Taking a Hachette to Amazon in the Market for Dead Trees
There’s a strange battle going on right now. Weird enough to fit into the science fiction and fantasy section of your local bookstore, but with enough intrigue to make for a good thriller.
One of the big five traditional New York publishing houses, Hachette, is mired in a guerrilla campaign against mega online retailer Amazon. The conflict revolves around the terms on which Amazon sells Hachette books. Much has been written about the labyrinthine details. It boils down to a pissing match over issues that are neither new nor unusual in the wonderland of publishing.
As a new novelist ducking and rolling through the crossfire, the blows and counterblows playing out in the court of public opinion aren’t the interesting part. The backstory is.
Remember David’s fight with Goliath? That’s how Hachette is trying to frame the skirmish. They paint themselves as the underdog fighting the big online bad guy. Their PR campaign has been relentless, though often contradictory. They’ve even recruited The Authors Guild and Authors United to their side, and last week, such literary lions as Phillip Roth, Ursula K. Le Guin, Salman Rushdie, and Milan Kundera joined the fray. Can the old guard of the traditional publishing world and the small cadre of authors that they benefit defeat the evil Amazon monopoly?
Sounds like a good story, right?
The problem is that the narrative is all wrong. They must have a master PR manipulator on the case because even The New York Times has run a number of stories that are appalling in their partisanship (maybe it helps that Authors United purchased a $104k full page anti-Amazon ad).
So what’s really going on? It’s not David versus Goliath. It’s Goliath versus Goliath. Hachette is owned by a massive international media conglomerate. They have spent decades gobbling up smaller publishing houses in ruthless competition with the other members of the New York big five. Hell, the Department of Justice sued Hachette, Apple, and other large publishers for collusion in 2010. The contract terms they offer to authors are famously draconian, packed with non-compete clauses, unfair royalty splits (on average, 15/85 in favor of the publisher), ridiculous reversion rights, etc.
The big five publishers used to be the gatekeepers separating writers from readers. They controlled all the major distribution channels and could dictate any rules of the road they wanted. New authors had no choice but to comply.
Technology has changed all that. The Internet has democratized publishing and anyone can now publish their own book in both digital and physical formats. That terrifies slow-moving conglomerates like Hachette because their entire business model is outdated and ripe for disruption. They’re scared out of their minds that they will go the way of the typewriter and the buggy whip.
The members of Authors United happen to be the writers who have benefited most from that outdated model. They are the top 1 percent of incumbent allies. It’s just like taxi cartels fighting Uber and Lyft. Those whose wealth came from the old system have the most to lose as that system inevitably changes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Amazon fan boy. Everything I hear supports the popular view that their internal corporate culture is a grinding machine; that they want to increase their market share at all costs; and that they will stop at nothing to dominate and reshape every industry they touch.
But I’m an author myself, so this whole situation matters to me. A lot. So where did I turn in this arm-wrestling match between titans?
I published with a new independent publisher, FG Press, founded by the Boulder, CO-based Foundry Group. They split net royalties 50/50 and their entire business model is based on being author-friendly. But they’re not the only ones. Authors like Hugh Howey, Joanna Penn, William Hertling, James Altucher, and JA Konrath have self-published and achieved extreme success. Big names like Barry Eisler have broken their contracts with traditional publishers to go independent. Reedsy, a UK-based startup, is building a new marketplace for authors to find the editorial and production help they need. New publishing houses are experimenting with a kaleidoscope of new approaches and technologies. Authors are embracing entrepreneurship.
There has never been a better time to be a writer. Let Hachette duke it out with Amazon. Let the top 1 percent of traditionally published authors complain ad nauseam. Let The New York Times wallow in its embarrassing reporting of the story. In the meantime, adult Americans are reading more than they ever have in history. New voices are finding traction in a marketplace no longer constrained by stingy gatekeepers. Storytelling is a part of being human. So go write that damn book you’ve always dreamed of.
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