You may be aware that there is an ongoing dispute between Amazon and a publisher named Hachette. There is much speculation over the terms of the dispute, and proponents of both sides are claiming that the other is hurting authors.
I want to state my own stance up front:
This means authors, and it also means editors, copy editors, publicists, agents, IP lawyers, cover artists, and many, many more people. If you keep buying books, I promise that the future of publishing is very bright, whether or not it includes either of the two companies involved.
Now, a few points that I don’t see coming up much:
- Battle lines were already drawn before this dispute, so the waters are not only muddied with preexisting loyalties and dislike, but also with preexisting disputes (treatment of authors, diversity in publishing, quality of books, anything and everything). Publishing today is a web of allegiances, generally with traditionally published authors siding with Hachette and self-published authors siding with Amazon, although there are exceptions.
- No one knows what this dispute is over except Hachette and Amazon – and both are bound by a confidentiality agreement during this time. While it seems fairly likely that the dispute is at least partially over book pricing, no one who is writing articles has the full details.
- I personally believe that inefficient distribution channels and outdated stocking methods, among other things, have created a system in which ebook prices are kept artificially high to compensate for other losses – the largest component of a print book price is the cost of printing the book, so ebook prices on par with print prices are a bit weird
- All evidence is anecdotal (there are a few studies about whether self pubbed or trad pubbed authors are happier with their situation, but nothing definitive), so all I have is my own experience: the disruptive publishing technology harnessed by Amazon and other companies has allowed me to make a budding career doing something I love. Amazon, in particular, has been easy to work with: clear in its terms of agreement, with easy-to-use technology, and comfortable providing me with stats on how my books are selling. (Some of the other systems are a real pain in the butt to use.) If you’re looking for an example of an author who has enjoyed traditional publishing, I would suggest reading John Scalzi’s blog, as he’s quite well-spoken and explains why he feels he’s gotten a good deal.
- You will see a lot of bandying about royalty rates – some trad publishers arguing that Amazon can’t or won’t continue their high royalty rates, self publishers arguing that traditional publishers don’t give authors enough. The problem is that the dispute over royalty rates is not an exact parallel:
- Authors who publish via traditional routes are given editing, cover art, distribution, formatting, etc., and the reduced royalty rate reflects the fact that many people are involved in the process
- Costs for self-published authors are accrued through different channels and are taken outside the mechanism of royalties
- It seems unlikely to me that traditional publishers set out to screw their authors, and it also seems unlikely that a bargain struck between a new author and a publishing company will be made with both parties on equal footing – generally speaking, the party with hundreds of lawyers has a leg up 😉 The truth is probably somewhere in the middle between “screw over” and “idyllic communal happy times,” just as it is with Amazon. Neither Hachette nor Amazon is in the business solely because they love books or because they want nothing more than to pay authors, but I don’t think the employees of either companies sit about rubbing their hands and cackling over how much they can extort their authors, either.
- It is highly unlikely that Amazon will ever have the market power to establish itself as the sole publishing vector in the world and then screw over every author and reader – they’ll topple and fall before that happens. I mean, to do that you’d have to control the internet, and the FCC would never allow a company to … hmmm …
- Seriously, though, Amazon has competitors waiting in the wings, willing and able to take it out at the knees if it becomes some crazy monolith
- Following from the last point, if you enjoy books by a certain author and are comfortable with the price set on purchasing their work, do so. You are the only person who can make that calculation, and if you enjoy the books produced by Hachette and find the finished product worth the price, then please by all means DO compensate the author, editors, cover artists, formatters, secretaries, interns, and all other involved parties. Likewise with self-published authors and their helpers.
- Likewise, if you think the price ISN’T worth it, well, don’t spend your money and DO speak up so that the publisher knows why you aren’t buying.
I know it seems hopelessly naive to cry, “but can’t we all just get along?” But, honestly…we’re all here because we love books: writing them, reading them, editing or advertising them, making art for them. Hachette and Amazon are locked in a battle of wills on a grand scale, but the rest of us have two options:
- Make dramatic posts siding with one or the other and decry the future of publishing if the opponent wins
- Continue to make rational decisions regarding price and value of books, and consume media accordingly
That’s it, that’s all I’ve got, I’m off to read Ancillary Justice.
P.S. Happy 4th, American readers!