Amazon Returns Fire: The Battle With Hachette and Authors United Continues

In News by Dennis Abrams

Amazon has responded to an open letter by Authors United, signed by 900-plus authors in support of Hachette, with their own open letter, Readers United.

Amazon vs. Hachette LogosBy Dennis Abrams

The Los Angeles Times reports that Amazon has responded to an open letter, signed by 900-plus authors in support of Hachette which appeared in a print ad in Sunday’s New York Times.

The paper reported that Amazon launched its own headlined “A Message From the Amazon Books Team” late Friday. In it, the company repeated its claim that “e-books can and should be less expensive.”

And in what can only be called a brilliant (albeit cynical move) the URL for the letter? readersunited.com.

Some highlights:

“Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents — it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution — places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette — a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate — are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.”

(But, as Gawker and other sites have pointed out, George Orwell wasn’t attacking paperbacks – he was making a joke. The actual quote FROM Orwell: Here is what the writer said in the New English Weekly on March 5, 1936: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”)

Amazon continued:

“And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.”

But in a quote released to Huffington Post, author Douglas Preston said that Amazon was misrepresenting the authors’ position, adding that the writers “take no position on the dispute between Amazon and Hachette.”

Preston wrote:

“What we are united on is this: we strongly object to Amazon blocking and impeding the sales of books, hurting authors, and inconveniencing readers as a negotiating strategy. We authors helped Amazon become one of the largest corporations in the world. Amazon used book sales as the cutting edge to selling everything. And yet, when Amazon gets in a dispute with a publisher over terms, it retaliates against the authors by blocking or otherwise impeding the sales of their books. Surely Amazon has other negotiating tools in its portfolio without targeting authors and damaging our livelihoods every time they get into a rough patch negotiating with a publisher. It’s as simple as that.”

Amazon ended its own letter with this:

“We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com
Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com
Please consider including these points:

  • We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
  • Lowering e-book prices will help — not hurt — the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
  • Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
  • Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.
The Amazon Books Team”

As Carolyn Kellogg pointed out, “What Amazon has done…is issue a call to action. It calls on its supporters to e-mail the chief executive of Hachette…As many grass-roots efforts do, it suggests specific talking points to use.”

“But readersunited.com, despite its grass-roots-sounding URL, is an official Amazon statement. It may be the publishing industry’s first AstroTurf campaign.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.