Last week, Amazon and Hachette resolved their costly standoff. By many accounts, forthcoming books by Hachette authors are again available for pre-order, and current titles will again be shipped without delay. All is back to normal — normal being publishers and writers remain vulnerable to one distributor / bookseller in control of the industry’s revenue generation.
Less than a month after Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy expressed happiness about the “economically advantageous” multi-year deal her company reached with the e-tailer responsible for over 30% of book sales, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch announced an agreement with Amazon too, saying, “It gives Hachette enormous marketing capability…” Thanks to “a source with knowledge” of the Simon and Schuster deal, the New York Times offers some insight into the Amazon-Hachette compromise, saying it gave the publisher “control over most of its pricing but offered incentives to sell at lower prices. Amazon got increased co-op funds, the payments for placement on the retailer’s website.”
In the same piece, Forrester Analyst James L. McQuivey rightly points out, “in the end this all cements Amazon’s ultimate long-term role in this business, which will only put Hachette right back in this situation every time they are up for renegotiation.” To be clear, the problem is not Amazon, in my opinion; it’s the current industry business model that enables one or two booksellers to control revenue generation for the industry, as well as the lack of progressive ideas on the part of publishers and writers. Amazon is only capitalizing on the vacuum.
Authors United President Douglas Preston says their fight is not over. The coalition of over 1,000 bestselling writers specifically formed to organize writers in resistance to Amazon’s negotiation tactics with Hachette is reportedly working with the Authors Guild to draft an appeal to the Justice Department in hopes the government branch will launch an antitrust investigation on Amazon.
Even as they sharpen their swords for this battle, I would love to see these bodies arm writers to take advantage of the technology that has enabled Amazon to shake the century old publishing and bookselling businesses in just under 20 years. For too long, authors have taken a talent (versus business partner) approach, allowing a retinue of go-betweens and third-parties to handle the business of our livelihood.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, especially now that the business is in this malleable evolutionary phase:
Writers need to take more ownership of what happens after the publishing deal is signed. We can’t afford to look at our work as solely “the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle”. The businesses of book publishing and book selling are built on the creators of books, and we can no longer afford to be handled as “the talent”.
We should have first signatory power of our advances. Agents should provide receipts for all postage and handling and other expenses generated to sell our books to receive reimbursement. Publishers should deliver similar transparency enabling writers to be clear about how their royalty checks are calculated. We should be in the meetings sharing thoughts about how our work should be marketed, and to whom. We should also have more understanding and ownership of the retail deals and outlets associated with our work.
At the height of the Hachette-Amazon impasse, Stephen Colbert leveraged his television platform to direct readers to shop at indie bookseller Powells, and, in the process, helped make imprint mate Edan Lepucki’s novel California “one of the most preordered debut titles in Hachette history”. What if authors with similar or greater reach fulfilled book orders directly or via a third party they had individually set deal terms with?
How different would the Amazon-Hachette dispute have been if J.K. Rowling had pulled a Taylor Swift and removed her books from Amazon to sell them herself, via a distributor of her choice, or via her publisher? What if publishers fulfilled orders directly from their warehouses, or scrapped warehousing and opened branded online bookstores as publishing strategist Bruce Harris suggested in an interview with Publishing Perspectives?
I realize there are contractual parameters in place that make some of these prescriptions impossible, naive, or both; and obviously, publishers, agents, and booksellers have expertise that cannot be discounted, but I think these are the questions authors and author advocacy groups need to begin to ask and answer with the industry in such flux. The goal needs to be evolving the current model so writers have more agency over their work and their revenue so when spats and shifts happen, we’re not left only with the option of airing our frustrations via traditional or social media, watching helplessly from the sidelines.