Friday, July 11, 2014

Round 6 of the Amazon vs Everybody Wars: Amazon vs The Authors Guild

Yesterday, I received an open letter (see below) from Richard Russo, co-Vice President of the Authors Guild. The Guild has steadfastly promoted the interests of writers throughout its long history. Now, it is weighing in, alongside Stephen Colbert, the NYT, and numerous authors, on the protracted Hachette-Amazon dispute.

Indie authors may not feel any particular allegiance to Hachette, or to any of the "Big Five" in this war. Most will feel inclined to side with Amazon, which provides a platform for self-published authors. Amazon's latest tactic, to give Hachette authors 100% of their royalties during the dispute, would seem to vindicate the idea that Amazon is concerned for the writers who appear to be caught "in the middle."

Authors, as Russo pointed out, are not caught in the middle. As far as Amazon and Hachette are concerned, they do not even figure into this battle. The royalties offer is a stunt designed to hurt Hachette (Hachette will not get its cut of the sales) while appearing to be the good guy. It is a short-term ploy to deflect the mounting criticism of Amazon's tactics.

The truth is that Amazon doesn't stand for the best interests of authors any more than Hachette does. Amazon is the Everything Store. The majority of its sales come from electronics, not books. Books, as far as Amazon is concerned, are just another product on its increasingly long retail list.

Russo makes a point that is crucial, if largely ignored, in his letter. "Books," he says, "are special ... and can't be treated like other commodities."

Books are not products; they are ideas. In spite of the fact that publishers may treat them as if they were simply objects, books don't primarily occupy the physical realm. As repositories of information, knowledge, and imagination, they exist in the mind.

Neither the big publishing houses nor Amazon has taken the real nature of books into account. Nor have they offered genuine support to the authors who create them. Instead, we are thrown a nominal percentage out of the millions that both the Big Five and Amazon rake in. (Even when authors garner 70% of the royalties, Amazon takes 30% from the sale of hundreds of thousands of books that they don't have to print, market, distribute or pay advances for.)

In a world in which people whose sole interest is in "moving the merchandise" dominate publishing, we can kiss Shakespeare, Socrates, and Einstein goodbye.

Dear Authors Guild Member,

We want to share with you an open letter on the Amazon-Hachette dispute, written by Richard Russo, novelist and co-Vice President of the Authors Guild.

The primary mission of the Authors Guild has always been the defense of the writing life. While it may be true that there are new opportunities and platforms for writers in the digital age, only the willfully blind refuse to acknowledge that authorship is imperiled on many fronts. True, not all writers are equally impacted. Some authors still make fortunes through traditional publishing, and genre writers (both traditionally published and independently published) appear to be doing better than writers of nonfiction and “literary” mid-list fiction. (The Guild has members in all of these categories.) But there’s evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that as a species we are significantly endangered. In the UK, for instance, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society reports that authors’ incomes have fallen 29 percent since 2005, a decline they deem “shocking.” If a similar study were done in the U.S., the results would be, we believe, all too similar.

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.

1 comment:

  1. here's the part of that letter that lifts my writer's heart: "We write the books that they are fighting over."


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