By Sandra Ruttan
I personally know people on both sides of the publishing dispute between Amazon and Hachette.
And this is one of those times that, if asked why I've foolishly decided to chime in on a bitter dispute in publishing, that I'd like to think I could say, "It's business. It's not personal."
Here's what I know for sure:
1. Everyone spins their own side to make themselves look better than the other guy.
2. Authors can feel a sense of loyalty to their publisher. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
3. If publishing was really treated like any other business, nobody would be talking about this issue.
Now, from what I understand, Amazon and Hachette are having a little tiff. And the tiff is over book pricing. Amazon wants the ability to set the prices on the books they sell.
Imagine that. A retailer who wants to be able to set their prices. Even if that means a deep discount. Mmmmm, deals. Who doesn't love a deal? When I used to work at Canadian Tire, we could look up the price info on items in the store, and see the cost. And there were times we put things below cost. No retail markup. A loss to the seller. Why? Because people love door crashers. And when they come in for one great deal, they usually buy five more things they didn't plan on.
A loss on one item turns into a profit on many more items.
I also understand that apparently, Hachette wants to ensure they generate a certain amount of revenue from sales, and they therefore want to limit Amazon's ability to reduce prices of their books.
This dispute has been going on for several months, and Amazon is accused of taking punitive action against Hachette's authors, which allegedly includes not taking pre-orders of their books, slowing delivery, and in some cases, removing the page for the books so they aren't available for purchase on Amazon at all.
Many Hachette authors have urged readers to write to Amazon** to take their side. There's talk of boycotting Amazon and trying to get the government to intervene.
The other side says "in this war, Hachette is using its authors as emotional ammunition. Hachette wants to control the price of its titles and keep those prices high, while Amazon wants to keep those prices reasonable. You may not realize this, but when Amazon discounts books, authors (and Hachette) still get paid the full amount."
They have a petition, and thousands have signed it.
Now, between work, family, editing and occasionally trying to write something myself, I don't really make a lot of time for all the online stuff anymore. However, this dispute has been on my radar, because it's been able to reach even my limited online sphere.
There hasn't been a pissing match like this in publishing since sock puppets. And that means this is a pretty big, as publishing disputes go.
And that means that chiming in on the subject is something I shouldn't do.
However, I'm going to share a few thoughts for readers to consider.
#1. In any other business, a dispute between vendor and supplier could mean delays or inability to fulfill orders through that vendor. Business is business. I realize authors and readers can feel very emotional about their books, but Amazon is a business and Hachette is a business. This is business. And it really isn't abnormal.
I mean, seriously people, the fact that one retailer isn't selling a certain book or books isn't surprising. Brick and mortar stores carry stock with publishers they have deals with. And I do recall there's a standard policy about cost minimum and returns. I remember when my first book was coming out, from an unknown publisher who were using POD technology. They couldn't match the standard cost minimum, so retailers wouldn't carry the book. They weren't the only publisher with that issue.
Look, I'm not with them now, and what transpired in that experience is water under the bridge, but nobody was writing letters crying about how readers were being hurt because vendors weren't making all books available to them.
Amazon may be the first company ever to offer all books from every publisher for sale, or to come close to doing that.
And if all of that is making you go cross-eyed, just consider this: there are still places in the world that insist on selling only Pepsi products and won't let me buy a Coke instead. Seriously, are people writing letters over which beverages are offered at the local restaurant? Are people crying about the fact that their restaurant isn't offering them every option? Is anyone boycotting them?
#2. Amazon knows how to sell books. And I think they've handily proven that they know how to do this so well, that prior disputes between publishers and Amazon have resulted in wins for the retail giant.
Here's all I really know. I've had a lot of bad experiences in publishing. With book #1 vendors weren't carrying my book, limiting it's ability to be sold and to earn profit. And I was essentially an outcast in the publishing community because I wasn't with the right publisher.
I moved on to a NY publisher. My books were in airports, and they were in libraries and bookstores.
But by book #3, it was nearly impossible to buy a copy of one of my books. Eventually, I learned it was down to disputes between the publisher and the distributor. Did it hurt me? Sure. But that's the way it goes in business.
My publisher went bankrupt, and I went through a long period where I considered those books a loss, and didn't hold out any hope of getting any further royalties or seeing them available again.
