Two days after Simon & Schuster and Amazon announced a multi-year contract, David Gaughran wrote a great post about things Authors United can do next. He opined that while AU was ineffective in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, they did excel at getting media attention. Why not use that attention to address some real issues?
He's correct. But before they get to his excellent list, they still have one big thing they can help out with.
I gave my advice to Authors United a month ago. That advice is more applicable than ever before, now that S&S has proven that Amazon can be successfully negotiated with.
Some of my advice was:
1. Write an open letter to Hachette. You've stated, repeatedly, that you aren't taking sides. Prove it. Let Hachette know how unhappy you are with their negotiating tactics, and do so publicly. Which leads to:
2. Leverage Hachette. Hire lawyers to get out of your Hachette contracts. Proclaim you'll refuse to sign any more deals with them unless they fix this situation. They have failed you, so let them know.
3. Force Hachette to accept one of Amazon's offers to compensate authors during the negotiation period. Amazon has tried several times to take authors out of the line of fire, and you've dismissed this without good reason.
I know it has only been three days, but why hasn't Authors United announced its next move? I'm just one man, and I can compose and post a blog response within a few hours of breaking news. Certainly all of those prize-winning, bestselling authors that comprise Authors United could make some public statement. It's not like they're unable to get media attention.
But they haven't made a peep.
So once again I'll give AU some advice as to how to proceed.
1. Release a statement praising Amazon and S&S.
2. Openly ask Hachette why they can't reach an agreement.
3. Ask Hachette and Amazon to retroactively compensate all effected Hachette authors once an agreement has been reached.
I don't expect you to admit you were wrong. You can even continue to believe you were right this whole time, and that Amazon is a harmful, unreasonable monopoly that boycotts, sanctions, blah blah blah.
This isn't about saving face, or defending your previous position. Keep pride and ego out if it. This is about effecting change.
Contact your media lackeys. Get some inches and airtime. Demand that Hachette explain what is taking so long, since Amazon quite obviously has no trouble making deals with the Big 5. Reiterate that your goal has always been to protect authors.
If you can put some public onus on Hachette you'll be remembered as heroes, and make the publishing industry better for authors.
The wind changed direction. Go with it. You've gathered together a powerful group of authors, with a lot of access to media that's hungry to hear from you. Use that and get this situation buttoned up.
It's doubtful any journalists will ask you any difficult or uncomfortable questions, since none have before. But if some reporter with a bit of integrity sneaks a zinger into an interview, here are some examples of how to deflect.
Q: Didn't you previously take an anti-Amazon stance?
A: We've repeatedly stated we aren't taking sides. We're pro-author. We want authors to stop being harmed.
Q: Why didn't you approach Hachette at the beginning of this dispute?
A: Hachette wasn't the one making their books difficult to buy on Amazon. Amazon was doing that. Now that Amazon has shown it can negotiate in good faith, as evidenced by the Simon & Schuster deal, we want to make sure Hachette negotiates in good faith as well.
Q: You've repeatedly rejected Amazon's offers to compensate authors. Why have you changed your mind?
A: Amazon's offer to compensate authors during the negotiation period would have caused an ongoing financial strain on Hachette. We propose they settle their differences, and then each fund a pool that will compensate authors once there is a deal in place. Money, of course, would be great. Amazon also has the ability to promote books in the same way they can make books difficult to find. We'd love to see Amazon give Hachette authors some additional promotional consideration once an agreement is reached.
Q: Do you feel as if you've been wasting your time--and money--on this affair?
A: Not at all. We got involved in this because we care about authors, and we would like to think that all the attention we helped bring to the subject was one of the reasons the Amazon/S&S deal happened so quickly. We now impress upon Hachette and Amazon to agree to similar terms, ink a deal, and to do so quickly.
Joe sez: Do the right thing, Authors United. Use your power for good.
BTW, here are some wrong ways to proceed. I caution you against:
1. Releasing a statement saying Amazon/S&S has nothing to do with Hachette, and Amazon is still wrong.
2. Taking full credit for the Amazon/S&S deal.
3. Refusing to pressure Hachette to strike a deal.
4. Refusing to pressure both parties into compensating authors harmed during the negotiation.
5. Defending your past position, rather than evolving.
6. Going into hiding, hoping this whole thing will blow over.
If you did the right thing, as I've outlined above, I'd become an Authors United signatory if asked, and I'd use my blog to help spread your message.
We're all pro-author. We should all act like it.
You have the money. You have the power. You have the media contacts. Make a move.
Monday, October 20, 2014
Even beyond the obvious (why so worried about a lion possibly eating you next year when there’s a bear in fact eating you right now), the argument above has things exactly backward.
