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Who Is Bigfooting Whom? We’ve Seen It Before

12 May 2014 iStock_000009831697Small photog yanishka 2 texted story image

Has anybody told the readers about this? You know, the customers? What if they were brand-savvy enough to know what they’re missing when a contract dispute stalls out the shipping of their favorite author? What if we tell them?

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday
  2. When Retailers & Publishers Collide: Who Gets Hurt?
  3. What If the Readers Knew About This?

Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT—and that’s 4 p.m. BST in London.

We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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When Retailers & Publishers Collide: Who Gets Hurt?

By Porter Anderson

Like those great-caribou-fights the nature productions love to trot out from time to time, we love this stuff.

Everybody gathers around — “fight! fight!” — as the ground shakes and the furry bone cracks.

If you search for Hachette print titles on Amazon’s website, you’ll see that many of them are taking several weeks to ship, even though they’re in stock at other sites. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and James Patterson’s NYPD Red, for instance, are listed as shipping within 2 to 3 weeks. Ebooks aren’t affected, and not all Hachette titles are affected: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is shipping right away, for example.

That’s Laura Hazard Owen at GigaOm in Amazon delays Hachette book shipments as companies negotiate contract.

It’s important to note that there’s no comment from Amazon on this. It’s from Hachette Book Group’s spokeswoman, Sophie Cottrell, speaking to Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, that we get the publisher’s interpretation of what’s happening. In Many Hachette Print Books Are Hard to Get From Amazon, As “Negotiations Are Underway”, Cader quotes Cottrell:

We are satisfying all Amazon’s orders promptly, and notifying them constantly of forthcoming publicity events and of out-of-stock situations on their website. Amazon is holding minimal stock and restocking some of HBG’s books slowly, causing ‘available 2-4 weeks’ messages, for reasons of their own. We are grateful for the patience of authors and all Amazon readers as we work to reach an agreement and to encourage Amazon to be back to offering Hachette Book Group’s books within normal shipment times.

It’s that “patience of authors” phrase that may strike a chord with many.

Remember when Barnes & Noble was in a standoff with Simon & Schuster last year? In that case, some new releases (not all) from S&S appeared not to be making it into the stores.

PubPerspectives piece on B&N and S&SHere we were, writing about it for Publishing Perspectives in March 2013.

And in Writing on the Ether at JaneFriedman.com, we referenced author M.J. Rose’s compilation of books that were being released without shelf space in the bookstore chain’s store. Have You  Seen These Books?” Rose’s good effort on her own site was to help readers know which authors’ books were out of sight as the negotiations dragged on.

Friedman, in fact, had tweeted earlier about the parallel with the B&N action of last year. And in a quick exchange with Mike Shatzkin on this, he and I were agreeing that these are comparable situations, cases in which dominant retailers are able to disrupt normal points of sale for the biggest publishers.

I’d point out that this does suggest how little traction some branding has achieved in publishing.

If readers were aware of who published what and, in the current example, became incensed that their favorite authors’ books from Hachette were  being held back from them, they (those readers) might make a concerted complaint to Amazon. Last year, if S&S readers had banded together in their thousands to stare down Barnes & Noble, then that situation might not have played out so slowly.

But readers who don’t see David Streitfeld’s Writers Feel an Amazon-Hachette Spat in the New York Times may not know why Malcolm Gladwell’s print books are listing as taking two to three weeks to ship. You’ll meet few avid book fans who can tell you that S&S authors’ work was suppressed in the earlier scenario or that Hachette authors are being impacted by the current round.

As publishers struggle to meet readers, they’re learning the readers don’t know them, either.

And as author and Writer Beware columnist Victoria Strauss has tweeted:

Hachette Book GroupThe story to which she refers in her comment is a Publishers Weekly piece on the standoff, without byline, Much at Stake in Amazon-HBG Fight, that includes, in part:

What is frustrating to others in the industry, is that the tactics Amazon uses to get a better deal from publishers on terms often places authors in the crosshairs. There is no doubt that the efforts used in the Amazon negotiations with HBG are aimed at getting authors to put pressure on HBG to reach an agreement, one publisher said, adding that publishers need to communicate to authors and agents about what is at stake—a diverse retail landscape.