And then Amazon came along. And they offered a deal and bought the rights from my former publisher.
I have a few things I've self published on Amazon, and books Amazon has the rights to. And after a few years with Amazon, I've reached a few conclusions.
Every so often, Amazon promotes one of my books with a special sale price. As a result, one of my books reached the top 40 in Kindle sales. Not within a genre. Not top 40 in Canadian-detective-serial killer-BC Coast subcategory.
Top 40 of all Kindle sales.
During the months that Amazon promotes my books, my sales increase astronomically. And my overall royalties increase astronomically. My payout for March, when my book was promoted, was 12 times what my payout for May will be. Additionally, when Amazon promotes one of my titles they hold the rights to, my sales increase overall, and my royalties for my self published titles for March were more than 7 times the anticipated payout for May.
Amazon knows how to sell books. And when they discount my books, they don't hurt readers by making my books cheaper, and they don't hurt me. Just the opposite.
I understand that authors do feel a strong sense of loyalty to their publishers. I also understand that traditional publishers have had the ability to make or break an author to a far greater extent in the past. They choose to push some books for awards, and choose some authors to send on tours, and sometimes, they choose to pay for advertisements for certain books, and pay for displays in bookstores.
I understand that if a traditional publisher has done all those things for you, and brought your sales to the point where you can earn a living from writing, that you're going to feel a sense of obligation.
And I understand some people will assume I feel a sense of obligation to Amazon.
I feel gratitude. I'm appreciative. My experiences with Amazon have been the best of my publishing career to date.
But Amazon has never asked me to wade in on publishing matters, to take sides, or to take any action in their defense, or involved me with the business side of things.
I'll never be the sweetheart of the writing community, and perhaps this post can add to the numbers of people who've spontaneously stopped talking to me over the years. (You see, in my experience, publishing has cliques and the rules of high school apply. Some people are popular. Some aren't. Some people are fantastic, genuine, and would give the shirt off their back to help someone else. And some aren't. Some people will accept that a review is business and as long as it's an assessment of the text, it isn't personal. And some people say any negative review is wrong wrong wrong.)
I've learned over the years that some people take everything about publishing personally, so some people aren't going to like this at all.
However, publishing is a business, and I think that if we apply business logic to publishing disputes, it's better for everyone. Most of all, it's better for readers to not feel manipulated or pressured by these disputes.
I have enough drama elsewhere in my life, and I didn't start writing a book to live in a publishing industry soap opera. I'm pretty sure that, like me, there are many people out there with their own personal struggles and challenges to deal with, that don't feel they have much energy for all this crap.
I think it's an absolute and total loss to everyone for there to be open letters calling for reader action or petitions online. We are well past talking about quality books, or hot reads, or what should be trending in the book community here. We're focused on taking sides in a pissing contest between two giant, international businesses.
Does anyone have any idea how massive a boycott would have to be for Amazon to even notice?
So in the long run, this dispute will carry on. Each side will feel vindicated with each letter or signature or blog post supporting their position.
And readers will continue to lose.
Books used to be a safe escape for me. I could lose myself in a bookstore or library, and imagine all the possible journeys I could take through the pages of different books. It was the ultimate escape.
There are times I miss the days before I knew how publishing worked, before I knew people in the industry. Before I knew about sock puppets and petitions.
Now, I pick up books, and so often they're mired in controversy or dispute or politics, and sometimes, I don't even want to read them. I don't want to risk the act of reading this book or that book to be interpreted as an endorsement for a position or a behavior or anything else. As an author, and not strictly a reader, how do I not consider what people will think if I'm reading Orson Scott Card or anyone else.
How do you truly lose yourself in a book when it comes to you with politics and posturing and the feeling of strings attached?
You don't. You pull up Netflix and watch 7 seasons of Supernatural instead, because it's the honest, unfettered escape you're looking for.
** Within an hour of me drafting this post, the letter I'd linked to, with some of the authors listed, was no longer available online. Another copy was available, but without the names of the authors supporting it. I sourced that letter through this article.
Perhaps by the time this post is live, the original letter will be available again. I have no sense of anything occurring to effect this change and I don't care enough to spend any more time on this issue this fine Sunday.