The underlying concern is legitimate: without meaningful competition, a publisher is free to lower royalties. We know this is true in no small part because a lack of competition is what has enabled the Big Five oligopoly to keep author royalties lockstep-low for decades. In fact, if the long reign of the Big Five has taught us anything, it should be that in the absence of meaningful competition, the dominant system will abuse authors. Given that the Big Five has long abused its power, it makes perfect sense that should it acquire similar or greater power, Amazon, too, could become abusive.
But then isn’t this an argument for getting Hachette to compete with Amazon’s far better royalties? How can it possibly be an argument for protecting Hachette and enabling it to keep its royalties low?
Distilled to its essence, the conversation on this topic goes something like this:
Legacy author: You indies need to side with the Big Five because if Amazon crushes its Big Five suppliers, its indie suppliers will be next.
Indie author: You mean that, in the absence of meaningful competition, Amazon is likely to start abusing its author suppliers?
Legacy author: Yes.
Indie author: Because if the alternative to Amazon royalties is effectively zero royalties, authors will have no choice but to take whatever Amazon offers them, no matter how low.
Legacy author: Exactly.
Indie author: So the lower the royalties offered by alternatives to Amazon, the more room Amazon has to lower its own royalties?
Legacy author: Correctamundo.
Indie author: In other words, without meaningful competition, the dominant player can be expected to offer authors only low royalties. Take it or leave it, because there’s no other game in town.
Legacy author: That’s what I’m saying.
Indie author: But then shouldn’t we all be pressuring the Big Five to increase its royalties?
Legacy author: Huh?
Indie author: I mean, right now, the Big Five typically pays somewhere between 12.5% and 17.5% digital royalties. Amazon typically pays at least double that. For self-published authors, Amazon typically pays 70%.
Legacy author: I don’t follow.
Indie author: Well, if a dearth of high-royalty alternatives is what could enable Amazon to lower its own royalties, it seems like the current legacy low rates are a real problem. That disparity is exactly what creates room for Amazon to lower its own royalties.
Legacy author: Still don’t follow.
Indie author: Okay, here’s a thought experiment. What if your legacy publisher lowered its royalties to 1%. Would you be tempted to publish your next book with Amazon?
Legacy author: Hell, yes.
Indie author: Of course you would. You’d want the high-royalty alternative. Now, what if your legacy publisher increased your royalty to 70%. Would you be tempted to publish your next book with Amazon then?
Legacy author: Of course not. Like you said, I’d want the high-royalty alternative.
Indie author: Right. Now multiply your calculus across thousands of authors. If the Big Five started offering 70%, what would happen if Amazon tried to lower its rates?
Legacy author: Authors would desert Amazon in favor of the Big Five. Amazon could never do it.
Indie author: Correct. Now do you see how the best bulwark against Amazon lowering royalties in the future is getting the Big Five to increase them today? How the greater the gap between Amazon’s high royalties and the Big Five’s low royalties, the more room Amazon has to follow the legacy lead and lower its royalties, too? Do you see how if we protect the Big Five and enable it to keep its royalties low, we worsen, not mitigate, the danger of Amazon abuse?
Legacy author: So you’re saying… you’re saying it’s crazy for authors to settle for low legacy royalties. Not just because low royalties suck for authors, but because low royalties from one player enable lower royalties from another player. So we should be pressuring the low-royalty system to compete with higher royalties, not giving it a pass.
Indie author: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I mean, if you think about it, it’s pretty counterintuitive that between a high-royalty system and a low-royalty system, authors would reflexively protect the low-royalty system and attack the high-royalty one.
Legacy author: Because higher royalties across the board are better for authors, and the existence of higher royalties in one system discourages competing systems from lowering royalties.
Indie author: That’s the idea.
Legacy author: Holy shit, I can’t believe I didn’t see this.
Indie author: It’s okay. You’re deep inside that system and subject to all its self-serving propaganda. Makes it hard to see the forest for the trees.
Legacy author: I guess so.
(Joe sez: Or you're fully aware of it because you're a rich author and a shyster.)
Indie author: The main thing is, we both want the same thing: a healthy publishing ecosystem, which means publishers competing for authors, not being protected from having to compete.
Legacy author: I love you, man.
Indie author: Kumbaya, baby.
Barry sez: I know there are authors who might reasonably respond to this post by saying, “Barry, I get what you’re saying, but I’m afraid the Big Five can’t compete. I’m afraid that if we don’t support the Big Five, therefore, Amazon will crush them. At which point, we’ll have a new monopoly even worse than the old one. For this reason, I support the Big Five.”
