America’s Authors Guild has just shared an open letter from its current co-Vice President, novelist Richard Russo, coming out against Amazon’s offer of 100 percent ebook royalties to Hachette authors while the Amazon/Hachette dispute continues. The letter attracted a prompt response from Amazon, who wrote as follows (here courtesy of Publishers Weekly):
Our offer is sincere and it stands—Hachette need only say yes to help their authors. We also wonder what this letter would look like if Hachette had posed this idea and Amazon had rejected it. The letter conflates the long-term structure of the industry with a short-term proposal designed to take authors, the constituency this organization supposedly represents, out of the line of fire of a negotiation between large corporations. Given that the Authors Guild are an author’s advocacy group, it is hard to believe they don’t support this. They are the Authors Guild, not the Publishers Guild.
Russo’s letter, which begins “while it may be true that there are new opportunities and platforms for writers in the digital age, only the willfully blind refuse to acknowledge that authorship is imperiled on many fronts,” states that “while Amazon claims to be concerned about the fate of mid-list and debut authors, we believe their offer—the majority of which Hachette would essentially fund—is highly disingenuous.” While claiming to be “not anti-Amazon, or anti-e-book, or anti-indie-publishing,” Russo declares that “what we care about is a healthy ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive,” stating that “we believe that such an ecosystem cannot exist while entities within it are committed to the eradication of other entities.”
First, it’s not clear what status this letter enjoys in terms of Authors Guild policy. Is it a formal statement of the Guild’s official position? Or is it simply a letter from one committed senior figure? The Wall Street Journal and other media are certainly reporting it as the official Authors Guild party line.
Then that creates a problem, because Russo himself is hardly a disinterested and objective judge. In his own work, he has been emphatically anti-ebook. TeleRead’s Paul Biba cites him delivering a talk at the GigaOm conference that was “just a tirade against Amazon and was full of misinformation.” He seems hardly the best choice for a professional body like the Authors Guild to select as their advocate and guide on this issue.
Also, Russo states:
It may be true that some of our publishers are owned by corporations that, like Amazon, sell a lot more than books, but those larger corporations seem to understand that books are special, indeed integral to the culture in a way that garden tools and diapers and flat-screen TVs are not. To our knowledge, Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell.
Actually, I see little evidence from the behavior of many publishers at least that they believe “books are special.” Is the high-pressure vanity press blitz of Author Solutions supposed to be Penguin Random House’s bid to defend the writing life? Are the moves against scholarly open access by scientific publishers efforts to defend our culture?
The second part of Russo’s statement is worth even more attention, though. Amazon may or may not have gone on record to state that books are different and special, but with the self-publishing ecosystem and ebooks it has certainly done more to create new opportunities for writers than most traditional publishers have. And it’s traditional publishing terms, not Amazon, that have put authors at risk – whether or not Russo wants to acknowledge it.
I think the term ‘diehard’ is best applied to Amazon’s fanboys who refuse to deal with the facts. Take this remark:
“but with the self-publishing ecosystem and ebooks it has certainly done more to create new opportunities for writers than most traditional publishers have. ”
Utter nonsense. It’s Lightning Source that pioneered “new opportunities for writers” by mainstreaming POD and through Ingram creating the print book distribution system for that reaches wholesales and retailers around the planet. I know because that’s how I got into publishing in 1999. I’d send them a couple of files and within two weeks, that book was available to bookstores all over and on almost every online bookstore, including Amazon. It was Lightning that opened up that opportunity. Amazon was merely distributing every book in Ingram’s catalog like a host of other retailers.
That was followed by self-publishing assisting companies such as Lulu that helped authors and did their printing and distribution through Lightning Source/Ingram. That was already a lively market before Johnny-Come-Lately Amazon entered the market as anything other than a retailer. Roughly twenty years after Lightning Source began, Amazon’s CreateSpace stilly barely reaches outside Amazon’s own retail stores. If you want a broad reach, you need either Lightning Source (publisher) or now IngramSpark (author).
Ditto for ebooks. Others were there first. Amazon, in fact bought the Mobi format from one of the pioneers, much as it did CreateSpace for POD. And Apple’s iBookstore treat authors far better, paying twice the royalties outside the $2.99-9.99 price range and about 10% better inside that print range. In fact, Amazon pays so poorly per sale, that the last place you want to see your ebooks sell is through them. Don’t be so foolish as to think that because that Amazon check is bigger, Amazon is paying you better.
Those differences illustrate that many Amazon fanboys lack even basic business sense. Attempting to treat Amazon’s forgone profit offer seriously illustrates that. Even a third-grader can understand than Amazon isn’t publishing Hachette’s books. It’s invested virtually nothing in bringing those books to market. It has no costs to recover and thus doesn’t need any profits to break even.
Hachette, on the other hand, has invested tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands preparing them for sale and marketing them. It needs those ‘profits,’ which are not even profits, to simply recoup expenses it has already made. Amazon’s offer isn’t remotely fair for anyone who understands how publishing works.
The Amazon-Hachette debate seems to have three different POVs.
1. Those who claim that all corporations are evil and we should not takes side, just let them fight it out. That’s crazy. Amazon owns 70% of the ebook market. What it can do cannot simply be dismissed with tired rhetoric about all corporations being alike. It matters. No one with business sense would favor a retailer with that sort of marketshare over even a competitor. And given differing markets, Hachette isn’t really a competitor for most authors and small publishers.
2. Amazon fanboys like I’ve described above. Most seem to confuse their own limited POV and experience with what actually happened. Most seem more than a little gullible, thinking for instance that their big Amazon check means Amazon is paying them well. Not is its, as even a kid running a lemonade stand would know.
3. Those like me who’re realistic enough to see that no market in which one retailer has a 70% marketshare, least of all one dominated by a known bully like Amazon, is healthy. We’re not diehard. We’re realistic.
The sad thing is that Jeff Bezos has made quite clear what his intent is with his principle: “Your margin is my opportunity.” That means that any profit margin a creator of books makes is a target for Amazon bullying and contorl. Hachette is their current target, but it’s not the first.
Earlier Amazon targeted those Lulu-like POD publishers whose clients were self-publishing authors. That’s why is stupid for such authors to think that Amazon, having finished with Hachette won’t turn on them. It already has, it just lost. In that case, Amazon eventually bailed out after one of those firms (I knew the owner) sued it in federal court, alleging illegal bundling (to sell through Amazon, you had to print with CreateSpace not Lightning). Only when faced with a loss in court did Amazon back down.
Right now the ebook market pays about 60-70% royalties. If Amazon wins, that’ll drop below 50%. That’s not even prophecy. Amazon is already paying only 35% royalties outside the $2.99-9.99 price range. If Amazon wins, authors will be very lucky to get 40-50% for that book they spent months laboring over.
This cartoon illustrates to near perfection, what’s happening here. Lucy is Amazon. The football is income from ebook sales, and that up-in-the-air Charlie Brown are Amazon’s fanboys. Notice that the smile on Lucy’s face bears a remarkable resemblance to Amazon’s logo.
Fooled every time!
Every time I hear publishers talk about how special books are to justify high prices, I have to wonder why they pay the authors who create them so little of the price.