And look for the phrase “sour author relations” in this passage about agent reactions to the situation:

Agents contacted by PW were generally supportive of publishers’ efforts to maintain a vibrant bookselling ecosystem…with a few caveats. If an author’s titles are to be “collateral damage,” as one agent put it, in a fight between Amazon (or another major account), this agent said they don’t want to hear about slipping numbers when it the time comes to sign a new contract. This agent continued: “Hearing ‘oh, the numbers, our hands are tied,’ after a smack down between two corporate entities tanks an author through no fault of their own, is a fabulous way to sour author relations.”

This is, finally, where it stops, with authors being the ones damaged.

An interesting side point here is that you couldn’t expect to pull off tactics of this kind with ebooks. Consumers know those things should be immediately available once they’re launched. These battles are always fought over print, the Old Country of publishing

And if the readers did know how retailers and publishers were playing with authors’ livelihoods — and book availabilities — would they stand for it? If branding had been successful enough for consumers to know that something wasn’t right when their favorite authors’ print books became delayed online or invisible in stores, would they put up with it?

Perhaps not. And perhaps this is another case for education of the consumer, the one who might be able to put an end to such draconian bigfooting when when major players collide.

An update: author Hugh Howey has published an article, Amazon and Hachette Go to War, in which he notes the higher level of coverage for the Hachette-Amazon fracas than we saw for last year’s bookstore showdown:

What I find fascinating is the increased coverage this time around. The NYT and Publishers Weekly have published scathing reports accusing Amazon of being a bully. I would have loved some of that directed at B&N last year. You see, Barnes & Noble was holding authors and readers hostage in order to wring more cash out of publishers, because they are having a hard time making that money by actually selling books. They got a pass for this.

Howey sees a “backwardness of this PR war,” one that paints Amazon as the bully. He writes:

What you have is a company fighting for lower prices for customers, while keeping the pay for publishers and authors the same, and they [Amazon] are [depicted as] evil. While B&N holds publishers hostage just to rake in more cash to present customers not with what bookstore employees wish to highlight, but what they are paid to highlight…It’ll be a great day when publishers realize they stand to lose a lot by allowing bookstores to dictate their business decisions. Especially when it’s the large chains that put so many mom and pop joints out of business over the past decades.

And: “The real losers are the authors and readers, of course.”

Let’s talk about it.

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What If the Readers Knew About This?

Please give these questions a bit of thought, and join us:

  • How aware, in general, do you think the reading public is of such events as the Barnes & Noble disagreement last year with Simon & Schuster or the ongoing contretemps between Amazon and Hachette?
  • If those consumers knew, how would they react? Whom would they blame?
  • Is Howey right that the players in the disagreement are being unfairly depicted by media coverage?
  • Are you an author being affected by the Hachette-Amazon affair? Do you know someone who is? Were you affected by B&N-S&S? Know someone who was?
  • What could be done to alert reader-consumers to what’s going on? Would it be worth raising awareness of such corporate tactics? You first. We’ll hum along.

Seriously, we’d love your input on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. BST on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

Back to Table of Contents

Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 33-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether articles are read at Thought Catalog and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: yanishka

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  1. Sherryl
    Posted May 13, 2014 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Tried to buy a Hachette Kindle book 4 days ago. I had no idea about this stoush. From where I sat, I thought there was something wrong with Amazon, as instead of the book arriving in my Kindle line-up straight away, my invoice was showing $0 and it took several hours for it to be processed.
    Having read this information above I checked and found it was a Hachette book I had problems with – but I assumed it was an Amazon problem, so in this case Amazon are giving themselves a bad reputation for failure to deliver.

    • Porter Anderson
      Posted May 13, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Sherryl!