While I don’t share this worldview, I do understand it, and don’t believe it’s an unreasonable or incoherent way of approaching events. In fact, I see it as a version of the “lesser of two evils” approach. Distilled to its essence, it could be expressed as, “I know my way is unlikely to make things better, but I’m more concerned about making them worse.”
I have a number of friends, for example, who consistently vote Democratic even though they know the Democrats are cynically screwing them with a version of, “Vote for us or we’ll turn the keys over to Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin.” These voters know voting Democrat no matter what means the party will never reform and better represent their interests. But they’re less afraid of things not getting better because they always vote Democrat than they’re afraid things will get worse if they divert their vote to a third-party (really second-party) candidate.
My own default personality settings are somewhat different. First, I tend to react badly when someone presents me with a fait accompli, or game of chicken, or other brinksmanship dynamic where I’m expected to blink first. My attitude in such circumstances tends to be, “You just chose the wrong contestant for your game.”
That’s the emotional aspect of my worldview. The more intellectual one is, “I’ll take the risk of things getting worse for the chance to make things better.” Which is why it makes me sad to see so many people throwing their votes away on the the Democratic and Republican wings of America’s duopoly. Sure, doing so arguably prevents things from getting worse. But it also ensures things will never get better. And naturally, the duopoly cynically exploits these fears, ensuring its continued monopoly on power.
When publishing’s chattering class frets about Amazon being a “monopoly,” what they really mean is they’re afraid Amazon could become a monopsony -- that is, “a market form in which only one buyer interfaces with many sellers.” With its lockstep crappy terms -- forever-term contracts, twice-yearly annual royalty payments, lockstep low digital royalties, outlandish rights grabs, and draconian non-compete provisions -- isn't that how the Big Five cartel has always functioned with regard to its author suppliers? We have ample evidence that, without competition, the dominant publishing player is free to present a “take it or leave it position” to authors. Don’t we want the Big Five to face competition for authors, rather than enabling it to continue to exercise “take it or leave it” negotiating leverage?
(For a nice example of an otherwise learned columnist bleating about how Amazon could become a monopsony while ignoring the current, actual cartel that’s abusing its suppliers right now, today’s Paul Krugman column is a must. Like others more afraid of the future than concerned about the present, Krugman shows some understanding of the principles of monopsony (though curiously, he fails to mention any relevant law on the topic), but seems to assume those principles apply only to hypothetical future situations and not to real existing ones. Joe and I have more on Krugman below.)
Besides, where at all possible, I prefer to believe the best of people and even of institutions. So why insult the Big Five with automatically low expectations? Suggesting the Big Five can’t compete and therefore has to be coddled is to expect so little of it. I say, let’s believe in the Big Five, believe in its ability to innovate and adapt and compete, and let’s encourage the Big Five with our confidence to be better than it’s ever aspired to be before. If we demonstrate to the Big Five that we’re not going to be suckered with its pleas for protection, the group will realize it has no choice but to improve. And within that dynamic, is there any reason to believe it won’t improve? How can we know the Big Five can’t do better if we constantly indicate with our rhetoric that we don’t believe it can?
I’ve said many times: when someone is sick, you don’t want them to die; you want them to get well. Well, I believe the Big Five can and will get well. But not if we keep indicating to it with our policy prescriptions that we believe the organization is inherently sickly. The Big Five needs our confidence, not our doubts. A hand up, not a hand out. Our help, not our enablement.
How can we have a healthy publishing ecosystem with a sickly Big Five at its center? Competition is the definition of a healthy publishing ecosystem, as a single buyer is the definition of publishing pathology. Amazon is providing the first real competition the Big Five has ever seen. This is a good thing, not something to try to stop. So let’s not enable the Big Five to stay sick. Let’s help it get better.
Joe sez: I really like Barry's answer to the oft-heard Hachette apologist whine: "When Amazon kills all competition it will lower royalties. So we need to support Hachette."
This is a classic example of misdirection. While the magician directs your attention with theatrics, he's clandestinely pocketing your coin.
The problem is that in the absence of competition, Amazon has more cause to lower royalties and take a bigger cut for itself. As Barry points out above, a lack of meaningful competition is exactly how the Big Five (formerly Six) oligopoly has been able to keep its royalties uniformly low for decades. It's also how Amazon was be able to become a publisher; by offering authors things the Big Five didn't. Namely: no barrier to entry; full control over your intellectual property rights; higher royalties.
So rather than supporting Hachette's greed, authors should be demanding Hachette increase its low royalties to levels competitive with Amazon's high ones.
