Publishing’s Civil War of Words

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Hachette was smart to take its dispute with Amazon public, turning it into a war of words and choosing the battlefield where they have the natural advantage.

Editorial by Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Michael Pietsch

Michael Pietsch, think of him as Grant in this Civil War.

Michael Pietsch, the CEO of Hachette, is the only top executive I’ve ever witnessed cry in public. He didn’t quite bawl, but definitely shed a few tears. The occasion was a panel discussion about the late writer David Foster Wallace given at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin to mark the occasion of the opening of Wallace’s papers to the public. Pietsch was reminiscing about working with Foster Wallace and in the middle of his talk, simply stopped and was visibly choked up.

It was an arresting moment, not the least because Pietsch has something of a reputation for being a tough guy, an intimidator. To wit: Here’s a person who can handle James Patterson, a former top executive himself and the authorial personification of ambition.

I’ll start by saying that most of my interactions with Pietsch have been civil, even cordial, and he’s one of the few top executives who have made themselves available for interviews and been generous with their time. As a journalist, I very much welcome that, but I’m also not naïve: I’ve interviewed enough CEOs to know that the way they treat the journalists, from whom they want to solicit good press, is no reflection of their true demeanor (for that, watch how they speak to their assistants).

I think it was smart of Pietsch to make his fight with Amazon public. Maybe it wasn’t Pietsch himself — maybe the order came from France, from Arnaud Noury of Hachette, or perhaps someone higher up at Lagardere (it’s no secret there is no love lost between the French and Amazon)? Either way, it doesn’t matter. If you want a general in this war, Pietsch is your guy.

Why? It’s a war of words, and Pietsch is one of the best in the business of words. Sure, there are many articulate publishers who have taken stronger and more vitriolic positions against Amazon but most are not in a position to win a serious battle, least of all the war.

And this is a war. It is a Civil War.

(Of course, Amazon would disagree with this analogy — surely they would see themselves as the industrialized, enlightened North and the publishers as the “slave-owning” agrarian South. No matter…)

The fact is that this has now become a war of words. And for this reason alone I think it was in Hachette’s best interest to make their disagreement with Amazon public. They made the battleground into a place where they have a natural advantage.

Amazon, which is reticent to speak publicly or with substance about any issue with true importance, has already proved itself clumsy with words. To wit: its embarrassing misquotation of Orwell…While it’s not a fatal blunder, it is revealing.

And the fact of the matter is, if publishers can’t themselves win a war of words, they are doomed as it is.

Then, what hope is there for the future of publishing anyway?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.