      Many thanks for reading and commenting, and especially for reminding me of the word “stoush!” I’ve been needing another good term for this, that’s perfect. :)

      Sadly, there’s nothing so funny about the actuality of the event, of course, especially for authors and readers and — as you so perfectly point out — for consumers.

      In fact, you’re pointing out here one of the very trickiest part of this for Amazon. The company is world famous for its efforts to always put a customer’s interests first. And yet this, clearly, is bad for customers. If Amazon makes you wait for a book that’s actually available — if Hachette’s people are right that Amazon is wrongly reporting that print copies of books are not available for two or three weeks — then Amazon has left the field of top=flight consumer priority and has started to compromise its own greatest claim to success in order to negotiate with Hachette.

      This cannot be good for Seattle. It certainly is not good for its customers. It’s obviously bad for readers. And as our good colleague, the author Hugh Howey has just written today, just look at how bad this is for authors. (Here is his new piece.) http://www.hughhowey.com/amazon-and-hachette-go-to-war/.

      If you can, join us tomorrow, Wednesday, on Twitter for our live discussion of this at 11 a.m. ET (3:00 p.m. GMT), we’d love to have you with us. The hashtag is #EtherIssue.

      And thanks again. “Bad reputation” is exactly it.

      On Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

  2. Posted May 13, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I think it’s authors who should be paying more attention to publishers and retailers playing with their livelihoods rather than readers. I feel for authors who get caught up on this kind of fight, but it’s not exactly unheard of. Off the top of my head, there was MacMillan, I think, having the buy buttons removed, there was that fight with the independent distributor a while back, the Simon & Schuster thing with Barnes & Noble and now this. You’re not really a victim if something bad happens to you as the result of actions that are totally consistent with actions that were happening before you put yourself in that position. In the present circumstances, you have to accept that something like this is a possibility when you sign that book contract. There are consequences to your actions.

    On another level, I have a hard time sympathizing with a business who uses its leverage to negotiate hardline contracts with its suppliers finding itself dealing with a business using its leverage to negotiate hard line contracts with its suppliers. Whatever deal Hatchette ends up with here is still going to be more equitable to Hatchette than most of the contracts they have with their writers.

    • Porter Anderson
      Posted May 13, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Hi, Dan, and thanks for commenting, as well as reading, of course.

      I have to disagree with you in a couple of areas.

      First, just because we have seen instances in which retailer-publisher battles squeezed authors before, those parties are not so easily to be let off the hook for doing it again. If bad auto-building causes wrecks with a certain model of car, do you say, “Well, the driver should have known this had happened before and known it could happen again?” No, I think we hold the automaker responsible to fix the cause of the wrecks. Past transgressions don’t excuse present ones, in other words. I think the author has a right to demand that both his publisher and his retailer refrain from compromising his ability to sell.

      Second, when you write, “Whatever deal Hatchette ends up with here is still going to be more equitable to Hatchette than most of the contracts they have with their writers,” I cannot say that you know that. You write with an assurance that you don’t have. You will not know the terms of the deal Hachette ends up with, nor will I. While we might both assume that it is more advantageous to Hachette than are Hachette’s arrangement with its writers, we will not know this for a fact and you cannot say that you will or that you do. The details of these contracts are private and not revealed to any of us. I think it’s good if we stand on the side of what we actually know, not state opinions as if they were fact.

      Thankss again for reading and writing, and do join us tomorrow, Wednesday, on Twitter for our live discussion of this at 11 a.m. ET (3:00 p.m. GMT), we’d love to have you with us. The hashtag is #EtherIssue, as ever.