Right now, Hachette's major benefit over Amazon--getting paper books into physical stores--is being negated by the fact that their book sales are floundering in the LARGEST BOOKSTORE ON THE PLANET. It's easy to understand why uber-rich authors are sticking with Hachette; they can still plug into this paper network and make assloads of money. But why are midlist authors following the lead of the rich ones?
Because they are being misled.
If authors demanded higher royalties from Hachette, and Hachette complied, then Hachette would remain a vital, viable alternative to Amazon. This would force Amazon (Hachette's competition) to keep author royalties high.
And if bigshot authors really wanted to help their midlist peers, as they repeatedly claim, they would be in talks with Hachette to demand royalties comparable to Amazon’s. That would lessen the chances of Hachette authors leaving to self-pub on Amazon, and maintain pressure on Amazon to stay competitive by keeping its royalties high.
Wouldn’t what I just described be the quintessence of the “healthy competition” and “healthy publishing ecosystem” Authors United and the Authors Guild and their mouthpieces keep publicly insisting upon?
The Big Five and its enablers in Authors United and the Authors Guild are the parties who are actually stifling competition. After all, they’re in favor of the low legacy royalties that create a danger of Amazon lowering its royalties, too. Amazon is actually the first competition the Big Five has ever had. Amazon should be lauded for introducing competition into the publishing ecosystem, and for the higher royalties they're using to compete.
Authors should also be insisting that Hachette explain why it won't accept Amazon's terms. If the dispute is truly about discounting, with Hachette wanting to control the price of ebooks and keep them high, Hachette’s position doesn't serve the interests of the majority of non-bestselling Hachette authors who don't get the widespread paper distribution of Preston and Patterson. Hachette capitulating on both issues would ensure that most Hachette authors would make more money than ever before, and ensure Amazon royalties remain high. It would also force every other publisher to match those terms. That's what Authors United and the Authors Guild should be focusing on.
As it stands, they're enabling Hachette to remain greedy and self-serving and non-competitive. A handful of bestseller authors are saying, "We'll support Hachette because it made us rich, with the understanding that if Hachette gets its way, a few of us will stay rich."
If they truly cared about their peers, and competition, as they say they do, their stance would be; "We need Hachette to increase royalties and lower ebook prices, because that's the only way to deal with a tough competitor like Amazon--to actually compete."
That's the approach all authors should be taking. We want third parties to compete for our books. We want real choice. We want competition.
Authors United doesn't want competition. They've escalated their efforts to get Amazon to back down (recently Douglas Preston and Stephen King were on CBS repeating the same one-sided nonsense we've repeatedly debunked) while admitting they haven't even talked to Hachette.
Both Authors United and Hachette immediately rejected Amazon's three separate offers to compensate authors monetarily during this negotiation. Preston called the offer "blood money" because he believes it would harm his publisher.
Unfortunately, if Hachette is unwilling even to temporarily compensate its authors during this negotiation, I don't see it raising royalties, either. And allowing Amazon to discount ebooks means a quicker end to the current iteration of Hachette’s paper distribution oligopoly.
Hachette, and the other members of the Big Five, has to understand this. But they're acting as if they'd rather go down with the ship than try to restructure it, because restructuring would cost them too much money.
Let's delve a little deeper into that analogy. Once upon a time, the only way to get from Europe to America was via ship. People had no choice. Some, with money, travelled in style. Some were relegated to steerage.
Then the Wright Brothers obliterated that oligopoly. Now there was a new, faster way to cross the Atlantic. And now that travellers had a choice, many chose to fly. When it became cheaper to fly than sail, the balance of power shifted.
It isn't the job of passengers to keep that ship sailing. It's the ship owner's job to make the ship appealing to passengers, so they'll buy a ticket to board.
It also isn't the job of ship-loving passengers to launch a media campaign condemning the Wright Brothers, blaming them for being immoral and unfair, and asking for the government to intervene.
These days, people take cruises as a vacation, and cruise lines often partner with airlines and offer passengers package deals. The ship owners changed with the times and partnered with the enemy. Maybe they aren't making as much as they did in their heyday when they were the only game in town, but they survived because they had something different to offer: Shuffleboard.
Okay, I was kidding with that last line, but cruise ships remain popular because they do offer a lot that airplanes can't, such as gambling, entertainment, food, and activities. Most cruises are round-trip, bringing passengers to the same spot they departed from. Once ships only existed to get from Point A to Point B. They adapted and changed and survived.
If publishers want to survive, they need to offer authors something Amazon can't. Paper distribution, advances, editors with magic wands that bestow rich literary culture and nurturing, etc.
