Ordinarily, the Amazon–Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in: no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media, the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received my younger brother’s memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book. Or so I then thought.
I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the its attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their database collaboration with the CIA – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuisance DRM locks they place on ebooks to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after cancelling your account.
So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.
But the question remains: what is the battle with major publisher Hachette about, and are there any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and done?
On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their ebooks at a substantially higher rate – $14–20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers; ultimately, the extra revenue supports the publishing industry’s ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that ebooks themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to print books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of publishing subsidisation.
But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counterproductive. For instance, Amazon told The Bookseller:
We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99.
Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among ebook sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of print copies as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really, cannot argue this point.
But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high-profit yields. In fact, many would argue that the industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and the idea that books are important. It is this cultural aspect – the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles – that Hachette uses to bolster its claim of keeping the eco-system healthy in order to continue delivering the Greater Good.
However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Writes Russo:
We want Jeff Bezos to say, ‘We share your beliefs, we’re all in this together.’ Yet even that simple statement—which would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing. Just silence.
But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, ‘when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.’ The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to eBay than book publishers.
In the end, it is the projection of this attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times observed, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behaviour that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:
Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons, lengthening shipping times and monkeying with recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves of a man who cares about customers above all else?
No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honourable days of fleecing banks.
NOTE” This piece was first published in Overland on November 13, 2014.
A somewhat different version was published in the Prague Post on November 20, 2014.