Friday, July 11, 2014

Books Are Not Garden Tools or Diapers or Flat-Screen TVs: The Authors Guild weighs in on Amazon-Hachette dispute

Yesterday, Authors Guild members received an open letter written by novelist Richard Russo (Bridge of Sighs), co-Vice President of the Guild, on the Amazon-Hachette dispute.  Because this is a blog which is both writer- and reader-centric, I thought I'd share Mr. Russo's thoughts with you--primarily because his words are some of the most reasonable and balanced I've read in this debate thus far.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this latest book world brouhaha, a brief primer.  At issue (at least on the surface) is e-book pricing.  As this article at the New York Times blog “Bits” explains, “For more than six months, Amazon has been trying to wring better e-book terms out of Hachette.  The publisher, which is the fourth largest in the United States and whose imprints include Little Brown and Grand Central Publishing, is energetically resisting.  Amazon has responded by delaying shipments of Hachette books and making it harder for customers to order them.”  Hachette authors include James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, and thousands of mid-list authors whose names aren't exactly “household.”  Amazon fired a volley shot this past Tuesday when it proposed that Hachette authors receive 100 percent of the sale of each of their e-books during the companies’ ongoing negotiations.  You can read the full letter here.  To learn more about the Amazon-Hachette situation, go to stories at The Guardian and The Washington Post.  Meanwhile, hundreds of writers, including Stephen King and John Grisham, have signed a petition, which says in part: “We encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.  None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”  Another petition from so-called “indie writers” was posted at “Major publishers like Hachette have a long history of treating authors and readers poorly.  Amazon, on the other hand, has built its reputation on valuing authors and readers dearly.”  Out of all this battlefield smoke comes Richard Russo's Author Guild letter, which I'm sharing in its entirety.  I have the permission of Mr. Russo and Authors Guild president Roxana Robinson to post it here to the blog.  Roxana, by the way, also had some good thoughts on the matter.  In this interview with The Washington Post yesterday, she said, “Generally speaking, I think that authors are still stuck in the middle of this, which is disheartening because we supply the product.  We supply the books, which both Amazon and the publishing houses need.  The Amazon letter didn't really take us out of the middle; it asked us to take sides against our publishers.  It also seems to assume that what we really want is a short-term windfall, which is what we get if Amazon asked Hachette to give up revenues from e-books.  But we want a healthy publishing ecosystem, a system of commerce in which we’re not trying to kill each other or drive each other out of business.”  And now, here's Richard Russo...

The primary mission of the Authors Guild has always been the defense of the writing life.  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.  True, not all writers are equally impacted.  Some authors still make fortunes through traditional publishing, and genre writers (both traditionally published and independently published) appear to be doing better than writers of nonfiction and “literary” mid-list fiction.  (The Guild has members in all of these categories.)  But there’s evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that as a species we are significantly endangered.  In the UK, for instance, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society reports that authors’ incomes have fallen 29 percent since 2005, a decline they deem “shocking.”  If a similar study were done in the U.S., the results would be, we believe, all too similar.

On Tuesday, Amazon made an offer to Hachette Book Group that would “take authors out of the middle” of their ongoing dispute by offering Hachette authors windfall royalties on e-books until the dispute between the companies is resolved.  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.  For one thing, it’s impossible to remove authors from the middle of the dispute.  We write the books they’re fighting over.  And because it is the writing life itself we seek to defend, we’re not interested in a short-term windfall to some of the writers we represent.  What we care about is a healthy ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive.  We believe that ecosystem should be as diverse as possible, containing traditional big publishers, smaller publishers, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores, as well as both e-books and print books.  We believe that such an ecosystem cannot exist while entities within it are committed to the eradication of other entities.

Over the years the Guild has often opposed Amazon’s more ruthless tactics, not because we’re anti-Amazon but because we believe the company has stepped over the line and threatened the publishing ecosystem in ways that jeopardize both our livelihoods and the future of authorship itself.  There’s no need to rehash our disagreements here.  But it is worth stating that we are not anti-Amazon, or anti-e-book, or anti-indie-publishing.  Amazon invented a platform for selling e-books that enriches the very ecosystem we believe in, and for which we are grateful.  If indie authors are making a living using that platform, bravo.  Nor are we taking Hachette’s side in the present dispute.  Those of us who publish traditionally may love our publishers, but the truth is, they’ve not treated us fairly with regard to e-book revenues, and they know it.  That needs to change.  If we sometimes appear to take their side against Amazon, it’s because we’re in the same business: the book business.  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.  This doesn’t strike us as an oversight.  If we’re wrong, Mr. Bezos, now would be a good time to correct us.  First say it, then act like you believe it.  We’d love to be your partners.

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