Authors worried about their own futures should be demanding that their publishers reform. If I were a Hachette author, I'd be mad as hell at my publisher for not being able to come to an agreement with Amazon, and even madder that Hachette rejected three separate offers to compensate me.
That's who I'd be going on CBS to pressure. It seems obvious.
Instead, perpetuating the "Amazon is harmful" meme is nothing but misdirection, and we've just revealed the trick. Authors United doesn't care about all authors. It cares about continuing a beneficial relationship that rewards the few and harms the many.
The sad part is, these celebrity authors could be using their wealth and vast media contacts to improve the health of the whole publishing ecosystem for the good of the vast majority of authors.
But instead, Authors United is shouting at airplanes. Which is about as effective as it sounds.
Now rather than fisk Paul Krugman's surprisingly naive NYT article, since Barry and I have already debunked most of its points and positions, I'll respond to four of the main ones..
Amazon is not hurting America. It may be squeezing its suppliers, which Americans are benefiting from. Consumers with more choice and lower prices. Authors with new opportunities. Middlemen… well, if you care about propping up an archaic, abusive oligopoly so it continues to exploit writers, by all means say Amazon is hurtful.
Amazon is not a robber baron. According to Wikipedia, the term was typically applied to businessmen who used what were considered to be exploitative practices to amass their wealth. Amazon amassed its wealth by innovating, not exploiting. The Big Five are the robber barons, controlling the paper distribution cartel, price-fixing, making hardcovers luxury items, windowing, and exploiting authors with unconscionable contracts.
Barry sez: Hachette books weren’t “banned outright” from Amazon’s site. Why is he using the word "ban"? If, for example, Wilson Sporting Goods can’t come to terms with Sports Authority regarding the proper price of Wilson’s tennis balls, and Sports Authority stops giving preferential aisle placement to Wilson's tennis balls, no reasonable person would claim that Sports Authority was in any way “banning” Wilson’s goods. The notion that in failing to offer preferential treatment to Hachette’s books -- when Amazon doesn’t even have a contract to sell them -- Amazon is in any way “banning” those books is an atrocity upon plain English and a violation of common sense. It's name game nonsense.
Joe sez: But the stupidest thing Krugman writes is; "And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz." No, Paul. Amazon cannot prevent consumers from finding books. It is a publisher's, and an author's, job to make books discoverable. They have done this, historically, by working with bookstores. Bookstores do NOT work for free. If you want preferential treatment in a bookstore--signings, discounts, end cap displays--you pay a coop fee for that. Bookstores have NEVER treated all books equally. Amazon, which has no contract with Hachette, is not "buzzkilling." Hachette has failed to reach an agreement with Amazon that give its titles greater visibility.
Krugman's comparison of the different treatment two Hachette titles received from Amazon is woefully ignorant. Paul, no two books EVER get the same treatment for retailers. Even the simplest understanding of the bookselling world would reveal this. Some books get special treatment. Mostly because publishers pay for it. Sometimes because booksellers like certain titles over others and push them.
Barry sez: Another thing that interested me about Krugman’s post is the lack of evidence behind his claim that Amazon is hurting America, authors, and readers. The only thing he really says in support of his whole argument is that “what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz.” Well, if that’s true, it’s really bad news for legacy publishers. It means they’re totally powerless to do the primary thing authors pay them about 85% of revenues to accomplish. Krugman is arguing, in effect, that legacy publishers are nothing but vestigial appendages.
Of course, if legacy publishers really were that useless, it’s hard to imagine any author ever signing with one of the Big Five. And yet thousands of authors do indeed continue to sign their books with the Big Five in the belief that the Big Five will deliver the buzz and all that. If Krugman really believes the Big Five is as feckless as he claims, he ought to explain why so many authors continue to go that route.
Joe sez: An appeal to emotion, in lieu of facts or common sense, is a fallacy. Krugman claims Amazon abusing its power. Watch out, or they'll buzzkill you! (I hope buzzkill becomes adopted with the same derision as whale math.) And Stephen King says Amazon isn't fair or moral.
Well, I'm pretty sure the DOJ cares more about the law than how people feel about a particular company. Ask me how I feel about Hobby Lobby and Chik Fil A. At the same time, I defend their right to run their companies as they choose to. I endorse freedom, and capitalism, even if corporations do things I don't agree with.
Amazon isn't hurting America. But celebrity authors and so-called reporters with axes to grind are potentially harming authors with misinformation. At times, to me, it seems like Authors United has a monopsony on slanted media coverage; this one group can appear in any newspaper or TV show they like, while authors who oppose them get little press attention.
