If publishing were high school, authors would be the nerds, publishers would be the popular crowd and Amazon would be the bully. With 41 percent of all new book sales, Amazon seems primed to take over the entire publishing world, Putin-style. On its surface, its imbroglio with Hachette is about e-book pricing, but authors and publishers alike are watching closely, knowing the outcome is likely to change any and all schoolyard power dynamics.
Like the popular kids they are, publishers have enjoyed an uninterrupted reign, oblivious to the changing times and the advent of digital publishing technology. In spite of endless mergers within the top five companies, publishers still use a model as antiquated as the quill and inkwell. When Simon and Schuster brought out my first book in 2005, I was stunned that their computers were so old I had to send chapters one at a time, lest my editor’s ancient Dell crash.
Then came Amazon, the new kid in town. Jeff Bezos wanted his online bookstore to differ from traditional brick-and-mortar shops, which have limited space. He wisely surmised that by having giant warehouses with endless merchandise, Amazon could offer “everything.”
At first, publishers weren’t bothered by Amazon selling their books at deep discounts. They appreciated having a new buyer that sold their frontlist and backlist titles, paid quickly and, best of all, didn’t return merchandise. But like the bully in the playground shaking down kids for lunch money, Amazon began raising its co-op fees. Refusing to raise retail prices, Amazon charged publishers higher and higher fees to appear on its home page. If they didn’t pay the co-op fees, the site wouldn’t “recommend” their books. All the kids fell into line. Independent publishing houses suffered the most; Bezos vowed to treat smaller publishers the “way cheetahs would pursue a sickly gazelle.”
But beware the bully in the inner circle. Soon after Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007 (and soon after controlling 90 percent of the digital book market), Amazon itself became a publisher. And now, amidst the lawsuit over e-book pricing, Amazon has created purchase delays, making Hachette books difficult to order and encouraging Hachette customers to buy elsewhere. Amazon has also imposed artificial delivery delays, so that a book which should have been delivered in a few days now takes up to 2 to 3 weeks. Meanwhile, Amazon randomly raises prices on Hachette books to discourage purchases. The in crowd has been cast out.
Of course, it’s the nerds who end up with scraped knees. Authors are caught in the middle as the battle rages on. Most recently, Amazon offered authors 100% of e-book revenue in an effort to get more writers on their side. Most authors have refused the offer, and many others are simply scared Amazon won’t sell their book. Even the best-selling author of all time, J.K. Rowling, has been affected by the recent dispute. Amazon refused to allow pre-sale of her mystery, The Silkworm (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith), in an effort to limit Hachette sales.
As the bickering continues, the nerds have grown uneasy. But instead of taking sides, authors should refuse to support the current publishing model and wage a battle of their own. Writers should engage with their readership the way J.R.R Tolkien did in the mid-1960s, when international copyright law allowed an American publisher to print a mass-market version of The Lord of Rings without paying royalties. Tolkien wrote a note to his American fans and they promptly boycotted the publishing house. Eventually the American publisher relented and paid the royalties they owed. Tolkien’s own publisher even had his copyright reinstated by reissuing a revised edition of the novel.
It’s time for writers to take back their power and demand fair treatment from publishers and Amazon. In turn, readers should boycott Amazon and purchase their books from more than 3,000 other booksellers available online. Only readers and writers can convince Amazon and Hachette that, without authors and books, there’s nothing to fight about.
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