Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Commentary — The Book Business Shakeout Is Far From Over

The New York Times reminded us a little while ago of the ongoing turmoil in the world of books. In recent developments, it appears that Amazon has been using its considerable power as a seller to gain a negotiating advantage with some of its suppliers, most recently the major publishing house, Hachette, by slowing down orders of Hachette-published books.  The Times, and others, including the highly respected Author’s Guild (of which I am a satisfied member) are concerned and look unfavorably at Amazon’s actions.

What Amazon is doing, from a corporate competitive point of view is similar to a major grocery chain putting, say, Nabisco Saltines on a lower shelf unless Nabisco cuts its price to the grocer. It’s the way big business operates. While I have no problem villainizing most mega-corporations, we might have a little trouble here determining who is David and who is Goliath. It’s true; Amazon has been merciless. One could say it has defeated Borders and Barnes & Noble and is rendering independent bookstores a curiosity.  On the other hand, Hachette, formerly owned by Time Warner, is now a subsidiary of Lagardère, the second largest publisher of trade books in the world.  Hachette, itself, owns Grand Central Publishing, and Little, Brown & Company, which, in turn, owns Hyperion.  There’s a whole series of big, predatory fish preying on little fish these days. I would question Time’s sense of objectivity here as well as Forbes, the increasingly hysterical (not in the funny sense) Huffington Post, and the Washington Post who continue to portray Amazon as this this corporate giant bullying a poor little publishing company. Certainly the articles are unbalanced.  The Author’s Guild was most likely defending authors who really are caught in the crossfire. Good for the guild. It’s what they do. But, let’s remember, both sides are shooting.

For most of us, this is more information than we want or need, but keeping up with the global reconfiguration of the book business is important to those of us whose business it is. For me to survive, I engage in it in in multiple ways.  I am a writer.  I have contracts with major publishers and smaller ones. (Major publishers probably sympathize with Hachette, smaller ones with Amazon because smaller publishers are squeezed off the shelves by the larger ones.) I am also engaged in self-publishing by re-releasing of my out-of-print early novels as trade paperbacks and e-books as well as producing a quirky novella through my own publishing company, Life Death and Fog Books.

Thank goodness for Amazon. Even though I don’t have the resources of a major publisher Amazon made it possible for me to publish my short work on my own. All I needed was a good proofreader and the help of a talented graphic designer. The book has done surprisingly well.  Do I still want to work with traditional publishers?  Absolutely. (Call me) They have distribution channels I don’t have. They do at least some marketing.  They have legitimacy with top reviewers.  To make the squeak-by living I do, I need the flexibility to do business at all levels. However, making Amazon the villain is loosing sight of what access and diversity they bring to contemporary publishing.

On the other hand, all parties need to recognize the publishing evolution is not over.  Here is an interview with an acquisitions editor of a traditional publisher that sheds additional light on the subject.  Here is another article by a writer whose work was successfully self-published through Amazon.  And, finally, here are comments from a small, independent publisher.

Update: Reportedly, the two mega corporations are in secret negotiations. Some believe that Amazon has softened it so-called harsh treatment of Hachette. Most of the “insider” articles, quoting Hachette authors, including mega best seller Malcolm Gladwell and mega-mega best seller James Patterson complain about Amazon’s tactics, but there are some who believe that Amazon’s end goal is to reduce cost to customers, especially on e-books, and increase the royalties going to writers for e-books.  After all, the cost of e-book production is comparatively minimal (no shipping costs, no returns, no paper and printing costs) yet authors get only 25 percent of the selling price on e-book sales.

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