Authors United does have one indisputable monopoly: during the entire Amazon/Hachette negotiation, Authors United has held a monopoly on stupid. That the media wants to report stupidity as news is their right. Newspapers like the NYT are allowed to be wrong, just like I'm allowed to cancel my subscription and read something else, just like I don't have to eat at Chik Fil A or buy crafting supplies at Hobby Lobby, and just like Krugman doesn't have to shop at Amazon anymore, even though he says, "I have Amazon Prime and use it a lot. But again, so what?"
So what, Paul? If you don't see the hypocrisy of continuing to support Amazon with your dollars while writing a screed condemning Amazon, then I weep for the integrity of the modern journalist.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Barry sez: Well, James Patterson is at it again, issuing alarums from the sumptuous grounds of his bazillion-dollar mansion about how Amazon Must Be Stopped lest Jeff Bezos fulfill his evil plan to usher in The End of Days and yada yada yada. Joe’s been doing yeoman’s work for a long time in keeping up with these Pattersonian pontifications -- see here and here and here and here and here, so naturally I asked him to join me in tackling Patterson’s latest, a video interview with The Telegraph.
In a weird way, this interview is probably Patterson’s most interesting outing to date because he actually goes full circle through the stupid and winds up demonstrating that he’s for everything he’s been saying he’s against. We've transcribed what he said so we can comment on it. Joe and I in normal font; Patterson in italicized crazy.
James Patterson: This thing of comparing his company to cheetahs, and pouncing on wounded gazelles, and those are publishers, I don't think that's a great idea. And you have to say if it looks like a cheetah and it bites like a cheetah it's probably a cheetah. I'm not sure if that's the optimum for companies in this country.
Joe sez: So never play a game of Parker Brother's Monopoly with Amazon... because they're cheetahs.
Bad pun aside, let's talk about making money as a retailer. Bezos famously said, "Your margin is my opportunity." There is so much waste in legacy publishing that it was low-hanging fruit for a smart upstart to come in and feast on the giant margins.
Publishers are middlemen. They can be disintermediated. They may not like this--I can't think of any prey animal that enjoys predation--but that's the law of the jungle, folks. For decades, writers were the ones preyed upon. Now the Big 5 have gotten a taste of what it's like to be on the losing end of a power dynamic, and their top authors don't like it. So they've begun an ingenious media campaign that revolves around calling Amazon a meanie.
Newsflash: It isn't a company's job to bolster competition, or prop-up suppliers.
Authors United seems convinced that Amazon needs the Big 5, and their books. But Amazon has shown it can get 500,000 titles in Kindle Unlimited without major publisher support.
When big shots like Patterson keep spouting off in the media, they're showing how scared they really are. Patterson's interview here is akin to a pufferfish, inflating itself and trying to act intimidating so it doesn't get eaten. Look at me! I'm fearsome and powerful!
Patterson: In that respect (Amazon/Hachette) I think Jeff has done a bad thing to hurt writers. I'm fine, obviously. But a lot of writers really depend on those, you know, the back list.
Joe sez: Only the ones that earn out their advance depend on their back list to make royalties. But how many actually earn out?
It occurs to me that some Hachette authors may not be hurting financially right at this moment. They aren't making royalties anyway. So how are they losing money?
Mike Shatzkin likes to argue that big advances actually mean authors are earning royalties higher than 25% of net, because their books never earn out. If that's true, should it matter to the writer if sales are down? The writer pockets the advance, the book isn't supposed to earn out according to Shatzkin, then the writers sells another book and makes another advance that won't earn out.
To quote the Shatz:
"Only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty."
So who's right? Shatzkin or Patterson?
Neither. Only a few writers can live off their advances, and many never earn royalties above those advances, even when the advances are meager.
However, this is just me playing devil's advocate, because some writers do depend on those twice-a-year royalty checks. But Jeff Bezos isn't the one preventing those writers from making money. Amazon has no contracts with Hachette writers. Amazon doesn't have a contract with Hachette, either, but continues to sell Hachette titles.
Writers signed a contract with Hachette because they valued Hachette as a business partner, and one of Hachette's most valuable attributes is its ability to distribute books. When Hachette isn't able to come to terms with the largest bookseller on the planet, and sales are falling as a result, Hachette is failing its authors.
"Implied in the publishing contract is the requirement of acting in good faith. Right now, it could be argued that publishers appear to be hurting their own authors by representing their own interests (higher profits) ahead of authors' interests (sales platform) by failing to contract with Amazon. This could support a claim for bad faith by author v. publisher, which could result in damages and could result in a breach being declared such that the author can then take steps to acquire what is called "cover" for oneself, which is law talk for mitigation of damages. Mitigation could take the form of self-publishing."