      On Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

      • Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        You’re right, I’m assuming some things that I don’t know for sure. But I think what bugs me is the passive nature of writers in situations like this. I’m going to use a sports analogy that I think applies here to a point. A few years ago, NBA player Carmelo Anthony of Denver was approaching a new contract negotiation. He could have played out the season, become a free agent and signed anywhere he wanted. However, the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players association was up at the end of that season and an ugly fight over the next one was coming, before he’d be able to sign a new deal. So he pushed the issue, got traded to New York before the end of the season on what’s called an extend & trade deal where he signed a 5 year extension with Denver then was traded with the new contract. As expected, after the season there was a lockout, a chunk of the next season was lost during the fight and finally a new deal was cut. That deal banned the extend and trade deals like he’d gotten, and put new limits on contract lengths, particularly for free agents leaving their teams for a new one, and limited incremental annual raises. To wait and become a free agent would have cost him a year on his contract and something like $20 million. Would he have been a victim if he’d have waited and that happened? He knew there was a high level negotiation coming between the league and the players association, circumstances dictated that the new deal wasn’t going to be as advantageous to him and acted accordingly. He didn’t just sit by and hope the two large parties negotiating the structure of the league were going to protect his interests and acted to protect his own. This is the type of thing I think writers need to do. You can’t just be passive and presume that these large organizations are going to protect your interests when they get into high level fights amongst themselves. Admittedly, very few writers have the kind of leverage Anthony had but the key thing he did was understand the totality of the league beyond simply his dealings with one or two teams and took action to protect himself and his interests from the effects of business dealings above his station. Being passive would have been a very risky and expensive choice for him. So it is for writers, too, I believe.

        • Porter Anderson
          Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          I can appreciate your wanting to draw the analogy with the Carmelo Anthony case, Dan, but I’m not sure what sort of movement authors can create, even if they see publishing’s versions of such “high level negotiation” coming.

          If you’re a Hachette-published author and you’re able to see ahead that Amazon and your publisher are going to find themselves in a potentially disadvantageous position (to you, the author), what do you do? You’re on contract for that book to Hachette. If it gets caught in the cross fire and allegedly delayed by an online retailer or allegedly not shelved by a brick-and-mortar chain fighting with your publisher, your option to avoid being hurt is….what?

          Not trying to be difficult, I just don’t see authors having the kind of latitude a major league player with a lot of good foresight has. “Acting to protect” their own interests…if they’re already on contract to a publisher…long before something blows up between that publisher and a mega-retailer…?

          Let’s say Malcolm Gladwell (whose work is said to be delayed in shipping, print, during this). Let’s say he somehow saw this event coming. He could do…what? Gladwell is a huge seller. Hardly passive, I’d say, in the world of the author business. Is there something he was supposed to do here?


  3. Posted May 14, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    You’re right, if a writer’s under contract with Hatchette, there’s likely nothing they can do. At this point, writers, maybe even Gladwell, are kind of behind the eight ball a bit. Protecting your interests needs to start before you sign the contract. Gladwell, for instance, possibly could have negotiated for a contract provision with some remuneration in the case his book release fell during a dispute with a major retailer that could affect sales. Or a requirement that he be informed on the timing of any such negotiations so he could schedule to avoid it entirely. Who knows?

    Looking at the present environment, with publisher consolidation seeming like a continuing foregone conclusion, and Amazon controlling such a large portion of sales, we could see these disputes cropping up every time there’s a negotiation. I hope it is, but I highly doubt this is the last one of these that we see.

    Now the vast majority of writers aren’t Gladwell and really have next to zero chance of negotiating something like that. I guess maybe what I’m saying is this is an opportunity to see where the control of writers’ livelihoods really lies. If it’s not in a place where even the most successful of us have the ability to look out for ourselves, or makes us fodder in a battle between generals, maybe that’s an argument to stop signing the contracts as they are, or at least put more consideration into the full implications of that contract beyond the advance or royalty rate. Maybe it’s an argument to push harder for the limited time contracts someone like Hugh Howey espouses. At least then, you’d have an opportunity to move to another publisher if this one doesn’t satisfy your needs or behaves in a way you’re unhappy with.

    Right now, most writers have very little leverage in this situation. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m reasonably sure we’re not going to get any more of it by continuing with the status quo.

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