special, indeed integral to the culture in a way that garden tools and diapers and flat-screen TVs are not. To our knowledge, Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell. This doesn’t strike us as an oversight. If we’re wrong, Mr. Bezos, now would be a good time to correct us. First say it, then act like you believe it. We’d love to be your partners.

The dispute between Amazon and Hachette has been, at times, very contentious—as a very good piece published yesterday by Laura Hazard Owen will testify. Russo’s piece is notable for a number of reasons, but it’s perhaps most notable for its tone. I don’t think anyone in the industry wants Amazon to simply go away—ourselves included. What we want is exactly what Russo outlines here: we want Amazon to treat books for the phenomenon that they are, and to contribute, not restrict, to a lively and diverse ecosystem in which all authors and publishers have the potential to thrive. Authors are, as Russo argues, currently smack dab in the middle of this dispute and Amazon put them there—attempting to pay them off with ebook sales royalties isn’t going to change that, nor is it going to resolve this dispute.This may be a fight between giant corporations–between a small Goliath and a gargantuan Goliath, a corporate publisher and a retail behemoth—but the stakes are high. And authors aren’t the only ones caught in the middle: this is a fight about the importance of the book in our culture as well.


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