It seems obvious the guilty party here is Hachette. And I hope some Hachette authors hire an attorney and pursue a bad faith claim.
But rather than address that very real issue, Patterson et al keep flapping their gums about the evils of Amazon. They use fear words. Absurd arguments. Propaganda. Nonsensical appeals to emotion. Ineffectively use the media. They avoid the actual problem, and its possible solutions. But their whining isn't working. In fact, many are calling it out as the nonsense it is.
Amazon needs to be stopped? Check out this Washington Post article by David Post which shows otherwise. (It's literally a post in the Post by Post).
Amazon is a monopoly? No, it isn’t, writes Maxwell S. Kennerley, Esquire, on the Litigation & Trial website.
Amazon plays rough? So what? writes Joe Nocera in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Amazon is what's wrong with American capitalism? Actually, it’s what’s right, writes Reihan Salam in Slate.
Is Jeff Bezos really the bad guy in this dispute? Alex Beam of the Boston Globe says no.
The media coverage of Amazon/Hachetter is fairly balanced? Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York times, thinks not.
This isn't only bloggers like me and Barry and Hugh Howey and Courtney Milan calling out the bullshit we see. Even the establishment media is reporting what’s really going on.
Patterson: It can put them out of business or ruin their families… I understand the strategy, although it hasn’t worked, that they would put pressure on the publishers… attacking writers…
Joe sez: First of all, for the eyerollingeth time, Amazon isn't attacking writers.
It has tried, three times, to compensate writers so they aren't caught in the negotiations.
How is Amazon supposed to negotiate with a supplier--one it currently doesn't have a contract with--unless it applies some pressure? Hachette sells books on Amazon.com, and wants fast shipping and pre-order pages and discounting on paperbacks. Amazon wants the ability to discount ebooks, which is normal; almost all retailers set the prices of the things they sell. Hachette doesn't want Amazon to discount their ebooks, because it will accelerate the downfall of their paper distribution oligopoly.
That's what's happening. No authors are being attacked, boycotted, disappeared, censored, banned, or sanctioned.
Second, the reason publishers aren't feeling pressured is because super-rich bestsellers like Patterson keep flapping their gums in the media, emboldening Hachette to hold out.
Maybe if Patterson and Preston and the rest of Authors United and the Authors Guild actually tried to pressure Hachette, this would all be over.
But Patterson and Preston want the paper cartel to continue, because it makes them assloads of money.
Patterson: Throughout the history of the world, getting into religious wars by powerful countries or organizations does not seem to work. It didn’t work in Iraq, it didn’t work in Afghanistan, it’s not working in Syria, it didn’t work in Ireland. Amazon in attacking writers has created a religious war. Writers are religious about books, and they’ll take the punches, they’ll take the blows, and they’ll use whatever they have to do. They are not going to let books get hurt in this country.
Barry sez: I don’t want to make too much of Patterson’s analogy, but I will say it’s a little odd that he’s comparing writers (or the ones at Authors United, at any rate) to jihadis, mujahadeen, the IRA, and others the USG calls terrorists. But I guess one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and all that.
Joe sez: So Patterson thinks this is an actual ideological movement? For whom? The .001% of wealthy writers, and those with Bookholm Syndrome who want to join that exclusive club?
Barry sez: I know it’s weird, but at least there’s some humor here. Because it’s typically the self-published writers who are accused of being ideological. Meanwhile it’s always the establishment writers who bring in the religious references.
So, shorter James Patterson: “Publishing. It’s not just a business. It’s a religion.”
Joe sez: I want to see Patterson really prove that this is a religious war for him, since he brought up the analogy. If Patterson demanded that Hachette remove his books from Amazon, it could function as the equivalent of a suicide bombing; hurting the enemy while killing yourself in the process.
Do you have the stones to do that, Mr. Patterson?
Actually, that doesn't take any courage. Patterson is financially set for life. He could never sell another book, and still be rich.
But how many of the other Authors United signatories could say the same? How many need to fall on their swords to prove…
What exactly are they proving? That Hachette should be able to keep the prices of ebooks high?
Patterson: So Amazon has attacked a group, that, it’s small and I don’t think writers have really turned up the heat yet, but we could… one of the things we could do is literally come out and ask for a ban.
Barry sez: Holy “Writers Literally Calling For Book Bans,” Batman!
