Amazon v. Authors United

August 11, 2014–It’s always uncomfortable–and, here, frightening–to be caught in between two giants locked in deadly embrace. Here I refer to the ongoing fight between the book (and everything else) -seller Amazon and the publisher Hachette. Yesterday’s New York Times contained an enormous ad from an ad hoc coalition of writers, “Authors United,” with a page of explication and a full one of names of those who had signed on. I wrestled with whether to sign on to the Authors United appeal, did not finally do so, and I want to take this opportunity to say why. Some things are being left out of the whole question, and that is really the central problem for writers today.

First, on the open letter from Authors United. Those who took the lead in organizing this move are absolutely right. It is intolerable that authors are caught in the middle of a fight between massive corporations–and outrageous that this happens not through any action of authors but entirely at the whim of one of the offenders here, Amazon. On the other hand, the Authors United letter does not go far enough, meekly “encouraging” Amazon “in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.” There is no easily glimpsed solution here, but Authors United fails to convey the degree to which this dispute actually harms the whole profession of letters.

Authors depend on book sales for a living. For years sales have been decreasing for a host of reasons, among them the rise of electronic media, including the transformation of libraries into media centers; but primarily readers’ adoption of electronic formats for obtaining their books and periodicals. Libraries’ creation of consortia with similar institutions is a result of both lean budgets in hard times and also the drive to free dollars to acquire different kinds of products. The consolidation among publishers, distributors, and bookstores means fewer outlets selling our books. Greater difficulty finding them on sale translates into fewer sales. –And there is an elephant in the closet: we are publishing more things,  in more formats, than ever before. That too contributes to reduced sales. Authors are already hurting.

Amazon has been a prime mover in this whole process. It progressively absorbed much of the sales volume, putting increasing pressure on the retail trade network. That the phrase “bricks and mortar” has been used as a pejorative for stores already suggests the extent to which this penetration of the marketplace has gone. The market is evolving toward a cartel or even monopoly framework with just a handful of outlets. In that climate, to have a seller like Amazon deny products to customers (not accepting pre-orders, slowing deliveries, not discounting [as it does do with everything else], and suggesting alternatives to the named items) is more than hurtful to authors.

Amazon’s dispute is over the percentage discounts at which publishers like Hachette provide it with product to sell. Unfortunately the author stands to be hurt at both ends: Publishers already acquire books from authors with contracts that take percentage royalties, small as they are, and minimize them in a blinding array of ways, from pass-alongs of shipping costs to royalty reductions for items sold at given discounts. Typically a publisher’s sales report is so littered with subcategories of sales justifying reduced royalties as to be barely intelligible. A favorite ploy is to base royalty payments on “net” rather than “gross” income. Every penny that Amazon squeezes out of the publishers translates into both reduced income and reduced rates for authors.

Either way the Amazon-Hachette fight turns out, authors and readers lose. Authors lose because they are being targeted directly. Readers lose because the market consolidation has reduced their means of access to one or a few outlets, and if that one suddenly refused to provide the product they are out of luck. I have a bad feeling about this.

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