Okay, okay, just giving Patterson a hard time. I don’t think he really means what he says. What he seems to be threatening isn’t so much a ban as it is a boycott. Or call it a “direct targeting,” or “sanctioning,” or “disappearing” books and authors, or any of the other nonsense terms Authors United and their media enablers throw around as though English were a second language they tried to learn while focusing most of their energies on sniffing glue.
Joe sez: I'm unclear if he's suggesting customers boycott Amazon, or authors boycott Amazon. I don't think either would work.
Patterson: It’s come up with a lot of writers. One, we could all take our books off Amazon… if myself and all the Hachette authors and then all the authors who are sympathetic, which range from Stephen King and John Grisham to Philip Roth… if everybody’s saying they’re doing a wrong thing here, you would think that would mean something.
Joe sez: It does mean something. It means rich authors don't want the gravy train to end, so obviously Amazon is bad.
Barry sez: Can anyone explain what Patterson is doing other than suggesting books be made harder to find until a troublesome distributor capitulates?
Hmmm… now why does that sort of thing sound familiar?
Oh, that’s right, because it’s exactly what Authors United, within which Patterson is a prominent voice, purports to decry. As the organization so eloquently puts it:
“Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of any books as a negotiating tactic.”
“We appeal to you [Amazon board of directors], 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.”
“As writers--most of us not published by Hachette--we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.”
“None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”
“We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without further hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.”
“Currently, Amazon is making it difficult to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central, which affects readers of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, me, and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales. What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers.
I haven’t seen something this hypocritically self-indulgent since Stephen Colbert urged Amazon customers to stop buying other authors’ books until Amazon agreed to ship his more quickly.
Yes, I recognize the easy rejoinder: “But Barry, it’s different when authors voluntarily remove their books from a retail channel as opposed to the retailer not offering preorder buttons, reducing its inventory, and otherwise not making it as easy as possible for readers to find the title in question at that retailer.”
I’d call that a distinction without a difference. Either way, aren’t books being “suppressed” and “sanctioned” and “disappeared” and all that? Aren’t readers inconvenienced either way? Aren’t the very foundations of western culture threatened either way?
Actually, there is a distinction. Every one of Patterson’s and all other Hachette authors’ books are available on Amazon. Yes, some of them aren’t as easy to order there without preorder buttons etc, but charges of a “boycott” etc are a massacre of plain English. But what Patterson is proposing would be a real boycott, with books being outright unavailable through Amazon. Wouldn’t that be worse than anything Amazon is charged with doing?
Joe sez: Hint: yes.
Barry sez: Now personally, I find the Pattersonian and Authors United arguments to be bullshit. Joe and I have repeatedly asked Authors United what they propose a retailer do -- beyond outright capitulation -- when it can’t come to terms with a supplier. No one from the organization has ever responded. And that’s because there is no response. When a retailer and supplier can’t come to terms, the retailer typically stops selling the supplier’s wares (in this sense, Amazon is being extraordinarily kind to Hachette; after all, it’s still selling Hachette’s goods even though the parties’ contract has expired). That’s the way of the world, and you’d have to be neurotically narcissistic to imagine you’re so special you’re somehow immune from it.
But what interests me, as always, is when truth bleeds through the bullshit. What Patterson unintentionally demonstrated in his interview is that he and Authors United don’t particularly care about whether readers are inconvenienced by books being harder to find on Amazon. They don’t even particularly care whether books are available through Amazon at all. If they believe making books unavailable to readers might gain them leverage, they’re more than happy to do it.
Given the incoherence of their underlying position, the hypocrisy doesn’t surprise me so much. What surprises me is that anyone is still taking these bozos remotely seriously.
Joe sez: So, in essence, Patterson finds the death penalty to be inhumane and reprehensible, so he's going to hang everyone who supports the death penalty.
Am I right? He whines that his books aren't available on Amazon, so his solution is to make his books unavailable on Amazon?
It's a pufferfish bluff.
Barry sez: I wouldn’t even call it that. Did you see how fast he backpedaled when the interviewer said, “If you were take your books off Amazon, that could change something”?
Joe sez: As a thought experiment, let's say he's serious. Let's imagine his titles no longer appear on Amazon.
Will Kindle owners and Amazon shoppers, en masse, abandon their ebook reading devices and favorite online bookstore so they can find Patterson's latest release elsewhere?
Or will they not bother and instead one-click some other thriller?
I suggest Mr. Patterson perform an experiment. Are you reading this, Jim? Remove just one of your titles from Amazon, and then see if your sales go up proportionately on other platforms. If they do, it shows readers will follow you.
Stop the chest thumping and do it. Actually make a stand, since this is so important to you.
And be sure to let us know how that turns out.